How to Get an AWS Certification: Resources and Preparation Recs, From an AWS Pro

How to get AWS Certified Series: in this series, we’ll be talking to a variety of cloud experts and sharing their knowledge and experiences working and training in the cloud space. In this post, we’ll be talking to an all 5 AWS certification holder who will share his experiences for how to get an AWS certification using the resources and preparation strategies that have worked for him.

Stephen Wilding is the founder of Hydras, a London-based AWS cloud consultancy that specializes in designing, building and operating secure, automated cloud solutions. He works as an AWS Solutions Architect where he designs, builds, and secures cloud-based systems. Stephen is also a co-organizer of the AWS user group in Cambridge, United Kingdom.
After a career in chemistry and science, Stephen decided that it was time for a change. His lifelong interest in computers and an abundance of well-paying tech jobs at the time made IT a natural choice for a career change. He started out as a UNIX sysadmin, spent around about four or five years as a dedicated sysadmin, and then moved into security administration.

After nearly six years doing security administration and security architecture, solution architecture was the next logical step. Stephen got into AWS as a sideline around 2012 and quickly saw the cloud, and AWS, like a breath of fresh air because “you can do things so quickly compared to what you can do in traditional IT environments.” He also saw it as a business opportunity. He started his consultancy, Hydras soon after.

When Stephen began to look into how to get an AWS Certification, he saw it primarily as a personal challenge to test his AWS knowledge. Because Hydras is an AWS partner, they are required to have a certain number of certifications within the company. While there is no requirement to get all 5 certifications, he saw it as a real opportunity to get out of his comfort zone and study areas that he wouldn’t normally touch on a day-to-day basis.

In 2015, Stephen got his last three AWS certifications within just five weeks!

How to get an AWS certification: a simple path

If you want to know how to get an AWS Certification, Stephen has a lot of wisdom to share about the certification process. From choosing your route to certification (where to start?), to how to study in order to successfully pass the exams, those preparing to take one exam (or all five) can learn a lot from his experiences.

  1. Choose your certification path.

In considering AWS certification, a common question is, “I want to know how to get an AWS Certification, but where do I start?” If you’re interested in how to get an AWS Certification, the first step is choosing how you will approach the AWS exams. There are a variety of strategies that you can follow: Start with the one you think is the easiest, or go with the exam that is most relevant to your job or role. Stephen recommends choosing your exam by role or job type because you’ll have a more natural understanding of how it works. “If you’re an architect it’s probably more logical that you go the architect route, whereas if you’re more a DevOps person you may want to go the sysops, straight developer route.”

However, if you’re coming into AWS from outside, or if you’re brand new to IT and you want to start a career in the cloud, he would recommend going for the developer exam first, followed by solutions architect, and sysops as your last of the five certifications.

  1. Develop a preparation strategy

Once you’ve chosen your AWS certification path, it’s time to start thinking about how to prepare for these rigorous exams. Stephen Wilding recommends the resources that have worked well for him in successfully achieving his AWS certifications.

  • Before studying, test your knowledge. Practice exams (including those on the AWS site) are an excellent opportunity to identify your strengths and weaknesses before you start studying. Once you identify the areas where your knowledge is weaker, then you’ll know which subjects you’ll need to spend more time on.
  • Use a variety of study resources. From AWS documentation to online training providers like Cloud Academy, it’s worth taking advantage of the wealth of resources available. Stephen’s strategy is to absorb as much AWS as possible. He recommends the following resources:
    • Training courses. Given the amount of material that the exams cover, training courses can save you a lot of time because they tell you the areas and subjects that you’ll actually be tested on. (These are just a few of the benefits. Check out ours here.)
    • Check out the white papers in the AWS exam blueprint.
    • re:Invent videos: View the videos from Amazon’s latest user conference on their YouTube channel. “There are tons and tons of videos, so if you’re traveling to work on the train, or if you’ve got a spare half hour at night, just watch a video. You really will absorb the information. Even if you don’t understand it all, actually watching it you’ll realize that you are absorbing something, and it’s almost subconsciously. Those are really good starters.”
    • User groups: User groups are a great source of knowledge about what people are doing with AWS in the real world. The added benefit is that you can ask questions at the meetings and there will always be someone who can answer them.
    • But skip the user guides. For Stephen, the user and developer guides are just too extensive for use as study material. He recommends using them as a reference for the subjects where your knowledge is weak, and only go a few pages deep. Otherwise, it’s just too much material to digest when you have so much to cover.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of practical, AWS hands-on labs experience. Stephen recommends getting as much hands-on experience as possible. “Sometimes, when you’re reading stuff, you think you understand it and then you’ll get a question on it, and actually you realize maybe you just memorized what they were saying without actually understanding what they’re doing. For instance, when I was studying for the DevOps pro … We don’t use Beanstalk much, so I’m actually quite weak on Beanstalk. I read all about Beanstalk, and actually thought well, you know, some of the real details stuff can be quite complex. I went, opened a free account, and actually did some Beanstalk deployments, got a real understanding of the file structure, what you can do, what you can’t do, and I think that practical knowledge is quite vital actually.” He also cites hands-on experience for the value they provide in terms of real problem-solving. “When you do come across problems it’s down to you to work it out and you find out a bit more how the service works. That’s certainly the way that I learn. If I come across a problem, it’s finding out how to resolve it and then knowing why that happened, and I think that’s where I learn a lot.”
  • Make studying a daily habit. For many people, another important question is, how to get an AWS Certification when I work full time and have family or other obligations that could limit how much time I have to study? Stephen’s advice is to incorporate studying into your daily routines and habits:  “Obviously, you know you can’t create more time for yourself, so you have to fit in what you can. What I would say is, try and do a little bit every day, even if that’s a struggle.” Instead of listening to music while at the gym, listen to an AWS video. Swap out an AWS article with your regular morning reading material during the morning commute or when you would normally check the news. “I’d say it’s better to try and do a little bit often than try and cram in less in one go. I think, I mean, obviously it depends on the way you adapt to study but for me, I think little and often sticks in the mind, and you tend to forget things less often if you’re doing it every day.”

Certification provides a solid foundation

As someone with all five AWS certifications, Stephen would say that while getting certified may not be essential for every scenario, it is important that you have good, solid knowledge. As it happens, the process of undertaking certification is valuable for really reinforcing your knowledge and being sure that you’re getting things right. “Actually having knowledge of AWS for moving something to the cloud,” he says, “is really, really going to help you.”

“The thing is, it’s a very good do-it-yourself platform but do-it-yourself often means getting a few things wrong, and I guess it’s a bit like DIY at home. You can do stuff, but have you done it well? Some things fall apart because they haven’t been done well; some things get hacked because they had been left wide open. I think having that knowledge of what you’re doing certainly helps. It’s fairly easy to set up things in AWS but getting an architect correctly is another matter, especially when it comes to issues such as security. Then anyone can set up something within the cloud, but having it done correctly is another matter.”

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