“Failure doesn’t mean the game is over, it means try again with experience.”
— Len Schlesinger
I recently passed my Amazon Web Services (AWS) Certified Architect Associate Exam (woohoo!). It was not easy and took a lot of work, but it was all worth it. This certification can help you start a career in cloud computing. If you are looking to go into cloud computing, upgrade your skills for an existing job, or just want to pass the exam for personal development, this post is for you. Here, you’ll learn the tips, tricks, and materials I used to pass this exam.
My boss asked me to pass the exam as a job stretch goal. However, the challenge I faced, and one that you might also be facing, is that I was not working full-time on AWS technologies. I was involved part-time in one project that used AWS for one of its components, so I had limited exposure to AWS and its many, many, many (did I mention there are many?) technologies and components.
In order to pass the architect exam, you have to have knowledge of many of these technologies, and therefore the biggest challenge is the all-pervasive chicken and egg dilemma: I needed experience to pass the exam, and to get experience I needed to have passed the exam.
Since I was new to the AWS space at the time, nobody would consider handing a production or even a dev workload over to me so that I could experiment and learn. I’ll show you how I solved that dilemma, and how you can too.
The AWS certification exams are unlike any exams I have taken in the past. They are scenario-driven and expect much more than rote memorization of the subject. You must know the principles of good cloud architecture and be able to apply them in real-world scenarios.
Also, the exam is designed to be confusing. This means that for any given scenario, there could be two right answers, one of which is more correct based on the question being asked. You are expected to select that answer.
I’m approaching this post as an outline of a general procedure for passing technical exams. I will be using the AWS Certified Architect Associate Exam as a blueprint, but this method can be used to pass any technical exam. The method consists of distinct steps, with each step culminating in a milestone, and each milestone guiding you to your destination of passing the exam.
So, let's break down the steps and how each one will get you closer to your goals.
Step 0: It's All Dark
Like all good programmers, we will start counting from 0. In step 0, you will have limited-to-no knowledge of AWS and its different technologies, just like I did when I began preparing.
Since you are a beginner at AWS, you must first get some exposure to the basics. Don't worry about the hundreds of technologies out there yet, as your goal in this step is to simply not be in the dark. Let's create some light, shall we?
In this step, you must complete the following free beginner curricula offered by AWS. Head on over to AWS Certification and Training and register for a training account.
Add this to your learning module: AWS Cloud Practitioner Essentials. Be sure to complete them in the recommended order.
Next, head on over to Coursera and audit this course: AWS Fundamentals: Going Cloud Native. Don’t worry, auditing is free.
There are many other beginner curricula on the AWS cloud that you can take, but these two are fairly comprehensive and cover a lot of ground. If you think you need additional help, feel free to use any other beginner curriculum.
At this point, you are simply trying to come out of the dark, so resist the temptation to sign up for a course or take a practice exam.
At the end of this step, your milestone is that you will have finished both of these courses and have a slightly clearer picture of what AWS is.
Step 1: Clear as Mud
In this step, you are not clear on most concepts and technologies of AWS. However, you have some clarity on the different terms of importance in AWS such as region or availability zone. You are now ready to make your first purchase.
Head to Udemy and purchase the following course: AWS Certified Architect Associate by A Cloud Guru. (Don't pay more than $15 dollars. Just wait until the next major U.S. holiday and it will go on sale.)
If you want, you can also purchase the following books and use them as text books:
- AWS Certified Solutions Architect Study Guide: Associate SAA-C01 Exam 2nd Edition
- AWS: Amazon Web Services: The Complete Guide From Beginners For Amazon Web Services
Remember, learning does not come from reading books but by doing the work.
During your “Clear as Mud” phase, you must finish this entire course. The reason I am recommending this course is because Ryan Kroonenburg guides you from one step to the next, and with each video lecture there are multiple hands-on labs.
Do not skip any of the labs and follow along in the labs with Ryan. I cannot emphasize this enough. Since you are still hazy on how AWS works, the best way to get your head around architecting is to actually architect.
Following along with Ryan and he will show you a little of what you need to know to pass the exam. Only a little? Then how come I am recommending this course? I am glad you asked.
