I've never cared too much about certificates, apart from the SSL ones (haha). And yet I passed 7 AWS exams. Why? How to prepare? How to pass? How to pay only 50% for the exam? I answer all this and more in this post.
After passing both Professional-level exams, the DevOps Engineer and the Solutions Architect, I shared my thoughts on them on Twitter. People were interested, so this post extends those tweets with content universal for all AWS certificates.
AWS offers 12 certificates. They come in four categories, covering different areas of AWS and varying in difficulty.
The Foundational, Associate, and Professional-level certificates build learning paths for Architects and Engineers. They cover a broad spectrum of AWS services and solutions built on AWS. Specialty certificates focus on particular areas and go into much detail on services in scope.
If you are a "tech" person - don't take the Cloud Practitioner - Foundational exam. It is very abstract, requiring just a knowledge of what the cloud is, its advantages, concepts, and the purpose of core services. However, it may be a proper exam for Sales, Marketing, or Agile people from your organization, helping them understand the technology the Engineers are working with.
There is no required order for taking the exams. You don't need Associate certifications to pursue Professional ones.
Nonetheless, I suggest starting with the Associate level exam first. Which one? The one that matches your expertise and practical experience the most. The scope and expected knowledge for each exam is listed on the AWS Certification pages.
Only after obtaining one or two Associate certificates, I recommend going for the Professional or Specialty ones, which are considerably more difficult.
As you can see in the illustration above, the Foundational-level exam is the cheapest - it costs "only" 100 USD. The Associate-level exams cost 150 USD, and the Professional and Specialty - 300 USD.
However, you can pay only 50% of it! After you pass an exam, you get a voucher with a 50% discount for the next one. So, as long as you prepare well to pass it on the first try, you can pay half the price of all the exams after the first.
All certificates are valid for three years. Then, to keep it active, you must either re-take the exam or achieve a higher-level certification. The connection lines in the above illustration show which certificates prolong which. You can keep the Cloud Practitioner - Foundational certificate active by achieving any Associate-level certificate. The DevOps Engineer - Professional extends the validity of both the Developer and SysOps Administrator from the Associate level. And Solution Architect - Associate can be prolonged by passing the Solution Architect - Professional exam.
Why do certificates expire? Besides the obvious monetary reasons, AWS constantly adds new features and services. Exams are updated over time with refreshed questions to reflect it. After three years, there are always new, better, and more optimal ways to solve particular problems.
Everyone can have different reasons for getting certified. I will list mine.
Firstly, for me, getting certified is a great way to learn. The exam scope pushes me to learn about services and features I may not have used and dive deeper into the ones I know. And always at least part of this knowledge comes in handy in my daily work.
In my opinion, AWS exams are valuable for being close to real-life problems. So after preparing for it, you are left with practical learnings. And it's not something you can say about all technical certificates out there...
Secondly, getting certified is promoted by my employer, Merapar. The company is an Advanced Consulting Partner of AWS, and as such, it requires some number of active AWS certificates among the employees. Achieved certifications across the company are also proof of knowledge and expertise for our customers.
And finally, even though I discovered it after the fact, being AWS certified gives you access to AWS Certification Lounges at events like AWS re:Invent or AWS Summit. I was at the Summit in London this year, and there were good snacks in the Lounge, so totally worth it!
Another argument for getting certified is to boost your professional profile and CV, thus opening doors to interviews or promotions. So while it's not my most significant reason, it's certainly valid. And if you can get your current employer to pay for the learning and getting certified, which can considerably help you in case of looking for another company in the next three years - that's a great deal.
On each exam, you will encounter scenarios and services you don't deal with in your job. But that's because there are so many solutions you can deploy on AWS. To make the certification more tailored, it would need to be more granular, ending with not 12 but 50 different certificates.
