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Corey Quinn, via his Last Week in AWS newsletter, recently drew my attention to a blog from cloudonaut.io giving 5 good reasons not to get AWS certified. I'm going to provide a rebuttal, with some input from my colleagues Paul Thomas and Justin Watkins. Here are 5 excellent benefits of getting a cloud certification:

1. Certifications help to close the huge skills gap: stay one step ahead

The cloudonaut blog reasons that AWS certification is unnecessary, stating: "Stay away from the race to the bottom." The assertion here is that with Amazon announcing that they want to help 29 million people grow their tech skills by 2025, in the end, an AWS certification will not distinguish you from your peers. Google and Microsoft have made similar announcements.

Now, having a driving license doesn't distinguish me from my peers, but no-one's telling me not to take the test. We as an industry need to get a lot more people trained up and soon. Organisations report that they're seeing the skills gap increase. The reason? The oft-trumpeted fact that 95% of IT spend is still on on-premise, which means the cloud sector has a long way to grow and we need lots more well-trained and capable individuals.

But, here's the clincher: of those 29 million newly minted certified folks we’ll see by 2025, most will only have one or two associate-level certs. I'm getting a head-start on them by having all my pros and specialties as they get launched. Pretty sure that differentiates me.

2. Certification lands you the interview... and showcases your commitment

The author of the cloudonaut.io blog explains that he's looking for a showcase of an applicant's work rather than any certifications they might have. Which is absolutely correct. Open-source something you've used to help explore some of the concepts you've struggled with, make a pull request to Kubernetes, video yourself deploying a service mesh, build a serverless application that sends you an SMS telling you whether Tower Bridge is going to be open on your commute to work so you know which route to take from London Bridge.

But the fact remains that the CV bots scraping LinkedIn and being used by all the big job sites are far more likely to identify you as a candidate in the first place if you have a certification. Having some work to showcase gets you the job, having a certification gets you an interview.

Another point about certification and job prospects: someone willing to put the time and effort into taking an exam shows commitment to a recruiter. I can think of at least two people that I've hired in the last couple of years who studied in their own time while holding down a full-time job – and that effort was definitely a factor.

3. Vendor curriculums are thorough – and can be interesting too

Point three of the cloudonaut blog is trying to make the point that if you follow the AWS curriculum, you'll learn a whole bunch of stuff you don't need to know. Instead, I'm exhorted to start with serverless, machine learning, networking, databases... whatever sounds most interesting to me, rather than following the learning path defined by Amazon (or by implication, another vendor).

Now, those things do all sound very interesting to me, and it just so happens that I can not only pursue those topics, but I can demonstrate my knowledge by passing a vendor exam too – Developer Associate, Machine Learning Specialty, Advanced Networking Specialty (in fact, the Solutions Architect Associate had quite a lot of networking in it the last time I sat it) and Database Specialty.

Microsoft has multiple certifications covering those areas, Google has its Data Engineering, Networking and Application Development certs. All have Security certs, if that floats your boat, and DevOps if that sounds interesting. All have official curriculum offerings, and often a lot of third-party digital companies offer courses. It's a lot easier to get started on any of these things if you have someone around to show you the ropes and you have a certain degree of underpinning knowledge, which you can gain by passing an entry-level exam.

And how do you go about defining your own curriculum anyway? Plenty of people on the AWS subreddit have no idea where to start. Defining your own curriculum in AWS is guaranteed to miss some really important parts. Plenty of my learners are on the course specifically in order to fill in the gaps – and I have evidence. This is an anonymised sample of a beginning-of-course survey from a recent Advanced Architecting on AWS course:

Name

Goals

Learner 2

WANT: how to set up arch. WANT networking

Learner 7

WANT hybrid

Learner 10

WANT fill in the gaps, esp. Wavelength, Outposts, Local Zones, Resilience

If you've taken the time to learn a subject, why on earth wouldn't you want to get an industry-recognised piece of paper (and of course a digital badge and possibly some swag if you take the right exam from the right vendor) to prove it?

An acquaintance started taking the exams to try to better themself. As they took the certification learning path, they discovered so many more new technologies that they hadn't previously been aware of. That in turn took them in new directions that they could apply at work, and within a couple of years they became Operations Manager – and their journey still continues.

4. Hands-on experience makes passing an exam much easier

I agree one hundred percent with this, which is why I'm still a trainer after 20 years. I am firmly of the opinion that you have to get hands-on experience to be able to do the job that you're "certified" to do. I am likely to get some backlash from this next statement – but many of the entry-level exams are passable through study alone.

So up your game to the next level. There's no way you can pass professional-level exams without actually having gone through pain. You need to be able to start intuiting the answers as you're reading the questions, which often have four working solutions to pick from, one of which is more correct because of some tiny modifier in the stem.

Practical exams, like the ones I've been taking recently from the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, really do require you to know what you're doing. Having said that, I know that all the major cloud vendors are trying to make their exams more hands-on and practical, but it is hard to implement well. And how do you ask an exam candidate to "stand up a database instance and then just wait 5 minutes for it to complete"?

The cloudonaut.io blog asserts that 99% of people prepare for (AWS) certification by "memorising questions and answers". I'd be very interested to know where that statistic comes from because I simply don't believe it's true, unless it's accompanied by a breakdown of what percentage of those fail the exam at the first attempt and go off to get more hands-on experience.

When people ask me how I prepare for an exam, I say, "I play with it until it breaks, then I fix it and play some more." I am aware that some people just want to read lots of "past papers" to prepare (or worse, visit a brain-dump). That might help you to pass the exam (more often it doesn't), but it doesn't prepare you to do the job. Fortunately, most of the people I interact with want to learn and do, not just pass.

5. Learning from independents give you the big picture

A recurring comment about some vendors' official curricula is that these read like marketing decks, but for me, the slides are only there to remind me of what I need to talk about, not to read from like a book.

I'm often asked, "Why don't you work for AWS (or Google or whatever)?" The answer is twofold: Firstly, I wouldn't want to be delivering only one vendor's courses for the rest of my life; secondly and more importantly, I'm not gagged by communications policies, I don't have to toe the company line and I have the freedom to say what I think about a product. QA is an independent organisation and our delivery team has years (if not centuries!) of experience delivering learning across a broad range of vendors and subjects. 

Summary

There are lots of very good reasons to get cloud certified (or any kind of vendor certification) and few, if any, valid reasons not to. If you'd like to find out more about getting cloud certified, you can start by clicking here:

Learn more about QA's cloud certifications

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