CompTIA A+ certification in the Birmingham tech job market

I teach the Innovate Birmingham Generation Initiative CompTIA A+ boot camp. As part of taking on that role, I recently wrote and passed both of the CompTIA A+ exams.

Why the CompTIA A+ exam?

The A+ is an entry-level tech industry certification that verifies that you meet a certain level of knowledge about computing hardware, operating systems, peripherals, and networking. It has two parts; the 220-901, which focuses on hardware, and the 220-902, which focuses on operating systems, networking, security and the command line(s).

Aplus Logo Certified CE

See? I earned a thing!

If you have been working with Windows computers for while, have learned how to work at the command line, and have been working doing computing support, it will take you a week or so of study after work to prepare for each exam. If you’ve been using Windows (and a smart phone) but haven’t stepped into the back end or explored some of the finer points of the operating system, it will take you longer – but with persistence and focus, it’s completely doable.

Currently, in Alabama (especially in Birmingham), there are more jobs open where the certification is requested than there are people looking for work who hold it. Demand is expected to grow. Entry level positions are usually as a computer support specialist, with progression to system or network administrators, or to business analyst (usually other areas of education or knowledge) common. If you’re willing to put in the time and work (40 – 60 hours for someone with experience, up to 240 hours for someone new to tech), this certification opens doors. The CompTIA website has a career path roadmap PDF available for download. If you have other qualifications as well, it can be the start of a well-paid tech career.

If you are able to do so, I strongly suggest obtaining the certification prior to doing an undergraduate computer science or information systems degree. Being familiar with how the hardware works gives you a framework for why you are making some programming decisions for speed and ease of processing.  Not to mention, having the certification opens doors to better paying work to help pay for your computer science studies.

If you are considering doing a computer science masters, and are coming in from a different area of study or professional background, doing this certification (and getting introduced to the command line) will ease a sometimes stiff plunge into computing concepts.

Next steps after attaining the A+ certification include studying for the CompTIA  Network+, Security+ or Linux+ exams, or starting in (as you need them in your employed role) on the Cisco exams. Ideally, you’ll need them as part of your role at work – and your employer will pay for you to take them.

Local options

Self study

If you’re disciplined and are an exploratory learner, Mike Meyers’ text, the All-in-One CompTIA A+ Exam Guide, 9th Edition, is an excellent starting point. This the most comprehensive study guide on the market today. It’s 1200 pages, is written with a sense of humor (which helps when pounding through sometimes-dry material), includes a supplementary DVD, has links to summary review material and includes a link to his Total Tester practice exams (the exams model the look and feel of the actual exam fairly closely).

You’ll want access to some old computer towers, laptops, smartphones and ethernet cabling to explore while you study – getting your hands dirty is essential to really understand this material.

Supplement with Professor Messer’s online video series, drill with Mike’s Pop Quiz practice questions, and with Exam Compass practice questions, work through practice simulations (an important part of both exams) and then practice exam questions until you are scoring well over 85% on the test material, and you should be in a good position to pass the exams on the first attempt.

Online programs

I don’t know as much about the online options, as I led my class through preparation for the exams while studying myself. The CompTIA has an online CertMaster preparation program for individuals ($140 US) as well as site licensing for companies and organizations. If looking at this option, I would expect to spend a fair amount of time studying on my own. has some preparatory material, but I don’t consider it comprehensive. It’s a decent supplement to what I’ve detailed in my self-study notes.

Jefferson State Community College

Instructor-led 21-week computer technician class, in a well-equipped lab. A mix of classroom instruction and hands-on work. $1695 plus any additional community college fees.

Lawson State Community College

Instructor-led computer technician class, in a well-equipped lab. A mix of classroom instruction and hands-on work. Details on the program to come as the college catalog isn’t easily searched.

New Horizons Computer Learning Centers

The local CompTIA A+ offerings are in the form of a one-week 40-hour session. Schedule behind the link. Cost: $2750 US.

