The IT Certifications You Need to Have in 2021

Posted by Doug Munro

Certifications remain big business and generate debate throughout the technical community. Like them or loathe them, they are a vital part of a successful career. They validate a body of knowledge, set a baseline of expected expertise to align with scope of work, and reflect a level of passion to remain relevant in a fluid technical landscape.

While the pandemic has changed the dynamic of business across every stovepipe, in the government contracting sector, the rules are only evolving. Federal procurements, including those in the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community (IC) arenas, call out specific Information Technology (IT) certifications as requirements for personnel. It is ingrained in the fabric of federal business. The type and diversity of the certifications reflects efforts on the part of the United States Government (USG) to modernize infrastructure and increase both the utility of its services and the security level of its enterprise systems.

Savvy professionals will help both their professional growth and earning potential by staying current on their technical certifications. There are too many skill stovepipes to offer a fully comprehensive list, but the following aligns with a number of core areas and trending requirements.

Getting Started

The complex world of IT makes it difficult and costly to certify in a wide range of disciplines. While a broad background of experience will always be noticed, specialized expertise is a necessity. For early-career candidates, A+, Network+, and Security+ certifications are solid foundations, but should be followed by higher-level certifications designed to develop as a Subject Matter Expert (SME).


Microsoft (MS) remains prevalent throughout the USG, but it is increasingly presumed that anyone supporting System Administration duties can support the MS applications; in the fluid IT realm, some of the most popular specializations are Cloud Platform and Infrastructure, Data Management and Analytics, Mobility, and Productivity Solutions Expert. With the rush to move to the Cloud across so many domains, the emphasis is on Cloud-Native environments, which can include: Microsoft Azure Administrator, Microsoft Azure Architect Technologies, Microsoft Azure Security Technologies, Developing Solutions for Microsoft Azure, Microsoft Azure DevOps Engineer, and Microsoft Azure Architect Design. This Cloud emphasis informs other valuable certifications, particularly in the Linux arena.


As Government systems continue to evolve, many, if not most, agencies are moving towards Linux as an Operating System (OS). Those who have skills and experience managing Linux environments will see higher salaries and greater opportunities than counterparts who are focused in MS systems. The Linux Foundation Certified System Administrator (LFCS) certification is a great start. As expertise in Linux naturally maps to Cloud Engineering, and because Red Hat is arguably the most popular flavor of Linux, next steps can include Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA), Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA), and Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE).

Software Engineering

Software Engineering certifications are not as commonly referenced in procurements, but can still add value. Java remains a key component to legacy systems, but for agile development exercises Javascript libraries are key, so potentially of more value. There are many available, but key elements include React.js and Node.js, to cover the full stack of the development tools. Backend databases will vary, but it’s wise to focus on the MERN stack – Mongo DB (though fundamental skills in SQL, PostGres, SQL Server are desired), Express, React, and Node. Referencing the Cloud-native aspect of current development, AWS Developer certifications create great value. Anything factoring in Security, such as the Certified Secure Software Lifecycle Professional (CSSLP) offered by ISC2, adds a powerful layer to any development career.

Network Engineering

In the Network Engineering realm, the mainstays are Juniper and Cisco, which has not significantly changed in years. The Juniper Networks Certification Program (JNCP) offers a number of specialized tracks, but the most notable and lucrative is likely the Juniper Networks Certified Enterprise Routing and Switching-Expert (JNCIE-ENT). By a narrow margin, Cisco certifications are called out in more procurements than Juniper, so the baseline Cisco certifications will continue to hold value: Cisco Certified Network Administrator (CCNA), Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA), and Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP). The pinnacle in the Cisco line is the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE). It’s difficult to achieve, but the depth of experience and knowledge it requires guarantees that those who possess it are truly experts in the field and will always be highly sought-after. Be aware as well that ITIL v4 certifications are becoming mandatory for network roles across the IC.

Cyber Security

Cyber security is a broad arena, encompassing engineering and compliance efforts that impact every corner of the USG. Some will typify engineering work as Information Security (InfoSec) and compliance work as Information Assurance (IA); by any name, this work is impacted by the daily bombardment of data breaches and zero-day exploits across enterprise systems, so budgets will only continue to grow. The much-documented “talent gap” in Cyber Security offers excellent opportunities for professional growth. From a certification perspective, the DoD was at the forefront of codifying requirements for InfoSec and IA efforts with DoD 8570 (procedurally being migrated to DoD 8140, still valid); it’s easy to find information on the specifics online and it’s mandatory information for anyone hoping to plan a thriving career in the space.

There are a broad range of GIAC certifications that hold value, but the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) designation is a solid start; it does not hold much sway among high-level practitioners, but it satisfies 8570 requirements on some programs and is relatively easy to achieve. Agencies across the DoD and IC are requiring higher percentages of staff to have either Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) – arguably the best overall InfoSec/IA certification – or Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) certifications, so anyone interested in the best roles in the InfoSec stovepipe will need one or the other. Be aware as well that FedRAMP, the compliance framework associated with commercial enterprises interacting with the ESG, will only continue to grow and any experience developed and Cloud-related certifications acquired, can only help your career in this arena.

