Why acquire AWS certifications? Are they even worth it?
Choosing the first AWS certification to study for can be quite intimidating and time consuming. At least that’s how I felt when browsing the contents and requirements of each title on the AWS website. Having started working on AWS cloud in early 2019 and wanted to get certified after a few months, I didn’t even meet the recommendations for the Cloud Practitioner certification.
There is a plethora of write-ups on the web in which the authors explain their studying strategies on how to achieve AWS certifications [^1],[2,3]. Some authors choose to get certified in one of the Professional exams straight away rather than starting with the Associate ones. That’s common with experienced architects and developers who just need to validate their skills. When reading these articles, as someone who is just starting with AWS, you might feel lost or uncertain on where to begin since the authors are so much ahead of you. Perhaps, you might even start doubting yourself.
The value of AWS certifications
A simple search on the web will show you that AWS is the biggest and most widely used cloud provider,  and  to list a few. Surely learning a widely used technology can make you desirable in one of those companies. However, it’s important to keep in mind that AWS is a tool and specialising in using a tool and ignoring fundamental computer science principles, such as algorithms, compilers, networking, will have short lived effects. Perfecting your knowledge in one technology may limit your ability to think outside the box since a solution might not be provided by that technology.
The true value of an AWS certification should be the opportunity to study and learn something new or complement existing knowledge. Studying helps you gain more knowledge and certifications keep you motivated since they act as an achievement of the hard work you’ve put into studying and practicing.
Studying for an AWS certification will take up a lot of your time. If by this point you feel convinced, for your own reasons, that acquiring an AWS certification is worth your time then keep reading further.
Starting with professional certifications
If you’re an experienced individual with practical knowledge of the techniques used in the industry, such as CI/CD, microservices, networking, etc., and just don’t know the services provided by AWS, by all means start with one of the professional certifications. The advantage of starting high is that you only get a subset of questions from each of the associate level exams. For example, the DevOps professional certification, includes a subset of questions from the developer and sysops exams.
If you’re someone who’s just starting with AWS, or cloud, and is looking to prove your knowledge, the most suggested exam to start with is the AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate . The syllabus of the exam includes the fundamentals behind AWS, such as VPC, EC2, RDS, etc. and is quite theoretical. Perhaps, one of those fields will draw your attention more than the other ones and will help you choose your next certification.
Doing hands-on while studying
While hands-on knowledge will definitely help you understand the services better, I believe it’s not mandatory to try and deploy all the services mentioned in a syllabus. Sometimes it’s enough to know the name of a service and what it does. This will help you spot some hints during the exam and eliminate the incorrect answers. For example, a question might ask you which service to use in order enforce certain properties on the provisioned resources, such as having tags on all EC2 instances. The answer here would be AWS Config  instead of GuardDuty .
If you’re a working in an organisation which uses AWS and a solution architect is present, try to participate in the design sessions. This will help you understand how the actual development teams are using or implementing their solutions in the cloud. During my AWS developer exam, I got a question asking what the elasticache service can be used for. I remembered hearing one of the dev teams mentioning “session information exchange”, that immediately helped me eliminate the incorrect answers and choose the most relevant.
If your organisation is already using AWS, take advantage of that by examining the services being used. Analyse how the DevOps teams are implementing certain solutions. Several of these solutions will be coming from suggested “best” practices which can be correlated with the answers from the exam questions. For example, your organisation might be using CloudWatch events and alarms, find out their difference. Or, you might have a DynamoDB stream alerting multiple lambdas without throttles, checkout how that’s implemented.
Having a note system will definitely help you remember the things that you learn. More importantly, organising your knowledge will help you jump into the topic you forgot more efficiently.
Personally, I make physical notes in a notebook. My notes are organised by date and topic. The topics are coming from the syllabus of the corresponding certification. I also use different pen colors to give more emphasis on a specific note or information. Once I note down everything that I think is important to remember for a topic, I move on to the next one. After I take a practice exam, I write an addendum of all the things I could not remember or did not know. Here’s a page from my AWS Solutions Architect — Associate notes from 2019, with the topics “Instance Store Volumes”, “Elastic Block Store” and “Security Groups” [9,10,11].
Yes, I also make graphs :)
Buying tests and studying online
There’s a plethora of online resources which will help you on your studies. A simple search on the web will show you the most recommended ones. Personally, I studied from Linux Academy for the Solution Architect — Associate and Developer exams and from Udemy for the DevOps Engineer — Professional.
Linux Academy is a company which specialises in creating high quality educational content for various computer engineering subjects, such as cloud computing, big data, security and a lot more. The subscription comes with a hefty price tag, but it’s very much worth it, especially if you intend to follow the Architect path. The explanation and in-depth coverage is exceptional. Moreover, you’re given a time limited AWS sandbox account to try all the things that you learn.
Udemy on the other hand, is an online learning platform where individuals with enough experience and time can create and hosts their lessons. The quality of those lessons varies and is always handy to read what other people are writing in their comments. I followed the “AWS Certified DevOps Engineer Professional 2020 — Hands On!” , a highly rated course. Compared to the content from Linux Academy, at times, it felt choppy and the author was moving on without enough explanation. However, I believe once you feel comfortable working with AWS gaining more knowledge or covering missing information should come easier.
Well Architected Framework
I first read the Web Application Framework before taking the AWS DevOps exam. The information it conveyed felt dated and focused a lot on ITIL. Things like spreading instances across multiple-AZs and autoscaling felt like standard and not interesting to read about.
If you’re just starting your journey into the cloud or would like to find out some of the standards and recommendations of running production grade infrastructure on a public cloud, then WAF is a good read. On the other hand, if you’ve already been implementing the aforementioned, then WAF will offer you little to no gain.
I hope my experience and points of view helped you decide if AWS certifications are worth your time. With additional research, you should be able to choose your first or next AWS certification to study for. My last suggestion for a healthy approach would be to not be afraid to fail. Each time you fail, you learn from the mistakes you’ve made and the knowledge gaps you noticed. In the end, the exams are difficult but not so much that are overwhelming. Instead of trying to master every service launched by AWS, my suggestion is to known how to use certain services that are of interest to you or you use frequently at work. Good luck!