CompTIA exams

Back in 2007, I passed the CompTIA A+ exams. Since then, there have been a few changes to the way these exams work. Unfortunately, CompTIA haven’t done a very good job of explaining it all; it makes volume licensing seem clear and simple by comparison!

In brief, if you currently have the A+, Network+, or Security+ qualification, you should enroll in the CE program. The deadline for enrollment is 31st December, so there’s not much time left. (If this applies to anyone you know, please pass this info on to them.)

Basically, CompTIA have changed the 3 exams I mentioned: they used to be valid for life, but now they expire every 3 years. This is the same principle as Cisco exams, and it makes a certain amount of sense: if you learnt about networks back in the days of 10Base2 (BNC connectors) and you’ve never seen a Cat5 cable, you won’t really have the right skillset to work on a modern network. Apparently this change has happened because the CompTIA exams are now ISO 17024 certified.

The original plan was for this change to be retroactive, i.e. it would apply to people like me who already had the relevant qualifications. This was controversial, to say the least! If CompTIA want to change the rules for new candidates, that’s fair enough; people can go into it with their eyes open, and decide whether they want to pay the exam fee for something that’s going to evaporate. However, if they “sell” something on the basis that it’s valid for life, it’s unethical (and possibly illegal) to then revoke it later.

CompTIA responded to the backlash by clarifying the renewal policy. The new plan was that the 3 existing qualifications wouldn’t change: if you’ve got one of those, it’s valid for life, as before. However, those qualifications are no longer available to new candidates. Instead, they’ve been replaced by A+ce, Network+ce, and Security+ce, and these new qualifications have a 3 year expiry date. In this context, “CE” means “Continuing Education”.

You don’t necessarily have to repeat the same exams every 3 years. The idea is that you can get CEU points for various activities, and if you get enough points during the 3 year period then you can renew the qualification. That said, it’s all a bit vague as to which activities qualify, e.g. whether attending a particular conference is relevant. Also, looking at the work involved, you get a maximum of 20 CEUs for publishing a book; you get the same points for just resitting the A+ exam. I’ve never written a book, but I get the impression that it takes several months, so I’d much rather take the morning off work to do an exam. If you’re writing a book anyway then you can claim credit for it, but this isn’t a sufficient motive by itself.

Sticking with exams, you can get credit for doing higher exams; again, this is the same way that Cisco work. For instance, suppose that you’ve already passed A+ce and Network+ce. If you then resit the Network+ exam, that will renew both qualifications. Similarly, if you pass the Cisco CCNA exam, that will renew both of your CompTIA qualifications. There are full lists of approved certifications on the CompTIA website, and these lists get more restrictive as you go up, e.g. a Microsoft MCTS qualification will renew the A+ce but not the Network+ce. So, this is similar to the book issue: if you’re taking these other exams anyway (as I often do), you may as well take advantage of this to renew your other qualifications at the same time.

However, the other wrinkle in all this is cost. As well as paying for the exams, there’s now an annual fee. This increases depending on your level: $25/year for A+, or $49/year for Network+/Security+. If you have multiple qualifications, you only pay 1 annual fee (whichever is highest). Actually, though, “annual fee” is a bit of a misnomer. You don’t have to pay it every year, that’s just a suggested way to spread the cost. Really, it means that you need to pay the total fee every 3 years: you have to pay the money and get the CEUs in order to renew the qualification. So, they’re quite happy for you to wait until the end and then pay them 3 years’ fees all at once; this may be prudent, so that you can wait until you’ve actually got the CEU points (or decided that you want to renew the qualification). You could also pay it all in advance; I’ll come back to that.

Suppose that you just have the A+ce. As far as I can tell, it would be legitimate to ignore the annual fee, let the qualification lapse 3 years later, then immediately resit the exam as if you were a brand new candidate. You (or your employer) would still have to pay the same exam fee either way, but then you’d save $75 on annual fees. The only downside I can see is that you’d then have a brief period when you weren’t qualified; if it’s a requirement of your job to have this qualification then that might get awkward.

If you have multiple qualifications (and you want to keep them all), you’re basically stuck with the annual fee. For instance, suppose that you have A+ce and Network+ce. You would then pay 3 x $49/year in annual fees + $253 to retake the Network+ exam = $400 total. Alternately, if you let the qualifications lapse, you would then pay $178 for the A+ exam + $253 for the Network+ exam = $431. So, it would be more expensive that way.

If you’re looking at someone’s CV, you can get an idea of how recently they’ve taken the relevant exams. Since I have the “classic” (non-CE) version of the A+ exam, I must have taken it prior to 2011. So, that means that people with the old qualifications may want to get the CE version too. The obvious way to do that is to resit each exam under the new syllabus, as if you were a brand new candidate. However, there is an alternative.

