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Top Certs to Advance Your IT Career


Every journey begins with a single step, but not every traveler has their ultimate destination in mind when they start out. That’s a little like a career.

Some people have a very clear vision of their final career destination, while others do not.

If you are in the early stages of your career in information technology, you’ve probably been told that prospective employers view certifications as a means to validate your expertise and capabilities. So which certifications should you pursue? Well, that depends on a number of things!

There is a wide variety of possible careers in information technology. You can pursue a technology track, or maybe a functional one. Perhaps you can see opportunity in a particular industry sector, or maybe with technology vendors rather than customers. You could make a career in individual contributor roles, or follow a management path. Of course, the direction you choose should be informed by things such as:

  • Personal fit: Does it align with the things you like to do?
  • Job opportunity: Is there large — and growing — opportunity in the area? What’s hot, what’s not?
  • Portability of skills: Can you apply the skills to other areas, or is it a one-way track?

Vendor-Specific Is Good. Vendor-Neutral May Be Better!

All things being equal, you should look at general certifications before vendor-specific ones. This is not to say that Cisco, Microsoft, VMware,  Amazon Web Services, or Google Cloud certifications are not great choices for career advancement, but general vendor-neutral ones will be more portable and — in today’s hyper-networked, multi-vendor world — be relevant to most customer environments. And with a vendor-neutral certification on your resume, there’s nothing to say that you can’t bolster it further with selected vendor certifications!

Vendor Neutral Certifications

Popular vendor-neutral IT certifications include:

  • CompTIA for IT infrastructure, networking and security,
  • ITIL for IT service management,
  • ISACA and (ISC)2 for cyber security and auditing, and
  • Project Management Institute (PMI) for project management.

A common thread with these certifications is that they are defined and controlled by industry bodies. They tend to evolve in step with industry technology as it advances, embracing for example, aspects of cloud computing and mobility.

Let’s take a look at some popular general certifications.


CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+, and CompTIA Security+ certifications are recognized by organizations worldwide, including the US Department of Defense. CompTIA A+ is considered a foundational certification that is relevant for a range of IT roles including developers, sysadmins, tech support, help desk technicians, and network administrators. The CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+ are professional level certifications that are commonly compared to the entry level Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT).

IT Infrastructure Library® (ITIL®)

ITIL certifications are focused on best practices for service management in order to align IT services with the needs of the business. As such, ITIL certifications are relevant to professionals who are involved in the design, development, deployment, and ongoing management of mission critical IT projects. With five certification levels from the entry ITIL® Foundation Level, up to Expert and Master Levels, ITIL certification is relevant to all levels of IT and project professional and manager, right up to CIO.

As you rise through the ranks, you may be responsible for end-to-end processes and for directing a service management team — release managers, problem managers, service desk managers, etc. — ensuring their compliance to prescribed processes, and for delivering quality IT services to your organization and to your end-users. In this case, the ITIL Intermediate level, Continual Service Improvement (CSI) and Operational Support and Analysis (OSA) would be highly relevant certifications.

ISACA and (ISC)2 for Cyber Security and Auditing

With almost daily reports of some new catastrophic information breach, IT security is certainly one of the hottest areas in the industry. And it’s truly a boardroom issue — C-level executives are losing their jobs when breaches happen! This means that there are career opportunities for qualified and certified cyber security and auditing professionals.

There are vendor-specific security certifications, such as Cisco CCNA Security, Cisco CCNP Security, and Juniper Networks Certified Specialist Security. These are valuable technical certifications for security practitioners, but they do not cover the actual creation of the overarching security policy and design. That’s where the vendor-neutral certifications from the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (now known as ISACA) and (ISC)2 come in!

These independent organizations have certifications that are relevant to security consultants, security auditors/analysts, security managers, as well as system and network architects.

ISACA’s Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) is a management-level certification that covers all forms of attacks and malicious attempts to access the organization’s network and information systems. CISM is consistently ranked as one of the highest paying and sought after IT certifications (see our blog post, 10 Highest Paying IT Certifications).

Whereas the CISM credential is aimed at management professionals, the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification from (ISC)2 is for technical professionals and covers a broader and deeper range of topics.

ISACA also grants the Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) certification, which is targeted at practicing IT auditors, rather than technical professionals.

Project Management

Certified project managers are in high demand! With the pressure on IT executives to deliver business solutions on-time, on-budget, and with the required functionality, effective project management is essential. The Project Management Institute (PMI) has a number of certifications including the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) and the Project Management Professional (PMP).

The CAPM is designed for newer project managers, as well as for those IT professionals who want to add project management to their technical credentials. PMI claims that the Project Management Professional (PMP) is “the gold standard of project management certification.” It certainly requires serious real-world project manager experience, before you can even apply to take the certification exam. The PMP is arguably the de-facto standard project management certification for the Americas. In Europe and other parts of the world, PRINCE2 (Projects IN Controlled Environments) certification is preferred.

Wrapping Up

Although in the final analysis it’s your job experience and results that are going to count, IT certifications are a recognized way to demonstrate to employers — current or prospective — that you have what it takes to do a job! Vendor-specific or vendor-neutral is not a radio button choice you have to make. The certifications you pursue will depend on your chosen career direction, the organizations for which you work, and the strategic technologies they use.

With the continuing trend toward hybrid, networked systems, there is a clear need for certified professionals capable of planning, designing, deploying, operating, and securing these complex systems. Whatever your choice, look to CBT Nuggets for the training to help you clear the certification hurdle!

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