5 top IT certifications in 2015

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Several salary surveys indicate 2015 could be a big year for IT pros, with mobile, security and big data representing some of the higher and more hotly sought-after rungs on the salary-ladder. Organizations are embracing the cloud like never before, looking for ways to integrate cloud-based services into their environments or to migrate apps to the cloud. Nearly every organization needs highly skilled and competent systems administrators to maintain the infrastructure and support users, networking professionals to make sure all of the right connections are made, and organized managers who oversee projects from cradle to grave.

I've been blogging about certifications and talking to industry movers and shakers for years, as well as guiding newcomers in the right direction. I also regularly scour leading job posting sites and certification forums to find out exactly what employers are looking for regarding certifications. Recently I’ve started interacting with some active online communities too. And now, as a follow-up to Pluralsight’s most valuable certifications in 2013, I list my choices for the top five IT certifications to earn in 2015.

The main thing to keep in mind is that if your job requires certification on a specific tool or technology, or if gaining that certification will help your resume stand out, it's smart to invest time and money to achieve it. That said, many certifications in this post are dual entries; that is, a lower-level cert and its higher-level companion. In these cases, if you're not going to earn the senior credential, don't bother with the lead-in credential unless you have a very good reason for doing so. Here are my picks for the top five IT certifications, listed in descending order:

5. MCSA (Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate)/MCSE (Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert)

The MCSA is Microsoft's mid-level IT certification aimed at systems administrators who support Microsoft server and desktop computers, as well as SQL Server and Office 365. It's also required to earn the MCSE, an advanced-level certification that comes in several flavors: Server Infrastructure, Desktop Infrastructure, Private Cloud, Enterprise Devices and Apps, Data Platform, Business Intelligence, Messaging, Communication and SharePoint. Both certs are in fairly high demand, especially the MCSA: Server Infrastructure, MCSE: Server Infrastructure, MCSE: Private Cloud and MCSE: Messaging. An MCSE can expect a salary in the range of $50,000 to over $130,000, depending on their specialty and location.

4. CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate)/CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional)

Most data centers, which are the foundation of many public and private clouds, run wholly or in part with Cisco networking equipment. Earning Cisco certification nowadays is practically a given for networking professionals who want to validate their skills. The CCNA is a stepping-stone to the CCNP, which is Cisco's leading mid-level credential. The great thing about achieving the CCNP is that you can specialize in one or more areas of expertise: data center, routing and switching, security, service provider, service provider operations, voice or wireless. A typical salary range for a CCNP is $70,000 to over $150,000, depending on the organization and location.

3. CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional)

With the recent plethora of cybercrime and internal threats facing organizations, having security professionals on staff is commonplace. The CISSP is one of the most sought-after security certifications today, both by employers and employees alike, with qualified experts snagging salaries from $80,000 to over $160,000. The CISSP program is maintained by the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, or (ISC)2, which requires candidates to have at least five years of experience before attempting the certification exam. A CISSP is typically a decision maker who develops security policies and procedures, and guides others in implementing and following them to protect an organization's systems and information. This credential figures prominently in job listings and forum surveys, and should continue doing so well into the future.

2. VCP (VMware Certified Professional)/VCIX (VMware Certified Implementation Expert)

VMware is a leading provider of virtualization technology, mainly for data centers, and the VCP is VMware's professional-level certification. It serves as the prerequisite to the advanced-level VCIX as well as other VMware certs. Although the VCP is offered across multiple tracks, the VCP-DCV (Data Center Virtualization) credential is the most popular and is a fixture in most virtualization-related job listings. The high-level VCIX is a relative newcomer to the VMware program, replacing the VMware Certified Advanced Professional, or VCAP. The VCIX focuses on VMware NSX design, implementation and advanced administration techniques, and is the last step before the top-rung VMware design expert certs. IT professionals interested in virtualization and cloud technologies, and motivated to clear a huge raft of technical information, could do far worse than going after the VCIX.

1. PMP (Project Management Professional)

Project management is a soft skill that has played an important and sometimes pivotal role in all kinds of IT operations for years, shaping and forming projects from the start and seeing them through to completion. Understanding all that, you can't go wrong by earning a project management certification. One of the hottest certs in this category is the PMP from the Project Management Institute (PMI), which reports over 440,000 certified professionals. The PMP is a vendor-neutral credential that commands a salary from $80,000 to $160,000, and shows up in well over 10,000 job listings at a crack on most major job posting sites. If crunching large sets of numbers and managing huge amounts of loosely structured data is your dream job, you should consider pursuing a big data certification. Credential seekers say the CPA (Certified Analytics Professional) is definitely worth pursuing, as well as Stanford's Mining Massive Data Sets graduate certificate. Other good certs in this category include Microsoft's MCSE: Business Intelligence and IBM's Big Data Fundamentals. Also, check out our article on the top 10 hottest IT skills in 2013 for more ways to vamp up your resume, and be sure to browse the Pluralsight IT Certification 101 guide for a better understanding of certifications. And when you're ready to start prepping for your next certification, check out our post on self-study versus training to see which path is better for you.

Click here to access Ed's ultimate guide to preparing for tech certifications here

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Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year veteran of the IT industry who's worked as a software developer, a project manager, a networking consultant, and a technical trainer. He's also the author of more than 100 computing books, and is perhaps best known for creating the Exam Cram series in 1997. Today, Ed still writes the occasional book, blogs regularly for TechTarget (IT Career JumpStart and Windows Enterprise Desktop), Tom’s IT Pro, and PearsonITCertification, and writes articles for a variety of Web sites. Visit his Web site at edtittel.com for more information.