Whether you’re looking to start an IT career or take a new path along your existing one, certifications are a surefire way to gain the new skills employers desperately need.

But finding the right certifications can be tricky – especially if you are still early in your career.

Barry Silic, Head of Architecture and Product, at Australian tech company Macquarie Cloud Services, said the best port of call for beginners is to investigate programs from the tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

“If you’re just starting out in IT and don’t really know what you want to specialise in, it’s probably worth looking at the hyperscalers as a starting point – get across what they are doing,” he said.

“They have multiple solution areas with various levels of certs. You can complete all the entry level certs and get the breadth of experience, and then decide where to specialise.”

He said university degrees are no longer essential if you are looking for IT skills, but that they do have other benefits.

“The material covered through technical university coursework that you will need tends to be covered on the job,” he said.

“However, unis do teach you other skills such as problem-solving and self-management which is where the value comes in.”

Cloud computing

But if you’re not interested in university and you want to look at big tech companies, it’s hard to go past cloud certifications.

Professionals with these certifications are among the highest paid as cloud skills continue to be in high demand.

Before you jump into what these courses offer, Angela Logan-Bell, APAC Director of Strategic Partnerships and Alliances with Rackspace Technology, recommends a more foundational course.

“Understanding how to migrate virtual machines into private or public cloud is the foundation needed to contextualise which projects an IT team needs to run and manage when looking at the initial stages of taking the steps into cloud,” she said.

“This skill set can be obtained with the basic VMWare Certified DataCentre Virtualisation course.”

Logan-Bell then suggests the foundational cloud certifications from Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform (GCP), and Microsoft Azure which provide the basics and lead into specialisations.

“This is where it gets interesting,” Logan-Bell said. “From here we advise focusing on some hotly sought-after specialisations covering Data, DevOps, Security and Machine Learning.

“My tip is to start with DevOps and Data and to look to these courses: AWS DevOps Engineer Professional, AWS Database and Data Analytics Specialties, Azure DevOps Engineer and Azure Data Scientist and finally GCP Cloud Data Engineer Professional and GCP Cloud Dev Ops Engineer certs.

“These skills are in very high demand across numerous roles and industries, as customers look to modernise their cloud environments and move more workloads into cloud.”

In each case, the cost of a certification exam ranges from around $150 to $400 but you will need to spend time studying through the vendor’s catalogue of online courses – many of which are free – or else pay for an in-person training session.

Preparing for the exam will take time with vendors sometimes recommending years’ worth of experience before you attempt the more advanced courses.

Cyber security

As with cloud skills, expertise in cyber security is highly sought after as organisations continue to become digitised and expose themselves to cyber criminals looking to steal their data or lock their systems down with ransomware.

Naturally, there is no shortage of certifications for would-be cyber security professionals – in fact, it can be hard to know where to start.

Taka Murai, Solution Delivery and Projects Engineer at security firm Nozomi Networks, said there are “almost too many paths to take” when it comes to cyber certifications.

“For example, Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) is the gold standard certification for a penetration tester but this isn't as relevant for security compliance-related jobs, secure code reviewers, SOC analysts or cyber forensics,” he said.

“Good security personnel require understanding of the fundamentals of what they are trying to secure, so it would make sense for a network engineer to transition into a network security position or a security architectural position.

He recommends the likes of CompTIA Security+ and CREST certifications for people looking to get their foot in the door.

Jason Mantell, Director of Sales Engineering APAC, at US data management firm Cloudian offered some other cyber certification ideas if you are looking to get started in the field.

“There are some great courses including the EC-Council’s Certified Ethical Hacking (CEH) qualification, which has gained much traction but can be expensive for budding IT professionals,” he said.

“There are also a growing number of similar, more budget-friendly options such as the TCM Security Practical Network Penetration Tester (PNPT) exam, which can give a great understanding of a variety of cyber topics and help certify their skills.”

Professional certification

Vendor certifications aren’t the be-all and end-all for an IT professional.

ACS offers a set of certifications that complement those you would earn from a vendor and which help demonstrate to employers a certain level of professionalism and workplace competency.

Certified Technologist (CT) and Certified Professional (CP) are the core ACS certifications that are vendor neutral and look at your professional level based on the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

The two main levels of certification require a demonstration of deep IT knowledge, a commitment to the ACS codes and standards, as well as continued professional development to maintain certification, and branch off to certifications in cyber security and safety critical sytems.

It’s a more broad-based approach that, along with technical know-how, looks at business skills – such as interaction with suppliers and customers – as well as the soft skills that are always important for IT professionals.

Dilip Samji, a Senior Digital Forensic Specialist with Data Recovery Centre Australia, had his cyber security specialisation certified with ACS and said it helped him gain market recognition.

“ACS validates your skills based on professional experience and what you do in the field which is good because sometimes people have a lot of professional experience but might not have the specific certifications,” Samji said.

“Getting my cyber security CP with ACS helped the market recognise my competencies and showed my professional knowledge in the cyber security landscape.

“And because I was doing my masters in cyber security, it counted toward subject credits and meant I was able to finish that course sooner.

Find your passion

No matter which path you take, it’s worth remembering to follow a direction that fits with your own personal goals and passions.

Mike Featherstone, APAC Managing Director of technology training company Pluralsight, said this personal approach is invaluable when building your IT career.

“I suggest people take employability out of the mix and instead look at their existing soft skill sets and general interests when deciding what to study,” he said.

“For example, creative and artistic people often take well to product and user experience design, where analytical and structured thinkers excel in coding and development, and technical roles in sales or marketing appeal to ‘people-people’ who enjoy relationship building.”

Once you have found your niche, though, you will need to keep working to stay up-to-date in the industry.

“It’s important to remember that technology is in a constant state of innovation and change, as are the skills needed to uphold the industry,” Featherstone said.

“As such, continuous upskilling both within and outside of the chosen area of study is the key to career success.”

This article was written in consultation with topic area experts and is not a sponsored post or advertisement.