Completing the Trifecta of CompTIA Certifications: From Accidental IT Pro to Secure Infrastructure Specialist

by Jim Hamilton | Dec 19, 2018

Jim Hamilton sits at his computer desk with his CompTIA Security+ study guideI’ve always had a love for computers, writing my first program on a Sinclair ZX81 in Basic, and graduating quickly to a Commodore 64. Despite this, my career path would lead me in a different direction. After earning a Bachelor of Science in psychology, followed by an MBA specializing in international management, it seemed my days working with computers were coming to an end. Little did I know that would change.

Fresh out of school and ready to hit the workforce in the early ’90s, my first job was working with a mainframe COBOL-based telecoms billing system. Though I loved the technical part of my job, my background meant I was on a management track leading teams of developers rather than writing code.

As the tech revolution kicked in, my career path took me from one management role to another through a variety of high-tech companies. At one point I found myself as an IT manager for a rapidly growing telecom optical startup. I had to learn quickly about networking, security and systems management for highly specialized research and development (R&D) environments. While my focus was largely managerial, my love for tech took me into the details, learning from a team of highly specialized IT pros.

Over the next 20 years, I would hold numerous jobs managing complex IT environments, customer support functions, sales and marketing teams, and ultimately, business operations for tech companies.

My First CompTIA Cert

After landing at CompTIA, following the successful sale of a business unit I managed, I was reintroduced to the tech certifications that my colleagues from many years ago held: CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+. Since my role was focused on industry and not skills certifications, I did not give them much thought other than, “It would be interesting to see if I could pass one of those exams.”

Once I settled into my new role, I got my first CompTIA certification: CompTIA Certified Technical Trainer+ (CTT+). As someone who speaks in the industry on a regular basis, I thought this would be a good certification to get. I was immediately challenged by the material and the high standard for passing the course. With reassurance and persistence, I passed both the performance-based and knowledge-based exams. I was hooked and ready to try something even more challenging.

Building an IT Foundation with CompTIA Certifications

CompTIA A+ comprises two exams, and despite lots of confidence that I would easily pass the exam with a brief refresher, I was quickly challenged by the deep understanding required of computing hardware and the vast array of software used to harness it. After a lengthy preparation period, I wrote both exams.

Proctored, high-stakes exams are very stressful. The clock starts counting, and you have minimal time to answer each question. In addition to multiple-choice questions, simulations challenge you to apply and demonstrate competency. When you finish the exam, you are left with adrenaline pumping and an uneasy feeling of uncertainty on how you did. I let out an audible sigh of relief both times when I learned that I passed the exams. I was now CompTIA A+ certified and ready for an even bigger challenge.

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CompTIA Network+ follows up on the core skills covered by CompTIA A+ with a more technical exam. This material was tough, challenging me to know the open systems interconnection (OSI) model in detail, build out all types of networks, and work at a binary and hexadecimal level, among many other things.

After extensive preparation with CompTIA CertMaster, I thought I was ready for the exam. I reviewed the first 10 questions and my heart sank not knowing the answer to many of them. I started to sweat.

As I worked through the questions and simulations, a voice in the back of my head kept saying, “You don’t know this. You’re going to fail.”

I pressed on, leveraging what I did know to rule out incorrect answers and moving quickly through questions where I did know the answer. I completed the exam with seconds to spare, not having any time to review. I was certain I had failed. Feeling dejected, I completed the demographic questions at the end.

When I saw that I had a passing grade, I laughed out loud for a minute from stress relief. The exam proctor looked at me wondering what was wrong with me. Challenged and succeeding, I was now CompTIA Network+ certified, and boy had I earned it.

Completing the CompTIA Trifecta

CompTIA Security+ was the latest step in my journey. I had experience with IT security throughout my career but largely relied on security experts to support my efforts. After being humbled with my experience with CompTIA Network+, I buckled down.

Combining CompTIA CertMaster Learn for Security+ with published study prep materials, I dove into a deep well of cybersecurity. Cryptographic functions – hashing, symmetric and asymmetric encryption, and KPI became my nighttime reading material.

After another intense experience writing my exam, I was thrilled to see that I had passed. When I left the room, I was shaking so badly that the proctor asked me, “Are you alright?”

“That was intense,” was my only reply.

After now earning CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+, I am proud to say that I am a CompTIA Secure Infrastructure Specialist (one of CompTIA’s stackable certifications) and no longer an accidental IT pro. Including CTT+, I now hold four industry-leading technical IT certifications.