Anyone who does the new exams will automatically be enrolled in the CE program. “Old people” aren’t, but you can opt in by following the link I gave at the top of this post. You then have to agree to their Code of Ethics Policy. I did that in April, so I have 3 years (until April 2015) to renew my A+. That enrollment is free of charge, so I recommend it to anyone with the old qualifications: the worst case scenario is that you waste 5 minutes and then 3 years later it’s as if you’d never done it at all.

The advantage comes if I take a higher CompTIA exam. In particular, I want to take their Network+ exam. (I was originally going to delay this blog post until after I’d done that, but I’m not going to fit that in before the end of December so I want to spread the word.) If I pass the Network+ exam, I will then get 2 new qualifications: A+ce and Network+ce. In other words, if I’m going to do the Network+ exam anyway then enrolling in the CE program will give me the A+ce qualification as a “freebie” and I won’t have to retake the A+ exams separately, which saves me time and money.

Ah, but is the A+ce really “free” if I have to pay the annual fees to get it?

Just to complicate things, I took a Microsoft exam in July: this gave me enough CEU points to convert my A+ into A+ce. (Technically it’s not a conversion because I’d still keep the existing qualification, but I can’t think of a better word for it.) So, once I downloaded the certificate from the Microsoft website, I then uploaded it to the CertMetrics website. (This was a document representing a paper certificate rather than a digital certificate from a CA.) The CertMetrics website said that someone from CompTIA would review this within 24 hours, although it actually took them 5 days. Anyway, my profile now says that I’ve earned the 20 CEUs that I needed, so I can get the A+ce without waiting for the Network+ exam.

This brings me back to the issue of fees, which is also related to timing. Ignoring the hypothetical Network+ exam, I had 2 options:
1) Wait until April 2015, then pay $75 in annual fees and get the A+ce. This would then be valid until April 2018.
2) Pay the $75 in advance, and get the A+ce right away. This would then be valid until July 2015.

With option 2, I’d have new annual fees due from 2012-2015, i.e. I’d effectively be paying twice for the same period of time. The advantage is that I’d get the new qualification right away, rather than waiting 3 years for it. Still, either way I’d have to pay at least $25 for 2012. You can’t pay $75 in a single transaction (it has to be done 1 year at a time), so I decided that I might as well get that out of the way while I pondered my choice. The website warned me that this was non-refundable, which I accepted.

Unfortunately, it now turns out that I probably wasted that money. I posted a question to the CompTIA forum, and they confirmed that if I pass the Network+ exam before April 2015 then I don’t have to pay any annual fees for my A+. I.e. I will “only” have to pay $253 for the Network+ exam, but I won’t have to pay the $75. Or in my case, I won’t have to pay the remaining $50 of annual fees, since that first $25 isn’t refundable. If I pass the Network+ exam, I will then get A+ce and Network+ce, both valid for 3 years from that date. I would then start owing the higher annual fees ($49/year), but if I pass Security+ after that then again they’ll waive the $147 in annual fees. All 3 qualifications (A+ce, Network+ce, Security+ce) would then be valid for 3 years after that. So, I only have to pay the annual CE fee if I stay at the same level or if I use CEUs from an external source (e.g. a Microsoft exam).

Ah well, that $25 is now a sunk cost, so it shouldn’t affect my decision. I’ve got all the CEUs that I need for the A+ce, so if I don’t get round to taking the Network+ exam by April 2015 then I’ll just pay the remaining $50. If I do take the Network+ exam (which I certainly intend to) then the CEU points from the Microsoft exam will be irrelevant and I won’t have to pay the $50.

Looking further ahead, I also want to take the Security+ exam. After that, I may move up to Cisco certification, so I’ll have to decide whether I want to keep paying $49/year for the rest of my career to keep the CompTIA qualifications active. I’m currently in a position where I can afford it, so it may be a justifiable investment, but if all goes according to plan with Network+ and Security+ then I can delay that decision for a few years.

So, coming back to what I said at the start, if you currently have a non-CE CompTIA qualification, and you’re planning to take a higher CompTIA exam within the next 3 years, you should definitely enroll in the CE program. It won’t cost you anything upfront, and you won’t have to pay any annual fees if you pass the higher exam, but you’ll get an extra qualification as a bonus. Either way, your current qualification is good for life. Thinking of Bullseye: “What you won earlier … that’s safe.”

In other news, CompTIA exams are now only available through Pearson Vue; the same applies to Cisco exams. By contrast, Microsoft exams are only available through Prometric. Lots of test centres are registered with both organisations, so this won’t really limit me, but I find the Pearson Vue website much easier to use.

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