AWS certification: preparation, exam and value

March 2019. Just passed my first Amazon Web Services (AWS) certification exam - AWS Certified Developer - Associate (DVA) and wanted to share my preparation experience and what I found useful/stupid in the process.

Motivation

Certification or even degrees are not really necessary in software, there are no regulatory requirements as far as I know. In all of my relatively short career working as a software engineer I had never been asked for any sort of certificate or proof of course completion or licence. What is more I do develop applications to be used in public sector which would seem as a ground where one expects to provide some proof, but public organisations are not asking for such proofs and to my mind would fail to even understand what should be required anyway. All this is contrary to e.g. requirements for civil engineers who must have a degree, experience and in most cases hold a licence.

When regulation is absent and no consensus exists in the industry employers are left guessing who is a normal developer and/or valuable investment in the company. To my mind this is why we see more companies giving hard time for potential employees going through rigid recruitment process requiring to do lengthy software development tests. Do not even get me started on this, tests take time, usually are not paid for, and often require developer to do them when they actually need to be at work. The process is clearly not scalable when one searches for a job among multiple companies.

Lately we - developers - saw a massive shift to the cloud where couple of main players dominate the market. This in turn reduces the scope of what developer needs to interact with, think when companies use only Azure or only AWS services. Then from employers perspective there is this one very important thing developer needs to know among all that fuzzy stuff which you can hardly measure anyway. But in this case the same providers Azure/AWS provide their own certification which should signal with an authority to employer, it should tell something along the lines: “This person knows which buttons to press in my mega complicated console”. The last point is crucial here although it sounds a bit sarcastic.

At work I regularly use AWS but here I was again looking into AWS console and not even knowing what half of those services they have are supposed to do. What are best practices of gluing them. So yeah, aws.training it is.

Preparation

There is much and more of documentation in AWS, more than one wishes to read in a lifetime. This poses a problem, what do you need to read, is there a priority? What am I supposed to know about AWS to pass certification?

There is this list of suggestions in AWS and in my case it contained list of whitepapers to read and a suggestion to have an AWS course which is not cheap and one has to attend classes. I was expecting some sort of online course you can take like in Coursera or Udemy. I swallowed suggestions and began reading papers though.

My list contained 10+ whitepapers which did not seem a lot before I knew how long they were. For example AWS Well-Architected Framework is 86 pages long, you get the idea. Papers contained high level stuff and suggestions which services to use for various use cases. But I have to say I found it really useful, especially AWS Security Best Practices which contains examples on how would one approach security review/audit. Right, so I read recommendations, it was very informative but have to disappoint you - there is little correlation between questions asked in exam and these papers. This is a bit problematic as now I know whoever passed the same exam might not even bothered reading those papers in the first place.

There is little correlation between questions asked in exam and suggested AWS whitepapers

Now after reading all the papers I went fishing for online course to further prepare and found this crowd A Cloud Guru through those annoying pricing offers in Udemy where they sell a course for $15 although claim its real price is $150. It was something around 18 hours of video and they expect you to go to AWS and do those labs the same way you see them in videos, which essentially is AWS services in practice, like how to create tables in DynamoDB or how to host a website in S3.

I am not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned here. I swear. It is not sarcasm.

It was the first time I tried Udemy, I got their app and started watching videos. The quality of content was top notch :thumbsup:, there were two instructors Ryan and Faye, both were professional without annoying speaking issues like uhms/ahhs/ehhs/tsks although speaking speed is different which means you’ll have to adjust speed dial when speaker changes (if you like speeding things up). Short quiz was at the end of each section which simulated possible questions in the exam. At the end of a course there was significant feeling of confidence, felt it was my best $15 investment :dollar: even if that would not end up helping in the exam.

Before booking my exam I spotted that AWS training section offers online material as well. I did watch most of it but it was hardly the same quality as on Udemy and content was just scratching the surface of what was to be expected in exam. But what I learned there is that one needs to basically guess the possible answer in exam by method of elimination. This last bit felt so wrong as this just validates cunning and not the actual knowledge.

So to summarise I was using parts of AWS for around 5 years, I did read whitepapers and went through A Cloud Guru course and then AWS online video material.

Exam

Before I could forget all that information from various sources exam was scheduled using aws.training account. They had 4 locations in 2 different cities (Cork and Dublin) available - now you are aware I’m living in Ireland. By the way it is not free, it was €150.

After arriving to the specified location I found it quite busy, it is one of the places where bunch of different exams are being taken. There were posters on the wall describing Microsoft and CompTIA related certifications, also I met a guy who even did some Photoshop exam :astonished:. You have to register with an ID first and then get taken to a room full of people sitting next to computers and torturing their minds to select a proper answer shown on their screens. I was led to a machine no.11 sitting in a corner between window and wall. Window was covered with vertical blinds and was left open to air the place which was tightly packed with people, sitting next to window was a bit annoying as one could hear chatting outside.

I went through NDA, hit next and started my 130 minute session. Some questions were OK given that I spent a bit of time preparing for exam but then there were question I was not anticipating, like How do you specify AWS Lambda resource in CloudFormation template, select 2 appropriate answers :scream: :scream: . Now you might have used CloudFormation enough to remember these sort of things but in my case I touched it just once or twice. There were more similar questions asking about specifics of CodePipeline family services, then Lambda, API Gateway and rest of classical ones like EC2, S3, SQS etc.

Usage of specifics in questions bothered me to the point that I was not confident enough I will pass it :sweat_smile: . Was there anything obvious I missed when preparing for exam?

Looked like there was not much one could prepare without actually using all of the services for couple of times

So yeah, I did pass the test :tada: but still waiting for some email with results which will arrive in the next 5 business days.

Professional value

Preparation process was valuable in itself as I had to read and listen to information which otherwise sounded not very interesting or even useful. Who reads whitepapers when you can just start writing code these days? It does not mean that every certificate holder did read those papers though, as I already mentioned they do not really correlate with exam questions that mostly focus on practical usage of AWS webservices console.

Personally I am now more confident when passing recommendations on to clients. Do clients value this certification? This is unknown and will be so for quite a while, it is not like anyone will start praising you for badges in emails.

What is more it will definitely have an effect when I’ll need to make suggestions/decisions on new candidates with similar certification. It proves that candidate will be able to jump into organisation and be able to deploy her code to our infrastructure without spending a week on reading documentation.

Should you do it? I think yes, AWS is not likely going away very soon and I hear more companies use it every day. Besides this will incentivize to finally try out Lambda or read that boring looking whitepaper.

Thanks for reading and good luck! :nerd_face:

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