There is probably no architect that, even across a few years, will work with all the scenarios you are tested against for the Solutions Architect - Professional certificate. Nor an engineer that will use all kinds of databases and accompanying services you need to know for the Database - Specialty exam. But that doesn't invalidate the usefulness of the scope that overlaps with your day-to-day work
I always rely on those three parts for learning for AWS Certificate exams:
- practical experience,
- certificate course,
- solving practice tests.
The first one, practical experience, is not to be underestimated. The more hands-on experience you have with the services you are questioned about, the better. While you can learn everything in theory and pass the exam, I strongly advise against it. Getting at least some experience in core services for the given certificate will make learning and taking the exam much easier.
Many times on the AWS exams, I got a question, wasn't sure about the answer right away, and figured it out based on similar work I did in the past. It's much easier to remember something you did hands-on than the information you only learned in the course.
That leads us to the next part - courses. I recommend Udemy courses by Stephane Maarek. While I'm generally not a fan of video courses, that's the best, most comprehensive way to go through the exam's scope and get the condensed knowledge I found.
But don't just watch. Active learning is much more effective!
Make notes. Draw mind maps. Whatever suits you. And above all - go to AWS Console and play with the services and concepts you learn. If you set up things on your own once or twice, you will be able to recall them much better on the exam and will know what options were possible and what not.
And finally - solving practice tests. It's a great learning technique - it forces your brain to work on problems and figure out the answer actively. It works even if you don't answer correctly but check the right solution with justification afterward. Also, it will prepare you for the type of questions on the exam.
Where from take the practice questions? For each certificate:
- there are 10 sample questions in PDF linked on the AWS certificate page,
- 20 more are in the "Official Practice Question Set" on the AWS Skill Builder, also linked on the certificate page in the resources section,
- few more are in the "Exam Readiness" training on the AWS Skill Builder,
- there are separate Udemy courses with just tests containing from 100 to 400 sample questions, again from Stephane Maarek,
- you can google for more sample questions for the individual exams.
It takes me 2-4 weeks to prepare for each exam. I schedule the exam shortly after I start learning for it - there is no better motivation than a deadline 🙃
Most AWS exam questions are scenario-based. Therefore, you need to know how to read and understand them to solve them.
My process is as follows:
- Read the question thoroughly.
- Identify key phrases, services, and requirements.
- Identify the objective in question.
- Scan through the answers and eliminate obviously incorrect ones.
- Reread the remaining answers, continue eliminating until only one is left, or choose the best from the rest.
The "objective" is often highlighted in the question, for example:
- "Which solution meets the requirements in the MOST cost-effective manner?"
- "Which combination of steps will meet these requirements with the LEAST change to the architecture?"
- "Which solution meets the requirements with the LOWEST overall latency?"
Multiple answers may present a technically correct solution to a given scenario but bring different pros and cons. Thus you need to consider them in terms of the identified objective.
Always choose some answer. There are no negative points. You can flag a question to go back to it later, but it's better to select an answer right away in case you don't have spare time at the end of the exam.
Let's try it! From Database - Specialty sample questions:
A company’s ecommerce application stores order transactions in an Amazon RDS for MySQL database. The database has run out of available storage and the application is currently unable to take orders.
Which action should a database specialist take to resolve the issue in the shortest amount of time?
A) Add more storage space to the DB instance using the ModifyDBInstance action.
B) Create a new DB instance with more storage space from the latest backup.
C) Change the DB instance status from STORAGE_FULL to AVAILABLE.
D) Configure a read replica with more storage space.
Key phrases and services: Amazon RDS; storage is full, so writes fail.
Objective: solve the issue with minimal downtime.
First scan through answers:
- C is incorrect. You can't just "tell the database it isn't full" and expect it to magically work without adding the storage space.
- D is incorrect. Read replica is for distributing reads from the database, while our problem is with writes.
That leaves us with A and B. Both are theoretically possible. But the objective is to minimize the downtime, and creating a new DB instance from the backup could take hours, depending on the database size. That means the B is incorrect too. So the answer is A - adding storage with ModifyDBInstance action is the only one left and sounds reasonable.
AWS exams also include multiple-response questions. The question always indicates how many answers you must choose.
