TL;DR AWS has one of the best professional certification programs in IT world - clear & well-defined paths, high difficulty level, practical questions that validate truly applicable knowledge. I've just (successfully) completed the first level of CSA (Certified Solution Architect) certification myself & below you can find few paragraphs on how was it & what did I do to prepare myself. In the end, it was time (& money) well spent, but also just the first step for much more valuable, higher prize.

Passing exames & obtaining various kinds of "badges" (certifications) is clearly one of my "hobbies". Currently I hold ~30 of valid professional ones, related to various aspects of project management & building software systems. These are not the randoms, I pick ones I find either most valuable or most challenging - I've already presented my motivations some time ago here.

Some time ago my enthusiasm waned a bit when I've been told that at least some of Microsoft certifications can easily be obtained by memorizing so-called "dumps" -> full sets of exam questions that have somehow leaked out from Microsoft & Redmond didn't bother to rule them out ... I had actually put months of effort to prepare for these exams, therefore I felt offended that apparently half of India has "earned" the same distinction pretty much for free ...

That's the reason why I don't bother with Microsoft certifications anymore, but there's a lot of good sport in another vendors' hunting grounds - this time I've went for highly valued & considered rather challenging:

AWS Certified Solution Architect - Associate (AWS CSAA)

AWS is one of the cloud options I've already interacted in the past, although not as extensively as I'd like to, so any opportunity to validate how much I actually know about AWS was more than appreciated. Fortunately AWS certifications paths are clear & well shaped (Dev, DevOps, Solution Architect), so I had zero difficulty with picking the option that suited my best - Solution Architect. All paths consist of two levels (Associate + Professional) & obviously you can't go for the latter without completing successfully the former.

How was it?

Form & substance of the exam deserve separate review:

  • form was rather dull -> "typical" 1/multi choice test (you always knew number of correct answers), 55 questions for 80 minutes. In 2018 there are already some better forms of testing at Amazon's disposal (even if evaluation has to remain fully automated), so that's definitely something that should be improved
  • fortunately the substance has compensated for this drawback - exam questions were VERY practical, majority of them can be even classified as "mini-cases" to solve.

Don't get me wrong - truly "practical" exam would require me to e.g. set up "virtual" solution in a sandbox (via Cloud Formation / AWS Console), but clearly we're not there yet. Instead I had to pick 1-2 from 4-6 textual options (so yeah, random shooting was possible), but fortunately questions were not about memorizing single, rather useless (& quickly getting obsolete) facts (e.g. how much RAM is there in particular type of instance), but about assembling more practical facts to answer actual problems that could have happened in real life of any architect who works with AWS. Neat.

What else about the exam itself? Amount of time was sufficient (even with short re-visit to some flagged questions) - I've managed to finish 10 minutes ahead of time. There were no calculations, there were some questions (not many) related to services considered as outdated (e.g. classic ELB); contrary to common belief, there aren't many Lambda questions.

How did I learn?

  1. I've used (paid) on-line course by A Cloud Guru - it's most likely the best video resource on the topic, additionally Ryan puts a lot of effort in keeping it up-to-date. Fully recommended.
  2. I've watched some of Pluralsight materials on AWS (PL subscription required) - there's plenty to choose from, but unfortunately they are not being updated (they just add new courses ocassionaly & leave the old ones be)
  3. I've read through shitloads of whitepapers on AWS Docs & it was time very well spent - Amazon guys put a lot of effort to deliver some quality docs that don't just bring a lot of information but are also fun to read. I also recommend AWS Architecture Monthly - it's a free newslater that will be (if you subscribe) automatically delivered to your Kindle each month -> quality stuff, minimum marketing crap.
  4. I didn't read many AWS-related books, in fact there aren't that many of them. The one I can recommend is pretty old (Sept 2015), but helped me to get through basics at some point in past - "AWS in Action" by Michael Wittig and Andreas Wittig.
  5. If you get through all the resource above, you have a significant chance you'll pass the exam (you can never be sure, threshold is dynamic & it fluctuates over time), but ... I don't like leaving things to chance, so I've designed myself some practical lab-like tasks to acomplish in real "field" conditions: HA Ghost set up from scratch (w/o using Marketplace), multitiered stateless containerized Phoenix app on ECS & ElastiCache, Wordpress with Elastic Beanstalk, etc. Even with my prior experience, I just can't overestimate how much I've learned that way.

Next step?

No, I'm not done here yet. 2nd level (Professional) is still there to be taken - according to common opinion it's one of the hardest professional certificates to obtain in IT world.

Well, challenge accepted.

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