AWS Certification Journey: 11 Certifications

11 AWS certifications. What does it mean to have 11 AWS certifications? In the basest interpretation, it means that I have passed (at least) 11 certification exams. Other than that, it means a lot of things, many of which I would have never expected. It means that: many people on LinkedIn now believe that I am their personal learning coach, there to provide them with personalized learning plans and advice; in a similar vein, I have also received quite a few questions/requests from people who now believe me to be their personal AWS Q&A service. Curiously, it has also proven an interestingly polarizing aspect of the job search, with many would-be employers choosing to simply ignore them altogether (as though there is some unstated threshold of certifications that serves as some sort of negative signal to a hiring manager – or, perhaps, it’s simply intimidating) or to spend the majority of the interview talking about the fact that I have attained the feat. While my expression of most of these implies a negative connotation, there are the more positive aspects: messages from people informing me that my achievements have inspired them to learn more, to push harder, to continue in their own personal quests for achievement.

At the end of the day, however, none of these factor into my determination to pursue a practice of what I’ve come to call “extreme learning.” I have always been driven to bring my best self to what I do. Allow me to connect the dots between bringing my best self in what I do to amassing a hoard of certifications. Regardless of whether it’s AWS, Microsoft, or some other vendor, certifications often coalesce around pillars within the industry, centered around a vendor’s means to execute upon those pillars. While most certification curricula are certainly built with the intention to ultimately deliver the certification to the student’s hands, they also provide an invaluable framework which I (or anyone with the desire to do so) can leverage to begin to develop and strengthen an understanding around a domain with which one may have any range of experience, from none to expert. Regardless of where I may fall on that spectrum when approaching a new certification curriculum, I have yet to walk away from one of these experiences without a greater understanding of the pillar and how the vendor executes on that pillar with its particular service set. When you look at it from this perspective, it’s almost irrational not to pursue as many certifications as your health, sanity, and family will permit.

More concretely, within the last 18-24 months, there has been an undeniable shift in the industry towards the pillars of machine learning and voice interaction. So, is it a coincidence that we see AWS respond with additional certification exams around these two pillars? Of course not; in fact, they’d be foolish not to! As a technologist (especially in the world of consulting), can I afford to be anything other than as knowledgeable as possible in these domains? If I want to be the best I can be, the answer to this question is also obvious: of course not.

Of course, I’m making a philosophical argument here, not a practical one. So, call me an idealist.

With my soapbox out of the way, I’ll answer the question that I’ve been asked in one form or another after every cert (e.g. “how did you prepare?”). Before I go into any exam-specific guidance, I’ll restate a maxim that I have stated previously and stuck to with what I think we can both agree is a reasonable degree of success: set a reasonable goal for yourself, commit to it, and follow through with it. Concretely, what that means is this: you decide you want to pursue an exam… Do a rough survey of the material and (being honest with yourself) determine how long you believe it will take you to learn enough of the concepts therein to pass the examination. Once you know this timeframe, you sign up for the exam. For me, that act of setting a deadline for myself (accompanied by getting some of my own skin in the game by ponying up for the exam fee) serves as a motivator. Everyone is motivated differently; if you don’t know what motivates you, figure it out. Motivation is (obviously) a key element in this process, and you will absolutely, unequivocally fail without it. Even ugly, unplanned, undisciplined motivation like mine will work, but without motivation, you will fail. Once you have your motivation, dig in. Make a plan with some goals (even if only in your head), and work towards them. Then, go take the test. Sounds ridiculously simple, right? I guess that’s the funniest thing about all of this to me: people always expect some sort of nirvana-inducing answer that will elevate them to a new plane of existence when they ask me how I do this. But, that really is the answer: set your goal, get motivated, and push through the obstacles that stand between yourself and your goal.

Now the brass tacks. Here’s a high-level play-by-play of what I did for each exam:

  • AWS Developer Associate

    • Watched A Cloud Guru course twice on Udemy (yes, this was before ACG was the cornerstone of the learning community that it is today – their courses used to only be on Udemy). Set up an AWS account for myself so I could work through all of their examples.
    • Prep time: approx 20-24 hours
  • AWS DevOps Pro

    • By this time, I had a decent amount of hands-on experience with most of the core AWS services. I watched the DevOps pro course twice on A Cloud Guru, working through as many of the hands-on labs as possible in my lab/personal account.
    • Prep time: approx 16 hours
  • AWS SA Associate + Pro + SysOps Associate

    • I watched the Pro course once on A Cloud Guru. I felt as though most of my hands-on experience coupled with the knowledge from the course would get me over the bar, and I was correct.
    • Prep time: approx 8 hours
  • AWS Big Data

    • I watched the course from ACG twice, once again working through as many of the labs as possible in my personal account.
    • Prep time: approx 10 hours
  • AWS Cloud Practitioner

    • No prep, took it cold.
    • Prep time: none
  • AWS Security

    • I watched the ACG course once, watching the KMS and IAM lectures twice (it wasn’t that I didn’t have a good deal of hands-on experience with these services, I just knew they would be of paramount importance on the exam). Also read the Security Best Practices whitepaper and the CAF Security whitepaper.
    • Prep time: approx 4 hours
  • AWS Advanced Networking

    • I watched the ACG course in a very fragmented manner several times with no additional prep. This was the first exam that I failed.
    • I bought the AWS Certified Advanced Networking Official Study Guide and read it cover-to-cover twice. I watched Linux Academy’s certification course and took detailed notes, ultimately making flashcards for concepts/info I didn’t know. I studied these intensely for about a week before sitting the exam a second time, which I passed.
    • Prep time: approx 40 hours
  • AWS Machine Learning

    • I previously took the Udacity Deep Learning Nanodegree (missed finishing it by a project, but I covered all of the material), which honestly gave me all of the general ML knowledge I needed to pass this exam.
    • The afternoon before I took the exam (took it in the evening), I went through everything in the official study guide that I didn’t already feel comfortable with. This mainly encompassed learning what was offered by AWS in the ML arena (e.g. feature sets, service limits, etc.).
    • Prep time: time invested in the Udacity course, plus approx 3 hours study time
  • AWS Alexa Certified Skill Developer

    • Having previously created a few skills for personal use, I had been through the development process, but had not dealt with the actual skills publishing process, account linking, etc., so I focused my studies in those areas, reading AWS documentation and working through AWS’ training course for the exam.
    • Preparation time: time to develop two custom skills + 2 hours for the course

There you have my path to this destination. Are you willing to do what it takes to get there?

Photo: unsplash-logoJon Tyson

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