In this post, I will provide you with the steps which helped me attain a number of AWS certifications. Lets get started...
Step #1: Prepare yourself
Simply - AWS certification is not easy. If it was, everyone would be certified and if everyone was certified, it would lose its appeal. But - it is not rocket science either. From my experience, you have to be consistent and put in the time. Don't despair - its weeks, not months. The amount of material to cover may seem daunting. Again, don't give up - there is a ton of material/resources out there (covered below) to help you. There will be many lows before you reach the high of seeing "Passed" on your exam. You will be beaten down many times - prepare to come back...
Step #2: Videos alone are not going to cut it
I was lucky enough to attend re:invent last year. Given the transit time of 17 hours, my plan was to go through the downloaded videos of a popular online AWS course, write the exam and come back certified. After opening the sample AWS practice exam in Vegas, I soon discovered that I would have more luck on the casino floor. Again - think about it - if all it took to get certified was to watch 20-odd hours of videos, everyone would be certified.
However, the online courses are an essential part of the journey. I recommend some excellent courses below. The authors of these courses know the exam and based on feedback from users, tailor and curate the course content to help you achieve certification. Buy at least one of the online courses below and try to get through as much of the video content as you can. What worked for me was playing at 1.25x to 1.5x the speed.
I have also found that sites like Udemy have fantastic deals every few weeks. I bought these online courses for less than R200. My recommendations:
Stefane Maarek - has a number of awesome AWS courses on Udemy
acloud.guru - Quite a popular online resource. Thanks to an understanding employer and an Exec who's fond of breaking new territory, I traded in a 3-day classroom training for a 365-day (annual) acloud subscription - which was also 75% cheaper.
WhizLabs - I was super impressed with the personalised service they offer. After sending a website enquiry for a single course, I was contacted by a Customer Support representative who offered me all AWS courses for a great price. Although I had an acloud subscription, it was such a bargain, I bought it.
Step #3: Practice exams are key to your success
Probably the most important ingredient for certification are practice exams. These exams will give you a sense for i) the real type of questions you are likely to see, ii) the time it takes to get through 65 questions and iii) your readiness to write the exam.
After going through the online material, I scored abysmally on my first practice exam.
What stunned me the most was that I was not even close to the pass mark of 72%.
As mentioned above, be prepared for this - those scores will gradually inch up. There might even be occasions when you score lower - don't beat yourself up. Stay with it. With that being said, make sure your scores are getting closer to the target. My recommendations for practice exams:
Jon Bonso's practice exams on Udemy - this purchase is not optional;
WhizLabs practice exams - again, not optional
When you make these purchases, remind yourself that you're investing in developing yourself. Certification will hopefully set you apart from the rest.
What worked for me was writing a practice exam under "exam conditions" and then reviewing my answers after getting a score.
Another great "practice exam" resource which I've used as a litmus test to determine my readiness for the real exam can be found in the AWS Training and Certification Portal. Write this a few days before your actual exam. Like the real exam, you won't know which of your answers were incorrect - but it provides an indication of areas to focus on. By writing a few days before, you have time to make any corrections and fix gaps in your knowledge.
Step #4: AWS Training and Certification Material
Amazon have a Digital Learning library, such as Exam Readiness: AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate (Digital) - which is free! I found this to be incredibly useful - like a revision session with a teacher before you write their exam. The online presenters, from AWS Training, are awesome and provide guidance about how to write the exam. This was more valuable than the what - which is covered by the online course, documentation and practice exams. I'm pretty sure this is an extract from their classroom curriculum - but the time spent was well worth it.
Step #5: An appreciation of the Well-Architected Framework
Although a read of the Well-Architected Framework may appear to be time wasted in your quest for certification, it provides the reason for certification. There were a number of times during my preparation that I felt the odds stacked against me.
It was only after writing and passing a certification exam that the penny dropped and I realised that Amazon wanted me to pass.
Again, think about it - the more people certified will result in more people using AWS. However, Amazon want to make sure that you understand the principles of using their stack correctly. These principles are spelt out in the Well-Architected Framework. Like the AWS Training and Certification material, another great resource in plain sight which many people probably overlook.
Step #6: Facts, Figures and FAQs
As this is a Technical exam, be prepared to commit a few facts and figures to memory. Although I have not seen these types of questions in the actual exam, the practice exams have little mercy and press your memory. Again, this is only a few pages of handwritten notes. Continuous recall helped to get the information rooted.
I made notes of the most important information - like the different S3 storage classes and their properties. Again, Amazon are not testing your ability to recall the number of 9's for durability of a storage class - they are testing your ability to choose the right storage class based on a specific requirement.
Spend some time on the AWS FAQs. These are also brilliantly summarised in Jon Bonso's Tutorials Dojo.
Step #7: Scheduling and Booking
Set a date, at most a month from when you start, to write the exam and commit by making a booking. Although you can reschedule, you're only allowed a limited number of times to move the date. Once the date was fixed, the objective became real and there was really no choice to study or not - I had to. What also helped was that Cloud certification was one of my Performance Objectives at work.
This is a personal preference and could vary from person to person. I booked and wrote my first exam without telling anyone. Although my wife was not overly impressed when I called her after passing, this took away any added pressure of possible failure. It may sound cool to tell the world that you're going for AWS certification. However, if you can, try to share your quest with a smaller group - definitely family (if you don't want to upset your spouse) and some close friends.
Step #8: Taking the exam
One of the most important lessons I picked up (in particular from the AWS Exam Readiness course) was that you should work on a process of elimination. Some answers were apparent. However, a lot were not. Again, this is not AWS trying to trip you up - its AWS running the checks and balances so you can use their stack correctly. Even after eliminating options, you might be left with 2 very credible options - this is where the Well-Architected Framework kicks in. Run the options against the principles and choose the one which matches it best.
When writing the exam, flag questions you are not sure of and come back to it. Try not to get stuck on one question for too long. If we're playing the numbers, there are 65 questions and you need 72% to pass. Although not all questions are weighted the same, sacrifice some questions if you don't know the answer. With that being said, make sure you answer everything - there is no negative marking.
Having written a number of AWS exams, I am sure that there are no bonus marks awarded for completing early. After being hammered by the practice exams, you will probably get through the actual exam with loads of time to spare - this was the case for the Associate exams I wrote - I've heard its not the case for Professional. Use the extra time to start from the beginning again and to check your answers. On review during my first exam, I changed 8 answers! The difference with the review pass versus the first pass is that you've completed the exam, the adrenalin surge has dissipated and you're thinking a little more calmly.
The preparation for each certification has been an incredible experience. From a knowledge perspective, I understand and appreciate the AWS stack so much better. From a professional perspective, it has afforded me the opportunity to get a breath of understanding of AWS to fully understand and leverage its capability. However, from a personal perspective - I am proud that I have risen to the challenge of attaining not just one but multiple certifications. I am sure that you can do the same. All the best!