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CompTIA Certification Guide: Overview and Career Paths

CompTIA Certification Guide: Overview and Career Paths

Headquartered near Chicago, CompTIA is a non-profit trade association comprised of more than 2,000 member organizations and 3,000 business partners. Although the organization focuses on educating and certifying IT professionals, CompTIA also figures prominently in philanthropy and public policy advocacy.

CompTIA's vendor-neutral certification program is one of the most recognized in the IT industry, having issued more than 2 million certifications during a 20-year span.  

In early 2018, CompTIA introduced the CompTIA Infrastructure Career Pathway. While you’ll still see the same familiar certifications that form the bedrock of the CompTIA certification portfolio, the new career pathway program seeks to more closely align CompTIA certifications to real-world skills IT professionals need to ensure success when managing and supporting IT infrastructures. Rather than categorize certifications by skill-level (Foundation, Professional, Master and Specialty), CompTIA certifications are now grouped by skill set. Currently, CompTIA certs fall info four areas: Core, Infrastructure, Cybersecurity and Additional Professional certifications. 

  • Core Certifications – Designed to build core foundational skills, CompTIA offers four Core certifications: IT Fundamentals, CompTIA A+ (focused on user support and device connectivity), CompTIA Network+ (targeting core system connections with endpoint devices), and CompTIA Security+ (focused on entry level cybersecurity skills).
  • Infrastructure Certifications – Designed to complement the Network+ credential, you’ll find three Infrastructure certifications:  CompTIA Server+ (focused on issues related to server support and administration), CompTIA Cloud+ (covering hybrid cloud, virtual system administration and deploying network storage resources), and CompTIA Linux+ (focused on Linux operating system administration and management.
  • Cybersecurity Certifications – CompTIA offers three cybersecurity credentials: CompTIA CySA+ (CySA stands for Cyber Security Analyst, and targets IT security behavioral analysts), CASP (CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner; focuses on professionals who design and implement security solutions), and the CompTIA PenTest+ (Penetration testing, targets professionals who conduct penetration and vulnerability testing).
  • Additional Professional Certifications – This category includes several credentials which don’t readily fit into any of the other CompTIA career paths, including: CompTIA Project+, CompTIA CTT+ and CompTIA Cloud Essentials.

CompTIA IT Fundamentals is ideal for beginners with a basic understanding of PC functionality and compatibility as well as familiarity with technology topics, such as hardware basics, software installation, security risks and prevention and basic networking. It’s also ideal as a career planning or development tool for individuals just beginning their IT careers or seeking to make a career change. A single exam is required to earn the credential. Currently, CompTIA is developing a new IT Fundamentals exam. A firm release date has not yet been established but interested candidates should expect to see this new exam released sometime in the third quarter of 2018. 

The CompTIA A+ certification has been described as an "entry-level rite of passage for IT technicians," for a good reason. This certification is designed for folks seeking a career as a help desk, support, service center or networking technician, and it covers PC and laptop hardware, software installation and configuration of computer and mobile operating systems. A+ also tests a candidate's understanding of basic networking, troubleshooting and security skills, which serve as a springboard for CompTIA networking or security certifications or those offered by other organizations. According to CompTIA, more than one million IT professionals hold the A+ certification. The A+ is required for Dell, Intel and HP service technicians and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Candidates must pass two exams (exams 220-901 and 220-902) to earn the A+ credential.

Many IT professionals start with the A+ certification. However, if you have the experience and don't feel a need for the A+, you can move directly to the CompTIA Network+ certification. It’s geared toward professionals with at least nine months of networking experience. A candidate must be familiar with networking technologies, media, topologies, security, installation and configuration. The Network+ certification is recommended or required by Dell, HP and Intel, and is also an accepted entry-point certification for the Apple Consultants Network. The Network+ credential meets the ISO 17024 standard and just like the A+, it is recognized by the U.S. DoD. A single exam is required to earn the certification. A new exam, N10-007, was introduced in March 2018. The predecessor exam, N10-006, retires on August 31, 2018.  

CompTIA Security+ covers network security concepts, threats and vulnerabilities, access control, identity management, cryptography and much more. Although CompTIA does not impose any prerequisites, the organization recommends that cert candidates obtain the Network+ credential and have at least two years of IT administration experience with a security focus. To obtain the Security+ certification candidates must pass on exam, SY0-501.

