Tips from my Journey to an AWS Solutions Architect Associate Certification

AWS CSAA — challenge accepted!

One of my 2018’s goals was to achieve a formal certification in AWS.
I’ve been dealing with AWS for a while; however, getting accreditation for the knowledge you have is always nice. As a technical guy — challenge accepted! 😎

I scheduled the exam for two months in advance and began the preparations 🎓. After achieving the certification recently (passed with 93% score), I’m sharing my personal insights about the process, which I hope you find useful and inspiring.

A note: all the recommendations are based on my subjective experience. You are invited to do your own research and choose the best solutions for you.

So, where to begin?

It’s wise to start with the formal AWS overview and recommendations. AWS maintains a comprehensive set of whitepapers that spread the underlying services and their methodology vividly. The whitepapers vary in depth and details; thus, it’s better to prioritise which to read based on your prior knowledge.

The whole whitepapers list can be found here. I recommend to read at least the following:

  1. Overview of AWS
  2. Architecting for the cloud
  3. AWS Security Best Practices
  4. Well-Architected framework
  5. Storage options — use cases

On top of the whitepapers, other sources of knowledge were useful and assisted me in organising the required information for the exam. They all completed some missing knowledge, which was essential for passing the final exam.

AWS official training (or: learn from the origin)

AWS invests a lot in their training videos. You can enjoy it as well, and the registration is free. If you’re not the type that reads whitepapers, I strongly recommend watching the training videos since they summarise the whitepapers’ content very clearly. In my view, reading the recommended whitepapers is still beneficial, although it may be tedious. I viewed the videos as supplementary information. They assisted to digest the content of the whitepapers. After watching them, some topics became clearer. Although it is repeating the same topics, it can give you subtle insights into things you might have missed. That can be the X factor.

You can opt for taking the following videos, depends on your initial knowledge and familiarisation with AWS:

The only downside of the training videos, in my opinion, is their length. It’s time-consuming, and time is your most precious resource.

Online courses (or: being an undergraduate, again)

Like any other topic you explore nowadays, knowledge is not a barrier. The abundance of online courses is huge. In the beginning, I thought I could manage without purchasing one of them, but eventually, I decided it can be beneficial to sharpen my knowledge.

If you are in AWS domain for a long time, most of the lectures will be obvious and thus boring since the courses are designed for juniors too. However, there are some insights and edge cases that surface in some lectures, and for that reason, I found the courses lucrative. Furthermore, the lectures review many topics and organise the information neatly. That facilitates grasping the different AWS services and how they intercommunicate with each other.

I chose the A Cloud Guru course. The lectures are comprehensive, the emphasis is on the essential parts, the instructor’s rhythm is good, and it contains more practice tests than the other courses I’ve found.

Podcasts (or: how to utilize time wisely)

I don’t have much free time. Working full time and having a family keeps me fully occupied. Furthermore, reading articles or watching videos demands your full engagement, so time management is critical. Therefore, I find the podcasts platform very useful for me.

Listening to podcasts while commuting to work is a fantastic solution to imbibe more knowledge. You’re already captivated in public transportation or at your car, so use the free sense you have — hearing 😏.

I found two entertaining podcasts that allowed me to catch up with AWS existing and new features:

  • AWS TechChat: this podcast summarises AWS new technologies. Very useful for refreshing knowledge, while the content is conveyed is a light-weight atmosphere.
  • AWS Podcast: latest and greatest news from AWS, featuring guests that share their AWS experience.

Practice exams (or: no pain, no gain)

Besides gaining knowledge, practising is essential to be prepared for any exam. You can be a master in your domain, but without hands-on trying, you sabotage your chances. Again, there are many practice exams. Most of them have a trial exam that allows you to gauge whether the exam is adequate for your needs or not.

I chose Whizlabs, it worked the best for me. The questions are fair and the answers are detailed. You can also try Udemy practice exams; they cover extensive areas and many topics.

Cheat sheets (or: where to consolidate all this knowledge?)

There are websites that consolidate a lot of material about AWS services and best-practices. They seem like a good reference for learning or reviewing AWS services. Personally, I found it hard to read them systematically as a source of knowledge, but they are very useful for answering specific questions and summarising certain topics.

However, in my opinion, two caveats are worth mentioning. Firstly, AWS changes rapidly. Therefore, the information might be outdated. For example, if you read that multi-region VPC Peering is not supported, but that is not true anymore. Secondly, you need to remember that the content was prepared by someone that might not be an AWS expert. Therefore, my recommendation is to use these websites wisely and not take them as an ultimate source of truth.

In order to bypass these caveats, I have decided to prepare my own cheat sheet. I knew it would be a time-consuming task, but on the other hand, I knew that the content is reliable 😉. That worked for me. I started it from zero. I summarised all the content I read, viewed and listened. It was enriched with my insights and new facts.

By summarising the knowledge myself, I was able to review it easily and read it over and over again, without trying to figure someone else’s summary. Another side effect is memorising. Once you write something yourself, your brain absorbs the knowledge better.

I managed my cheat sheet in Google Docs. It started from zero pages, and it swelled to a 200 pages document. Although I’m very proud of it and really tempted to share it online, I avoid doing that, see the caveats above 🙄. Appreciate your understanding 🙂

Hands-on (or: learn through your fingers)

Practice, practice, practice

I saved the best for last. I have experience in AWS, but for achieving a certification that was not enough. You need to expand your existing knowledge. AWS is composed of many services, so most likely working with this platform on a daily basis leads you to focus on some specific services rather than experience others. You become an expert in your domain, but you may lack the vast features beyond. Understanding this nature is important for keeping the focus on where to invest your efforts.

Try to concentrate on the services you have less experience with. For example, if you’re a developer using AWS CodeStar services, you might not have experience with setting a VPC from scratch; if you work with IoT you may be defining Kinesis Firehose, but you might not be familiar with creating an AMI from a snapshot in another region. Thus, your cloud knowledge needs to be enhanced. The best way to achieve it is via exploration and practising.

Although there are many descriptive blogs and YouTube videos that explain how to configure VPC from scratch, for example, actually doing it may be totally different.

To tackle this part, I ranked the areas that I deemed my knowledge should be sharpened and then built a mini-lab on each topic. For example, I defined a CloudFormation template, built an environment, and manipulated its EC2 instances.

This experience contributed the most for exploring AWS services from a new perspective. In fact, that was the most enjoying and fulfilling part of the study. It gave me an opportunity to discover new features, ones that I didn’t use before as part of my standard work with AWS. That is the real gift and the main benefit of this certification.

If you find it hard to start with your mini-labs, you can use the following websites to get ideas:

To recap, the information is out there, waiting for you.

Remember, there is not one source of knowledge that covers all topics and nuances. In my view, only the combination of all sources will lead you to be prepared for the exam. For example, answering trial questions can be used to deepen your knowledge and expand it to hands-on practice. Afterwards, you can update your cheat sheet document to ensure the knowledge is captured.

The dilemma is balancing; how much time to invest in each medium over the other. Every individual has his or her learning style, so you can adjust it based on what works the best for you. Learn through the game days, that’s one of AWS design principles 😉.

Eventually, I passed the exam thanks to the hands-on experience I had and the practice exams. The other sources were useful and complementary.

I hope you find these advice useful.

The end is only the beginning

Congrats, you have achieved the desired certification! Now what?

Well, this is another step towards your goal, whatever it will be. Remember that the journey is a never-ending one, as the cloud technologies evolve, and so are you. Skills need to be retained and cultivated.

Keep on clouding ⛅

— Lior

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