Interview: Passing the AWS Certified Database Speciality Exam

Cloud Academy’s AWS Certification Specialist, Stephen Cole and VP of Global Marketing, Courtney Wilson sat down for a virtual chat about the newly released AWS Database – Specialty certification.

AWS Database - Specialty Certification Learning Path

Cloud Academy’s certification learning paths provide all the vital info you need in an organized manner courses, labs, exams, extra resources. Now you can get extra insight from our very own AWS certification specialist someone who has a deep personal knowledge of AWS and get Stephen’s tips on what to focus on for the exam and ways to empower yourself for success. Grab a coffee and watch or read below.

Courtney: At Cloud Academy, we are all about helping our customers reach their certification goals. So I am joined by Stephen Cole, who is our AWS certification specialist, and he’s been working at the intersection of cloud technology and education for a long time. He’s one of our premier AWS instructors, and he has got a bunch of insights to share to help people pass that certification. So Stephen, why don’t you tell everybody a little bit about yourself?

Stephen: Thanks for having me. I’ve been at Cloud Academy for, I just joined this year actually, but I’ve worked in IT, in information technology my whole life, so for everything from help desk and tech support to systems engineering, and for a while I was an educator, I was a teacher, and then I worked at AWS for a couple of years in training and certification. So I actually have, I got started putting workloads in the cloud very organically. It was very much a, hey, let’s start with a little, store a little bit here, do a little bit there, and next thing you know, it organically grew into running complete workloads in the cloud, and the certifications came along as I developed more experience. So I have six current active AWS certifications and then a seventh that expired because, well, you know, COVID gets in the way and I didn’t get back to recertify. So I’ve done a lot of work around certification, and it’s not necessarily the thing that I aspired to, but I have some insights on how to help people figure out how to manage those goals. So it’s good to be here.

C: Stephen’s going to share some tips and insights on this stuff. And remind me again, when did you actually pass your certification for this particular one, the AWS Database – Specialty (DBS-C01)?

S: So for the database certification, that was at the end of March, beginning of April? It was, like, the week after that it was announced. And the days blur at this point, but it was relatively quickly in the process because I wanted to start working on this learning path that we’ve presented at Cloud Academy and I wanted to know what was on it. And I wasn’t sure that I would pass. I’ve got a lot of database experience. I’m not a database administrator by training or even temperament, but I’ve worked with them. So I thought, well, let’s see what it is. And I passed. So it was pretty exciting for me to get that kind of out of the way, but it also showed me the things I have to study. So I have a little bit more to do.

What topics does the AWS Certified Database – Specialty exam cover?

C: I know this is a particularly challenging one and it does cover a lot of areas. So maybe that’s where we can start —  just maybe give us just an overview of the different topics that are covered and just your initial thoughts on that.

S: You know what? I should’ve probably printed out the blueprint, but anybody can really look at the blueprint to figure out what’s on it. What people should know about this particular exam, like most of the exams, it is not really about the individual technologies. Like, it isn’t going to ask you, or it might ask you a little bit about SQL, but just a little bit. You need to understand the access methods and you know how databases work, but you don’t necessarily have to be doing deep dives inside the databases. 

It’s really about how do you support, how do you take care of, how do you manage the care and feeding of the databases themselves? How do I connect it to them? How do I run them cost-effectively and efficiently? And how do I manage disaster recovery and backups? So it’s not really just like, what is this technology? 

But it’s also about the workloads themselves. You can run any database product. You could pick one and you could run every type of workload on the planet on it. You can just do it. However, it’s not going to be efficient. It’s not going to be cost-effective. It’s not going to be easy to manage. So how do you do that work? How do you understand, how do you know what database works best with what kind of workload is really behind the certification in general. I think that if you were to look at the blueprint, you’ll see, how do I do this and how do I do that? But really if you know how to create the database, how to connect to the database, how to make it secure, and how to know if it’s performant or not, and that could be, it’s going to be different per industry, right? You might be working in one type of industry that needs to have immediate instant-on access to data that is always current and always ready, and you might be okay with cached data. So you have to know what this looks like. Not necessarily how to implement every aspect of it, but you need to know what it looks like so that if somebody says, well, if this needs to be architected for cost, then you can manage cost. And if this needs to be architected for performance, then you know where to look at for performance. And those were the kinds of things to look at, less the specific technology, less the programming language, and more about how do I build my own ecosystem.

