Among my acquaintances and colleagues, there is a negative rather than positive view of certificates in software development, which I also share to some extent. The problem is in seeing the purpose of certificates as such.
To begin with, obtaining a certificate does not mean that a person is competent in a given field. The only way to tell if someone is good is to find other good programmers to judge their skills. This type of evaluation is difficult, time-consuming, expensive, and must be repeated by each hiring cycle. Such an assessment is almost impossible for a non-programmer looking to hire someone good. In this case, a hiring person logically might choose someone with acquired certifications which can be perceived as higher effort.
This kind of recognition for a certification created a tremendous money-making opportunity, such as courses, assessments, books, and so on. A certificate can gain value when it’s not easy to get and it’s widely recognized.
I have been thinking for some time about how I could use an education budget provided by my employer to expand my knowledge. I bought and read a few books and followed courses and workshops, but I really never cared about certifications. At the beginning of my career, I passed many Udemy-like courses that finished with a certificate. However, I never felt it was worth mentioning anywhere because I didn’t find value in them. On top of that, some of them can be achieved just by following and finishing a course… Yay!
So that being said, certifications do not always correspond to competence in the broader world of education and employment - but is this the case with AWS certifications?
What are AWS certifications?
An AWS certification is an industry-recognized credential that helps learners build credibility by validating a level of Amazon Web Services cloud expertise. It also helps organizations identify skilled professionals to lead cloud initiatives using AWS.
The certification is obtained after passing one or more proctored exams. AWS offers 12 individual certifications spread across four different levels. Foundational, Associate, Professional, and Speciality. The levels differ in areas, depth, and difficulty. AWS certifications are valid for three years. After the expiration, it can be acquired again by sitting the exam. The AWS industry is rapidly evolving, and so are the exams.
At the end of the year 2022, AWS announced a Serverless Learning Plan and an exam free of charge. Those who achieve at least 80% will receive a Serverless digital badge. Accomplishments can be highlighted on your résumé or social media with the verifiable badge provided and managed by Credly.
The AWS certification exam consists of 65 questions. The formats of the questions are either multiple-response or multiple-choice. An applicant might be asked to choose the MOST secure, MOST cost-effective, BEST architecture, or LEAST complex option, for example. The test will include 15 unscored questions that will not affect the final score. However, an applicant will not be able to identify them during the exam. AWS collects information about candidate performance on these unscored questions to evaluate these questions for future use as scored questions. 70% or higher is generally considered a passing score. Exams cost around $100-$300, depending on the level of certification.
Why should I take a certification?
Everyone has their own reasons, but I will mention the most common ones.
A way to verify skills with AWS
- The training an applicant gets on the way to becoming certified is priceless. Learning new skills, understanding the platform inside out, and discovering best practices make one more efficient and a greater asset to a team.
Better career progression opportunities
- Certifications are often used as an entry gate to a job interview. A certificate might give you a competitive advantage over similar applicants for both getting a job interview and an offer.
- More and more enterprise workloads are moving to cloud computing. An experienced developer should stay up-to-date on cutting-edge technologies.
The ability to perform complex tasks more confidently and efficiently
- Preparing for the exams and learning more about AWS would narrow a skill gap and establish or improve a common language among colleague developers.
Organizations view their certified employees as a competitive advantage.
- Earning an AWS certification showcases commitment to the industry and the standard practices that form its foundations.
Transferable industry skills and qualification
- Studying AWS services creates a concept of knowledge that is almost the same, just with different naming by other providers like Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud Platform.
AWS Certifications are in high demand
- AWS is the leader in the cloud computing industry. Over the past year, more than one million active AWS Certifications have grown by more than 29%. More than 650K individuals hold associate, professional, or specialty AWS certifications.
By studying for the exam, I discovered a lot of AWS services that I have never worked with or might never work with.
For example, I had never thought that for some companies, it is challenging to move to the cloud due to the amount of data they work with. Speaking of exabytes-scale, it would take decades to move them to the traditional cloud. Or in other cases, an online transfer is not secure enough. And so, there is an AWS service to address these problems.
Where can I sit the exam?
Registration for an AWS certification exam is made via the AWS Training and Certification Portal. I like to book a date before studying, which helps me be more disciplined and plan better when I know the “deadline.” If you didn’t estimate preparation time correctly or don’t feel well prepared enough, you could reschedule the appointment twice for free. You must cancel and schedule a new appointment if you wish to reschedule a third time.
An exam can be taken in a Pearson VUE testing center or an online proctored exam. In a testing center, on-site staff assists with everything, such as authentication check-in, exam platform access, etc. With an online exam, you will take the same exam with the same allocated time to complete it, but on your computer. The whole exam is remotely proctored, and communication is done via webcam. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. Some might prefer their own place where they feel focused and relaxed, while others prefer dedicated space in a specialized testing center without unnecessary distractions. An important thing to know is that during your online proctored exam, you won’t be able to get up from the computer and leave the webcam view sometimes even for hours as that’s how long some of the exams can take. On the premises, you can take a short break.
What precedes sitting an exam
Alright, so you registered for an exam; what’s next? Preparation. There are countless materials online. In the following, I will mention a few.
Let’s divide the preparation into five steps.
