Podcast: The New CompTIA A+

CompTIA A+ is designed to build problem solvers for today’s digital world, moving past traditional help desk activities to embrace a wide range of IT functions. In this podcast, Sears describes some of the changes that IT pros can expect to see on the new exam.

A man puts in ear buds to listen to a podcast On November 30, the CompTIA Volley podcast focused on the new version of CompTIA A+, scheduled for release in January 2019. Senior director, industry analysis, Carolyn April and senior director, technology analysis, Seth Robinson interviewed senior director, certification products, Teresa Sears, who oversees CompTIA A+.

CompTIA A+ is designed to build problem solvers for today’s digital world, moving past traditional help desk activities to embrace a wide range of IT functions. The updated entry-level IT certification will launch in January 2019, and in the podcast, Sears describes some of the changes that IT pros can expect to see.

Click below to listen to the podcast, or keep scrolling to read the transcript. 


CAROLYN: Hello, everybody. Welcome to the latest edition of Volley. I’m Carolyn April, and, as always, looking for my good friend, Seth Robinson. Seth? You out there

SETH: Hey! How are you?

CAROLYN: Doing pretty well. Cruising into the end of the week here. Had a nice Thanksgiving. Pretty uneventful. Peaceful. Kind of rested and rejuvenated. How about yourself?

SETH: I got through Thanksgiving. It wasn’t peaceful. It wasn’t horrible, but there were some family moments, so that got a little rocky. Yeah. Definitely getting toward the end of this week. I think this week is the hardest week of the year to work. For my money, nothing even comes close. You’ve come out of Thanksgiving. You wanna just get to the next break. And, it’s kind of tough to get things going.

Yeah. I agree with you. I’m sort of like, “Let’s call it, day after Thanksgiving ’til the end of the year.” But, I guess life doesn’t work that way.

SETH: No, unfortunately not. We should put it in the suggestion box, though. Just shut down the whole rest of the year. Actually, someone was telling me this week that their college break used to start at Thanksgiving, and they thought Northwestern did that, but...

CAROLYN: Well, Northwestern, since I did go there so I know, is on trimesters. So, the year is divided, actually, in four quarters, if you go to school in the summer. So, it’s very different than a two-semester academic year.

You have fall trimester, winter trimester and then a spring trimester. That screws up the whole calendar a bit. You start school later, like the beginning of the year, around the third week of September, is when school starts at Northwestern. Then, it goes later than a typical school. And, the breaks are different. It’s just a funky system.

SETH: Yeah. That’s how Georgia Tech used to be. Then, my last year there, they switched to regular semesters. Even then, we would kind of break for Thanksgiving, come back for two weeks, and then do finals and then have a break. It didn’t just start at Thanksgiving, and you had the whole rest of the year off.

CAROLYN: Yeah. No. Olivia just went back to UVM after Thanksgiving, and it’s two weeks of classes, then a week of finals. So, she’s back for three weeks before she comes home for winter break.

SETH: Oh, well.


SETH: Well, for this week on Volley, we wanted to talk a little bit about certifications. I’m sure a lot of people that listen to the podcast are aware that CompTIA makes the majority of its revenue through certifications for IT professionals. Certifications that measure skills and help an IT pro start a career or continue in their career and build themselves up.

SETH: Joining us today, we have Teresa Sears. She is the senior director of product development here at CompTIA. Teresa, thanks for joining us.

TERESA: Hi! Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

SETH: Our pleasure. We want to talk a little bit about the upcoming CompTIA A+, but before we get there, Teresa, I thought you could talk a little bit about what product development does because, like I said, a lot of people probably are familiar with the certs. Maybe we have people who hold our certifications, but they may not be aware of how we actually go about building them.

TERESA: Yeah. Sure. I’d be happy to talk about that. I think sometimes folks have this idea of how a certification exam is built and that maybe there’s a room full of CompTIA employees, squirreled away somewhere, coming up with exam items designed to trick you. That’s somewhat far from the truth.

