QA | 11 June 2015
This is the second blog post in a series about AWS certification. During this part of the series I'll discuss what to expect in your certification exam, how best to prepare for it, and provide my own impression of the AWS exams I've taken.
In the first blog, I discussed why it's worth pursuing AWS certification. Now on to exams! Of course, I'll be staying within the limits of the AWS Certification Program Agreement, which (unsurprisingly) forbids me from telling you any of the actual exam content!
AWS certifications come in three tracks, across two levels:
You must pass the Associate before attempting the Professional.
Best ways to prepare
Personally, I think the best way to prepare is by attending a training course. You may expect that I would think that, being a trainer, but even so. We already have very popular courses that correspond to the Associate level certifications for Architects, Systems Operators and Developers.
In the coming months, we will be offering new courses for the Professional-level certifications for Architects and DevOps. The DevOps exam is the Professional certification for both the Systems Operator and Developer tracks.
Note: You don't have to take the courses in order to sit the exams, and conversely the courses are worth attending even if you don't plan to get certified. Each course will put you in a good position to sit the corresponding exam, but they aren't exam-cram courses and you'll still need to do some of your own reading. AWS has a collection of white papers, documentation and self-paced labs that you can use for background reading.
Download the official exam guides
To focus your reading, go to the AWS certification homepage. Select one of the certifications from the left navigation. You'll see that each exam has a corresponding exam guide, set of sample questions, and practice exam. The exam guide outlines the topic areas of the exam and suggests some white papers to read. Remember to get out of your comfort zone! I come from a developer background, and networking is still something of a black art to me, so I have to force myself to read the documentation for DirectConnect, and keep Googling until I understand it. The sample questions are very representative of the sort of questions you can expect to see on the exam. No sample answers are given; if you're not sure, then do some research!
Do the practice exam
The practice exam costs a little money ($20USD), but will give you a clear indication of the content and style of the real exam and can be taken at your convenience in your own browser (Note: the real exam must be scheduled in advance and taken at a 3rd party testing centre).
The exams themselves are all multiple-choice or multiple-answer. There are no simulations, drag-and-drop exercises, or any of the other question types that occur on some vendor certification exams. The Associate exams have 40 questions in 80 minutes and Professional exams have 80 questions in 170 minutes. The practice exams are about half the length - 20 questions in 30 minutes for the Associate level and 40 questions in 90 minutes for Professional.
There are no trick questions that I noticed, and no pointless memorisation exercises. Unlike some vendor certifications I've seen, AWS will not ask you the sorts of questions for which any normal person would consult the documentation — "How many vCPUs in an m3.xlarge?", "List every single parameter for EC2-run-instances?" — those type of questions are out of scope for the exams, and a good thing too.
What do I think?
My personal impression is that the Associate exams are reasonably straightforward. They test whether you know what the various AWS services are, how they all fit together, and the basic parameters of how they behave and what functionality they offer. Take a look at the sample questions for the Architect Associate exam. They're asking things like "What is Glacier?", "What do ELB health checks do?", "What properties of an EC2 instance are lost when you stop and restart?"
If you've been using AWS or if you've attended the Architecting course, the answers to these questions should be easy (unless you're one of those unlucky people who panics in exams). Personally, I found that I could easily complete the Associate exams with plenty of time to spare. It's also noticeable that, at the Associate level, there's quite a lot of overlap between the exams. Not literally; there were no repeated questions that I noticed, but many of the questions would have been equally at home on any of the three exams.
The professional exams are a big step up
The Professional Architect exam is a whole different ballgame (I haven't taken DevOps yet; I'm waiting to see if AWS send me a 50% off voucher when I have to recertify for Developer Associate, like they did for Architecting Associate). It’s almost three hours with a lot more text to read, and a lot harder questions. I’m quite a fast reader and I finished with only 2 minutes to spare. The questions are less direct and more focused on real-world issues around migration, disaster recovery, backup, configuration, cost, and so on. Often, the question is not about finding the one correct answer, but selecting the best option from several answers (of which, usually at least one answer is either spectacularly wrong, or uses functionality that doesn't exist). Knowing the services well enough to be able to instantly dismiss the silly answers will save you a lot of time. Again, look at the sample questions for the Architect Professional exam. They're asking things like "Which of these DR strategies gives the best RTO?", "Which of these strategies will achieve the requirements?", "Which of these architectures is most cost-effective and scalable?"
On the Associate exam, I felt that I could stop reading once I'd found the correct answer. On the Professional exam, I strongly suggest reading every single answer and convincing yourself not only that your selected answer is correct, but also that you know the reasons why each of the other answers is wrong. Several times, I changed my answer as I kept reading. The examiners also seem fond of multi-part questions, so it's worth taking advantage of that. For example, take a look at the fourth sample question, beginning "You are building a website". Without even reading the question, you should notice that all the answers begin "Use ELB to distribute traffic" and then have two other sentences, one about SSL key storage and one about log storage. The log storage option is either "private S3 bucket with SSE" or "encrypted ephemeral volume", and one of those seems much weirder than the other, doesn't it? Now check the question to make sure they haven't found some reason to pick the weird option. So we're down to only two options for storing the SSL key, and the question hints very heavily about which one is correct.
I found this sort of approach much more manageable than reading everything linearly, but it was a tough slog all the same. If you're looking for more guidance, in early June I should be able to tell you some details about the new Advanced Architecting course, and how QA can help you prepare for the exam.