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Although I’ve been supporting Macs since they came out in 1984 (when I was in high school), I haven’t received any “formal” training. It has mostly been learning by doing, reading the occasional book and now of course, TheAppleBlog. Does formal certification really make a difference as a technician? You tell me.
Recently I got into an argument with a vendor that somehow thought a technician who first started repairing Macs sixth months ago trumped my 25 years experience. Did certification make this person a better technician? Having done quite a bit of hiring myself, I’ve too often found that certification only verifies your ability to take a test and may not have bearing in the real world.
Now that the market has changed and everyone seems to be competing for scarce resources, perhaps a certification would be an additional edge? What’s the business strategy for independent Mac technicians wanting more? The answer took a lot of research — even Apple wasn’t able to answer my questions — so learn from my journey.
Credit goes to both Brian Best of BestMacs and Doug Hanley of MacTEK Training, because without them I wouldn’t understand the alphabet soup of ACSP, ACMT, ACTC, ACSA, AASP, ACN and more. Didn’t we all become Mac users to avoid mysterious terms? As many of you know, the ease of the Apple user interface is equalled only by the frustration of trying to understand Apple’s certifications programs. Figuring out this path was much harder than any video game I’ve ever played, but a “game” may be the best metaphor to describe the process.
You begin the “game” as a general Mac user. The three worlds you’ll generally see in the game are IT, Pro Apps, and Sales. As an IT person maybe you have skills, maybe you don’t. Nothing stops you from simply repairing Macs on your own, unless you do things that specifically void the warranty and you get caught doing so. You do not need permission per se from Apple to work on Macs. Many folks are happy at this level collecting coins one by one, but you can’t proceed any further unless you get a certification — the key that unlocks the next level in the game.
The first certification most go for is Apple Certified Support Professional (ACSP) which used to be known as an Apple Certified Help Desk Specialist (ACHDS). This certifies your ability to understand the operating system and is earned based on the OS version. Therefore, you are an Apple Certified Support Professional in 10.5 (or soon 10.6). Each OS requires certification, but your certification does not expire. Therefore, if you are a ACHDS in 10.3, you can call yourself certified without understanding 10.5 at all. Your can take the test without training (many do), self-study via materials from Peachpit, or attend an instructor-lead course at an Apple Authorized Training Center (AATC). MacTek is one of those centers. You’ll take the test at a Prometric testing center and pay around $200. The test takes about 90 minutes or so and you get the results immediately.
Apple Consultants Network
While certification is the means, the end you may be reaching for is the ability to join the Apple Consultants Network (ACN). Joining the ACN requires any Apple certification, such as the ACSP discussed above, or any number of other certifications (described below, though one source says not all certifications are valid, so beware). Keeping with the video game analogy, the ACN is like an entire new area of the video game you want to explore, but the boss that must be defeated first is Apple, and your weapon is a certification!
After getting a certification you can then apply to join the ACN. The application fee is $60 and the actual fee to join is $395 as a sole proprietor. The full requirements are here. You’ll get lots of benefits such as product discounts as well as the ability to network with other Macintosh consultants. As an ACN, Apple store employees may hand out your card to customers in the store. Now your business can really expand as every Apple store customer is a potential customer for you.
ACN membership is great and many stay at this level of the “game” using the ACN membership as a multiplier for their income. However, you still can’t do hardware repairs under warranty nor order Apple parts. As with the video game, you’re stuck at this level unless you explore further and try to defeat the next boss. Apple always controls the rules. Accept it as part of the game. Fail to accept it and you’ll get slapped back to the beginning of the game quicker than you can click the home button.
Server Administration Certification
From this point, you have a couple directions you can go. You can focus on repair and service, or you can focus on server or advanced software administration (many folks will do both). I will discuss the server administration certifications and the hardware services certifications. You can think of each of these as two separate worlds in the game. You can choose one or the other, or explore them both.
