Passing the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Exam
Jump to TL;DR
I recently spent a few months studying for, and passing (hoorah!) the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate exam. Here is how I did it, and what I would do differently with hindsight.
You can read more about the certification here but, in short and in my opinion, though this is an entry level AWS exam, it is for those with a good broad appreciation of enterprise technology and IT systems.
You'll likely be working in a technology team, delivering technical services to the wider business. The link describes it as:
The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate exam is intended for individuals with experience designing distributed applications and systems on the AWS platform. Exam concepts you should understand for this exam include:
- Designing and deploying scalable, highly available, and fault tolerant systems on AWS
- Lift and shift of an existing on-premises application to AWS
- Ingress and egress of data to and from AWS
- Selecting the appropriate AWS service based on data, compute, database, or security requirements
- Identifying appropriate use of AWS architectural best practices
- Estimating AWS costs and identifying cost control mechanisms
AWS Free Tier
As the name would imply, AWS have a free (for 12 months) tier, which is very handy for getting the hang of the console.
Be aware though, not everything is free! You can inadvertently land yourself with a bill at the end of the month if you are not careful.
The free tier account is central to the online course I used as the basis for the bulk of my study.
Whilst googling for AWS study material, I stumbled upon Udemy.
We’re the world’s online learning marketplace, where 10 million+ students are taking courses in everything from programming to yoga to photography–and much, much more. Each of our 40,000+ courses is taught by an expert instructor, and every course is available on-demand, so students can learn at their own pace, on their own time, and on any device.
Whilst I am sure it's a widely known platform, it was my first encounter with it. I don't want to spend too much time discussing it here, as it is not completely on topic really, but it is worth a mention as it was my first experience of learning this way.
The vast majority of the courses I've attended in my time in IT have been of the instructor led "death by powerpoint" for a week onsite format. There are obvious and significant benefits of these courses, but they are generally costly, may involve travel and accommodation and are not on demand or able to be consumed at your own pace.
It's almost the exact inverse with regards to pros and cons with online learning - significantly cheaper, I can listen to a section on the train to work on my phone or tablet, the content is regularly updated and the reviews/forums give you a great insight into the quality and relevance of the material. The challenges are that you need to devote precious spare time, and be dedicated.
It's unbelievably good value, full of really relevant constantly updated material, and leads you through "getting your hands dirty" in the AWS console well. At the time I worked through the training it culminated is an exercise that deploys a web app across multiple regions, which I felt was a rewarding way to finish.
Whilst I had heard of the Linux Academy due to their free Openstack training, I'd never really investigated the full online learning solution.
At the time I was working through the Udemy course, I wasn't aware of this, so I have not evaluated it. Once I've finished with a few other bits I'm working on, I'll almost certainly be signing up to this to work through the training. More on this in later posts, I suspect.
In any case, there are some very interesting looking scenario based labs, and I'm hearing good things about this service.
For completeness, I should mention the offical training partner, qwikLABS.
There are a number of free labs you can use to try them out, and help get a feel for AWS.
This is where I nearly messed up! Whilst sometimes hard going, I cannot stress enough how important it is to read all the FAQs and Whitepapers that Amazon recommend in the AWS Certification Guide.
There is a lot to read through! The whitepapers are all PDFs, and I won't link to them in case they change. Here is a screenshot to give you an idea though:
The FAQs are per product/technology, and are live web pages. More are added over time of course, but these are generally more static:
- Amazon EC2 - FAQ
- Amazon S3 - FAQ
- Amazon VPC - FAQ
- Amazon Route 53 - FAQ
- Amazon RDS - FAQ
- Amazon SQS - FAQ
I would also say, if you have any tools/web apps you could replicate or build new in AWS, any projects you've been thinking about, use that as an excuse to use the AWS free tier to build it.
Try to get as much hands on time as possible, thinking about the concepts you learn along the way. Try out things which aren't required for the associate exam; this will only help enhance your overall learning.
Having completed the exam, I felt the practice exam didn't really give a good representation of the real exam. I do think however, it's a good test of your general understanding of all of the topics, and is a worthwhile part of the overall preparation.
Tips for the Exam
I was thoroughly searched before the exam began, the proctor actually made a point of saying that it is far more stringent than for other examinations. Get to the exam early so you are not rushing, and flustered as you go in.
There is a LOT of reading in the exam, as the exams are heavily scenario based. You really have to understand concepts well, and be able to rationalise business needs from the text.
In the Udemy course I described earlier, Ryan Kroonenburg does a good job of pointing out some key words to look out for in various questions.
You do not get a full breakdown of how you did after the exam, only some general topics:
- Designing highly available, cost efficient, fault tolerant, scalable systems
The area I thought I would do best in, "Implementation/Deployment", actually was the weakest of the four.
Book the exam early, but be realistic. I took 3 months working through the online courses, reading, preparing and practising with the console. I did feel well prepared going in, but I left realising I could have done more. Some of that is experience though; this was the first exam of this topic I have completed.
If you are well versed in AWS already, and have been working with it to deploy solutions for a while, I am sure this will not take as long for you, however I still feel you will benefit from working through all the steps I've outlined. Perhaps skip through some of the more basic lessons in the Udemy course.
You need time to read through all the Whitepapers and FAQs; I really can't stress this enough. Don't lose forget this is a Solutions Architect exam, design concepts are very important, just knowing how to use the console is nowhere near enough.
There is a lot to learn, but there is a lot of great ways to self study for this exam. AWS skills are becoming valuable, not only in a financial sense, but for those who want to complement their existing technical skillset.
Good luck on your journey! Please let me know in the comments if this helped, or if you'd like to see any amendments.
Did I say, make sure you read the whitepapers and FAQs?
I am not affiliated with any of the services I have discussed here, this is a record of my personal experience self funding through the process.
Chances are, I will tweet this post to those I have mentioned though, in an effort to reach a wider audience.