How I earned 3 AWS certificates in less than 3 months of lockdown
Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve all had to cancel that holiday we were looking forward to, give up our new favourite outdoor hobby and forget about our regular post-work excursions to the pub around the corner.
But suddenly, we’ve also had more time to spend with our family and for those projects we kept postponing.
For me, that meant finally pouring my time into gaining the skills I needed to refocus my career and, as a result, getting certified by Amazon Web Services 3 times in just 2.5 months.
What’s a cloud? What’s AWS?
Before we begin, let’s cover some of the main topics.
You may have heard the term cloud or cloud computing before. Back in the day, companies had no choice but to buy huge racks and fill them up with hardware to run their business solutions on them. This required lots of front-loaded investment, setup and maintenance. Planning your resources was essential since you needed to predict the kind of use and workload your system would have.
With the cloud computing approach, a provider owns infrastructure somewhere (hence the term cloud) and serves it to customers. You don’t need to worry about setting up and maintaining costly infrastructure - this is now a responsibility of these providers. You can create an account with a cloud provider in a matter of minutes, and easily deploy, up-scale and down-scale computing and storage resources for your applications, paying only for what you use. All the power of economies of scale, at the click of a mouse.
Lots of people know Amazon as a retail giant. What many people don’t know is that a big chunk of the Internet runs on Amazon-owned machines. Or that this cloud provider service, known as Amazon Web Services (AWS), represents a big part of Amazon's business. Other major players in the cloud scene are Microsoft (Azure) and Google (Cloud Platform).
In our particular case, Lantum is powered by a fleet of AWS resources deployed between London, Dublin and Oregon.
In this particular context, solutions architects specialize in finding an answer to business problems through the design and optimization of systems hosted in the cloud. Questions that often need to be answered are:
- How technology can solve a particular problem
- Which set of tools can be applied for a solution
- How different parts of a system interact with each other
- How things can scale and be maintained in the long run
Certification #1: The Solutions Architect Associate exam (SAA-02)
After the rise of coronavirus, my American football coaching plans came to an indefinite halt and I found myself working from home with a lot of time to spare.
Before the lockdown, I had wanted to orientate my career to solutions architecture, but I couldn’t find the time and slowly started to lose the motivation to begin the process. But with lockdown giving me lots of time and boredom starting to kick in, I decided to give it a serious go.
After lurking in some Reddit threads, I decided to set myself a goal of getting the two Solutions Architect certifications: Associate and Professional. These certifications motivated me to study and put in the time. They are only valid for 3 years but, ultimately, the learnings and experience you acquire along the way are what make you a competent professional.
The Solutions Architect Associate (SAA-02) exam - the first beast I had to deal with - covers a big chunk of the vast number of services (more than 200) provided by AWS. In terms of breadth of knowledge, it's the most demanding of the three Associate level certifications and you get to know most of the AWS cloud. As a solutions architect, you need to have a good idea about the features and capabilities of the different services, and how they can fit together to solve a problem well.
I started my studies in the last week of March. After work and a bit of physical exercise, I spent my evenings devouring videos, taking notes, or reading resources. I found that studying was a great way to kill time on my days off, when I could set aside 8-10 hours for it.
I initially booked my online assessment for Good Friday, but eventually took a day off work and took the exam on the following Wednesday instead (15th April), so I could spend the long weekend revising. I could write about the experience of willingly taking an online exam and being monitored for almost two and a half hours, at my own expense, as a post on its own. Maybe another time.
The experience was an interesting one and totally worth it - I passed with 85.8%. I couldn’t resist a fist in the air, a huge sigh of relief and enjoying the prospect of a good weekend ahead. Time to celebrate with some mid-week pizza and a beer.
But less than 48 hours later, I had run out of things to watch on Netflix and I was wondering what to do. Five minutes later, I was researching how to approach the Professional level exam. Shortly after, I was fully convinced that a sensible route was to tick off the other two AWS Associate certifications to get extra experience and confidence before I went for the next level. Not much later, I had my head buried in the notes and the instructional videos, fully immersed. Seems I don’t find much joy when I achieve something, but I very much enjoy the process leading up to it...
