Saturday, September 9, 2017

My Path to the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate Exam

Its been a while since I've tried to get any kind of industry certification. Life was busy. I was full-time consulting and had clients to support after work as well. Why would I even bother with all the study? Does a certification amount to much anymore? Lately, several things converged to motivate me to write this cert exam...

  1. My resume was getting stale. While I was able to keep a steady stream of contracts going, many of them were using older technologies that weren't current. This concerned me.
  2. I got a new gig at a start-up that gave me a hands-on opportunity to work with newer technology in the cloud. After setting up the infrastructure and CI/CD for several QA environments and geo-load balanced UAT and PRD environments in the Google Cloud Platform, a requirement for hosting our data in Canada became paramount. AWS had recently launched data centres in Canada, and so in May we decided to migrate our infrastructure there. Having successfully completed that migration I wondered how easy it would be for me to follow up with a Solutions Architect certification.
  3. A couple of guys at work got me turned on to Catching some sales I was able to get a couple of courses on AWS certification for $15 each (regularly they are over $150 each). One course was by ACloudGuru for the AWS SysOps certification. The other was by the Linux Academy for AWS Solutions Architect certification. These two courses gave me a good foundation for the material that is covered on the exam.
I originally did the SysOps course first, as I thought the that course was more in line with my job description at work. Finishing that course (leaving its practice test for later), I took a look at the practice questions on AWS here and felt like I'd come up short if I wrote the exam. That's when I decided to switch gears and do the Solution Architect course and exam. Most people online recommend doing that one first.

Incidentally, both courses helped me get a better grasp AWS Best Practices, and I was able to implement several improvements to our infrastructure at work because of what I learned. After another week and a half of going through the Solutions Architect course and reviewing the material, I felt more confident. I took the practice tests from both courses and passed them with good marks, so I thought I was ready. I scheduled my exam for the next week and also, for good measure, purchased a 20 question 'official practice exam'.

I had the week off during which I was scheduled to write my exam. Thursday was the big day. Tuesday morning I wrote the 'official practice exam' which was full of scenario based questions - and got 60% - A FAIL! Apparently the passing mark floats a bit between 62 and 66% (go figure). The practice exams in the courses seemed a bit easier. One of the things I didn't realize was how the different 'domains' for the exam were weighed:

In my 'official practice exam' I had scored:
1.0 Designing highly available, cost-efficient, fault-tolerant, scalable systems: 50%
2.0 Implementation/Deployment: 100%
3.0 Data Security: 75%
4.0 Troubleshooting: 50%

Clearly my 100% in implementation/deployment wasn't going to help me much with the domains balanced like that. I had some work to do!

A Cloud Guru has a forum specifically for the exam. I poured of that, specifically looking at posts where people who've written the exam share their experiences and what they wished they would have studied. I made notes of what I didn't know from those posts, and I also went over a lot of official AWS documentation for specific services (mostly FAQs and Best Practices) and took notes from them, too. And then I studied hard. 6 pages of 8 point font text. I kept adding things to those notes as well.

Thursday rolled around and I wrote the exam. I tried my best. The exam is 55 multiple choice questions and you have 80 minutes to complete it. Some of the questions I knew the answer, hands down. Others (like 'choose two correct answers') got a bit dicey. I chose the answers that made the most sense to me. I didn't feel like I was blind-sided by any of the questions, however there were definitely some things I (still) could have studied more (AD/User Federation types, for example). I finished answering the questions with about 15 minutes to spare. I had flagged some questions, so I went back and reviewed them and changed a couple of answers. When all was said and done, I passed and scored 72% - not great, but good enough for a certification. 

Here's how things panned out:
1.0 Designing highly available, cost-efficient, fault-tolerant, scalable systems: 75%
2.0 Implementation/Deployment: 80%
3.0 Data Security: 55%
4.0 Troubleshooting: 80%
I was quite happy with the improvements I'd made in the first and last domains.
Apparently there is quite a bit of content cross-over between the AWS Solution Architect - Associate exam and the other two associate certifications: SysOps and Developer. Potentially I could study a bit and write those fairly soon. However its $150 USD to write the exams, and I'm wondering what difference is in having the 3 certs verses just the 1. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. Would it be work the extra $300 USD? Personally, I'm content to take a break from studying for now