The reality of it is, there are no CompTIA employees who are writing exam items for our certifications because all of our items, as well as the standard or the set of objectives, are actually developed by people who are doing the jobs that we certify, day in and day out.

At the very beginning of the process, I work with a group of people who are hiring managers, who work in jobs like technical support, like systems administration. I work with them, and other product managers on my team work with these groups, to really identify how trends and technologies are impacting these jobs. And, what that would mean for the certification. What that could mean.

We then take that input and we work, Seth and Carolyn, with your research team to collect additional data on how, again, technologies and technological trends are impacting job roles. All of that feeds into a job task analysis (JTA) process. That JTA process begins with a workshop. Which is, again, populated by subject matter experts who are working in these jobs.

That workshop runs for a week. The output of that is a set of objectives that is then taken to survey, to further validate it. That’s four or five different steps and checks along the way, just to establish the objectives. Just to establish the standard, the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to perform whatever job it is that we happen to be validating. In the case of CompTIA A+, it’s technical support and help desk type roles.

Once that has been fully vetted, it’s only then that we begin to develop items. Again, those items are developed by people performing the job. Now, CompTIA brings a wealth of expertise in how to write an item, how to assess the validity of an item, what makes a good item versus a bad item; but it is the subject matter expert (SME), the people who are doing the jobs, that are actually providing the content for the items, who are drafting the items initially.

I kind of like to say, in describing the development process, that it’s very much for industry, by industry. Because that is the only way that you can really develop a certification exam that’s both valid and reliable.

CAROLYN: Teresa, by item, you mean a question on the exam, itself?

TERESA: Yes. A question is an item. Those items might be a closed-response item, like a multiple-choice item, or kind of drag and drop; but it also might be something considerably more sophisticated, like a performance-based item that requires someone to actually perform the task, as they would if they were sitting at their desk.

CAROLYN: Okay. Yeah. That makes sense.

In terms of certification, in general, say you’re a person with a high level of technical acumen already. You’re a young person wanting to get into this market. You feel like you can teach yourself these skills on your own and you actually can. You’ve managed to become what would be a fairly competent skilled help desk technician or network support person.

What is the value or benefit of going ahead and getting a certification, like our A+, or something else ... versus being able to do something on your own? Obviously, there’s gotta be some value to that when you go into the marketplace.

TERESA: Sure. I think the main value add is being able to prove it. I think you could have someone like you just described, who has done a lot of their own learning. You could also have someone who maybe took a course at a community college. You could have a third person who has done some combination of maybe following along with an online tutorial that is more self-paced.

But, when an employer is looking at that, it doesn’t necessarily have all the information they need in order to determine whether or not the person who followed the more self-directed path has an equivalent set of skills to the person who went through a course.

What the certification does is it levels the playing field. It gives the employer something to look at that says, “Okay. I know that both of these people, they might have taken very different paths to get there, but all else being equal, they have the same set of skills needed for this job role.”

So, it’s really a tool for the employer to use to determine a skill set. To have some evidence of what that person knows.

SETH: It’s really a benefit for technical workers to be able to have that proof. We don’t work as much with software developers, and part of that is because there are so many languages out there and it’s a little difficult to construct the same type of certification portfolio for software that we currently have.

But, I know in that world, what tends to happen in the hiring process is projects are given. A candidate for a software programming position will have to produce a piece of code, typically that’s been created by the programming team at that company. So, a candidate for a software position is going from company to company to company, having to do multiple projects to try to prove their knowledge.

Here is something – the certification – that allows somebody to have something that they can bring. Obviously, the things that we’re asking them to prove aren’t as easy to turn into a project that a company could give, but it’s a huge benefit for technical workers and candidates for technical positions.

And, when you’re talking about the things that we’re trying to prove here, I think there is a distinct set of hard-core technical skills that we want to prove. But, more and more, we’re trying to prove that someone knows how to put those things together.

I think that’s what we’re seeing in the process that you described earlier. That’s what we see in the research, is that companies are looking for technical workers that understand large systems and they understand how things fit together. They’re not just fixing a laptop anymore and then returning it back to the employee and then fixing the next laptop. They are understanding how applications work across systems and solving problems that help keep the technology running at the company.

