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ITIL Certification Guide: Overview and Career Paths

image for antoniodiaz/Shutterstock
antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library, better known as ITIL, is the pre-eminent framework for managing IT service delivery around the world. ITIL defines a service lifecycle model that prescribes specific processes and activities during the design, development, delivery, and support of IT services. For the purposes of this discussion, IT services are any IT activities that deliver business value to a company's end users, customers and other internal or external stakeholders. Examples of IT services include centralized corporate email and corporate websites based on back-end IT processes, such as server and network administration. The current version of ITIL is known as ITIL V3.

By adopting the ITIL framework, companies ensure that their services are delivered according to a set of consistent, well-defined processes that incorporate best practices and processes, resulting in a predictable level of service for users. The benefits of ITIL include reduced cost of service development and deployment, improved customer satisfaction with service delivery, increased productivity from IT personnel, quality improvements, better management metrics of services and increased flexibility in adapting services to changing business requirements.

In July 2013, Axelos took ownership of ITIL. It now maintains the ITIL framework and accredits training and examination institutes. Hundreds of ITIL Accredited Training Organizations (ATOs) are available to deliver training, and ITIL certification exams may be administered at the end of a training course or by an Examination Institute (EI), many of which work directly with the ATOs.

ITIL offers five different certification levels:

  • Foundation
  • Practitioner
  • Intermediate (Service Lifecycle and Service Capability categories)
  • Expert
  • Master

Be aware that ITIL uses a credit system for the Foundation through Expert levels, in which each certification earns a certain number of credits. Ultimately, a total of 22 credits is required to achieve ITIL Expert certification. (The ITIL Master has its own set of requirements, which you'll read about shortly). The following graphic shows the structure of that certification scheme and its corresponding credits.

Credit: Axelos

Before you read on for certification details, it's important to understand how the ITIL IT service framework is structured and what it has to offer.

ITIL was first developed by the U.K. Government's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) in the 1980s as a set of standardized best practices for IT services used in government agencies. From that narrowly focused start, ITIL has been adopted, revised and expanded into a comprehensive framework for managing IT service delivery in companies and organizations of all sizes, across all industries and market sectors.

In fact, IT has become a mission-critical service delivery mechanism for companies that rely on complex computing resources to keep their businesses operating and generating revenue. ITIL allows companies to define and implement a documented, repeatable process that assists them in staying focused on the large and small details involved in rolling out new IT services and managing those services afterward.

The ITIL service lifecycle consists of five practice areas or phases, with supporting principles, policies and processes within each phase:

  • Service Strategy: This phase focuses on defining services as strategic assets, and then maintaining and implementing a coherent, deliberate strategy. Service strategy principles address business processes, corporate governance and compliance, policies, corporate culture and decision-making, and ensure that the business is geared for service improvement.
  • Service Design: This phase includes the assessment of business management processes (service level, availability, capacity, etc.) to design and develop new service offerings or improve existing offerings.
  • Service Transition: This phase covers the transition from development to production operations, including testing and quality control.
  • Service Operation: This phase defines how to manage services once they're in production use. It addresses service operation processes, such as event management, access management, incident response, the application lifecycle and helpdesk support.
  • Continuous Service Improvement: This phase defines new requirements for the preceding phases of ITIL based on operational feedback and service levels. It helps to ensure that policies and procedures are followed, that service level agreements are met and that operational lessons learned are incorporated into existing and future service refinements.

Don't let the scope of ITIL scare you away from the overall value afforded by this comprehensive lifecycle for IT services. The ITIL framework gives companies the structure and discipline required to design, develop, deliver and manage new or improved services in a timely manner and, most importantly, on a budget. Before ITIL, a lack of service management discipline and expertise led many IT projects to suffer budget overruns, veer off course or fail outright due to scope-creep, mismanagement and a lack of repeatable results. ITIL solves these problems quite nicely. In fact, ITIL is widely regarded as the pre-eminent standard for IT service management frameworks.

