AWS Tips: An AWS pro shares his tips for preparation and more

How to get AWS Certified Series: In this series, we’ll be sharing the knowledge and experiences of Cloud experts working and training in the cloud space. In today’s post, we’ll be talking to an all 5 AWS certification holder who will share his AWS tips, processes, and challenges.

Greg Cockburn is an all 5 AWS certification holder. He has extensive expertise in the Information Technology space and has specialized in UNIX and Linux Systems Administrations and broader application operations. Greg is certified as an AWS APN Cloud Warrior and is recognized for his AWS subject matter expertise.

Greg started out in IT as a system administrator, working in both the start-up and enterprise world. He sees AWS certifications as a tremendous value both personally and professionally. “The certifications give you that ‘I know at least these specific core services and I’m able to learn them.’ ” This is important for individuals who want to stand out in their careers, but also for businesses who want to know that their partners have a solid level of understanding for their services. “For business customers and partners, it’s just a way of being able to ascertain that you are at that level. It’s a really good starting point.”

The path to AWS

For Greg, the certification path started with meeting the requirements for being an AWS premier partner. When he needed a greater level of competency in AWS, he continued to go for certifications to round out his knowledge in the different areas. He says: “You deal with the run of the mill stuff, if you like, the EC2 instances, the RDSs. Then you forget that there’s other things outside of that. The certifications gave you the opportunity to go back and learn the things that you don’t touch often or you haven’t had a chance to use or play with.”

It took Greg just 18 months to complete all five certifications. His certification path was tuned toward what was available and necessary at the time. When Greg went for his first AWS certification, the Professional level certifications did not yet exist. After two certifications, he was invited by AWS to take the DevOps Professional certification, which was in beta at the time. He sat for the Developer-Associate certification at the 2015 re:Invent and decided to get the final certification, for SA Professional, to complete the set.

Because of his background as a sys admin, his personal ordering of the certifications worked for him. “If you feel more comfortable with day-to-day operations, or Dev Ops, then perhaps it’s better to choose sys admin first and then look at doing the Dev Ops Professional and then do the architecture Professional.”
He advised a similar strategy for moving from Associate Solutions Architect to the Professional tier: “If you’ve only got one of the Associates, I would definitely recommend doing a second one. If you’ve done the Developer-Associate, then look at doing the Sys Ops one. I would almost say you should partner the Sys Ops with one of the other two. I would almost always recommend doing the Sys Ops first, unless you’ve got a little bit more of a slant on the developer side, then maybe do the Developer one first, but definitely pair either SA or the Developer with the Sys Ops. Do those first. I’m not sure if that’s what AWS recommend or if they just require you to have one Associate, I can’t remember, but definitely do the Sys Ops with one of the other two.

Then from there the track becomes reasonably obvious. If you do the Sys Ops and the Developer, you would go on and do the Dev Ops-Professional, or if you’ve done the Sys Ops and the SA-Associates, then go on to do the SA-Professional.”

AWS Tips: Getting prepared for certification

Here are a few of Greg’s AWS tips for preparing for certification exams, from your initial preparation strategy, up to what you should do the night before, and during the actual exam itself.
In advance. Greg’s study strategy is to get the exam blueprint and set aside two to three hours of dedicated study time per week.

“Find your time when it suits you to just lock everything away and pick one section. Then go off and read the white paper about it. Or go and do a lab and then do some questions. I think the big thing to do is to first go and play with it yourself, so follow the examples from the AWS documentation, and then go and jump into a course or a lab – you can take a look at the suite of CloudAcademy learning content to prepare –  and then go through those processes. They will help you fill in the blanks, if you like. The things that you didn’t pick up during the examples. Then just do that, do a section. If you break it down like that, a few weeks later, you will go through all the sections and now you’ve learnt all of those bits and pieces. That’s the approach that I’ve always taken.

Courses are an especially good way to make sure you are covered in the areas that the exam actually covers. “Back in those days, there were only two types of EBS storage: magnetic and IOPS. You generally didn’t use IOPS, because you’re just playing around. You’ve done a lot of magnetic, but you’ve never done any calculations on ‘How does IOPS work? How would you size it?’ If you don’t touch it, the blueprint may only say ‘EBS.’ It doesn’t actually go in and say ‘You need to know EBS and IOPS.’
The courses fill those gaps in for you. They’ll make sure that you’ve covered both magnetic and IOPS, in this case. That’s where you have your play and you solve your problems in the console yourself or via the command line, but within AWS, and then get those courses to just fill in all the little bits and pieces that you haven’t thought of specifically to help fill in all those gaps for you.”

