Five Thoughts After Completing Five AWS Certifications

Well friends, after almost a year of pursuing these things, I’m glad to finally have completed my fifth AWS certification. I know AWS has more than five certifications, but for my professional development needs, I think I’m good. And let me tell you… it feels good to not have to study for these tests anymore!

With several of these things under my belt, Ive received a lot of questions from folks interested in getting their feet wet in this space. These questions range from wanting to know the best study materials to wanting to know which certification is right for them. I’m not going to answer all those questions in this post, but I thought I’d assemble five thoughts for you all to consider, especially if you’re interested in pursuing this certification path. This post is “no holds barred,” so you might be surprised by the last thought, but I feel I wouldn’t be doing you justice if I wasn’t open and honest about this certification path.

Alright, let’s keep this intro short and get into what you came for!

1. You can really accelerate in this space through learning inertia.

In my last post, I talked about the importance of learning inertia, and this is especially true within AWS’s structure of certifications. You might think I’m nuts for having achieved these five certifications in the last year, but the truth is that there is a lot of overlap everywhere! I actually only spent 3 days studying for this last Developer Associate exam because the delta on what was “exclusive” to that exam was pretty small compared to every other AWS exam I took. So as long as you aren’t having big lulls between your certifications, you can actually knock these out pretty quickly by not having to re-learn a lot of the same material.

2. Practice exams are the best resource for logic building.

If you read most online forums, most people will recommend watching AWS Re:invent videos or reading the official AWS Whitepapers as the best study resource. I actually highly disagree with these people and believe that practice exams are actually better resources than those aforementioned ones. There’s nothing particularly wrong with those resources, but the practice exams benefit in several ways. Obviously, they will help give a flavor on what you can expect during the real exam, but a high quality practice exam will help you build your logic on why an exam question is correct.

These exams force you to think through multiple choices that may or may not be correct, and if you can build logic around why a certain choice isn’t correct, you’ll likely be able to apply that same logic when you take the real deal. Additionally, a high quality practice exam will often cover totally random bits of knowledge that you won’t find in most video lectures or whitepapers. And yes, I’ve often encountered these random bits on the actual tests. If you want to know what I recommend in this space, I’ll point you to the following educators:

  • Tutorials Dojo on Udemy (w/ Jon Bonso)
  • Sundog Education on Udemy (w/ Frank Kane)
  • A Cloud Guru’s official exam simulator
  • WhizLabs (this last one honestly isn’t the best, but they do an okay job and are the only ones I know with a Big Data Specialty suite of exams)

3. Even if you are experienced, take the exams per AWS’s suggested order.

Technically speaking, there is nothing stopping you from jumping directly to AWS’s more advanced certifications. While that might be tempting to do if you have direct experience, I would definitely advise against this. AWS has very much structured these certifications in such a way that they really do build well on top of one another. Likewise, these exams cover a strong breadth of material that even an experienced professional probably hasn’t interacted with all the services these things cover. For example, I have a lot of direct experience working with many of AWS’s big data services, but the Big Data Specialty covers IoT (Internet of Things) a decent amount. I have zero experience with that, and I honestly don’t foresee myself using AWS IoT any time soon.

So yeah, you might not want to start with Cloud Practitioner, but it will make things easier in the long run. Considering the first point around learning inertia, Cloud Practitioner will ease you in to a large breadth of services so that you have a solid foundation to build off of in the later, more advanced certifications. The nice thing also is that for every certification you pass, AWS gives you a code for 50% off your next exam. Given that Cloud Practitioner costs $100 and the Specialty certifications cost $300, it’s actually cheaper to do Cloud Practitioner first followed by a Specialty ($100 + the discounted $150) rather than immediately jumping to a Specialty. (Of course, I’d say you should also probably do at least one Associate in between there, too!)

4. There is no better teacher than direct experience.

We already touched on the value of the practice exams above, but I was careful to note that they were most helpful for logic building. The real best teacher for learning AWS is actually getting your hands dirty with direct experience. Whether that be through on-the-job learning or through labs provided by educators like A Cloud Guru, you will learn a LOT of materials that aren’t even necessarily covered by things like AWS Whitepapers. For example, in the Developer Associate exam I just took, I got a question about AWS Lambda deployment packages. I don’t recall learning that anywhere in the study materials, but I do have direct experience working with them in a machine learning setting! AWS throws a fair amount of curveballs in these exams, and in almost every case where I actually knew the answer, it’s because I had direct experience doing it in my own personal AWS account.

5. Honestly… all these certifications are kind of overrated.

I know, you probably weren’t expecting to see this coming from the guy who just completed five certifications! I have very personal reasons for why I did this, and they include a) holding myself directly accountable to learn new things and b) serving as some means of credibility given that I don’t have a formal bachelors or masters in any computer science field. I would imagine that latter reason probably isn’t an issue for many of you.

But if you’ve taken any of these exams, you’ll know that most things in these exams are more theory-oriented than anything. It’s entirely possible to obtain all these certifications and never actually use AWS at all. Weird, right? I know this is true because while I have direct experience with many of these services, there are some (like the aforementioned IoT or Cognito) that I have zero direct experience with. Likewise, actually working amongst these services can be very different than what you’ll learn through study materials. For example, actually standing up a Redshift cluster and populating information into it is pretty different than the theory you’ll learn in ANY of the AWS certifications, including even the Big Data Specialty.

That said… these certifications aren’t the best indicators of how well a person can perform in AWS. I know plenty of people with zero certifications that I would rely on more to actually execute something on AWS over people with even two or three AWS certifications. I know, AWS is in a bit of a bind on how much they can actually exercise a person’s knowledge via a multiple-choice test, so it’s something an employer really needs to be mindful of when looking for a cloud engineer. (Especially if the candidate only has the Cloud Practitioner.)

That wraps up this post! I hope I’ve given you some solid things to think about before you begin on your certification journey. You may walk away reassured that it’s a good idea to pursue these certifications, but I wouldn’t blame you if you’re now less inclined to pursue them. Like I shared, they do hold value for me, but I can totally understand where they might be less valuable to you.

In any case, I’m just glad to be done! 😁

Machine learning engineer at a Fortune 50 company, 5x AWS certified, 2x HashiCorp certified, 1x GCP certified, M.A. in Organizational Leadership, PMP, ChFC, CSM