Generation Initiative IT boot camp

This is the program I teach. Part of the Innovate Birmingham initiative to grow the regional tech workforce faster, this Generation Initiative 12-week full-time boot camp for young adults ages 17-29 takes attendees from zero to IT help desk hero. We also polish their customer service skills and professional presentation. During the boot camp, students learn about computing hardware, components laptops, smartphones, introductory networking, security, are introduced to the administrative aspects of the Windows Vista, 7, 8 and 8.1 operation systems, as well as being taught how to deal with sometimes difficult clients and customers. As I write this, we’ve just finished our first boot camp and are recruiting for the second and third ones this year.

Building a project portfolio – how to get started

In many cities with a tech scene there is a need for programmers and developers who aren’t necessarily computer science (CS) majors. CS is great for understanding the structures underlying programming, how software interacts with hardware, and the mathematics behind compression, encryption, algorithms graphics and topology. Their skills and understanding are needed to build computing and programming structures and frameworks, for working out effective storage techniques, telecommunication methods, encryption and for a lot of security work.  You will always need these specialists. And, if you want to be a CEO of major tech company, the groundwork is vital.

But for the rest of us, a mix of our existing skillsets in combination with either a bootcamp or self-study with tutorials are the most effective ways to start a programming career. Our power is crossover knowledge. We’re going to be working in teams to build and implement using existing tools – and being able to learn quickly, effectively and put existing pieces together to solve people’s problems is the best way we can contribute.

Continue reading

How to break into Birmingham’s tech industry

On Monday, September 12th, Women Who Code Birmingham held its Programming & Tech Career Development panel at UAB’s iLab at the Innovation Depot.

Twenty-seven women (and a few men) came out to learn what technical and software development employers are looking for in the Birmingham area, what to expect in a technical interview and how to ensure success starting a career after graduation from university, or when transitioning into the field from another career.

Continue reading

How to organize a newbie-friendly hackathon

A few weeks back, I attended my first hackathon as an effective coder.  I was helped in this, in part, by the hackathon organizational style used by Women Who their first hackathon in 2016.  I liked it so much that I’m making notes as to what worked so that we can use it in Birmingham.

Continue reading

My experience at the Women Who Code hackathon



I attended my first hackathon a few weeks ago.* It was organized by the Atlanta, Tampa and Greenville networks of Women Who Code, a nonprofit focused on helping women advance their careers in the software and tech industries.

It was awesome. For the first time, I wasn’t terrified of not knowing something, of being found inadequate, or of not being able to contribute to a team. As a mid-life career changer, I’m still a relative noob when it comes to programming. The Women Who Code hackathon organizers did several things to help myself (and many others!) get past our fears and do good work at our first hackathon.

  • They organized a pre-hackathon orientation session Friday afternoon, in which they ran through what to expect, team roles and how our final products and pitches would be scored. Knowing what to expect helped me settle in and focus on how I could help my team and not worry about hitting ill-defined performance targets.
  • They had mentors (subject matter and programming language experts) available throughout the hackathon, to help teams get past knowledge sticking points.
  • Food – we were NOT going to starve. There was lots of non-carb food, coffee, and caffeine, all necessary for sustained work.
  • Finally, everyone presented. Didn’t matter how big or small the final application was – you talked about it.

Continue reading

Atari Inc.: Business is Fun

Atari Inc.: Business Is FunAtari Inc.: Business Is Fun by Curt Vendel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summarizes the conditions under which Atari games were first developed – and launched an industry. Not as tightly edited as some books out there (was self-published), but has historical details not available elsewhere. If you want to understand the roots of today’s game industry, is an essential read.

View all my reviews

How to pick a first programming language infographic

Parking some links for a session I’m doing at the Women Who Code Birmingham network tonight.

One of the big questions I had when I first started programming was…. how to pick a first programming language. No student or prof would – or could – give me a straight answer as to what languages were the most useful for different applications.

Recently, I stumbled across Carl Cheo’s great flow chart on picking a first programming language based on what you need to do. I hope you find this useful and informative as I do – it’s something that I wish had been available when I first started dabbling in programming.

