My take on the CompTIA A+ exam

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Recently, my work “strongly recommended” that I go back and get the CompTIA A+ certification. Interestingly, CompTIA uses a pyramid style of certification, where the higher certifications on the pyramid renew the lower certifications. Oddly, I have two certifications above the A+ lever, Network+ and Linux+, but having a higher certification, though it renews lower certifications, does not grant you the lower certs. So, having two levels above A+ did not grant me A+.

In another twist of irony, most companies that require a certification for a job request the highest level of needed certification, anything above and beyond is great, anything less is not needed. A great example of this is for my own work. They required me to have Linux+ to work on a specific system. So, I procured Linux+ and all was well. Until they then required Network+ to work on another particular system. So, despite a narrow deadline, I did some studying, and by God’s grace, I was able to pass the exam in such short order.

But, in both of the above scenarios, they did not require A+, Sec+, or any other certification. They picked the highest “required” certification for that position. Now, however, due to some changes in the company, it seems that they are requiring employees to “fill in” the underlying certifications to meet up with the highest certification that you hold. Not really a problem, since they are kind enough to pay for the certification exams if you pass, so it just means hitting the books and filling in some blanks in my certificate pathway.

But, enough rambling. Let’s get to the point of the post: my take on the CompTIA A+ exam. It is a two part exam, so I’ll break it down into two groups, the 220-901 and the 220-902.

220-901: This portion many refer to as “the hardware test”. This covers everything hardware, from printers to cables, to hard drives and ram. I’ll be honest, I was a little daunted by this portion of the exam, hearing horror stories about having to memorize the number of pins on a DDR2 RAM stick, and needing to regurgitate USB variant speed tables. So, I memorized all of that stuff. Guess how much of it was on the exam? None.

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that those questions can be asked on the test. However, none of the questions I had on the test were about that. Rather, I received questions like, “If you want to transfer files from computer A to computer B, what is the BEST/FASTEST way to do that?” Is it USB 3.0, FireWire, Set up a FTP server, or use 802.11ac?

The practical portions involved scenarios with “drawers” full of “parts” (hard drives, graphics cards, etc.) and “computers” that needed parts so they could be used for different purposes. In one question, one was required to be a CAD computer, and the other a media center, and you had to divvy out the parts you had to accomplish both needs.

I do take umbrage with these questions to some degree. Any question that includes BEST or FASTEST in the title are a bit ambiguous. For instance, in the file transfer example that I have here, really depends on the setup of your machines. If both machines have a 802.11ac wireless card, that may be fast, but if they are not on a network together, or depending on the operating system installed, ad-hoc networking may take a while to set up.

USB 3.0 may be swell, but are you using a thumb stick? Again, depending on the OS, you may have trouble with what file system you are using. Do you need to maintain permissions? If so, when transferring via exFAT/FAT32 thumb stick, you may loose the NTFS or EXT3/4 file permissions.

Just how many files are we transferring? File size may come into play as well.

However, I understood the intent of the question and picked the fastest connection for the least amount of user work. The test did not ask me any specific speed or pin numbers. The exam seemed to focus on general ideas and principles rather than the true nuts and bolts of hardware.

220-902: This test was a bit unusual to me personally. The 902 test appears to be the “Operating Systems” test. CompTIA is a “vendor neutral” company that has “vendor neutral” exams. Except that all of the questions on the exam I took were related to Window. Mac/Apple and Linux were part of the study material, but were not actually on the exam that I took. Wait, I take that back, I seem to recall that there was one Linux question on the 89 question exam. I do not recall any Mac/Apple questions at all.

I actually understand that the average technician is going to run into more Windows computers that Linux/Apple ones. I can’t help but wonder, though, if this test should be part of a different certification. Like Windows+. They have Linux+, so why not a Windows+ that covers all of these things? Ironically, having Linux+ renews the A+ (Windows+) so even CompTIA admits that Linux users have more skills that Windows ones. (Sorry, couldn’t help but point that out.)

For the most part, the exam itself was concerned with one subject: malware. In the exam that I took, it seemed as though 1/2 of the 89 question test was about Timmy, Rhonda, and Bob getting a virus, malware, trojan, or worm on their Windows computer, and you as a technician needed to pick the BEST course of action.

In most of these scenarios, several of the listed options would work, but they wanted the “best” one. So, the typical right answer was the safest option that kept as much of the end users data and saved the technicians time as much as possible. The rest of the test focused on boot loader issues and physical security, like man-traps.

Overall, the tests were not quite what I thought they would be. In general, I think that if you can answer the free online questions, like those at the examcompass, then you will probably be in good shape to pass this exam, even though that style of question did not appear on the exams that I took. The scores that I averaged at the examcompass.com more or less matched the scores I got during the real A+ exam.

Linux – keep it simple.

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