The ITIL Foundation certification covers the basics of ITIL and is where most newbies start the process of learning ITIL and becoming certified. The certification has no prerequisites, and anyone with an interest in the subject matter can sit for this exam. ITIL Foundation certification exam prep can be accomplished via classroom or distance learning options, as well as via self-study. There is no requirement for you to complete a training course before you sit for the Foundations exam. The Foundation exam consists of 40 multiple-choice questions that must be answered in 60 minutes with a grade of 65 percent, or 26 correct answers, required to pass the exam.

Although the certification covers all the five practice areas of the ITIL service lifecycle, including how the different lifecycle stages are linked to one another, an IT pro who completes the ITIL Foundation level will likely need to complete the Practitioner or Intermediate certification before being able to qualify for service management positions.

The ITIL Practitioner certification is the newest entry to the ITIL certification scheme. This exam was offered for the first time in February 2016. As the name implies, the ITIL Practitioner certification is based on practical knowledge of ITIL processes and how those principles are implemented in the real world. An ITIL Practitioner can explain how to use the ITIL framework to support business objectives and focuses on organizational change management, communications, and measurement and metrics.

The ITIL Practitioner is considered the next step in the ITIL progression after achieving the ITIL Foundation (which is a prerequisite). It emphasizes the ability to adopt, adapt and apply ITIL concepts in an organization. Although the Practitioner certification is not required for upper-level ITIL credentials, achieving Practitioner certification provides three credits toward ITIL Expert certification. You can prepare for the Practitioner exam through self-study, in-person classroom learning or online and distance learning options. The Practitioner exam is 40 multiple-choice questions and requires a minimum score of 70 percent, or 28 correct answers,  to pass.

The ITIL Intermediate certification is module-based, each of which focuses on a different aspect of IT service management. Relevant modules are categorized as either Service Lifecycle or Service Capability.

The Service Lifecycle modules are:

  • Service Strategy (SS)
  • Service Design (SD)
  • Service Transition (ST)
  • Service Operation (SO)
  • Continual Service Improvement (CSI)

The Service Capability modules are:

  • Operational Support and Analysis (OSA)
  • Planning, Protection and Optimization (PPO)
  • Release, Control and Validation (RCV)
  • Service Offerings and Agreements (SOA)

To enable candidates to meet their own career goals, AXELOS lets you achieve qualification in one category or by choosing modules from both categories. AXELOS recommends that you have at least two years of IT service management experience. Note that you must complete your Intermediate exam preparation by completing a training course offered by an accredited training organization (ATO), i.e., you cannot self-study then sit for the Intermediate exam.

The ITIL Expert is an advanced certification that encompasses the breadth and depth of ITIL processes and practices across all ITIL disciplines. ITIL Expert certification is a prerequisite for the ITIL Master certification.

To qualify for the ITIL Expert, you must obtain at least 17 credits from the Foundation, Practitioner and Intermediate modules, and pass the Managing Across the Lifecycle (MALC) exam, earning a total of 22 credits.

The pinnacle ITIL Master certification demonstrates an ability to apply the ITIL framework in real-world situations. The ITIL Master encompasses all ITIL principles and processes covered in the Foundation through Expert certifications. An ITIL Master must demonstrate complete mastery of the ITIL framework by completing the following:

  • Achieve the ITIL Expert certification
  • Demonstrate at least five years of ITIL experience in a management or leadership role
  • Submit a proposal for a service improvement
  • Submit a work package that demonstrates your ability to apply ITIL principles to a real-world business case, including positive impacts to a business service
  • Successfully complete an interview with an ITIL assessment panel

The cost of the ITIL Master runs about $4,000, which you pay after an EI accepts your initial application. Given the expense of this certification and its stringent requirements, only serious candidates should pursue the ITIL Master. That said, earning this certification indicates you've reached the highest level of achievement in your field.

IT professionals who possess an ITIL certification have always been valued by large corporations who have adopted the ITIL framework as an internal IT standard. What is beginning to change is ITIL's increasing proliferation. Many small- and medium-sized businesses also now recognize the value of employees with ITIL certifications under their collective belts.