C: So it’s not as much about the specific databases and that kind of thing. It’s really more about the workload-specific kind of design and how it functions.

S: Exactly. And there are AWS-specific things. This is an AWS certification. So for example, if you are working and you need to migrate data from a Postgres-type database to a MySQL database, you do need to know what’s kind of unique about those databases, not necessarily at the granular level, into the weeds, but you need to know what makes those databases unique to the point where how would I manage it? And if you’ve built one, I mean, one or two, you will know really quickly what that entails. And that’s, I think, one of the other keys to the AWS certs is that it’s less theory and more can you do the work? It’s trying to prove that you’ve done the work and you know how these things get put together.

C: That makes sense. You know, there are always surprises on these exams. I’m just kind of, I’m curious. And this is a particularly tough one. So what surprised you the most about the exam?

S: You know, there’s probably a couple of little things. No one big thing. They’re hard, right? They’re not designed to be easy. They’re not, it’s not a walk in the park. The nice thing was, and this was a pleasant surprise, is that I’ve recently taken, well, in the past year, I took the solutions architect professional exam, and those questions are long. So that means paragraph of text, and each answer could be a paragraph long, and it’s just a lot of reading. This was very, it was just very much like the associate exam. So it’s a paragraph of a question. You get four answers. I mean, sometimes it’s some reading, but it’s not like you’re trying to be tricked by the English. So that was cool. 

Some of the other kinds of tricky things were that it would throw in some distractions in the question and you really had to pay attention to them. Not like the solutions architect pro exam. This was a little easier than that. But for a couple times, you would see, you were looking at maybe a question that references cost. How would you architect such and such a thing for cost? But if you’re not careful when you read the question, you might see the data going in, they might say, oh, there’s no schema in this data, or this is a, it’s JSON-based data. And that’s the other tricky thing that comes into play. It’s like, oh, what kind of data is being fed? Because that actually can make a difference to the output of what kind of answer you’re looking for. So I think that the surprise was it was still technology or technologically agnostic as far as some of the questions are like, I don’t really care what I’m doing. It’s really, what am I trying to feed into the cloud? What am I trying to get out of the cloud? And it’s not just, well, how do I architect this for speed or performance or cost or something. So the tricky thing is that you have to really read the question not just for the thing at the end, but what’s in the middle. What are they trying to feed you so that you can find the correct answer?

What are some other good topics to focus on for the Database exam?

C: That makes sense. Well, kind of building on that, what did you find to be the most either challenging question or even challenging topic?

S: There are a couple of things. And I will preface this by saying when you take the exam and you pass it, they make you promise that you’re not going to give any of the secrets away. So I’m not going to give those kinds of secrets away.

I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but I actually had to go back and double-check things when I got back (and was done with the exam), because they don’t tell you what answers, what questions you got right and wrong. They just give you a score. Or actually, when you take the test, they tell you if you pass or not, and then, a day or two later, you get the score with some of the, like, what do you need work on, what don’t you need to work on, or what are you good at, proficient at? But there were a couple things I had to go back and look at, and is this a thing? Is this right? And the database migration service is kind of a Swiss army knife of migrating data in and out of the cloud. And I’ve used it a couple times, but I should have probably done more work with it because it can do somethings that I was like, I wasn’t sure that this could happen. And oh, look at that. 

If there was any one thing that I would tell people to look at and spend some quality time with, it would be the AWS Database Migration Service

So if there was any one thing that I would tell people to look at and spend some quality time with, it would be the AWS Database Migration Service. And then the other thing that I just kind of didn’t even think about walking into the exam for preparation were some of the automation, some of the tools that AWS has for automation, building databases with Cloud Formation. I didn’t even think about that when I, as a preparatory step, because that’s a thing, right? We want to, automation helps leverage your skill as an individual. I can’t make a clone of myself, as much as I want to, so what I want to do is be able to programmatically allow my environments to grow and shrink without me getting in the way. I give it some idea of what I want, and then I can, I trust it within a certain spectrum of behavior. So don’t scale too far and don’t shrink too far or too little, so everything’s running. And so I think that one of the other kind of surprises, or if I could tell anybody that, hey, don’t forget this, is that you can build databases programmatically, and you can build them from the command line, and you should try that and get comfortable with it to the point where it doesn’t freak you out, like, what am I missing? And you’ll do well, I think.

C: Yeah, and it sounds like you’ve kind of answered my next question, which is just a topic that people may not be thinking about that’s on the exam, but it sounds like you kind of answered that.