TERESA: Yeah. The problem-solving piece is really the key phrase there. Very few people are day in and day out fixing laptops. Laptops are generally being shipped back to the vendor when they don’t work. Yet, the technical support role and the number of job openings continue to grow and are projected to grow much faster than average over the next decade.

Why is that? It’s not because people are fixing laptops, but it’s because to your point, as these systems become more complex, the need to have someone who can problem solve issues that arise is key. That’s exactly what the CompTIA A+ certification validates. It’s that ability to problem solve within a technology context.

That’s why when you go through the CompTIA A+ objectives, for example, you’ll see so many objectives that begin with the phrase, “Given a scenario...” It’s because very few issues, or problems, are presented with a reason for them attached to it.

You don’t approach someone and say, “I can’t access the internet because my Wi-Fi is off.” It’s always just, “I can’t access the internet.” And it’s up to the tech support person to be able to refine the problem. To zero in on the cause of that problem. The cause...

Unfortunately, I think that’s true across most things ... the cause is never right there staring you in the face. You need to dig in to figure out what it is.

CAROLYN: I think that’s a good segue here because we do want to talk about the refresh of A+, which is CompTIA’s flagship certification. It’s been around for a quarter of a century, I guess, now 25 years.

We’re doing a refresh. It’s coming out in January, I think. Teresa, if you could talk to this. It sounds as though there’s a step up in sophistication, and it also addresses that need to be the problem solver, critical thinker, and taking into consideration IT in a more realistic way, as opposed to like what you just said... solving one problem with a laptop. It’s really more about what is going on with the entire environment.

TERESA: Right. And what’s going on with the organization and the needs that they have for the tech support role. To your point, some of those changes, and I think one that is top of mind a lot these days, is cybersecurity. That plays out pretty dramatically in the new version of A+.

While we’ve covered security in one way or another since, let’s see...my A+ history...it was in 2006 when the security domain was first introduced into the exam. It has grown in weight and importance on the certification exams because that’s a reflection of the job role.

In this most recent version, the core series that’s coming out in January, we see, just as an example in the 900 series, you had to understand and maybe recognize malware. But, in the core series, not only do you need to be able to recognize it, you need to be able to detect it and remove it.

That makes sense when you think about the tech support role, and both the broadening and deepening of the expertise needed in security is one fairly significant change coming up with the core series.

CAROLYN: One of the side effects of that, I’d imagine, is now that you have more empowered help desk and support people who are able to do not just the identifying, but being able to figure out how to fix it, especially in the area of cybersecurity, you’re freeing up some of your more senior, or higher-level, IT people to be working on bigger, strategic projects.

TERESA: Absolutely. I think it speaks a lot to the return on investment for something like an CompTIA A+ certification. When someone is at an earlier part of their career, when they are able to address these issues, they don’t get escalated and, exactly to your point, it leaves your more senior-level people the time and the resources to work on higher-level, more strategic projects that are business enablers and really impact the bottom line.

SETH: It’s great to hear how security is being emphasized at this even entry-level position for technology jobs.

What are some of the other changes? Because I think we know that the operations of technology and the things that people are doing, the models that they’re using, are changing drastically. Are some of those things impacting even this entry level, as well.

TERESA: Yes. One other area that is impacted and then reflected in the CompTIA A+ certification is cloud and virtualization. Looking even at supporting productivity software, whether you’re talking about G Suite or Office 365, those are [software as a service (SaaS)] applications.

If I’m a tech support person, I need some understanding of how I’m going to troubleshoot issues an end user might be experiencing with those types of applications. None of that is sitting on the client anymore. A CompTIA A+-certified professional needs that understanding.

We see that playing out in the core series as a domain dedicated to cloud and virtualization. Then, it also weaves its way into other objectives when you see the mention of different systems that are hosted in the cloud or just not necessarily on prem. That’s a pretty significant difference.