No course you take (and there are plenty of them out there) can possibly cover all the topics you need to know to prepare for the exam. The best anyone can do (which Ryan does a fantastic job of) is to familiarize you with AWS and get you to not be afraid of the console anymore.
Do not take any end-of-lecture quizzes or exams yet; we will come to that. This includes the quizzes that are included in the course at the end of each section. We will attempt those in the next step.
Your milestone in this step is to watch each and every video and to do each and every lab in this course once without taking any quizzes.
Step 2: Translucent Phase
The reason I call this step the “Translucent Phase” is that you now know some of the terms, you are no longer afraid of the AWS console, and you have gotten your hands dirty with a lot of exercises.
Now that you have finished the course, go ahead and attempt the end-of-section quizzes. Since you did not take these quizzes the first time, you will have forgotten most of the content and most likely do poorly. That is the point. You are not ready yet to go on to the next level.
For every quiz that you achieve a score of less than 80%, watch the section video again and redo the labs. Once you are done with the revision upon revision, you are now ready to take your first practice exam.
Go ahead and attempt the first practice exam included with the course. WARNING: You will not do well. You will likely score only slightly better than if you had guessed at random (my first score was 34% and you are almost guaranteed a 20% score if you guess at random on MCQ exams).
Don’t be disheartened by the results. We are only at half-time. The game is not over yet. Just relax and you will get there, I promise.
Step 3: Do While Loop…
Now that you have your first exam score, you are ready for the next step, which I like to call the “Do While Loop….” This step will take you the longest.
You will have the exam questions you missed and the explanation of each exam question answer. For each exam question you got wrong, you should do the following:
- Read the questions and first understand what was being asked and why you got it wrong.
- Google the topic and read the AWS documentation related to that topic.
- Find a video on the topic that you have not watched before and watch it. YouTube is your friend here.
- Find a blog post that describes how to do what the question asked you about, then actually do it in your AWS console.
- Find a lab on the topic through Google and do the lab. If the lab does not involve actually doing something in your AWS console, it is not a good lab.
For example, one of the questions that I missed in the practice was related to identity and access management (IAM). Here is what I did:
- I watched this video from SimpliLean on IAM.
- I did this qwiklab on the IAM.
- I read AWS documentation sections on the topic.
So, where is the while loop? Here is your algorithm. If your last exam score was less than 80%, you must do steps 1-5 above for each question you missed. Then go ahead and take another exam. Never take the same sample exam twice.
If your exam score for the next exam is also less than 80%, then do steps 1-5 for each question missed for that exam and attempt another exam. Lather, rinse, and repeat. For each sample exam you take, you can expect to study around 20 to 40 hours while improving your score roughly 10-15%. Here is what my schedule looked like:
|Exam Number||Percentage Scored||Total Number Of Hours Studied|
That's right, it took me 200 hours of total study time, 12 months, and seven sample exams before I reached the 80% milestone. This is also your milestone. Go ahead and repeat until you get there.
Here are some resources to help you along the way:
Brain dumps are actual exam questions that are copied from real exams in violation of the non-disclosure agreement every student signs when taking an exam. Be sure not to use any brain dumps from the internet. If you have already taken the two exams included in the course above, spend the money and purchase a sample exam from a trusted provider such as PearsonVue.
Brain dumps devalue your certification and you cannot possibly get or keep a job based on an exam you cheated on. In real life, you will not know the answer, and once you get outed as an exam cheat, you will likely push your career back a decade. So don't do it. Read about brain dumps here.
Other resources I used:
- SimpliLearn YouTube Channel
- Edureka YouTube Channel
- AWS YouTube Channel
- AWS Online Tech Talks Channel
Take the AWS Certified Architect Associate Exam With Confidence
At this point, if you have followed all the instructions above, you should take the exam and likely pass it on the first attempt. However, there is always luck of the draw regarding the difficulty of the questions.
I personally did not pass on the first attempt because my first exam contained some rather tough questions. That can happen with any exam, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t pass the first time. I scored a borderline 69%, 72% being the passing mark, and passed on my second attempt. It is a long and difficult process but well worth it.
There you have it. If you are looking to change careers or break into the cloud computing field as an IT professional, the AWS Certified Architect Associate credentials is a great way to highlight your skills. With the steps outlined above, you should pass the exam and with it be able to pursue many exciting new opportunities. Good luck on the exam.