Exam day. Rather than using the night before the exam to cram, Greg recommends taking the night off from studying. ”If you haven’t studied up to that point in time, you’re probably not going to learn it and retain it.” Instead, focus on going to bed early so you can get a good night’s rest. Then, have have a good breakfast.

During the test. Greg’s advice for navigating the test questions is to go with your gut instinct. “I can’t quote specific studies, but I’ve read enough things that say that most of the time, you’ve usually picked the right answer the first time, so don’t change it. While I do tag things to review later, I very rarely change them to review. And try and not get myself too worked up about it at the end. If you that little bit of time, you start to double-guess on some of these questions.

The exams are a multi-choice type approach. There’s usually four answers and two of them are throw-away. Then the other two answers are going to be very similar and there’ll be one little thing in there that you have to pick out from the question to distinguish which one is the right one. Those are the ones that you get hung up on and you put a mark down and come back to it later and you start double-guess yourself and you start to over-think it. The thing is, go with your gut, it’s usually right.

General AWS tips for certification

Greg also shared his AWS tips for some specific concerns, including what scripting knowledge you need going into AWS, crossover content in the DevOps and SysOps exams, and strategies for students who want to acquire more real-world experience in addition to certification:
What scripting knowledge do you need before starting the certification process?
“You need to have an understanding of a language other than bash, so Python or Ruby or some of the others. Basically, most of the ones that are covered in the AWS SDKs, but you don’t need to know one specifically for the exams. The questions are general development-type questions as opposed to a specific language.

“Where do you need to have an understanding of the language that AWS SDK uses for the method call. If you get where a verb versus a noun goes in their methodology, you should be able to pick out the right ones. Those are all language agnostic, so you don’t need to know a specific language, but definitely you need to know something more than bash.

“I would say that at least, at a minimum, learn and use the AWS CLI as you’re doing labs. If you do a lab really quickly in the console, jump in and do it via the CLI. If you want to go that next level, then I’d definitely use another language like Python or Ruby to do the same thing again. It all ultimately matches. The same calls that you do, the same function that you use in the AWS CLI is going to be exactly the same name. Maybe the capitalization or underscores are a little bit different, but the same names and the same places follow exactly the same in the SDK, so it becomes really easy.

“I actually do that all the time. I will prototype something, take it do the AWS API using the CLI first, and then go off and write it in Python or Ruby. That’s how I write a lot of the Lambda stuff I do. I do a quick one on the AWS CLI just by copying and pasting values as I print them out, and then once I understand my workflow, what I want to achieve, I’ll then go and write my first iteration in Python to run locally, and the next iteration is to wrap it in something that’s suitable for Lambda with a handler and return values for the context, etc.”

How much crossover is there between the content for the DevOps and SysOps exams?
“All of the Associates are more focused on just the specific resources and how they work and their limits and those sort of things in AWS. When you get into the Developer and the Architecture Professionals, they are very much more focused on how to build it for the Dev Ops and what to build for the architecture.

“There’s not so much in overlap, but when you get to that Professional level, you’ve got to have an understanding of those basic resources. Those basic resources are those ones covered in the Associate exams. That’s where the overlap comes from in that respect.”
Upon entering the job market, how can students who already have certifications prepare to compete with more experienced candidates?

“With AWS, of course, you can be Free Tier, so sign up and jump in there and do things. It’s almost a little bit as much about networking. Who can you find in your network who can solve that problem? Now you’ve immediately got a reference and some experience. It might only be a couple of hours of work. Jump onto an open-source project and help them with their infrastructure, for example. Or Linux User Groups is another good one. You’ll often find people in those groups who’ll need assistance with setting up infrastructure, maintaining it, or those sorts of things. You’re going to get experience and you’re going to build your network outside of uni or school or whatever it is that you’re in. That’s going to be really valuable to getting your experience, getting your references, and building up your network to get those job offers.”

Hear more of Greg’s AWS tips in this Cloud Academy webinar.
More about Prep for AWS Certifications here.


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