How to get AWS Certified when you are an experienced guy

Recruiter: “So, you’ve been running a furniture company for the last 5 years and you’d like to apply for the Solutions Architect position?”
Me: “That’s right. Before the furniture company, I worked in IT for 15 years in a variety of roles and…”
Recruiter: “Well, thanks for your interest, but we’re looking for someone with more up to date skills and experience.”
Me: “I see…”

Looking for a Career Fix: how to get AWS certified

I started my career in IT, first in engineering roles and progressing to solutions architecture and eventually to senior management. In 2011, I decided to take a short career break to run my family business. My plan was to return to the technology sector within a couple of years. Now five years later (and 10 years since I’d been in a technical role), I had recently sold my stake in the business and was looking to return to IT.
As time passed, I hadn’t underestimated the fact that my time out of the industry would make it more difficult to return. However, I did expect that my general management skills, education, and industry contacts would ensure that I had several options when the time came to look for a job.
The time had come and I was wrong.

This wasn’t exactly a new situation for me. In the mid-1990s, I graduated with a general arts degree into a depressed job market. Many of the jobs available at the time were technology related, and it became apparent that I would need to improve my skills or settle for the most junior roles. Whilst several of my counterparts decided to pursue technology-related post-grad degrees, I was looking for a quicker fix.
Back then, IT certifications were new and had quickly gained currency with employers. I found that by gaining Microsoft and Cisco certifications I could upskill myself in relevant technologies and make myself more employable, usually at higher salary bands than people with more experience. Indeed, my first two jobs were directly linked to having the right ‘certs’.

Given my new-found predicament, whilst I didn’t relish the prospect of hitting the books, it made sense for me to look at certification as a means to close my knowledge gaps and fix my employment challenge. The next question was, which certs to go for?

2016: cloud certifications rule

As I approached the job market in 2016, it wasn’t difficult to identify the most in-demand skills. Five years earlier, ‘the Cloud’ and ‘SaaS’ featured prominently on every salesman’s slide deck. For many of us, it wasn’t a new concept.  As someone who had spent much of his career working in Telco, I was well accustomed to providing ‘hosted’ services ‘from the cloud’ using ‘utility pricing’.
Although it wouldn’t have been the first time that a technology or model had been over-hyped, it was clear that the cost benefits, flexibility, and operational agility that a true ‘public cloud’ afforded organizations, meant that it was likely to be the dominant architecture for the coming years.

What was less clear at that time was which vendors and variants were going to dominate the market. Understandably, Telcos, Hosting Companies, and large Enterprise IT players were positioning themselves as the go-to guys on ‘cloud’. Although Amazon had been successful as a business throughout the 2000s, as recently as 2011, AWS revenues were on par with small systems integrators.

Over the last 5 years, I wasn’t exactly oblivious to the cloud ‘world’. (Indeed, most of the applications we used were provided ‘as a service’.) However, as I established a new understanding of the subject, I was genuinely surprised at exactly how much of a lead Amazon had established. And, it was particularly striking how extensively the platform was used by large enterprises.

It quickly became apparent that AWS certification would offer me the greatest employment options. AWS had the most well-established eco-system of training providers, forums, documentation, etc. Although I haven’t ruled out future Google and Microsoft certs, AWS was clearly the right place to start my journey.
Now, I was keen to get moving quickly and chose to take the Solutions Architect Associate exam. Being a bit gung-ho about the process, I gave myself a week to prepare for the exam. With the pressure of the exam looming, I was sure that I’d work out a way to prepare for it.

Preparing for my first exam

For previous certifications, books were my primary method of study over classroom-based courses or other methods. However, there are very few specific books for AWS exam prep.
That said, the quality and quantity of Amazon’s own documentation is excellent. With copious white papers, product guides, and faqs, the extent of available information is impressive, though it can seem a bit overwhelming.

And then you have an abundance of training providers…
There were many reasons that I chose CloudAcademy as my primary study method. Firstly, the first week is free. I challenged myself to achieve my first cert using the free trial period that CloudAcademy offers to new sign-ups. Secondly, I liked the delivery method. I could I sit down and intently follow a video and pause it anytime to make notes. I could watch the video later, often at a faster playback speed, to further cement the content in my mind.

Additionally, the hands-on labs gave me a way to familiarize myself with AWS in a safe, real-world environment. Finally, I knew from previous experience that testing yourself with real world questions was key to passing the exam. CloudAcademy has literally thousands of exam questions that both challenge you and help you understand your weak points. Of course, it can be a bit depressing when you get a load of answers wrong. However, I find that trying as many exam questions as possible helps you understand and retain the content.

A month into my Cloud journey

Today, just over a month since I first googled ‘cloud certification’, I have passed three AWS associate exams. Although they were all close, and I had to re-take one of them, at least they are now in the bag. I’m under no illusions about where this ranks me against other cloud experts. I fully understand that there is no replacement for real-world experience. There are surely thousands of people, certified or not, who are more capable with AWS than me.

That said, I have just started a new job with a technology company that extensively uses AWS. Whilst I am not in a hands-on AWS role, being certified helped during the interview process and in my first few days on the job. An understanding of why the company uses ELBs, EC2, Docker, Lambda, S3, etc. has allowed me to quickly add value. Only a short while ago, I wouldn’t have had much of a clue what my colleagues were talking about.

My next goal is to take the Solutions Architect Professional exam. This is clearly a step up from the Associate exams, so I have given myself five weeks to prepare for it. I’ll be keeping you all updated of my progress here on the CloudAcademy blog.


Written by

Simon Mcmillan

A seasoned all-rounder with over 15 years’ experience in IT & Telecoms in a variety of roles from engineer to senior manager. After a 5 year diversion into my family business, I have recently returned to the IT world. I am currently working in operations for a start up in the Sports Data Analytics field.

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