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Help Desk Institute (HDI) Certification Guide: Overview and Career Paths

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For an increasing number of IT professionals, help or support desk jobs serve as a career launch pad. These organizational units usually belong to a larger IT organization, and their job is to provide information and assistance to users. These job functions have a lot in common and are in strong demand. In its current Occupational Outlook Handbook, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics describes these positions as "computer support specialists."

"Employment of computer support specialists is projected to grow 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations. More support services will be needed as organizations upgrade their computer equipment and software."

The same source also indicates that 2015 median pay for such positions is $51,470 per annum, or $24.75 an hour. It's the lowest pay rate for all the computer jobs they cover, which explains why it's such a common point of entry for IT professionals just getting started.

Founded in 1989, HDI is both a professional association and a certification sponsor. (HDI is the organization's legal name, though it began as the "Help Desk Institute.") Its overall mission is to facilitate professional development and to foster organizational success through exception customer service, with a focus on help and support desk operations.

In addition to its certification and training efforts, HDI also hosts conferences and events around the globe, produces publications and research, and provides ample opportunities for interested professionals to network and collaborate with one another. HDI is a part of UBM Technology, which also runs the Black Hat, Fusion and Interop conferences, and produces such online publications as InformationWeek, Dark Reading and Network Computing.

HDI certifications are primarily organized around support center job roles. Though HDI does offer some credentials outside this umbrella, their nine core credentials can easily be arranged as a quasi-ladder or -cascade of help desk/support center positions (from the bottom up):

HDI Customer Service Representative (HDI-CSR): An HDI certification for frontline customer service representatives, designed to help them assess customer business needs and provide quality service. The HDI-CSR aims at support professionals from customer service centers, call centers and support centers. (Course + exam: $795 (members)/$895 (nonmembers), $145 exam only)

HDI Desktop Support Technician (HDI-DST): An HDI certification for technical support professionals who provide in-person support to internal or remote employees or workers, or external customers. The HDI-DST emphasizes techniques to improve customer interaction, understanding of service level agreements and their impact on workflow and request priorities, root cause analysis, ITIL processes for incident, problem, change, release, asset and configuration management. (Course + exam: $645/695, $145 exam only)

HDI Support Center Analyst (HDI-SCA): An HDI certification that aims at frontline technical support staff seeking to learn how to manage and prioritize incidents and reduce escalations. The HDI-SCA focuses on critical customer service skills for managing difficult customers and improving overall customer satisfaction. This is the most sought-after credential. (Course + exam: $645/695, $145 exam only)

HDI Problem Management Professional (HDI-PM): Developed in partnership with Propoint Solutions, this HDI certification aims at professionals involved in planning and implementation of a formal problem management process, performing proactive and reactive problem management, prioritizing and categorizing problems, investigating and diagnosing problems, coordinating or performing root cause analysis, developing workarounds and fixes, and proposing changes to aid in problem resolution. The HDI-PM is based on numerous ITSM networks, including ITIL, ISO/IEC 20000 and COBIT. (Course + exam: $225)

HDI Support Center Team Lead (HDI-SCTL): Team leads provide the communication link between support team members and their manager, and act as the first point of internal escalation for customers. HDI certification candidates must understand team lead management and leadership skills, service level and operational level agreements, ITIL processes for incident, problem, change, release, asset and configuration management, conflict management strategies, and people management basics, including hiring, scheduling, evaluating and retaining workers. (Course + exam: $745/795; $145 exam only)

HDI Desktop Support Manager (HDI-DSM): An HDI certification that focuses on desktop support, including support for laptops, notebooks, printers and other items for which an organization plans to provide face-to-face desktop support. A desktop support manager is responsible for executing operational and tactical plans for desktop support, and meeting customer and business needs. This certification helps candidates understand and master characteristics of effective desktop management, alignment of desktop support services with business strategy, plus tactics for hiring, training and leading high-performance teams. (Course + exam: $225)

HDI Support Center Manager (HDI-SCM): This HDI certification identifies individuals who possess the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in managing operational and tactical elements of a support organization, and aligning with business needs. Successful candidates know how to create service and operational agreements, standard operating procedures in supporting a service catalog, steps involved in formulating cost-benefit analyses, TCO and ROI calculations, and relationships among IT service management processes, and more. (Course + exam: $225)

HDI Support Center Director (HDI-SCD): This pinnacle level HDI certification identifies individuals with serious skills and knowledge regarding service management, related best and common practices, the ability to align the department with organizational goals, and to gain senior management buy-in for service improvements and support center value. The HDI-SCD introduces topics related to knowledge management, strategies for workforce management, coaching, team building, succession planning, understanding of construction of business cases, use of reporting tools and dashboards, and selecting leading and lagging indicators. (Course + exam: $225)

Outside the core certification offerings from HDI, you'll also find an HDI Certified Instructor, several coaching credentials, various Knowledge-Centered Support (KCS) credentials (Foundation, Principles and Coaching) and ITIL Foundation. The HDI-SCD (Director), HDI-SCM and HDI-DSM (Support Center and Desktop Support Manager, respectively), and HDI-SCTL (Team Lead) credentials all expire after three years, subject to continuing education or retesting requirements. Other items in the core do not expire.

Salary does climb with seniority: only the HDI-CSR falls below the median, with a low-low average salary of $24,715. Not surprisingly, it also accounts for a large fraction of the overall HDI certification-related job postings.

Only the HDI-PM posted a salary less than $60,000 (just less than $59,000, to be more precise). The Team Lead, Manager and Director certs averaged between $62,000 and $65,000, but all had peak values into the six figures. I guess this explains why many support centers and help desks are situated outside major metro areas. This tells me prospective senior help desk professionals need to watch their salary options and locations carefully to make the best of their opportunities.

HDI does not require certification candidates to purchase and complete training, except for those of its core certs that expire after three years, which include Director, Manager and Team Lead designations. For other topics, candidates can elect to omit training and purchase only the exam. Those who do purchase training get the price of the certification exam included in that purchase. Overall, this makes HDI certifications and training quite inexpensive, as such things go.

Exams cost $145 by themselves when available, and training adds no more than $650 (members) or $750 (non-members) to that cost. Where multiple prices appear, the lower price reflects a standard discount for candidates who belong to HDI or who work for HDI member organizations. For most certifications, there is a set of "Certification Standards" (well-defined, open exam objectives) that candidates can use to prepare for the corresponding exam. (The Director-level cert appears to lack a standard, though there is a more expensive HDI Support Center standard available.)

HDI offers exam/cert objectives (Certification Standards), reasonably-priced training, and practice tests ($69/79 for 90 days, $50 extension fee). The company also makes a broad collection of resources available (registration required) to students who sign up for its training courses. Exams and training are available online in virtual and physical classroom formats, and access to study, practice and prep materials is all online. That's a good thing, because little or no aftermarket material for HDI certifications is available, as far as I can tell.

Overall, the HDI certifications appear to be a good bet for two kinds of IT professional: IT newcomers and those moving into senior roles. First, it's a good bet for those just starting out in the workforce and seeking an edge in landing a help desk or tech support job. This applies to the first two or three items in the core list preceding. Second, it's a good bet for those seeking to advance to senior positions in help desk or tech support hierarchies, at the Team Lead, Manager or Director levels. As the salary data shows, those who climb to such levels in this IT niche can expect to beat the median salary reported in the U.S. BLS Outlook by a pretty wide margin. And, given the ongoing growth in the field, and a continuing appetite for more and better support professionals, may end up being a good overall career choice in IT.

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.