IT Certifications 101: The Why, What and How of Certifications for IT

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Updated 1/16/2020

In a nutshell, here's how to get IT certifications:

  1. Choose the IT Certification that fits your goals
  2. Learn all you can about what your certification exam will test you on
  3. Find courses, classes, and other resources to teach you what you need
  4. Register and take your certification exam

Information technology is a highly dynamic and ever-changing field. As the industry evolves, new types or sets of certifications continue to crop up. Because of the sheer number of certifications, certification paths, specializations, and providers available, it is easy to be confused about where to start. Even if you already hold certifications, it can be difficult to know the next steps. 

Let Pluralsight walk you through the IT certification 101. In this easy-to-follow guide, you will get the answers to these often-asked questions:

  • Why should I get IT certified?

  • What are some of the more popular IT certifications?

  • Which IT certifications should I get first?

  • Which exams should I take first among the various IT certification paths?

  • How do I prepare for an IT certification exam?

Why Should I Get IT Certified?

There are a myriad of reasons why you should seek out IT certification in a number of related programs and skills, but three reasons are key:

  1. Credibility

  2. Marketability

  3. Professional and Personal Development


Having IT certifications are testaments to your skills and proficiency in a certain area. For example, becoming a VMware Certified Professional tells hiring managers, companies, and clients that you have the experience and skills needed to effectively create, design, manage, and maintain a cloud environment. 


There are certain certifications that are appropriate for wherever you are at in your career. For example, it may help new graduates land entry-level positions because it validates the skills learned in school and can help make up for having little on-the-job experience. Such beginner certifications are as follows:

However, no matter where you are in your IT career, certifications will almost always give you an edge over non-certified IT professionals. That’s because certifications show potential employers that you are committed to the IT field and looking to advance in your career. 

The plain truth is that IT certifications can help you earn a pay raise or promotion. Below are the top ten highest-paying IT certifications today:

  1. Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr)

  2. AWS Certified Solutions Architect

  3. Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)

  4. Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE)

  5. Certified Data Management Professional (CDMP)

  6. Project Management Professional (PMP)

  7. Cisco Certified Network Professional Wireless (CCNP Wireless)

  8. Oracle Certified Professional, Java

  9. Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

  10. AWS Certified DevOps Engineer - Professional

Lastly, certifications are required within certain sectors of IT. Consultants and self-employed professionals need to be certified so clients will trust them. Additionally, most government IT positions require certain certifications for you to be eligible for hire. 

Professional and Personal Development

IT is a very dynamic field, and new technologies are introduced every day. Certifications are important to ensure that you are on top of these developments and that your skills are updated. Certification training can help you cover new areas, while also reinforcing the skills you already have. Think of it as a refresher course that can help you identify and overcome your problem areas.

Certification can also help you network with other IT professionals. Your next job, project, or endorsement could very well come from someone you met at a study group or technical conference related to a certain certification exam. Through the process, you will meet other IT professionals who have similar interests and specialties as you. 

Heading down a certification path will also give you access to resources that would not be available otherwise. This includes access to online forums, training materials, and other learning resources that are provided by certification providers such as Microsoft and Cisco.

There’s also something to be said about the personal satisfaction that comes with acing an exam that validates your expertise. Go ahead, put your certificate on your wall and add those letters after your name!

What Are Some of the More Popular IT Certifications?

Some of the more popular IT certifications include:

  • Project Management Professional (PMP): This certification will validate your skills as a project manager and is admittedly one of the most difficult certification exams to pass because the requirements are quite stringent. You need thousands of hours of general leadership experience and months of project management experience. You also need 35 hours of formal project management education before you can take the exam. The PMP exam has 200 multiple-choice questions, and most of them are based on theoretical situations that force you to apply your knowledge to real-world scenarios.

  • VMware vSphereⓇ 6 Data Center Virtualization (VCP6-DCV): After already mastering the skills specific to vSphere 6 Foundations, it’s time to graduate to this certification. You will learn how to configure advanced policies and verify network virtualization implementation, how to consolidate physical workloads using VMware Converter, how to configure advanced virtual machine settings, and much more.