As IT becomes more important, SMBs are realizing the biggest benefits of maintaining ITIL-trained personnel on staff. Though no company wants to see IT projects fail, larger companies can usually absorb the loss of productivity, time and money that accompanies a failed IT service project. SMBs may not have the financial luxury of allowing an important IT project to fail owing to poor management and lack of processes. Thus, the value of an ITIL certification may be greater for enlightened companies that cannot afford IT project failures.

The good news about ITIL certification is that it is a valuable skill for almost any IT professional, from system administrators to chief information officers (CIOs). Many large companies have dedicated ITIL coaches or mentors who help shepherd projects through the various steps of the ITIL framework. These ITIL gurus have a wide understanding of the IT landscape and can usually spot trouble with a service design document or implementation plan in a matter of minutes.

ITIL certification is also a valuable credential for IT project managers, who are in the IT service trenches every day. Most project managers are already familiar with the development lifecycle process, so the principles of ITIL come naturally to them. IT managers, architects and engineers might not ever become ITIL Masters, but even a basic knowledge of the ITIL framework can assist with understanding and supporting the ITIL process.

AXELOS provides a Career Paths chart that maps IT service management job roles with skill levels. This chart is handy for certification candidates interested in specific jobs who need to understand how they fit into the ITIL service lifecycle.

Each ITIL certification webpage provides links to relevant study guides and syllabi. Those pursuing the ITIL Foundation certification should read the three-part blog series on preparing for and taking the ITIL Foundation exam. Those who are thinking about pursuing the Intermediate certification should use the ITIL Intermediate Training Navigator to match desired job roles and skills with the appropriate modules.

Formal ITIL training is available in self-paced online courses, instructor-led distance learning and instructor-led classroom classes. The variety of ITIL training offered and the collection of certified companies offering ITIL training ensures that anyone who is interested in learning about ITIL or becoming ITIL certified has an option that fits their learning preferences.

Although non-accredited ITIL training is available, we strongly recommend that you only utilize an ITIL ATO when you pursue ITIL training. Find a complete list of such training providers on the Axelos ITIL website.

Axelos and the ITIL Development Group, made up of more than 2,000 ITIL stakeholders worldwide, began working on an update to ITIL V3 in late 2017. That work continued throughout 2018, and Axelos has announced upcoming changes to the ITIL certifications known as ITIL 4. ITIL 4 will provide sweeping changes to the ITIL certification program to better align with the growing complexity of modern IT. ITIL 4 also changes some of the certification program terms and titles to align with the new ITIL 4 program structure. Here is a look at the new ITIL 4 program overview:

Credit: Axelos

You'll recognize some familiar terms as well as some new nomenclature incorporated into the ITIL 4 certification scheme. The certification still starts with the ITIL Foundation, and ITIL Master is still the highest level of ITIL certification, but how you get from Foundation to Master now allows two distinct paths, allowing you to choose the certification knowledge areas that best fit your interests and career goals.

The new Foundation exam is scheduled to be released in Q1 of 2019, with additional certification exam updates scheduled to be released in the second half of 2019. You can find more details on how existing ITIL V3 certifications map to the new program structure here: ITIL 4 Program Updates.

Note: We will update this article as the new ITIL 4 exam preparation courses and certification exams are released by Axelos so check back here often to learn more about ITIL 4.

Credit: Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel

Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written for numerous publications, including Tom's IT Pro, and is the author of more than 140 computing books on information security, web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.

Credit: Earl Follis

Earl Follis
Earl is also a 30-year veteran of the computer industry, who worked in IT training, marketing, technical evangelism and market analysis in the areas of networking and systems technology and management. Ed and Earl met in the late 1980s when Ed hired Earl as a trainer at an Austin-area networking company that's now part of HP. The two of them have written numerous books together on NetWare, Windows Server and other topics. Earl is also a regular writer for the computer trade press with many e-books, white papers and articles to his credit.

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