Every day, in his office in the library of Wenatchee Valley College in Wenatchee, Washington, Michael Williamson, information technology help desk manager, removes roadblocks for students who are trying to learn. Students who are locked out of their accounts, need their books or have any problem where the network comes into play, visit him for help. On the wall behind him those students see framed certificates representing the three CompTIA certifications he has earned. He gets a lot of questions about them. He is always excited to discuss what they are, and how valuable they can be for building a tech career. His own personal career trajectory is proof of it.
Until recently, Williamson’s only jobs had been in retail and retail management. After decades spent on the sales floor and behind the register, he was looking for something new.
“My main goal was to grow my income, because in retail it’s pretty limited unless you get past a certain point,” Williamson said. “I was trying to better [my] life. I wanted a little bit higher pay, and information technology (IT) does offer that, and a lot of growth opportunity. The sky’s the limit with it.”
For years, Williamson had been intimidated by the idea of changing careers. Finding CompTIA helped him push past those reservations, letting him revisit interests and build skills he started developing far back in his youth.
From Gaming to Retail to IT
In the early-1990s, you would often find Williamson hauling a bulky desktop computer tower to a friend’s house to play PC games. In those days, setting up a local area network (LAN) was essential to getting a multiplayer game of Doom or Command & Conquer going. A serious gamer had to know how to troubleshoot a video card, install RAM and do anything else necessary for computers and networks to perform correctly. Williamson built those skills, but it was the games, not the computers themselves, he was then focusing on.
Williamson graduated high school and, needing to pay his bills, tabled the idea of college and spent seven years working retail at EB Games, a precursor to GameStop. Following that he worked a broad array of retail jobs and, in 2018, began running the College Barnes & Noble at Wenatchee Valley College. That bookstore job, while still a retail management position, had him handling higher-level tasks like ordering and change management. The new circumstances got him thinking about new professional opportunities. Surrounded by learners, he wanted to learn and improve himself—to build his basic tech knowledge into career-ready skills.
In 2021, he enrolled at online school Western Governors University (WGU), to pursue a bachelor’s degree in information technology management remotely, at his own pace, while continuing to work. With CompTIA certifications built into WGU’s curriculum, every academic success would also be a step toward real career readiness.
CompTIA Certifications and a New Kind of Learning
Williamson started his certification journey with CompTIA Project+. As he began studying he realized that CompTIA certifications were going to be demanding. Preparing for his first exam, he stuck closely to the basic course study materials. On the first time through, the scope of the exam and the testing experience threw him, and he missed passing.
“It was a bummer, but it motivated me to study harder,” Williamson said. “Once I figured out what the tests were like, I changed my approached to studying.”
Williamson immersed himself in the material. He watched online videos, researched missed questions and took every practice test he could find. His new approach gave him such a command of the material that, after a certain point, he was spotting mistakes in some of the practice exams. He knew then, it was time to test again.
Williamson earned CompTIA Project+ certification the second time and, still working and enrolled in WGU, was already landing interviews for tech roles.
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CompTIA: Critical For Competence and Confidence
Williamson applied for a help desk role at a local managed services provider (MSP) called SimplePowerIT. During his interview his certifications—CompTIA Project+ and a few others earned in his courses—got him accolades. Williamson got the job.
Stepping into his first true tech role, he was faced with multiple administrative dashboards and endpoint response tools, and a whole new set of daily responsibilities. He was nervous. It felt different from anything he had done professionally—and a bit scary.
“What helped me was having the CompTIA certs,” Williamson said. “I had some knowledge going in. I knew that I could apply that knowledge and that I could study more while I was there.”
Relying on his CompTIA knowledge, building skills on the job, continuing to study for his degree and more certifications, he pushed through his nervousness. Within a month, he was feeling comfortable and confident.
Within a year Williamson saw another tech job opening he had to apply for—at Wenatchee Valley College. While he loved his job at SimplePowerIT, he wanted to return to the unique sense of community he had found at the school. Now with real-life IT experience and certifications, he was a shoo-in for the role.
Since 2023, while working at the college, Williamson has earned CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+. Alongside his growing professional success, he has developed a passion for helping those with similar professional backgrounds as his—showing them a tech career is possible.
“People don’t know it can be done,” Williamson said. “You can be working a retail job, stocking the shelves and you don’t know you can study CompTIA and get out of there.”
Showing Retail Veterans It Can Be Done
Today, on LinkedIn, Williamson can be found giving advice to retail workers interested in breaking into IT. He finds many with similar apprehensions that he had. Having been there, he gets it.
“It’s difficult to break out of retail,” Williamson said. “You’re really insecure about it. I’ve had all those same feelings. All you have is retail on your resume. You can give them your personal tech experience but when they ask you about what you’ve done at your job, it’s probably not going to be what they’re looking for. There is some nervousness there. That’s where CompTIA is key.”
On the wall behind his desk, Williamson has a place open for a fourth CompTIA certification, which he is now working to earn. While the CompTIA A+ tends to be the first certification people earn, the flexible WGU schedule allowed him to take it later—a move that he sees as letting him go in better prepared than had he started with it.
After he earns his bachelor’s degree, he plans to move onto a master’s from WGU. Career-wise, he has IT management in his sight, bringing together a lifetime of people skills from retail management and his ever-advancing tech acumen. Every certification he earns will be worthy of his wall of success and will help get him there. And for anyone else interested in making the leap from retail to IT, he is confident that CompTIA certification is the right way to start.
“There’s really only pros to you pursuing CompTIA,” Williamson said. “I think it’s more than worth the price for the study materials and the test.”
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Matthew Stern is a freelance writer based in Chicago who covers information technology and various other topics and industries.