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10 Most Difficult IT Certifications

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Updated on April 17, 2024

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Have you ever wondered what makes an IT certification valuable? Perhaps one of the best ways to determine the value placed on individual certifications is by looking at market needs, including what technologies are hot and how common the certification is. 

Other factors are market perceptions of the certificate, such as: 

  • How difficult is the certification to obtain? 

  • How much experience is needed to qualify for the cert? 

  • How long does the certification take to obtain?

We did an informal review to identify the IT certifications considered difficult to attain and found cloud computing, virtualization, and security were all well-represented.

So, let’s look at the 10 toughest IT certifications to obtain and the CBT Nuggets training courses that can help you prepare for the certification exams.

10 Tough IT Certifications

Remember that difficulty is subjective. Some of the certifications on this list might seem very tough, while others are totally doable with the right preparation. Your past experience, learning style, and current job might make certain certifications easier or more challenging. Here is our list, starting with the least challenging: 

10. Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)

The CISM is from the independent, nonprofit ISACA association. The certification demonstrates the holder can develop and manage an information security program under ISACA's goals.

The CISM certification exam is a four-hour, 150-question test. It focuses on four CISM domains –  information security governance, risk management, program development and management, and incident management.

CISM certification is not awarded until the candidate passes the exam AND has verified five or more years of work experience across at least three CISM domains! To maintain the CISM certification, holders must take at least 20 hours of relevant continuing professional education (CPE) annually for 120 CPE hours over three years. 

Who is this for?

  • Information Security Managers

  • Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs)

  • Security Consultants

  • IT Auditors

  • Risk and Compliance Managers

9. AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate

As more organizations adopt AWS services, there is an increasing need for qualified personnel. Introduced in 2013, the AWS Certified Solutions Architect–Associate is becoming a valuable — and valued — certification. 

As for prerequisites, a quote from the official exam guide says, "The target candidate should have at least one year of hands-on experience designing cloud solutions that use AWS services."

AWS certifications are reported to be “challenging,” and real-world experience of how AWS services work and interact is essential to passing the certification exam. While programming skills are not required for this exam, you should have knowledge of programming concepts as they relate to architecture considerations and solution planning.

The exam is 130 minutes long and has 65 multiple-choice, multiple-answer questions covering four areas: Design Secure Architectures, Design Resilient Architectures, Design High-Performing Architectures, and Design Cost-Optimized Architectures.

Who is this for?

  • Solutions Architects

  • DevOps Engineers

  • Developers

  • Systems Administrators

8. Certified Professional in Python Programming 1 (PCPP1)

Python is no longer the exclusive domain of software developers. As its popularity has increased over the years, so too have the libraries and syntax of this programming language. Anyone from system administrators to network engineers will find plenty of value in knowing how to use Python. 

Having said that, the PCPP1 should only be attempted if you are already familiar with Python and software development in general. It will allow you to drill down into the specifics of this programming language and really nail the core concepts. If you want to gear up for this cert, look at the Certified Entry-Level Python Programmer (PCEP) and Certified Associate in Python Programming (PCAP), the latter of which is a prerequisite.

The exam is multiple-choice with 45 questions, and you will have 65 minutes to complete it. It costs $195 to write the exam, and you will need a 70% score to pass. More exam details can be found on the Python Institute website.

Who is this for?

  • Software Developers

  • DevOps Engineers

  • Data Scientists and Analysts

  • System Administrators and Network Engineers

7. Designing Microsoft Azure Solutions Architect Expert (AZ-305)

The AZ-305 is no walk in the park. While it is seen as an associate-level certification, it covers a lot of ground, which means you will need to prepare thoroughly before sitting to take the exam. You'll need to demonstrate your expertise in "Design identity, governance, and monitoring solutions" per the AZ-305 exam objectives. 

As a prerequisite, candidates for the Azure Solutions Architect Expert must first earn the Microsoft Certified Azure Administrator Associate (AZ-104). This certification requires passing the two-hour, 40-60-question (AZ-104) exam. Then, candidates must take and pass the two-hour, 40- 60-question Microsoft Certified: Azure Solutions Architect Expert (AZ-305) exam. 

The Azure Solutions Architect exam is difficult, and you must score 700 to pass it.

Who is this for?

  • Azure Solution Architects

  • Cloud Architects

  • IT Managers and Leaders

  • Technical Consultants

6. AWS Certified SysOps Administrator (SOA-C02) 

The AWS Certified SysOps Administrator–Associate is a step up from the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner and is an excellent cert for anyone wanting to validate technical skills on the AWS platform. Candidates should have one year of experience with AWS deployment, management, networking, and security. 

The exam consists of 65 questions (50 scored and 15 unscored) and has a 130-minute time limit. As of March 28, 2023, the exam only has two types of questions: multiple-choice and multiple-response. The exam labs have been temporarily removed while AWS evaluates and makes improvements.

The SOA-C02 covers everything from deploying and managing AWS resources and implementing security and compliance measures to monitoring and troubleshooting. It also heavily focuses on automating day-to-day processes that are crucial for maintaining AWS operations.

This is by no means the most difficult AWS certification out there, but given the blend of skills tested in the exam, it is not easy to pass without the right preparation. You'll need to understand AWS services such as EC2, EBS, S3, and RDS, as well as the ability to design and implement scalable and high-availability architectures.

You will need to get a passing score of 720 out of 1000 points to earn this cert. If you are interested in AWS cloud computing, then this is an excellent cert to aim for.

Who is this for?

  • Systems Administrators

  • DevOps Engineers

  • Site Reliability Engineers (SREs)

  • Cloud Engineers

5. ISC2 Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)

The CCSP is a certification geared towards cloud security experts who need to validate their skills. When you earn this cert, you are able to demonstrate that you are an expert at securing cloud security environments and managing risks that are commonplace in cloud computing environments.

