My students will often name two different cybersecurity or IT certifications and ask me which certification of the two that I recommend they earn first. Over the years I’ve seen people compare many different certifications, but no one has ever asked me about the CompTIA A+ and the Cisco CCNA, until this week.
So, which is better – the CompTIA A+ or Cisco CCNA? Aspiring IT professionals that want to get into the field quickly and are willing to work in a helpdesk or computer repair role will find the A+ better; professionals that are interested in network administrator and eventual cybersecurity work will find the CCNA better suited to their goals.
If you’re trying to decide between the CompTIA A+ and the Cisco CCNA as your first certification, read on, because in this article I’m going to give you five things to consider before you choose the certification for you.
Comparing the Relevance of the CCNA and A+
To start off, let’s begin by clarifying that both the CompTIA A+ and Cisco CCNA have long histories and have been around for several decades. There are plenty of people that hold both certifications, plenty of people that did hold both certifications and let them expire, and plenty of employers that recognize both certifications too. (See my full write up on the CompTIA A+ here.)
This is an important point because it is necessary to keep in mind that most hiring managers, employers, and IT supervisors have heard of both the A+ and CCNA, and generally know that the A+ means helpdesk, hardware, and software, and the CCNA means Cisco, which means networking.
Since they are so well known, having either on your resume is providing you with something that is recognizable and is associated with a particular part of the IT space. This really isn’t a situation of one certification helping you with employers more than the other.
Two Different Certifications Means Different Career Paths
One of the most important things to consider about these certifications, and which you should take first, is your end goal. While both certifications are well-recognized, they are well recognized for different things. You should take this into account when deciding which certification is for you.
The A+ is a helpdesk and computer repair based certification that focuses on troubleshooting, hardware, software, printers, and basic networking. Specifically, CompTIA (as the developer of the A+) states that the A+ is intended for positions like helpdesk technician, field service technician, and desktop support administrator. All of the positions that CompTIA lists as jobs that use the A+ are entry-level, and only one in their list even mentions a function of computer networking.
On the other hand, the Cisco CCNA is stated to be focused on networking technologies, security, and automation. (See my article about how the CCNA can get you a job here.) While the CCNA is only covering the associate level of these technologies, certainly they are positioning you for a higher job classification than the jobs that align to the A+, such as helpdesk technician.
Where you want to start and take your career should be a major deciding factor on which of these two certifications you choose to sit for. If you are set on being a network administrator, the CCNA should hold a lot of weight for you, however if you would like to begin your journey on an IT support team, then the A+ can be tremendously beneficial.
Which Will Get You Your First Job Faster?
Now that we’ve identified the jobs that these certifications are intended for, it’s worth me pointing out that from my experience, you often can find work related to helpdesk (and therefore the A+) faster than you can in networking (i.e. the CCNA).
I assume this is because there are simply more technician jobs than network admin jobs, but also because employers are more willing to provide access to an entry-level professional with no experience in a helpdesk environment (where the risks of mistakes are lower) than they are in a networking setting, which has a higher risk of affecting business operations. In fact, I’ve covered the reasons why the A+ can get you a job here.
Keep in mind that if you have no experience and the CCNA will be your first certification, your path into the field by going directly to a networking-related job may be more difficult and slower than if you took the A+ and helpdesk route. In many cases, some experience sooner is better than not building experience at all, even if it’s not exactly the area of cyber or IT that you’re ultimately interested in.
The CCNA and the A+ Have Similar Difficulty Levels
Having taken both exams and worked with many people that have taken these exams as well, it seems that both the CCNA and A+ are similarly difficult as entry-level IT exams. Both require adequate study and practice, just in different areas focusing on different exam objectives. To see my review about the difficulty level of the CCNA, go here.
Choosing either one of these certifications isn’t a situation of choosing an easier or harder exam, so most people will be better served to choose their exam based on the area of interest and career goals.
The CCNA Has a Shorter Timeline
The CCNA is one exam, however, the A+ still requires passing two exams. Both exams of the A+ cover a lot of content and are very dense with technical information. The CCNA also covers a wide variety of content, but it’s one exam format means that you are not required to answer as many questions in order to earn the CCNA as you would to earn the A+. See my article here about things to do before sitting for the CCNA.
Since the CCNA only has the one exam, most people starting with equal experience in both areas should be able to complete and earn the CCNA faster than the A+, which means becoming a certified professional sooner, having a certification on your resume sooner, and benefiting from the certification sooner too. (If you’re leaning toward the CCNA, see my tips for passing the CCNA.)
There are many factors to consider if you’re choosing between the CompTIA A+ and the Cisco CCNA for your first certification. One of the most important things to consider is your background knowledge, career goals, and timeline for entering into the IT or cyber field. If feasible, you could do as many others have done and complete both certifications, thereby leveraging the benefits of both.