Certification #2: The SysOps Administrator Associate exam
The SysOps Administrator exam dives deeper into the services and tools that are useful to configure, maintain, secure and audit your systems hosted in the AWS Cloud.
Some of the most important ones in the scope of the certification are CloudFormation, CloudWatch and Systems Manager, along with security and network fundamentals. The learning curve is not as steep as the first exam - there’s a fair amount of overlap, and less breadth of topics, so I focused my attention on the specific parts of this certification. After a couple of days of studying, I set my goal to pass the exam in about 3 weeks.
For the second exam, I knew what to expect and the monitoring wasn’t a distraction at all. Even though some of the questions were trickier than in the first test, familiarity with the process and the contents of the exam, as well as more confidence, made a huge difference. I couldn’t help being surprised by the score when I got it the morning after - 92.2%. Great boost ahead of the last Associate exam!
Certification #3: The Developer Associate exam
The Developer Associate exam is centered around code and deployments, instead of how to architect systems and manage infrastructure. Actual hands-on experience is not required, but it is definitely recommended if you want to tackle the test with confidence.
Serverless technologies (the ones in which you don’t need to worry about provisioning the underlying infrastructure in which your code or data is sitting) are at the core of this certification, and it’s fundamental to know them inside out. Some of them are Lambda, API Gateway, DynamoDB, ElasticBeanstalk, CodePipeline and X-Ray. Given the amount of overlap with the previous exams, after a couple of days of study, I felt that I could take the exam in two weeks.
Despite struggling with concentration during the exam (the noise of my landlady mowing the lawn outside didn’t really help much), I felt this exam was the easiest of the three, although some of the questions were notorious outliers and I found them particularly difficult.
Luckily, I had enough time and after I submitted the test, I saw the magic word on my screen: PASS. Days later, I got the confirmation I had obtained the highest score of the three tests (96.8%, 63/65 questions).
Learnings and the future ahead
So far, I have learnt a lot about the myriad of services in the AWS ecosystem, their capabilities and how some of them can improve the performance and reliability of Lantum.
However, the most important things I’ve gained are approaches to technical challenges and reigniting the drive to improve and become a better engineer. There’s no silver bullet to system architecture problems - more often than not, you have multiple ways to solve them. Understanding the root of the problem, stakeholder needs, constraints and trade-offs are the key to providing performant, cost-effective and reliable solutions.
I don’t think I have achieved anything that any engineer or person with enough interest in tech couldn't. Having spent the last 4 years of my professional career building and maintaining AWS-based applications has slightly helped to accelerate the learning and tackling a few questions in the exams, but I don’t think it’s been a crucial factor.
Determination and using the right resources definitely made a big difference. I am a visual learner and video courses like the ones from Stèphane Maarek and Adrian Cantrill, and Jon Bonso’s practice exams are an absolute must-have if you want to smash your AWS certification exams. A decent dose of curiosity and hands-on practice to apply your learnings in your free time is required too.
The next chapter: the Solutions Architect Professional certification
After a one week break (yes, I was bored for most of it, but it was needed), I started preparing for the Solutions Architect Professional certification. I started the journey with the idea of switching to a solutions architect role in the future, and I still believe that obtaining it will give me deep AWS knowledge to carry out such a role proficiently in any company that uses their cloud services. I haven’t set a timeline for tackling the exam yet, because the difficulty increases at this level: instead of having 2h 15 minutes for 65 questions, you have to face 75 questions in 3 hours, and the scenarios are more complex - instead of one-liner answer options, you get more verbose ones. If that wasn’t enough, the bar to pass the exam goes up from 72% to 75%.
I must admit that I'm already chewing over the next goal and challenge in the back of my mind. I am enjoying this process, and I’m looking forward to upskilling.
And ultimately, I’m looking forward to improving what we do at Lantum: transforming the way organisations and workers are connected to provide better healthcare services.
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Nacho is a Senior Software Engineer at Lantum.