  • Microsoft Azure: This certification is designed for people who want to hone their skills and understanding of this cloud computing platform. Topics include Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Software as a Service (SaaS).

  • Cisco Certified Network Associate Security (CCNA): This tests on various skills that relate to designing, creating, deploying, installing, configuring, testing, and maintaining Cisco applications and security devices. You’ll also be evaluated on testing the different types of attacks and threats against networks designing effective policies on network security as well as implementing it, how to provide access to network devices, and Cisco products and technologies.

Which IT Certifications Should I Get First? 

The IT certifications you should get first can be based on these two things:

  1. What functions and work-related experience you have in your profession

  2. Where you want to go in your IT career

You will also want to decide whether to go for vendor-neutral or vendor-specific certifications. Vendor-specific certs cover specific tools and technologies that focus on a specific software platform. Vendor-neutral certs are intended for broad compatibility and interchangeability of technologies and tools. Choose vendor-specific if you are seeking to join a company that specializes in a specific vendor. Choose vendor-neutral if you are seeking a role with an organization that uses many different vendors’ tools and solutions. 

Cisco is an example of a vendor-specific certification and is a great place to start. You might want to start with the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and then do the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) before working your way to the advanced Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA)Cisco Certified Design Professional (CCDP), and expert Cisco certifications.

CompTIA is an example of a vendor-neutral certification. Most people start with the CompTIA A+ and then move on to the CompTIA Network+ certification.

Which Exams Should I Take First Among the Various IT Certification Paths?

The IT certification exams you should take first are determined by your certification path. You will need to research the various certifications available for that particular path, choose the ones that make most sense with your goals, and decide against the ones that you probably won’t need in the long run.  

For example, an IT security professional will want to first rack up the following certifications:

  • CCNA Security

  • MCiTP

  • MCSE

  • Security+ 

  • Network+

Once you’ve got those under your belt, you can start working on the following advanced exams:

  • Wireshark Certified Network Analyst

  • Certified Ethical Hacker

  • Certified Professional Penetration Tester

  • Offensive Security Certified Professional

How Do I Prepare for an IT Certification Exam? 

Follow these tips to prepare for an IT certification exam:

  1. Experiment with different preparation methods. You can get books, participate in an online forum, talk to people who have taken the same tests, go through a formal classroom review, and use web-based IT certification training
  2. Seek a study group. This is a great way to cover examination topics and battle the boredom that can come from studying alone. Chances are, there are colleagues in your office who are studying for the same exams. If not, you can probably find a study group online.
  3. Keep the time. Take note of how long it takes you to complete the practice test. Learn how to pace yourself so you can complete all the questions within the allotted time. Wait to take the test until you know you can finish on time.
  4. Take practice tests. They will help you tremendously because you will find out which areas you need to brush up on, as well as become more familiar with the actual test. You will be able to simulate what it will be like to answer the test with instructions, time limits, and other variables that are present during the actual test.
  5. Don’t use braindumps. These online cheats divulge the questions and answers to actual tests. While this sounds like an easy way to pass, it’s highly unethical and if you are caught, you will instantly fail the test. However, the deeper evil of braindumps is that you are earning credentials for something that you aren’t qualified to get. For example, how will a CCNA certification help you if you really don’t know anything about routing and switching? 
  6. Make sure you are prepared before you take the test. Don’t try to wing it. If you don’t feel ready, it’s best not to go through with it. When you are ready and feel confident, get a good night’s sleep the night before the exam so you can work hard to measure your real-world experience and test your problem-solving skills. 

As you can see, planning for an IT certification can be complex. Fortunately, Pluralsight offers many courses, resources, and assessments so you can aim high and succeed!

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Michael Gabriel Sumastre

Michael Gabriel Sumastre is a skilled technical blogger and writer with more than seven years of professional experience in Web content creation, SEO and research paper writing. He has written more than a thousand articles related to tech and gadgets, cloud computing, IT management, SEO, SEM and software solutions. He ghostwrites books / e-books and has a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science. Michael is also an expert in webmastering and loves to ride his sportsbike. He maintains his portfolio and personal blog at