I’m actually happy that I get to write this post. Although I’m no stranger to exams, the last few weeks studying for the AWS Solutions Architect Professional level certification have been pretty intense. TL:dr I passed but it was hard!.

To set the scene, I’ve worked in IT since 2001 in various infrastructure & solutions architect roles and have traditionally been pretty aggressive in adopting new technology, virtualisation in the early 2000’s and then with public and private cloud over the last 8-9 years. I’m no stranger to certifications either, since preparing for my relocation to Australia in 2010 I’ve obtained various vendor certifications (VCP, CCA, MCSA, MCSE to name but a few).

After a few years working with AWS I decided to evidence my skills and sat and passed the three AWS Associate-level certifications in 2014. I recall being nervous at the time, not least of all as the certifications weren’t common and AWS were building a reputation for the breadth of experience required to pass. With the support of my partner I decided to sit the exams as aggressively as possible and passed all three within a seven-week period.

At that point I already had my eye set on the professional level certification (at the time only the solutions architect exam was available), but after doing the 40-question practice exam (and failing) I decided to take a break and improve my practical experience. Fast forward 12-months and two jobs ( Ordyss & Idea 11 ) and I thought it about time to revisit things and see how I felt about attempting the cert.

I gave the 40-question practice another go in August 2015 and achieved 60%. Anyone who has attempted it will know there are a fairly high number of typos or badly worded questions and I was sure this impacted my score. On August 24th I decided to the book the exam and gave myself six to seven weeks to study & practice my skills. My exam was locked in for October 2nd @ 9am at Saxons training in Brisbane.

My study was intense, I allocated two-three hours per night, and at least eight hours on each weekend day for a total of ~30-35 hours study per week. Over the course of the six-seven weeks allotted that put my total study time at ~245 hours. I’ll cover this more below, but my study plan covered the entire range of AWS services with deliberate focus on any areas I perceived as a weakness. Additionally, I made use of Beta releases of two online training sites LinuxAcademy and aCloudGuru.

I’m normally pretty confident with exams and I don’t like to sit them without being reasonably confident in a pass. With the AWS CSA Professional I had very little idea how I would do; I’d seen a number of posts from others who passed suggesting a pretty high level of difficulty.

I woke up early on the morning of the exam, but decided against further study. I travelled to the exam center and had a good solid breakfast and a fair amount of Pepsi Max, my caffeine source of choice. I started right on time, the exam was 170 minutes and 80 questions, just over two minutes per question. I knew this ahead of time but don’t feel it adequately prepared me for the challenge of sitting there for almost three-hours answering pretty detailed questions. I cannot stress this enough, the questions are detailed and the answers are long. Additionally, it’s not like the associate level exams where there is a right answer, a slightly wrong answer and two obviously incorrect options. In the professional level cert, most questions offered four equally possible answers and demanded you to pick the most suitable one.

So how did it go for me ? At Q10 I was behind on time, at Q30 slightly ahead. Q40 gave me some confidence as I steamed ahead but shortly after it started going downhill. I finished the exam with 13 minutes left and around 60% of the questions tagged for review (my way of flagging that I need to revisit or confirm). Normally I reserve the review tick-box for questions I KNOW to be wrong, but due to the time constraints I wanted to flag and move on if I found myself taking too much time. This brings me onto the main problem, time. I cannot stress enough, you need to be able to read quickly, comprehend quicker still and know the subjects well enough that an answer is almost immediate. Most of the questions need ~60 seconds to read and comprehend, giving you around a minute to select an answer.

In the end I remembered a piece of advice I received at university. When answering questions, unless its 100% sure you’re right - your first guess is generally your best guess. Going back over questions at the end will generally do more bad than good. With three minutes left on the clock I clicked submit and found out I had passed with a 85% score.

Suggestions

I don’t want to provide any details of the actual questions as my understanding is that the exam is covered under NDA so please don’t ask. I will however share some hints and tips which would have helped me.

  1. Know all about federated access, AssumeRoleWithSAML & AssumeRoleWithWebIdentity - know both the technical flow AND when both are appropriate to use.
  2. Know your instance types - I had a few questions asking which instance type I’d recommend for a given use-case.
  3. Know the appropriate use cases for SNS, SES and SQS - Specifically know how these enable loose coupling of services and HA style interactions.
  4. Know about VPN/DirectConnect/VPC peering - how they all work, and how static and dynamic routing work - when you need routes, when you don’t and how route propagation work.
  5. Learn your EBS optimisation, IOPS, MB/s and limits around all of them .
  6. Learn about logging in cloud front.
  7. Learn about when to use HTTPS v’s SSL listeners with ELB.
  8. Learn how NAT works, and general VPC structure.
  9. Know how to subnet, and how many IP’s are reserved in a VPC for various functions.
  10. Learn ALL details about AWS services in terms of which are AZ or region resilient. i.e EBS volumes can’t cope with AZ failure etc. Learn which services are global (IAM) and which things are regional, SSH keys.
  11. Learn about Mobile Push (SNS) and the high level steps to make it work.
  12. Learn about Cognito and how it improves the old style of web identity federation.
  13. Read EVERYTHING on the AWS Architecture Site
  14. Read and re-read all the AWS Whitepapers I CANNOT stress this enough
  15. Watch and re-watch all the AWS Youtube Videos, specifically customer use-cases and ReInvent talks.
  16. Study at both linuxacademy and CloudGuru both of these sites will help you massively.
  17. Know ElasticBeanstalk and OpsWorks v. well - how to deploy, upgrade, modify, which languages are supported.

##Parting Thoughts The exam is challenging, much more so than I expected at the start, and a huge jump from the associate level certifications. I got a solid result after a solid amount of study and a few years practical experience with AWS. I think my generalist IT background helped hugely - know your TCP/IP, general security concepts and traditional architecture approaches.

The experience was amazing, and I feel like I’ve learned a huge amount, and that the certification means something. If you successfully pass, you will demonstrate your technical capability to others.

I’m going to start my study for the DEVOPS professional exam now, I have a feeling there is some subject-matter overlap and I don’t want to waste the investment this far. If you have any questions or comments, please post them below. If you liked this post, you can share it with your followers or follow me on Twitter!