- Training (on-demand online videos)
- Practice (hands-on)
- Theory (reading)
- Practice questions
- Taking a practice exam
Training (on-demand online videos)
Online training videos are fantastic resources. There are loads of options to choose from. The main advantage is that you are learning from an expert in the topic who guides you through the technology and can point out helpful tips. Also, you can follow the video series wherever you want at your own pace. You can find a bunch of excellent courses directly from AWS or third-party training providers such as Udemy, Digital Cloud, ACloudGuru, and so on. I especially liked the videos of Stephane Maarek and Neal Davis. Most of those courses contain, besides theory, hands-on practice and practice exams.
The best way to learn something is to play with it. When I say play, I really mean play. AWS CloudQuest game gamifies studying, where the main character is a developer helping city residents to solve their problems. I find it a little bit tedious but what I like about it is that it contains hands-on practice. The game generates temporary access to the AWS console where you can complete the quests. For example to create S3 buckets, configure EC2 instances, and so on.
Besides that, AWS offers setting up an account in the Free tier where you can use specific AWS services free of charge.
Some people find this the most tedious part, but there is no substitute for theory, and hours of reading are always required. The AWS website contains a lot of information, so you can rely on it entirely.
There are some books available, but things move quickly in the AWS world, and they're usually out of date by the time they're published. I like to take notes while learning something new. It depends on your learning pace, but notes help me remember the most important facts. Later on, I can come back to them and read through them fast. You can find online notes of other fellow developers who were preparing for the exam, but I recommend you write your own. I can also recommend going through FAQs and white papers.
It's essential to keep practicing as well as gain more knowledge — use it, or you lose it!
One of the most important strategies to use to both learn and evaluate your knowledge for the exam is practice questions. Practice questions help you understand the wording and the types of questions that can likely be seen in the exam.
Taking a practice exam
Taking practice exams is the best way to prepare for the real exam. Evaluate your readiness and discover possible weaknesses. Besides that, all practice exams increase the chance to pass certification for the first time and also boost your confidence. There are many bad-quality exams that I recommend steering away from. Instead, invest in verified third-party exams or the ones provided directly by AWS.
Tips & extras
- At booking an exam date, non-native speakers can request thirty minutes of extra time.
- If you already have some experience with AWS, you might want to skip the cloud practitioner exam. However, if you plan to do more certification, passing the cloud practitioner will get you 50% off on another exam, which will pay off in the end.
- While following an online course, you may be tempted to skip some topics if you have a lot of hands-on experience with them. I strongly advise you against it. There are a bunch of nitty-gritty details that the online course points out and can forewarn failing on some tricky questions.
- Dash through the question and look at the answers. Many times you would already know what the answer might be. Then read the question carefully again. There might be more suitable answers. Be aware if the question is not asking, for example, for the MOST secure, MOST cost-effective, BEST architecture, or LEAST complex option.
- If you are unsure about some question and get stuck on it, mark it for review and return to it later so you won’t get nervous about time.
- In the end, if you have some spare time, go through the questions again.
- If you are not sure or don’t know the answer - just guess. There are no negative points for incorrect answers.
- After finishing the exam, you know if you pass or not but you’ll learn the exact results later.
An example of a question from The AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate (SAA-C03)
A company runs an online voting system for a weekly live television program. During broadcasts, users submit hundreds of thousands of votes within minutes to a front-end fleet of Amazon EC2 instances that run in an Auto Scaling group. The EC2 instances write the votes to an Amazon RDS database. However, the database is unable to keep up with the requests that come from the EC2 instances. A solutions architect must design a solution that processes the votes in the most efficient manner and without downtime.
Which solution meets these requirements?
A) Migrate the front-end application to AWS Lambda. Use Amazon API Gateway to route user requests to the Lambda functions.
B) Scale the database horizontally by converting it to a Multi-AZ deployment. Configure the front-end application to write to both the primary and secondary DB instances.
C) Configure the front-end application to send votes to an Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS) queue. Provision worker instances to read the SQS queue and write the vote information to the database.
D) Use Amazon EventBridge (Amazon CloudWatch Events) to create a scheduled event to re-provision the database with larger, memory-optimized instances during voting periods. When voting ends, re-provision the database to use smaller instances.
C) – Decouple the ingestion of votes from the database to allow the voting system to continue processing votes without waiting for the database writes. Add dedicated workers to read from the SQS queue to allow votes to be entered into the database at a controllable rate. The votes will be added to the database as fast as the database can process them, but no votes will be lost.
Some may feel that AWS certifications need to provide more value to justify investment in time and money. This subjective judgement depends on an individual's goals and priorities.
Preparing for the certification is invaluable not only for beginners that want to get started with AWS but also for seasoned professionals. Studying for the AWS certification allowed me to get a really good overview of the ecosystem and to take a deep dive into some services. Thanks to completing hands-on labs I found out about topics that are beyond the scope of my regular work. Learning how things work behind the scenes taught me how to speak the language of fellow developers better.
AWS certification journey can help you validate existing knowledge, challenge yourself further and enhance your resume.
And lastly, I encourage you to build a fun project with the acquired knowledge. You learn the best from experience, and your project work will speak louder than any certification ever will.