S: Yeah, the one that you’re not thinking about is definitely Cloud Formation. I know people in the industry, there are other tools that do automation, and even programmatically, you can make your own, but there are some things where you want to look at… how do I build a database, if not through a push-button process, at least automate it to the point where I can start it and then walk away and know what happens if it fails, or if I use the automation to deactivate the database, say that I’ve used it and I want it to go away, how can I make sure that I get to keep a backup copy? What am I using to make sure that I make auditing requirements, whatever they may be for my industry, how do I satisfy those needs? With automation, there are ways to ensure that you have a copy here, or you get the database that you want, or you automate certain tasks so that you have what you need. 

I think, too, that when it comes to automation, it would help to have a good understanding of how some of the serverless technology works in relation to RDS. So, like, a Lambda function that could make a copy for you or move some data from an S3 bucket. I mean, it doesn’t have to be super high-tech, but you should understand what’s possible. Because the questions might not be like how do I write this code in this certain way, but what would I want to use a Lambda function, serverless function of some kind to do for me because it’s not maybe automated automatically for me. And that, it just depends, but there’s a couple of things out there. And some of that stuff you’ll see in actually our training material.

C: That’s a great segue. So part of, a lot of what we do with Cloud Academy is we’re preparing people for these specific certifications, and we cover all 12 AWS certifications with our learning paths, and those are made up of online lectures, hands-on labs, quizzes, sometimes kind of outside ancillary articles to kind of help provide a comprehensive kind of learning path for passing the certification. So maybe talk a little bit about Cloud Academy’s learning path for this particular certification and how that came together and how you think it can help people get prepared.

S: You know, and one of the things about the certification paths and all of the things that happen with AWS is that AWS adds services and features every month. Sometimes it feels like they add them every week. And I’m like, slow down. The nice thing is that it takes about six months, six months to a year before a generally available service or feature will show up on an exam. So you might learn the latest and greatest today, but it might not necessarily be on the exam. That said, a lot of the things that you learn today are the latest and greatest are often automating the things that you had to do by hand before, so you still learn about that. 

We don’t want to just teach you to pass the exam. Our goal at Cloud Academy is to teach you to do the work first so that you understand what you’re doing, and that makes you productive and have value to yourself and to your organization.

Our learning path, what we created inside Cloud Academy, basically we sat down, and we don’t want to just teach you to pass the exam. I mean, even though I understand, and I think my coworkers understand that one of the goals that people have in life is to pass these certs, right? They want a cert. They want a piece of paper that says this is what I can do. 

Our goal at Cloud Academy is to teach you to do the work first so that you understand what you’re doing and that makes you productive and have value to yourself and to your organization. It’s important that you don’t just know the answer, but you know how to do the work. So when you look at this, the learning path that we’ve built and how we’re actually, or at least I know how we’re going to augment it over time and that we do augment as the new services and features are released, we are teaching you how to function and how to build these workloads. And that’s at the core of what the exam is all about. The exam is to teach, is to prove that you know how to do the work. 

And so it’s not just the lectures, though the lectures are good, right? I watched them myself. I actually used Cloud Academy’s materials when I’ve taken exams before I came to work for Cloud Academy. So I’m a believer in the product. But the thing is that you take, you watch the lectures and then you get your hands dirty. You go to the labs and you take things apart and you put them back together, you follow the instructions, okay, so you’ve done the instructions, great. But did you learn anything? So you do the lab again, and this time you pause, and maybe you don’t type the command incorrectly, or you type it in a little differently, or you undo what you tried to do and you put it back and you figure out what’s fragile, what’s non-fragile, and you figure out what it is that you want to, what it is you want to know how to do. 

If you hate a specific technology, the truth is, that internal truth is probably that you don’t understand it. And the best way to understand it is to break it and then put it back together.

A lot of people when they tell me, oh, I hate this kind of technology. Oh, I hate databases. If you hate something, the truth is, that internal truth is probably you don’t understand it. And the best way to understand it is to break it and then put it back together. And that’s one of the things that we do for you is that we break some stuff and we put it back together for you or with you, I guess is a better way to say it. And we give you the chance to break some stuff and build some stuff. And once you’ve built it and you’ve created some order out of chaos, that’s where you’re going to find that the learning comes from that helps you pass the exam. 