The other question newbies often ask is “what exactly do programmers do?” Carl Cheo has a second great infographic that answers that question.

The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley

The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon ValleyThe Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley by Leslie Berlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tells the story both of Robert Noyce’s life, and the start of the semiconductor industry. I learned that Robert Noyce’s personal management philosophy of giving people the tools they needed and then getting out of the way – and its success at Intel is what set the pattern of Silicon Valley companies and large portions of the American tech and software sectors in general.

Good read – and important if you want to understand the roots of this industry.

Infographic tools & application – getting started

I volunteer as a Photoshop tutor at Woodlawn High School. One of the student projects is to develop an infographic. This blog entry is for those students, to explain the purpose of an infographic, how to design a good one and the tools that are available.

In the graphic arts, as in many other areas of life, engineering and design, automation makes the design and construction of things easier and faster. The artist or technician who can produce the tool they need is valuable to many potential employers – or customers. This requires, in addition to training in the visual arts and design, a good knowledge of coding, applicable programming languages and some understanding of current computing hardware.

An infographic is a visual image, such as a chart or diagram, used to represent information or data. The website, Customer Magnetism * has an infographic about infographics (and a case study to back up their claims).

What is an Infographic?
Created by Customer Magnetism.

Good infographics engage readers and make difficult concepts easy to understand. They require planning, research, and attention to colour composition, design flow, and determination of what is important on the page.

Before you start designing, you need to spend a little time organizing your information. Shift Learning has a great post detailing the steps required. They are:

  1. Gather your information. Find research sources, look for conclusions by different research teams doing different studies, make sure that you are giving your readers good, valid information that they can use. Your credibility rests on using credible sources that you have verified.
  2. Visualize the data. Who are you telling this story to? Who is your audience and what do they need to learn?
  3. Outline. Sketch out the story to be told in a rough draft.
  4. Wireframe. Sketch out, on paper or electronically, what needs to be illustrated.
  5. Design and refine. Now you start the hard work. Work out your layout, work out your color palette, choose appropriate fonts for your subject matter and audience, seek feedback and then refine again.

Another article that details the steps required to create a great infographic (read the piece – it explains the points listed below):

  1. Let the data tell its story.
  2. Determine purpose and audience.
  3. Construct an engaging narrative.
  4. Make the complex understandable.
  5. Focus on the structure first.
  6. Wireframe, explore and iterate. In the bad old days, this was called “sketching” – a quick minimal drawing to work out your ideas.
  7. Select the right tool for the job.
  8. Choose the right visual approach.
  9. Distribution and PR.
  10. Treat infographics as moral acts.

This list is a little longer than the first one – but it emphasizes similar points. The key concept that I think is important to remember, is that your job is to make complex subject matter understandable.

How Design’s tips  has additional tips regarding creating great infographics.

When infographics were first being produced, most were created in Photoshop or Illustrator – or their open source equivalents, Gimp and Inkscape.  The best ones still are. (Tips to create that work from DezineGuide )

However, there are times when you need something quickly, and perhaps your Photoshop skills are still kinda basic. In that case, check out these tools, as recommended by Levin Mejia at the Creative Bloq:

In addition, I turned up some tools that will convert .CSV (comma separated values) data, a format used for most open source and government data, into charts and graphs without needing to use Excel or other proprietary software. These are:

I consider these quick and dirty tools – they’ll give you good enough results for many circumstances, but should be used with care so that they support your message (and story), not detract from it.
Other tool options include open source (free to use, once installed) office suites such as LibreOffice, NeoOffice, and OpenOffice.

I hope that this quick reference list helps you to create your next great infographic.

*ScanWP reports that the website is built with WordPress. Another one of my obsessions. But I digress.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late

Where Wizards Stay Up LateWhere Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Decent history of how the initial Internet protocols and infrastructure were developed. If you want to understand how the underlying structure of what we use today was developed, read this book!

« Older posts

© 2017

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