There’s attention paid to devices other than laptops and mobile phones, for example. There is discussion of IoT devices, protocols, networking protocols to support IoT.... It all ties back to an increase in the sophistication of these environments.

I think that was something that Carolyn mentioned earlier on. Just the change in the environment and the additional complexity of the environment is changing, broadening and deepening the skills required to support that environment.

CAROLYN: That’s what makes product development so much fun for you, right? It’s changing all the time.


CAROLYN: You think you’ve got it nailed down, and then you’ve gotta think about, “Oh, wait. Things are changing again.”

TERESA: Yes. It’s good job security, because the process is never done. As soon as this is launched, we will start looking at what the next version is going to look like and how things are continuing to change. So, yeah, it’s never done.

SETH: I think, we’ve kind of mentioned this a couple times, but the changes that you’re describing with security being more of a focus and with cloud being more of a focus, that shows, like you said, sort of a broadening and maybe deepening, but also kind of taking that job up a level.

So, we’ve got these changes that are happening in the technology environment, and that’s driving changes in the technology workforce that the entry level is now dealing with a more complex set of things. They have to touch each one of the areas in our IT framework that we’ve developed.

They’re also dealing with things like cloud computing and virtualization that might have previously been the domain of a server administrator or a network administrator. Obviously, they’re not building as deep skills there as those upper-level people would be, but they have to know a little bit about it. So, I think that that’s a good reflection of how the overall workforce is morphing here, as organizations are going through digital transformation.

TERESA: Yeah. I think you can’t just support one function of IT. You have to be able to support the entire enterprise, regardless of the function. I think one benefit of that, for someone in this type of role, is the avenues for career development that it opens up.

You might be working primarily to support a security operations center (SOC), and that could open up a pathway to a career in cybersecurity. You might be more focused on supporting the NOC, the network operations center. There’s pathways there, then, for something like network engineering, network administration and that type of role.

It goes on in other areas too. Maybe you’re supporting business applications. That could lead into a number of different possibilities in business analysis or even data analytics. Sure, not maybe a perfectly direct path, but it exposes you to those functions of IT that really can open up some career opportunities for people.

CAROLYN: That’s great. It’s been really good to hear about this. This has been a bit of an eye opener for me. Thank you, Teresa, so much for joining.

For our listeners out there who may be interested, what is the timetable for the new CompTIA A+, and what should they be looking for? Is there gonna be some marketing and messaging around it? Where can they plug in?

TERESA: The new CompTIA A+ launches in January of 2019. So, coming up in just about a month and a half now. And, there will be some continued messaging and promotion coming out, starting in the new year.

For those who might be listening who are alumni, who have earned their A+ at some point in time, we’re going to be launching a fun little tool that they can use to compare what their version looks like, compared to the newest version, if they wanna get a sense of how much it’s changed since they took it. Some fun things coming up in the very near future here.

SETH: In terms of training, getting ready for the exam, are there things that we’re providing that would help people do that?

TERESA: There are. Glad you mentioned that, Seth. As part of our launch of this version of A+, we are coming out with Official CompTIA Content, as well. We will have a suite of products available for those who are pursuing more of a self-paced type of learning experience. We also have Official CompTIA Content for instructor-led trainings, for those instructors out there who might be looking for some courseware to support courses that they are teaching to A+. A number of different options, opportunities, ways to prepare for the A+ certification exams.

CAROLYN: That’s just great. We’ll have to have you back next year, after you’ve got this rolled out just to get an update and see how things are going. Great having you, Teresa. Thank you so much for joining.

TERESA: Thank you!

SETH: Yeah. Thanks. Next week, we have our All Staff meeting here. So, Teresa, you’re here with me most of the time, but Carolyn, you get to come visit us.

CAROLYN: Yeah. I get to fly out. I love coming out there in the cold of winter. It’s so fun.

SETH: Throw back to your college days.

CAROLYN: Yeah. True that. But, no, I’m looking forward to seeing you guys. It’ll be fun.

SETH: All right. Well, thanks again, and we’ll talk to you both soon.

TERESA: Bye. Thank you! 

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