Now later, as we get through this, the third part of what we offer in the learning path are some practice questions to put you on the spot, to make you not really comfortable. We want you to be a little uncomfortable. We want you, because if you know all the answers, what did you learn? We want you to have to say, oh, here’s this question, and I don’t really understand what the answer is, or I think I know what the answer is, but I don’t understand how I got there. It gives you a chance to reflect and go back and figure it out, what it is you missed the first time around so that when you come back to it, you can say, ah, that’s how this works. And you’re no longer afraid of it and it’s no longer something that you don’t like. I don’t hate that thing. It’s now making my life easy.

Cloud Academy’s Hands-on Labs are a key learning tool

C: I think the labs piece of that is just so, is so critical, and it kind of ranges from labs that are a little bit more guided with kind of almost a little bit of training wheels on. So there’s, you’ve got guidance there. And then we’ve got labs where you’re kind of on your own and you gotta kind of learn those skills, and we kind of have the gamut there. And it’s been a hugely popular feature for so many of our customers. 

S: The Lab Challenge type is one that people talk to me about specifically, because it’s like, we’re not going to help you. We’re not going to hold your hand, like, “Hold my hand!” Not going to do that. You are on your own and you can figure it out, or you don’t, and then you can try something, and if that doesn’t do it, try something else. And it is a challenge. It’s not there to make you feel good about you. Well, you will feel good, but we’re not going to do it when you’re done and you fix it and you figure it out, it’s you, right? You can stand up and say, I did this. And that’s the best thing, and that’s the best feeling, and it will help you, it will really help prepare you for the exam experience.

C: Yeah, it’ll help you really build that confidence. That’s so important. You know, besides taking the Cloud Academy learning path and all the good content and labs and everything else that’s in there, what do you have some other suggestions for things that people could do to get ready?

S: Well, the truth is AWS has tons of documentation, right? Tons of it. So you should look at it. And anybody that’s brand spanking new to AWS, that’s never, ever, ever done anything else on the cloud or has never done anything else in AWS, I usually tell them to go find the white papers, that you can just do a search for AWS white papers, favorite search engine, whatever it is. Look for the DynamoDB white paper, because the DynamoDB white paper is kind of like where all of AWS comes from, and it’s about distributed computing and what its benefits are and what its challenges are. Now, there’s some math in there. When you get to the math, let your eyes glaze over, skip to the next paragraph, and you’ll be okay. But it really does help. 

I would also say that there is no substitute for building. The exam, if you go to the AWS website and look for the exam materials there and the blueprints and the white papers, you can’t help but see some of their marketing, and their marketing talks about purpose-driven databases or purpose-built databases. They’re databases defined or designed to fulfill a purpose, to fill a need. And so if you’re going to take the database specialty exam, what you are doing is you are saying that I recognize that I have a certain type of data that I’ve got in front of me and I have a certain kind of workload that I need to connect to that data, and how am I going to do that? So build it and just try it. You don’t have to be a programmer. It might help a little bit if you know somebody that has a programming background that can help you with a little bit of it. But you can actually get data into AWS, right? So I think that if you are going to take steps outside of Cloud Academy, that you should read some of the white papers, and if you can’t sleep, some of those are a huge help. I mean, you’ll be out like a light, I won’t lie. 

But there is no substitute for building, right? Create the database, but don’t forget if you build it, turn the thing off or delete it when you’re done. AWS is a consumption model for billing. I won’t tell you the number of times that I got surprised by a bill because I forgot to turn something off or delete it. So just pay attention. But build something and put data in, get data out, see what happens, and then try a different way and see, because I think what you’ll find is that for every challenge you have, every mistake that you make and every frustrating moment that you have becomes that opportunity to learn a little bit more, a little bit deeper about the technology, and that will help you when it comes to passing the exam.

C: Makes sense. Wow, that’s good. That’s good. More of a lighthearted question. So these things are tough, as we’ve said multiple times. What did you do to celebrate when you found out you passed and you were done?

S: So I had been working, like, it felt like nonstop, and my son was in school and he’s in the fourth grade at the time, and he’s with me some of the time, my wife wants my time, and I’m studying and I’m working, and I haven’t had any free time at all, like, zero. And I want to play, and I like to play, I like to play games, I like video games, too, and “Animal Crossing” has been on the market and I was just, I was excited. And I told myself, if I can pass that exam, I’m going to buy that game. And sure enough, passed it, and I’ve been playing it with my boy off and on. We have our own Nintendo switches and we visit each other’s islands and it’s a nice way to relax in this kind of crazy COVID world.

