In this post I want to share my experience around achieving the Amazon Web Services Certified Cloud Practitioner and Certified Solutions Architect Associate qualifications.

(Photo by NESA by Makers)

Knowing how to design and operate workloads in the cloud is, needless to say, a set of key skills that is almost taken for granted for pretty much anyone working in the IT space today.

If we look briefly at the available cloud providers, as of Q4 2018 we have the following market breakdown:

Image and Data by Synergy Research Group

It is pretty clear that Amazon Web Services continues to be the market leader, with over one third of the global market share. Given this scenario, it makes sense for any IT professional to expand and validate their knowledge in this area.

There are a few substitutes to hands on experience. Even so, a certification - when structured correctly - can give an invaluable aid in firming up practical experience and validating intuitive understanding.

AWS Training and Certifications

Amazon Web Services offer a fairly broad range of training opportunities. For example:

  • The aws.training website, including paid classes as well as free online courses and materials
  • The AWS Global Summit program, a set of events in various cities around the world offering various (business & technical) talks, workshops, face time with AWS experts and networking opportunities
  • AWS Builders Day, a developer focused conference with themed tracks focusing on specific design topics
  • You can see the full list of available events

On top of that, there are plenty of user groups in cities around the world: they regularly feature speakers from AWS, or AWS users/customers willing to share what they achieved with the community: if you are based in the UK, have a look here - otherwise you can look up at the global list here.

To summarise, there are plenty of available opportunities to ramp up. Additionally, AWS offers a Free Tier , combining a set of "always free" resources (when within reasonable limits) with services that are offered for free for a period of 12 months for new AWS accounts.

If you are looking at instructor led courses, I personally recommend Acloud.guru which offers paid courses or a yearly membership option, providing unfettered access to all content for a reasonable monthly fee. Their courses are delivered remotely and there is a lively discussion forum to share your ideas with other developers and architects. Additionally, you also get access to training for other platforms such as Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform and Linux.

My path to certification

I have been experimenting with AWS for some time now, mainly on personal projects and PoCs / demos as well as in some past work projects. Having attended a few meetups and AWS events, I was intrigued enough, and seeking a more holistic view of the AWS offering. Although I felt I had a good generic understanding of the services and the general IT concepts underpinning them, I wanted to validate my knowledge and ensure that what I am doing is following best practices.

In particular, I got introduced to the Well-Architected Framework - which distils the collective experience, gathered by the AWS team over time and across client engagements, into a set of five pillars. These pillars represent critical aspects of a specific software architecture such as Reliability and Cost Optimisation. This resonates very well with my day to day job, as well as my computer engineering education. What best way to see how these concepts I'm already familiar with are put into practice by the undisputed market leader in the cloud services business?

As I know I can easily get sucked into different streams of "exploration" , I figured out that following a training course, and then pursuing the certifications would have aided me in adhering to a structure - enabling the definition of achievable milestones and the verification of my own progress against them.

Speaking of the AWS certifications, here is the landscape

See https://aws.amazon.com/certification/

I decided to set my sights initially on the Cloud Practitioner and Solutions Architect - Associate certifications.

The Cloud Practitioner was intended to calibrate myself and understand where my knowledge was when compared to the "entry level" bar set by AWS themselves. I do have plenty of experience in the industry and therefore my expectation was to clear that one out pretty quickly.

The exam covers generic AWS concepts at a fairly high level, and sets the scene for the more complex topics in the other certification tiers.

I saw the Solutions Architect - Associate as the first step getting into the 'depths' of the AWS platform. Having read some opinions online, it is recommended by most as the "go-to" starting point for a deeper understanding of how to design workloads on AWS successfully.

The exam itself is scenario based and in order to respond correctly it is required not only to know what the services do and what options / limitations / configurations are available but also have familiarity with the best practices that are illustrated in the Well-Architected framework, as well as in other key whitepapers covering other aspects in depth, such as Security.

In other words, it is definitely not sufficient (or required) to memorise a set of characteristics of the services, but rather achieve a good understanding of their purpose, as well as how to use them efficiently to build scalable, resilient architectures.

For the certifications, I have:

  • Followed the respective preparation courses on acloud.guru as well as the advice provided there.
  • Read the AWS FAQs for most of the key services that are part of the exam blueprints
  • Read the recommended AWS Whitepapers, as well as the Well-Architected framework whitepapers
  • I have also tried, where possible, to participate in the discussion boards. In my experience, the best way to validate your knowledge is to try to explain the concept to someone else. There is really no penalty if you get it wrong, because someone with more experience will correct you and improve your understanding in the process, which is your objective. If you explain it correctly, you will gain confidence which will aid during the exam, and you will have fixed that concept strongly into your brain - simply by reasoning on it and structuring your response. Again, the discussion boards on acloud.guru are great for that, otherwise there are plenty of other public forums on these subjects.
  • The other key action to cover is to actually spend some time to use the services, and especially these that for some reason or another you have never used before and are completely unfamiliar with. The AWS Free-Tier gives you plenty of room to play with most of the key services without actually spending money. If you are not within the Free-Tier anymore, experimenting will definitely not break the bank either, unless you leave expensive services running once you are done.
  • I also took plenty of written notes of all my learning activities. I know this works with me, I have to write down things to fix them in my grey matter. For some other people visual cheat-sheets, diagrams or vocal recordings may work better. Whatever suits your boat really.

I then booked my exams in advance. I gave myself one month for the Cloud Practitioner, and another month after that for the Solutions Architect Associate. You may want to adjust these timings based on your personal experience, available study and practice time and so on. Although it is possible to move the exam date without charges (if done with some advance notice), I have committed to these dates and decided not to change them unless for major unforeseen reasons. In this way, I was keeping myself accountable and motivated throughout my study process.

On the day, the exams went pretty smoothly. For both exams, make sure you flag questions that you are not 100% certain on, and move on to the next question. Your goal is to complete the exam questions, and leave plenty of time to go back to review the flagged questions (or ideally, review the entire exam again if you are fast). Spending too much time on one question will ultimately hamper down your pace and possibly demoralise you if you don't feel you are progressing. On the other side, a second look most of the times comes with a fresh insight (and without the worry of leaving questions unanswered). To be honest, if you work in a customer facing setting as I have done for so many years, you will be familiar with much higher levels of pressure!

And - it worked! I'm very happy to call myself a AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner and a AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate as of last Sunday, and for the next two years at least :-)

I'll probably look at the other two Associate level certifications at some point, but for now I think I will just enjoy the achievement for a little while.

Hope this helps!