The CompTIA Linux+ Powered by LPI certification aims at Linux network administrators with at least 12 months of Linux administration experience. Such experience should include installation, package management, GNU and Unix commands, shells, scripting, security and more. The A+ and Network+ certifications are recommended as a preamble to this certification, but are not mandatory. Candidates must pass two exams to earn this credential.

As the cloud computing market continues to grow by leaps and bounds, the CompTIA Cloud+ certification has been keeping pace. This certification targets IT professionals with two to three years of experience in storage, networking or data center administration. A single exam, CV0-002, was released in February 2018. It tests candidates' knowledge of cloud technologies, hybrid and multi-cloud solutions, cloud markets, and incorporating cloud-based technology solutions into system operations.

CompTIA Server+ aims at server administrators with 18 to 24 months of experience with server hardware and software technologies and the A+ certification is recommended. The Server+ credential is recommended or required by HP, Intel and Lenovo for their server technicians. It is also recognized by Microsoft and the U.S. DoD. A single exam, SK0-004, is required to achieve this credential.

As cybercrime increases, the requirement for highly skilled information security analysts will continue to rise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports anticipated growth of 18 percent for information security analysts between 2014 and 2024, the fastest rate of growth for all occupations. One of the newer additions to the CompTIA certification portfolio is the Cybersecurity Analyst (CySA+) certification. Formerly known as the CSA+, the CySA+ credential is specifically designed to meet the ever-growing need for experienced, qualified information security analysts. CompTIA chose to change the acronym from CSA+ to CySA+ (exams and content remain the same). The rollout on the acronym change should be complete by June 29, 2018.  

CySA+ credential holders are well versed in the use of system threat detection tools, as well as the use of data and behavioral analytics to secure applications and systems from risks, threats and other vulnerabilities. CySA+ certification holders are not only able to monitor network behavior but analyze results and create solutions to better protect against advanced persistent threats (APTs), intrusions, malware and the like.

CompTIA describes CySA+ as a bridge certification between the Security+ credential (requiring two years' experience) and the master-level Advanced Security Practitioner Certification (CASP) credential, which requires 10 years of experience. To earn the CySA+, candidates must pass a performance-based exam.

While CompTIA no longer uses the “master” designation, the highly sought-after CASP certification is most certainly a master-level credential. Targeting practitioners, the CASP is the only performance-based, hands-on certification currently available from CompTIA. This certification is designed for seasoned IT security professionals who plan, design and implement security solutions in an enterprise environment.

Although this certification doesn't impose any explicit prerequisites, it's not a bad idea to earn the Network+ and Security+ certifications before tackling the CASP exam. You should also have 10 years of IT administration experience, as well as a minimum of 5 years of technical security experience (thus securing this certification's place as a “master” credential).

Booz Allen Hamilton, Network Solutions and Verizon Telematics, among other companies, require CASP certification for certain positions. The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy also accept CASP as an industry-based certification required by employees and contractors who perform IT work in DOD data centers. The CASP certification requires that candidates pass the CAS-003 exam (launched on April 2, 2018), which consists of 90 multiple-choice and performance-based questions.

The newest additional to the CompTIA certification family is the CompTIA PenTest+.  An intermediate level credential, PenTest+ is designed to complement the CySA+. While CySA+ is defensive in nature (focusing on threat detection and response), the PenTest+ credential is offensive, focusing on using penetration testing to identify and manage network vulnerabilities across multiple spectra.  

There are no mandatory prerequisites but the Network+ and Security+ (or equivalent skills) is highly recommended along with a minimum of two years of information security experience. Candidates pursuing the Cybersecurity career path may take the PenTest+ or CySA+ credential in any order.

The exam is currently in beta and includes both hands-on as well as performance-based questions. The final exam is scheduled to be released in the third quarter of 2018.  

The CompTIA Project+ certification focuses exclusively on project management and is ideal for project managers who are familiar with project lifecycles from planning to completion, who can finish a project on time and under budget. Project managers interested in this certification should have at least one year of project management experience overseeing small- to medium-sized projects. The Project+ credential requires that candidates pass a single multiple-choice exam, PK0-004.

The CompTIA Cloud Essentials certification is geared toward individuals who understand the business aspects of cloud computing and how to move from in-house to cloud storage. In addition, they should be familiar with the impacts, risks and consequences of implementing a cloud-based solution. A single exam is required to earn the credential.

