Computer support specialists provide technical assistance and many forms of computer-related support, such as problem troubleshooting and installation of new hardware. The field is rapidly growing, due to the fact that nearly every company now uses computers in some capacity and needs specialists to support them. Specific support duties may include daily oversight of a firm's computer systems, responding to calls for assistance from the organization's computer users, repair of computer hardware and software, and training users in the use of newly-acquired computer programs. Some support specialists work directly for a computer hardware or software vendor. Others work for help-desk or support services firms, providing computer support to clients on a contract basis.
Education, Certification, Licensing
Training requirements for computer support specialist positions vary widely. Many positions require at least a bachelor's degree in computer science or a related field, although some may require only an associate's degree or merely a diploma/certificate coupled with some level of relevant experience. Companies which are flexible about degree requirements are usually insistent on a high level of certification and/or practical experience for support specialist positions.
Certifications are important for all who wish to work in this field and vital for those with lesser educational credentials. A variety of certifications exist at both general and product- or application-specific levels. The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) awards an industry-recognized vendor-neutral certification known as A+, which confirms proficiency in installation, configuration, diagnosing, preventive maintenance and basic networking. Candidates wishing to earn an A+ certification must pass an exam, for which there are numerous books and websites dedicated to test preparation. Vendors such as Microsoft and Cisco award their own certifications which establish proficiency in one or more of the vendor's products. Some of these certifications may be required for certain support jobs where these products are heavily used.
Computer certifications in general
Acquiring certification indicates that you have completed the steps and have the knowledge required to perform at a specified level as an IT professional. Certification also proves to your employer and clients that your expertise is confirmed by a recognized industry organization and can increase your salary, enhance your skills and make your job more satisfying. If nothing else, it can keep your resume from being rejected by the resume-scanning programs now used by every Human Resources department these days.
Why a Linux certification?
The number of job ads calling for some knowledge of Linux has risen by nearly 100% over the last year. On the other hand the number of applicants choosing Linux certification hasn't risen proportionally. Part of the reason for this anomaly is that employers generally haven't put much faith in Linux certifications and therefore there has been little demand for them. Also, many of the Linux jobs advertised are for more senior and technical roles such as programmers and developers - skills that far outweigh the level that are tested on some Linux certification tracks. All that appears to be changing however, with Linux becoming ever more mainstream and people with Linux skills becoming more in demand.
Will Linux certification really help?
While actual work experience with Linux or any computer technology will always count for so much more than any piece of paper, gaining Linux certification certainly won't do your credentials any harm. The demand for credentials in every field, computer-related or not, is increasing and one has to keep up with the pack. Having that certification ticket punched may not make your resume stand out in a positive way, but not having it might make it stand out in a negative one. Large bureaucratic IT organizations take them more seriously than groovy startups if that's the environment you're looking to work for. There are several specific situations where I've found computer certification in general to be of benefit. First, certification courses offer better knowledge retention than the typical corporate training course since you do have to study to pass an exam, even if only a multiple-choice one. Another one is where you have related experience and are moving (or were moved) into a new environment. In my case I was re-orged from a Unix-centric to a Windows-centric IT environment. Getting a Microsoft System Administrator certainly helped come review time. Finally, if you have a discrimination issue, such as the common one that as an older tech worker you're skills aren't up to date. If push comes to legal shove human relations people, lawyers, and judges do take evidence of continuing education very seriously.
Which Linux certification?
There are several options to choose from and, given the amount of time and money that you'll need to invest into gaining your Linux certification, you'll want to be sure that you make the right certification track choice to begin with. For those new to Linux then the entry-level, vendor-neutral certifications offered by CompTIA and LPI an appropriate choice. However, these involve only multiple-choice tests and as a result have rather less credibility with technical managers. If you are already working with Linux then one of the proprietary, more difficult, and more expensive Linux certifications (Red Hat, Novell) would be better suited. Like the respected Cisco certifications these certs involve rigorous hands-on practical exercises under severe time constraints and have much more credibility with technical managers. The cost is significant, especially if you have to retake the test, as almost 50% of Red Hat wannabes fail the first time around. Given that there are numerous distributions of Linux available one problem of Linux certifications is that there is no central organization that can set the certification standards and ensure that the candidates meet those standards. What this means is that you have quite a degree of freedom to choose which certification track is right for you, but you equally need to be sure that the one you choose will meet your end needs. As with any other certification track that you take, Linux certifications can be taken by way of instructor led courses or you can undertake a regime of self-study on your own. Don't get too bogged down on deciding which distribution is better or is more likely to result in a job at the end of the day. While there are obvious differences between the various Linux distributions a degree of competency in one flavour will set you up to transition to the others if need be at a later stage.
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