Coming from a career where I had to learn on the go, I am now equipped with a much deeper understanding of the tech that powers our businesses and our lives. Are you an accidental IT pro? Perhaps you are like me and have dabbled with tech all of your life but never took steps to prove what you know. If so, I encourage you to take a step to becoming an IT pro by taking your first exam. You won’t regret it, and who knows where it will lead.

Start your certification journey off on the right foot with CompTIA CertMaster – now a suite of online training tools that take you from learning to exam prep and beyond.

Jim Hamilton is CompTIA Vice President, Member Communities, and lives in Ottawa, Canada.

8 Comments

  • Angel Pineiro

    Friday, December 21, 2018

    Thanks for sharing your story, Jim. Impressive and inspirational

  • Monique Little

    Thursday, December 27, 2018

    Thanks so much for sharing your journey! I'm currently a CompTIA IT Operations Specialist and studying for my Security+. You were spot on with the description of nerves and anxiety you feel even after completing and passing the exams. I went into my Network+ exam not feeling prepared (I knew I had slacked off on my exam prep); so like you, I was pleasantly surprised when I passed. Looking forward to completing the trifecta to become a Secure Infrastructure Specialist!

  • Mark

    Thursday, December 27, 2018

    Jim, reading your experience taking the Network+ exam was like a case of deja vu. I had the same exact experience. The exam kicked me in the butt, and I thought I was going to fail. I even had to guess on the last couple of questions because I ran out of time. Somehow miraculously, I passed, and I just started laughing hysterically. I was so stressed out from the experience, but relieved that I passed, and just couldn't keep in my emotions. It was a great feeling!

  • Felipe

    Thursday, December 27, 2018

    This is the ideal situation for someone with Jim’s professional background in management and academics perfectly timed with the onset of desktop then onto mobile moving into cybersecurity. Unlike Jim my college degrees were in social sciences meaning I had to figure how to transition into anything technology so I started off as a computer teacher but anticipating I might be laid-off in 2003 I took and passed the COMPTIA A+ certification coming on the heels of a recession in Southern California. The confidence gained by passing the A+ became my ticket into onsite technical support since I was called for consumer concerns about securing their computer I studied and passed in 2006 the COMPTIA Security+ yet I still pondered securing traditional employment. The knowledge and valuable experience earned by passing two COMPTIA exams opened more doors than my college degrees.

  • Marcos

    Monday, January 7, 2019

    Thank you for share us your experiencies in CompTIA exams. I had A+ and Network+, and want to take the exam for Security+.

  • Ean

    Monday, January 14, 2019

    This is exactly what I've been going though the last 17 years. I got my A+ in May 2017, my Network+ in April 2018 (my Network+ testing was exactly the same as the authors, right down to completing the test with seconds left.), and I am going to be attempting Security+ tomorrow. On top of it all, I am 1 year away of cementing my IT career with a Bachelor in Information Technology. Thanks for this inspiring article.

  • Brock

    Friday, January 25, 2019

    I too am an "accidental IT pro". In my middle-school years, I was sat down in front of a Commadore PET (32K of RAM, 5.25" floppys, no hard drive!). I learned BASIC on it and fell in love with computers. I was always good with them - I owned an Apple //e, a AT PC (286 processor), etc...all through high school and college I dabbled in computers - mostly gaming and BBSes (pre-Internet days for communication/file sharing on PCs). I graduated college with a degree in Business Administration and a concentration in Finance. I thought for sure I was headed to Wall Street until I couldn't find a job. This was the mid-90s. A friend of mine offered for me to come visit him in another city since I did not have a job...I accepted - my whole life changed. I went to work with him one day and his manager said they were dying for people with a college degree who knew *something* about computers. Given that I was a hobbiest for many years at that point, he hired me on the spot. My first job was putting RAM chips into custom computers for a Value Added Reseller (VAR) in 1996. Fast forward to today. I have many certifications and an advanced degree. I have been a specialist in cybersecurity before it was fashionable - been doing security now for over 12 years and have spent almost 25 years in IT. My certifications include: CISSP (2007), ITIL (2006), CySA+ (2018), CCNA CyberOps (2018)...and along the way I received a Masters degree in Information Security (2008). I currently work for a very well known global brand in the credit card processing industry (our motto is "Everywhere you want to be") as a Senior Cybersecurity Engineer building secure authentication networks. You can do this - if you're consistent and study. I am currently studying for the CompTIA Linux+ exam. Good luck to my fellow IT workers - this is one of the best jobs of our age and time on this planet!

  • Alex Smith

    Wednesday, February 27, 2019

    This is a feel good story right and can relate to this story. I'm going to be taking my Network+ test and I'm studying hard for it hoping to pass and also will be going for my Security+ afterwards.

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