Differentiators come along multiple tracks. The increased scope of ongoing data breaches has only increased the importance of robust penetration testing as a proactive security measure. Ethical hackers with either the GIAC (Global Information Assurance Certification) Penetration Tester (GPEN) or Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) will continue to see their value increase and the difficult-to-obtain Offensive Security Exploitation Expert (OSEE) will reflect true SME status. From an IA perspective, being Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC) and/or a Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) are notable value-adds. Tying Cloud and cyber security together in peak form is the Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP), brought to you by the same folks behind the CISSP. As well from (ISC)2, there is the Computer hacking forensic Investigator (CHFI) certification, which speaks to true capability to reverse engineer attacks to mitigate risks.

There are also some vendors who’ve made inroads in the government space, so certifications reflecting expertise with their product line are of increasing value. A Palo Alto Networks Certified Network Security Engineer (PCNSE) remains great evidence of the ability to leverage expert knowledge in deploying, configuring, and troubleshooting complex security implementations. Splunk has become the tool of choice across many USG customers, so certifications in their product are also strong value-adds. In ascending order, The Power User, Administrator, and Architect certifications all add value to a professional profile. The top of the line in the Splunk arena is the Splunk Certified Consultant.

Project Management

On the management track, the Project Management Professional (PMP) remains the gold standard. Customers in the Federal space call it out often in procurements. The requirements for ongoing education and experience make it labor-intensive to maintain, but the value is undeniable. CompTIA offers a Project+ certification; it’s a useful body of information, but doesn’t hold a candle to the PMP in terms of industry recognition. In a similar vein, the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) is a step on the PMP ladder. A relative newcomer is the CPMP: Certified Project Management Practitioner, offered by the EC-Council.

To an increasing degree, Information Technical Infrastructure Library (ITIL) v4 Foundation certifications and Six Sigma Green and Black Belts hold great value with federal customers. With the ever-increasing number of development projects based on Agile methodologies, the Certified Scrum Master (CSM) certification is also valuable on the management track, along with the PMI entry, the PMP Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP). Any additional Safe Agile certifications are of great value.

Cloud Computing

The USG is driving towards the Cloud in an ever-increasing fashion. While Amazon Web Services (AWS) remains the leader in the space, the Cloud wars will not wane. IBM, Google, and Microsoft continue to make inroads. To that end, Google offers two valuable Google Certified Professional certifications under the Cloud heading: Cloud Architect and Data Engineer. The AWS certifications cover a core of disciplines within the platform: Certified Developer-Associate, Certified SysOps Administrator-Associate, and Certified DevOps Engineer-Professional. These are all strong options, depending on background and experience. The real money-maker for AWS is the Certified Solutions Architect-Professional. Achieving the Associate level is a prerequisite for obtaining the Professional designation, but this certification is career gold for the holder.

On The Rise

Data Science is a rapidly-growing field. While the USG has not been quick to develop roles in the arena, that is changing constantly – the IC in particular has made great strides towards incorporating data-driven decisions. Among the many options include: Certified Analytics Professional (CAP), Cloudera Certified Associate (CCA) Data Analyst, Cloudera Certified Professional (CCP) Data Engineer, Data Science Council of America (DASCA), Senior Data Scientist (SDS), Data Science Council of America (DASCA) Principal Data Scientist (PDS), Dell EMC Data Science Track (EMCDS), Google Professional Data Engineer Certification, IBM Data Science Professional Certificate, Microsoft Certified: Azure AI Fundamentals, Microsoft Certified: Azure Data Scientist Associate, Open Certified Data Scientist (Open CDS), SAS Certified AI & Machine Learning Professional, SAS Certified Big Data Professional. All of these certifications can incorporate programming and analysis skills, but surely point to a more data-driven approach to all USG efforts.

Education and experience will always remain key foundations of a successful career, but certifications provide Federal customers with specific, codified validation of knowledge and expertise. It is imperative for the career-oriented professional to obtain and maintain pertinent certifications to achieve their loftiest professional goals.

Your Clearance

With regard to your clearance, it’s your job to stay on top of it. Consult your Facility Security Officer (FSO) regularly to be sure of what clearance you have and its current status. It’s a complex maze and you should be aware that clearances do not necessarily port easily from one program to another. Beyond that, you must be aware if you are read down to a lower clearance and how that may impact you. Don’t assume you’ll be made aware – while your clearance is attached to the program you’re working, it’s a valuable aspect to your career and you should be aware of it. Even if you’ve been “grandfathered” into a program, you should know that if you try to move and don’t have the necessary certifications, you may be denied. ClearedJobs.Net has great information on what you should know!

I do not pretend this is a comprehensive resource, but I hope it has been of some value. Good luck and thank for all you do in support of our great nation!

Doug Munro is working as a Senior Talent Acquisition Business Partner for Strider Technologies, a startup dedicated to protecting Intellectual Property, and The Ocado Group, leveraging Artificial Intelligence and Technology Expertise to impact multiple business arenas. I’m very happy to connect and speak with anyone on


This entry was posted on Monday, May 03, 2021 4:08 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of updates to this conversation