There are two types of multiple-response questions. You are asked to select a combination of steps to achieve the solution or multiple alternative solutions. Check the wording of the question correctly.
However, in 90% of cases, you are asked to choose a combination of steps. Those questions often contain pairs of answers. For example, if you must select 3 answers from 6, there are usually 3 aspects of the question scenario and 2 answers for each. So identify the pairs and choose the best answer from each of them.
An example from the DevOps Engineer - Professional exam:
A devops engineer wants to implement a blue/green deployment process for an application on AWS and be able to gradually shift the traffic between the environments. The application runs on Amazon EC2 instances behind an Application Load Balancer. The instances run in an EC2 Auto Scaling group. Data is stored in an Amazon RDS Multi-AZ DB instance. External DNS is provided by Amazon Route 53.
Which combination of steps will implement the blue/green process? (Select THREE.)
A) Create a second Auto Scaling group behind the same Application Load Balancer.
B) Create a second Application Load Balancer and Auto Scaling group.
C) Create a second alias record in Route 53 pointing to the new environment and use a failover routing policy between the two records.
D) Create a second alias record in Route 53 pointing to the new environment and use a weighted routing policy between the two records.
E) Configure the new EC2 instances to use the same RDS database instance.
F) Configure the new EC2 instances to use the failover node of the RDS database instance.
Key phrases and services: EC2, Auto Scaling, Application Load Balancer, RDS, Route 53.
Objective: implement blue/green deployment.
We can see the pairs of answers:
- A and B refer to the architecture of Auto Scaling groups and Application Load Balancer,
- C and D are about setting up Route 53,
- E and F are about connecting EC2 to RDS.
Now we choose one answer from each pair:
- B - we need a second Application Load Balancer to direct the traffic to it from Route 53.
- D - failover routing is for Disaster Recovery, weighted routing will allow us to shift the traffic gradually.
- E - both environments (blue and green) need to work simultaneously on the same RDS instance, and the failover node is, again, for Disaster Recovery.
You register and take the exam through one of the testing companies, Pearson VUE or PSI. From January 1, 2023, only Pearson VUE.
You can take the exam at a local testing center or online. However, if you have a testing center nearby - go there. I took two exams online, and my experience was poor. First, you waste time installing testing software that monitors everything and often requires disabling any antivirus you have. Then you spend more time preparing your room and taking photos of it. And when you are finally ready to start, the software crashes. And then, for the next 30 minutes, you are trying to contact the support and make it work, stressing out about the technical issues on top of the exam itself. And it's not just my experience, but my colleagues as well. So, if you can, go to the local testing center.
Sadly, you won't get the results right after you finish the exam. You must wait up to 24 hours. Usually, the first thing you get is a notification from Credly about a new badge issued to you (if you passed) and, several hours later, an official email from AWS Training and Certification.
AWS offers certifications that prove your knowledge on several levels and in distinct areas.
Getting AWS Certified is a good way to deepen your AWS knowledge and prove that knowledge to your (current or future) employer and customers. But it does not replace the hands-on experience. Quite the contrary - it will be much easier to pass an exam having at least some practical experience in the area first.
It's best to start with an Associate-level certificate. Then continue with Specialty or Professional, depending on your area of expertise.
While those exams cost from $150 (Associate) to $300 (Professional and Specialty), after each exam you pass, you get a voucher with a 50% discount for the next one. The only trick to always paying 50% price (except for the first one) is not to fail an exam 😉
AWS exams are not trivial, so you must prepare accordingly. I recommend three learning methods in conjunction: getting practical experience in the area, going through a certificate course, and solving practice tests.
AWS exam questions are usually scenario-based, and you need to learn how to understand and solve them. This is one of the reasons why taking practice tests is so important.
And finally, you can take the exam at the local test center or online. If available, I recommend the first option as it's less stressful and, perversely, often less time-consuming.
PS. Do you have any tips and tricks for the AWS exams yourself? Please share in the comments!