The first level server administration certification is another 4-letter acronym: ACTC: Apple Certified Technical Coordinator. In addition to passing the test for ACSP, you’ll face the Server Essentials test. This extends your workstation abilities to servers. An even higher level of certification within the server realm is an ACSA — Apple Certified Systems Administrator. For the ACSA, you’ll need to pass four tests: Server Essentials, Directory Services, Deployment, and Mobility and Security for 10.6 (or Advanced System Administration for 10.5).
Apple also offers the ACMA (Apple Certified Media Administrator) which includes Server Essentials, Xsan, Final Cut Server and as an option, Support Essentials, Deployment, Directory Services, or Final Cut Level 1. Other certifications are not necessarily IT related and are software-focused. That’s a realm I’m not exploring as we chose the IT track at the beginning of the game.
Hardware Repair Certification
Moving on from server administration to actual Apple hardware repair, the primary certification you will earn is the Apple Certified Macintosh Technician (ACMT), formerly the Apple Certified Portable Technician (ACPT) and Apple Certified Desktop Technician (ACDT). This certification means you are theoretically qualified to do warranty repairs on Apple Macintosh equipment. The skills required for ACMT are those of hardware repair and software troubleshooting. You don’t need an ACSP to be an ACMT, but many people earn both. The educational process for hardware repair is more intense and it’s less likely you’ll pass the test without some training. At this level, you can also go to an AATC and pay about $4,800 for both the hardware and software aspects of the course, or your can purchase self-study materials from Apple called “Apple Care Technician Training” for $299.
Apple Authorized Service Provider
Similar to how passing the ACSP allows you to join the Apple Consultants Network, passing the ACMT allows you to enter the realm of an Apple Authorized Service Provider (AASP). You may not automatically become one though, and only AASP’s get reimbursement from Apple for warranty work. However, being an ACMT is very helpful if you want to get a job as an AASP. You may also apply to do warranty repairs for your larger organization of over 50 Macs via the Self-Service program. If you want to advance to being able to do warranty repairs for anyone, you’ll face that same boss again, Apple. Note that becoming an ACMT will not necessarily earn you any more money than an ACSA or ACTC. Facing the next boss may be too expensive and too restricting, but if you do want the next level, read on.
Getting to that AASP level is really the final level of the game. You’ll need to have an ACMT on staff and follow stricter requirements than joining the Apple Consultants Network. Generally you’ll need a real store front and not be a one-person operation. Apple grants exceptions (doesn’t every game have cheat codes?), but don’t count on it. Once you have your AASP you can be listed with Apple as a service provider and get reimbursed for warranty repairs.
So I’ve loaded the game and pressed Start. Is certification worth it? What about ACN or AASP? Which training should I go for? Is instructor lead training worth it? Any training vendors willing to sponsor me? What about the self-study programs? Share with me your experiences in the game and let’s develop a definitive guide including “cheat codes.”
ACN (Apple Consultants Network)
What it is: Network on Apple professionals, receives discounts and assistance from Apple, and can be referred from Apple retail stores.
Requirements: Any certification.
AASP (Apple Authorized Service Provider)
What is it: Business that is permitted to do Apple warranty repairs for reimbursement and order parts from Apple.
Requirements: Have an Apple Certified Macintosh Technician on staff, among other requirements.
Apple Certified Support Professional: Basic understanding of the client Mac operating system and troubleshooting.
Apple Certified Technical Coordinator: Deeper understanding of the Mac OS, including the Mac OS X Server and Server Essentials.
Apple Certified Systems Administrator: Even greater technical understanding of the Mac OS X Server, including passing tests on Server Essentials, Directory Services, Deployment, and Mobility and Security.
Apple Certified Media Administrator: This is a sister track of the “Apple Certified Systems Administrator” with a focus on the needs of media management, and includes training in XSan or Final Cut.
Apple Certified Macintosh Technician: You can do Apple hardware repairs, both in and out of warranty. Required to start (or get a job with) an Apple Authorized Service Provider, or self-service your large organization.