This feature first appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
For many men and women of any age, information technology (IT) support (also called help desk support, service desk support, desktop support, and so forth) represents a valid way to “get your foot in the door” in the IT industry.
The conventional thinking is that once you obtain an entry-level position and gain practical industry experience, you are then free to specialize your career according to your aptitude, interests, and opportunities. We will begin our discussion by examining how the IT support professional job role is most often defined, and then consider the attributes you need to succeed in that role.
What is a technical support technician?
Modern businesses rely upon IT — period. Therefore, modern businesses need staff to help their employees solve IT-related issues as they arise. The technical support professional is, at base, a professional troubleshooter.
Common job tasks for the technical support representative include:
- Answering technical questions regarding the hardware and/or software supported by the organization.
- Interacting with public customers and/or private employees to troubleshoot and solve their technical issues.
- Recommending more efficient strategies for accomplishing work using information technology.
- Updating the company’s technical documentation, including its own IT support policies.
The term “technical support representative” or “help desk technician” or any of its variants denotes the variety of situations you may find yourself in. For example, you might work from your home providing telephone and remote desktop support to customers around the world.
You might work for an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and travel around the country or world to provide on-site installation and maintenance for customers.
You could also work on-premises at a service desk, providing both telephone, text chat, and in-person help to the organization’s employees.
Overall, flexibility, solid reasoning skills, and a strong degree of interpersonal communication finesse are the most important characteristics of a quality technical support professional.
I can’t overstate how important verbal and written communication skills are to this job role. If you cannot explain simple- to advanced-level technical procedures to a non-technical audience, then this is not the job role for you.
You may have technical skills unmatched by your peers, but if your customers are unable to understand you or feel you insult their intelligence, then you won’t last long in any technical support position.
Understand that technical support is not the only entry-level method to become a full-time IT professional. If your goal is to become a software developer, then you may feel that technical support is not a valid stepping stone. I would make the counterargument, however, that having “road miles” understanding customer issues with software will make you a better developer yourself.
Next, I’d like to introduce you to six IT support certifications I recommend for IT newcomers who want to start their careers in a support role. Four of the six titles are vendor-neutral, and that’s an important point.
As good as some vendor-specific certifications are (and I include two in this list), you need to remember that the vendor has an interest in those titles. Vendor-neutral certifications expose you to a broader range of industry technologies and situations, and thus may make you a more well-rounded professional.
In my experience, the CompTIA (pronounced comp-TEE-ah) A+ is the most popular entry-level IT certification, regardless of your desired target job role. The reasons are simple:
- CompTIA is a non-profit, vendor-neutral industry association, so the skills embraced by the certification are universal.
- The exam content pertains to basic computer hardware and software skills that every IT professional should have under his or her belt.
Details of the credential can be easily found online (comptia.org). To earn your A+ title, you need to pass two exams. One exam covers computer hardware, and the other exam addressed software support. Registration for the two exams costs north of $400 per attempt, so these are tests you should study for earnestly.
What I like the most about the A+ is that its preparation gives you a thorough grounding in computer hardware and software trends. CompTIA updates these exams approximately every three years, so you study what’s happening in the “real world” instead of mucking around with decades-old technology.
Most of my students go for the CompTIA Network+ title after they finish A+, because they understand that Ethernet networking and the TCP/IP protocol family is a daily part of almost every IT professional’s life.
It’s true that there is significant overlap between the two A+ exams and the single Network+ exam. I like to say that “A+ includes a good chunk of networking skills, and Network+ includes a good chunk of computer hardware and software skills.”
The Network+ costs approximately $300 per attempt, so again, these certifications require a significant monetary investment on top of your time and exam prep “elbow grease.”
While the CompTIA titles get “into the weeds” with computer hardware and software, the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL, pronounced EYE-till) Foundations credential concerns itself with IT service management. This is the business of the help desk, and the processes IT uses to standardize service and uphold its service-level agreements (SLAs).
If you work or want to work for a company whose IT department adopts ITIL standards, then you may be required to sit for the Foundations exam.
HDI-CSR Desktop Support
Like ITIL, the Help Desk Institute (HDI) concerns itself with IT service desk methodologies and best practices. That said, they offer three certification titles aimed at the technical support professional:
- HDI Desktop Support Technician: Focuses on desk-side hardware and software support.
- HDI Support Center Analyst: Focuses on entry-level problem-solving skills.
- HDI Technical Support Profession- al: Focuses on higher-level trouble shooting skills.
What’s cool about HDI is that they see ITIL as an informal partner, not as a competitor. Therefore, you will find strong alignment between HDI’s service desk principles and those of ITIL.
MCSA Windows 10
If you have interest and aptitude for the Microsoft product portfolio, then it may make sense for you to earn a Microsoft entry-level credential. The Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) is a high-profile, well-respected vendor title that certifies you in a particular Microsoft product.
For example, the MCSA in Windows 10 validates your abilities to install, configure, maintain, and troubleshoot the Windows client operating system. Microsoft has been in the certification game for a long time, and their certification family is large. Most Microsoft exams cost approximately $150, although Microsoft Learning offers discount promotions regularly.
Cisco CCNA Routing and Switching
Cisco is a market leader in the Ethernet routing and switching space. For prospective IT professionals already interested in Cisco technologies, the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) credential is often a requirement for related network support technician positions.
Although the CCNA focuses on proprietary Cisco hardware, studying for this exam gives you an excellent grasp on routing and switching concepts that are shared by any router or switch manufacturer.
Certification Study Strategy
Depending on the certification vendor, you may be required to take an authorized training class besides passing the relevant exam(s). Be sure to study the certification vendor’s website to familiarize yourself with all requirements.
- In my experience, you need to work on the following three tasks in equal measure to maximize your chance of passing your certification exams:
- Theoretical knowledge: Gain this through an instructor-led or computer-based training class, or by reading books and websites.
Practical application: You must have practical, hands-on experience to succeed on an IT certification exam. Set up a practice lab at your home if this is at all possible.
Exam drilling: Purchase a quality exam simulation for your chosen certification. Never rely on “brain dumps” (illegal transcriptions of actual exam content), because doing so can get you decertified by the exam vendor.
Something else to keep an eye on is exam expiration and recertification requirements. Because IT moves so quickly, certification vendors periodically update their exams and retire older exam versions. Once again, the key here is to study the certification vendor’s website so you know in advance how they handle your chosen certification’s lifecycle.