To earn the CCSP, you need to fully understand cloud concepts, architecture, data security, infrastructure and platform security, and compliance and legal issues. There is a lot to cover, making it a challenging cert to have under your belt. As cloud computing continues to grow on a global scale, it is a highly sought-after cert that will show employers you understand the unique security considerations present in cloud computing environments.

Candidates must have at least five years of cumulative, paid work experience in information technology, of which three years must be in information security, and one year in one or more of the six domains of the ISC2 CCSP Exam Outline. The exam is a grueling four hours and consists of 150 questions, and to pass, you need 700 out of 1000 points. To find out more about this exam, see all the details on the ISC2 website.

Who is this for?

  • Cloud Security Architects

  • Cloud Security Engineers

  • Cloud Security Consultants

  • Cloud Security Managers

  • Information Security Analysts

4. Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)

As the name suggests, this certification is targeted at practicing IT auditors who are involved in the security of systems, networks, and information. The CISA certification is granted by ISACA, which is the same body that grants the Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) credential.

CISA candidates must pass a four-hour, 150-multiple-choice question exam with a score of at least 450 out of 800. In addition, CISA candidates must submit an application to demonstrate that they have a minimum of five years of experience in IT auditing, control, or security. Then, of course, they are required to take a minimum of 20 hours of continuing professional education per year to maintain it.

Who is this for?

  • IT Auditors

  • Information Security Managers

  • IT Compliance Managers

  • IT Risk Managers

  • Internal Control Professionals

3. Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

The CISSP is granted by the non-profit security consortium known as ISC2. Whereas the CISM credential is aimed at management professionals, CISSP is more technical and covers a broader and deeper range of topics. Introduced in 1994, the CISSP is a respected, vendor-neutral security certification. Candidates for CISSP would have roles such as security consultants, security auditors/analysts, security managers, network architects, etc.

The certification exam is a monster! There are two versions of this exam. You can select the linear fixed-form version, which is six hours long and has 250 questions, or the CAT version. The Computer Adaptive Testing version is three hours long and has between 100 and 150 questions. It has multiple-choice and advanced innovative items. 

Both exams are focused on eight domains: security and risk management; asset security; security engineering; communications and network security; identity and access management; security assessment and testing; security operations; and software development security. 

To take the exam, you must have worked for at least five years as a security professional, subscribe to the ISC2 code of ethics, and work in at least two of the eight domains of the CISSP outlined in the exam. Once you’re a CISSP, you must recertify every three years through at least 120 CPE credit points of continuing professional education. And there’s more. You must pay a yearly $125 (USD) fee to maintain your certification.

Who is this for?

  • Information Security Managers/Directors

  • Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs)

  • Security Architects

  • Security Consultants

  • Security Analysts and Engineers

2. Cisco Certified Network Professional Security (CCNP Security)

This certification focuses on the skills related to securing Cisco-based networks, including identity management, authentication, authorization, firewalls, anti-malware programs, and security policy development. It has two components: a core exam and a concentration exam specialized to the kind of security the candidate wants to pursue. This makes it more difficult than a normal ‘one and done’ type of certification. 

Professionals with the CCNP—Security credential are typically employed in IT security groups and systems administration. There is no official prerequisite for the CCNP, but candidates should have three to five years of experience implementing enterprise network solutions. 

This is a challenging certification that requires a deep understanding of how Cisco security solutions work and how they fit in with the wider Cisco network architectures. You'll need to complete the core exam (Implementing Cisco Data Center Core Technologies), which is 120 minutes long and costs $400, followed by one of the CCNP Data Center concentration exams

The concentration exams are 90 minutes long and cost $300, and more details about each can be found on the Cisco website. Here, you will find all the specifics for each exam and what is covered in them. 

Once you have your CCNP—Security certification, you must recertify every three years by earning the required CE (Continued Education) credits applicable to the CCNP. Cisco's recertification page explains the whole process.

Who is this for?

  • Network Security Engineers

  • Security Operations Center (SOC) Analysts

  • Network Security Administrators

  • Network Security Consultants

  • Cybersecurity Specialists

1. Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) 

Here’s our vote for the #1 toughest certification! It’s Cisco’s top-level certification and a highly valued “badge of competency” in the industry. Less than 3% of Cisco-certified engineers obtain the CCIE certification, which translates to less than 1% of networking professionals worldwide. Certainly, it’s not easy to become a CCIE. Once you become one, you must recertify every two years, or your CCIE will be suspended.

CCIE certifications are available in several specialist areas. Each CCIE certification stands alone. The updated list of Cisco expert certifications includes:

You need to pass a two-hour written qualification exam on the specific topic before you proceed to an eight-hour, hands-on lab exam. CCIE Enterprise Infrastructure is one of the most popular tracks. 

When writing your hands-on exam, you will need to complete various advanced tasks, such as programming and automating your network within the test environment and ensuring that the network operates in both IPv4 and IPv6 modes, similar to what you would find in an enterprise environment.

Find out more specifics about these exams on the Cisco website.

Who is this for?

  • Network Architects

  • Senior Network Engineers

  • Technical Solutions Architects

  • Network Consultants

  • Network Research and Development Engineers

In Conclusion

Well, we tried our best to rank some of the toughest IT certifications. It’s not easy to compare them. What do you think? Is CCIE tougher than CCNP Security? Who’s voting for AZ-305 or maybe the CISSP? Let us know! Whichever one gets your vote, CBT Nuggets has all of the best online training courses to help you clear the certification hurdle!

Ready to get your next IT certification? Sign up for CBT Nuggets and access all our online certification training.


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