The CompTIA Certified Technical Trainer (CTT+) certification is perfect for anyone interested in technical training. It covers instructor skills, such as preparation, presentation, communication, facilitation and evaluation, in vendor-neutral fashion. Adobe, Cisco, Dell, IBM, Microsoft and Ricoh all recommend CTT+ to their trainers and accept it in lieu of their own in-house trainer certifications.

Two exams are required for the CTT+ credential: CompTIA CTT+ Essentials (TK0-201) and either CTT+ Classroom Performance Trainer (TK0-202) or CTT+ Virtual Classroom Trainer (TK0-203).

The CTT+ Classroom Performance Trainer and CTT+ Virtual Classroom Trainer are performance-based exams. In this case, you must submit a video or recording of your classroom or virtual classroom sessions and complete a form that documents your training preparation, delivery and student evaluations.

In addition to certification levels, CompTIA groups its certifications into several career paths:

  • Information security
  • Network and cloud technologies
  • Hardware, services and infrastructure
  • IT management and strategy
  • Web and mobile
  • Software development
  • Training
  • Office productivity

The CompTIA Certifications page lets you pick a certification level and/or a career path, and then returns a list of certifications to focus on. For example, one of the most popular career paths in IT is network administration. CompTIA's Network and Cloud Technologies career path offers numerous certifications that can help you advance your network administration career, such as IT Fundamentals, A+ and Network+ (Core certs), along with Cloud+ and Linux+ (Infrastructure certifications) and Cloud Essentials.

Those interested in network security (one of the fastest growing fields in IT) should consider the certifications in CompTIA's Information Security career path. This includes all four of the Core credentials (IT Fundamentals, A+, Network+ and Security+) along with all Cybersecurity certifications (CySA+, PenTest+ and CASP).

CompTIA also provides a comprehensive IT certification roadmap that encompasses certifications from CompTIA as well as a variety of other organizations, including Cisco, EC-Council, Microsoft, (ISC)2, ISACA, Mile2 and more.

Because CompTIA credentials do not focus on a single skill (such as networking or virtualization), CompTIA credential holders may find themselves in a variety of job roles depending on their experience, skill levels and areas of interest. Here are just a few of the possible careers that CompTIA credential holders may find themselves engaged in:

  • A+: Typically, A+ credential holders find work in support roles, such as support administrators, support technicians or support specialists.
  • Network+: Network+ professionals primarily work in network-related roles, such as network analysts, administrators or support specialists. Credential holders may also work as network engineers, field technicians or network help desk technicians.
  • CySA+ Security Analyst: Common roles for professionals interested in cybersecurity, information security and risk analysis may engage in roles that include security engineers, cybersecurity analysts or specialists, threat or vulnerability analysts, or analysts for security operations centers (SOCs).
  • Security+: Security spans a variety of jobs, such as network, system or security administrators, security managers, specialists or administrators, and security consultants.
  • Server+: Roles for server professionals include storage and server administrators, as well as server support or IT/server technicians.
  • Linux+: Linux professionals often work in roles such as Linux database administrators, network administrators or web administrators.
  • Cloud+/Cloud Essentials: Cloud+ credential holders typically work as cloud specialists, developers or system and network administrators. Cloud Essentials professionals tend to work in areas related to cloud technical sales or business development.
  • CASP: Common roles for CASP credential holders include cybersecurity specialists, InfoSec specialists, information security professionals and security architects.
  • Project+: Project+ credential holders typically engage in project leadership roles, such as project managers, coordinators and directors, or team leads.

While the examples above are by no means exhaustive, they do provide an overview of some available careers. Your career choices are limited only by your interests, imagination and determination to achieve your personal goals.

CompTIA provides various and extensive training options, including classroom training, study materials and e-learning. A wide range of CompTIA Authorized Training Provider Partners (CAPPs), such as Global Knowledge, Learning Tree International and more, operate all over the world. Classroom and online/e-learning offerings range in cost from $2,000 to $4,000, depending on the particulars. Visit the CompTIA Training page for more details.

CompTIA works with third parties to offer a wide range of self-study materials (the search tool is available here). Content that has been through a vetting process is branded with the CompTIA Approved Quality Content (CAQC) logo. Other materials that allow you to study at your own pace, such as audio segments, lesson activities and additional resources, are available through the CompTIA Marketplace.

Finally, every CompTIA A+, Linux+, Network+, Server+, Security+ and IT Fundamentals certification candidates must check out CertMaster, CompTIA's online test prep tool. CertMaster helps you determine which topics you know well and those you need to brush up on, and suggests training to help you fill in the gaps.

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.

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