Stephen’s parting thoughts

C: Yeah, that’s fantastic. That’s great. So any final pieces of wisdom or advice you’d offer folks out there who are getting ready to kind of take this thing on?

S: So, wisdom. Wisdom, was it good judgment comes from bad judgment, right? I mean, good decisions come from the ones that you make that are poor. 

I would say don’t be in a hurry to take the exam. If you are a little uncomfortable about something, then spend some time with it. I mean, and you can always reach out to us at Cloud Academy. I mean, you can search for us or We’ll try to answer our questions, your questions to the best of our ability. But I think that the advice that I have for anybody is to not be in a hurry. 

When you take the exam, you want to be hydrated, but not so hydrated that you have to go to the bathroom right away, because they won’t like that.

But you will really know when you’re ready when you go through all of our materials, do the challenge lab, take a test, take one of our quizzes, and you feel comfortable at the end of all of that. I mean, there’s no guarantees, right? They could change questions, they could add things, they could remove things. But I have taken, I don’t know how, so I have six active, I have a seventh that’s expired, and I’ve failed exams twice. I’ve gone in and took it once, and I failed it the first time. And you come home and you’re like, you’re just pulling your hair out, like, what did I do wrong? And then you have to wait, right? You have to wait a day or two for them to send you what you missed. And one of the tests I had, the passing score was 740 and I had a 720, right? It was just, like, just, oh, it was infuriating. And the thing is, I mean, it’s expensive, right? And you have to wait two weeks. 

But it gave me, it made me feel like, oh, I’m close. And so I looked at the little chart and said, oh, I’m deficient in these things, and I just basically said, okay, I’m going to study this, two weeks, took the test two weeks later and passed it. And so if it’s anything as far as wisdom goes is that yes, they’re expensive and these are expensive mistakes to make, but usually you make the expensive mistakes once and you’re ready to take it again, right? And so be patient with yourself, pace yourself, and enjoy it. It’s fun to learn new things. And as frustrating as some of this technology shift can happen, right? I mean, it’s like a new week, we have these new things and something else to learn, and I just learned the last one, and I’m just pulling my hair out. But it’s an opportunity and it’s a way to learn new things and keep your skills fresh and keep things exciting. So build things and experiment things with things and don’t be afraid to fail. It happens. It happened to me. It will happen to me again. I will take another test and I will bomb it. But I will use it as a learning experience and I will figure out how to go forward from there.

C: Well, I think that is some good wisdom, right? That’s great. And kind of shameless plug based on what you were saying about kind of contacting us if you’ve got questions, we’ve actually just launched our own LinkedIn community called the Cloud Academy community, which is a LinkedIn group, and anybody’s welcome to come in, and we’re going to have folks like Stephen and a lot of our other subject matter experts across all the different platforms answering questions, posting articles, starting conversations. 


Cloud Academy's LinkedIn Community

So if you’ve got some questions or if you’re thinking about where to go to maybe just pick up a little extra knowledge and ask some experts about some of this stuff, that’s a really good spot to go to. So we’re just getting started. Love to invite everybody in. So if you just go to LinkedIn and you look for the Cloud Academy community, it should pop up, and we’d be happy to let you in there. 

And then just generally speaking, if you’re considering AWS certifications, Cloud Academy covers all 12 with the same kind of comprehensive learning paths that we’ve talked about today, combining the lectures and the labs and the quizzes and all that kind of stuff. So we’ve got you covered there, but we also do the same thing for Azure and for GCP and Docker and Kubernetes. We’ve got a lot of content, a lot of really good learning paths to get yourself up to speed and up-skill, re-skill, cross-skill, whatever you need to do. And it’s not relegated just to the cloud providers. So also we’ve got programming languages and a lot of great information and content on DevOps and the likes. 

So check out, just go to You can go right into our Training Library and see exactly what we’ve got. We’ve also got tons of great blog posts and webinars and all kinds of helpful content for you as you’re kind of thinking about your goals and really developing those tech skills. So, Stephen, thank you so much for joining us today and having that conversation. It was a lot of fun. I’m hoping that people get a ton of value out of it. And as they’re thinking about taking this exam, I’m sure a lot of what you shared would be really, really helpful for them, so.

S: I hope so. And I’ve already posted a couple things on that LinkedIn group. I would love the opportunity to write more there and put some more content. I just need to know what people’s questions are. So if people post, I will be there.

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