Vendor-neutral vs. vendor-specific certs: Which is right for you?
Posted on
February 18, 2015
Is a vendor-neutral cert the right choice for you?

I hold more than 25 computer-related industry certifications, and several of these are from CompTIA (the Computing Technology Industry Association). I especially value my CompTIA certifications because they are vendor neutral. What does that mean?

Margaret Rouse from TechTarget gives an excellent definition of vendor neutrality. She states that it is “a business and design approach that seeks to ensure broad compatibility and interchangeability of products and technologies. The model encompasses non-proprietary design principles and unbiased business practices.”

Vendor-neutral certifications, therefore, validate the candidate’s unbiased knowledge of technology principles. They also ensure that the candidate has a good grasp of using different types of equipment or software interchangeably to satisfy an employer’s needs.

To help explain vendor-neutral certifications, it may be easier to explain what they are not rather than what they are. Take a look at these two hypothetical exam questions:

Hypothetical question from the Cisco CCNA exam

Which of the following are true regarding passwords on a Cisco 2951 router?

  • All passwords can be encrypted
  • Passwords can be entered using the setup dialogue
  • A password must be set before a user can enter privileged mode
  • A password can be set for an individual line or port
  • TACACS or Radius password authentication can be used

Hypothetical question from the CompTIA Network+ exam

Which of the following are true regarding router passwords?

  • All passwords can be encrypted
  • Passwords can be entered using the setup dialogue
  • A password must be set before a user can enter admin mode
  • A password can be set for an individual line or port
  • TACACS or Radius password authentication can be used

The questions look similar, but CompTIA has removed any reference to the make and model of the router. You won’t see words such as “Cisco router” on a CompTIA exam, nor will you see descriptors such as HP printer, Dell computer, Lenovo laptop, Western Digital hard drive, Apple iPhone, or Microsoft Surface. On the rare occasion that a vendor is named, it will be intended as a distractor in the question. (A distractor is superfluous information within a question in order to distract the candidate from the facts needed to choose the correct answer.)

Most Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) for CompTIA know better than to use vendor-specific wording in the questions they write. If one slips through the writing phase of exam development, quality assurance personnel will catch it and kill it.

Vendor-neutral certifications attest to the candidate’s knowledge of the subject. Passing CompTIA’s Network+ certification means the candidate has a good grasp of the concepts of computer networking, but that candidate may have never touched a Cisco router. CompTIA’s A+ certification will validate the candidate’s skills supporting computer hardware and operating systems, but that candidate may have never applied a screwdriver to a Lenovo laptop.

Both vendor-neutral and vendor-specific certifications are valuable — valuable to whom is another question. One would expect a corporation running primarily Cisco equipment to require its Chief Technical Officer (CTO) to hold a Cisco certification. A similar corporation, however, that has only a few Cisco switches and many non-Cisco routers would probably value a job candidate with a firm understanding of networking, as opposed to a candidate who can show lightning speed at a Cisco CLI (command line interface).

Is a vendor-neutral cert the right choice for you?

Security is a popular area for vendor neutrality. Consider the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) from the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium ISC)², or EC Council’s Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH). These certifications attest to the candidate’s mastery of a wide variety of security topics. The popularity of vendor-neutral certifications has provided fertile ground for candidates who can prove their mastery of various subjects, claiming credentials such as:

Certified Web Professional (CWP) or Master CWP
CompTIA’s Certified Technical Trainer (CTT+)
Computer Hacking Forensic Investigator (CHFI)
Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) Forensic Analyst (GCFA)
Internet and Computing Core Certification (IC3)
Project Management Professional (PMP)

If you are new to the field of technology and looking for a job, you might consider obtaining a vendor-neutral certification so that your résumé is attractive to a broader range of employers. All other things being equal, if a computer hardware company is looking to fill an open position, it would probably hire the candidate with the A+ certification over the Cisco certified applicant.

If you are a seasoned professional and have spent years with servers in that run Microsoft Server, then a Microsoft certification in server management (such as the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert, or MCSE) would probably be more attractive to an employer that is running Microsoft Server 2012 than another candidate who is Server+ certified. Again, the employer determines whether a generalist or a specialist will be spending its IT support dollars.

Vendor-neutral or vendor-specific: If your goal is “to get a job,” then put your efforts into earning more vendor-neutral certifications. If your goal is “to get a job with XYZ Company,” then learn what platforms that company is running and get certified in those vendor-specific topics. Either way, your certification is valuable and sets you apart from non-certified applicants ... who only wish they were as well qualified.

About the Author

April Miller Cripliver holds a doctorate in Management Information Systems and has earned more than 25 computer certifications in networking, security, hardware and operating systems. She is a Subject Matter Expert for CompTIA and owns USER FRIENDLY CONNECTIONS, a computer consulting firm in northwest Indiana. Contact Dr. Cripliver at Info (at) UserFriendlyConnections (dot) com.

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