10-06-16

Achievement Unlocked : AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional

Solutions-Architect-Professional

Well at the third (and final) attempt yesterday I finally managed to crack the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional certification. It’s been a long road that started pretty much as soon as I passed the CSA Associate in December (seems a lifetime ago now!) and two failures and a lot of pain and expense later, I’ve managed to stagger over the line.

The exam itself is 77 questions over 2 hours and 50 minutes, and if you’re doing a proper job, you’ll need all of that time. Even if you’re a massive AWS ninja, the questions and answers in most cases are so long and drawn out that it takes a minute or so to properly read, digest and understand what is being asked. Without a doubt, it’s one of the trickiest exams I’ve ever sat and there’s a lot I’ve learned from it. Not just technically, but about exam technique.

The exam content is pretty faithful to the blueprint, as you’d expect. As it’s an architecture focused exam, you don’t need to know the guts of particular commands, but you do need to know pretty much all of the “major” services in the console pretty well in order to get through it successfully. Topics included:-

  • EC2 (ELB/ Auto Scaling)
  • Elastic Beanstalk
  • EBS
  • Data Pipeline
  • SQS
  • SES
  • SNS
  • Elastic MapReduce
  • ElasticSearch
  • VPC
  • Route 53
  • CloudFront
  • S3/Glacier
  • Storage Gateway
  • RDS
  • DynamoDB
  • ElastiCache
  • Redshift
  • CloudWatch
  • CloudFormation
  • CloudTrail
  • IAM
  • OpsWorks
  • WAF
  • Certificate Manager
  • Kinesis
  • Elastic Transcoder
  • SWF
  • Direct Connect

If that looks like a lot of stuff to know, that’s because it is! There are obviously other services in the console that I haven’t mentioned (CodePipeline, Config, Trusted Advisor, etc.) but that doesn’t mean that they won’t come up in your exam. As I’ve sat it three times now, I’d like to think that I’ve seen pretty much all of the question bank and while there were quite a few recurring questions, there were some that I only saw once.

In terms of how to study for the exam, it’s recommended you have at least a year’s experience of AWS. I don’t. More like 8 months, if anyone’s counting. If you’ve used Azure, many of the principles and constructs are the same, except AWS tends to use funky names for services which don’t automatically reflect what they do (Elastic Beanstalk and Lambda to name but two). Also, if you’re a “traditional” infrastructure guy who has come through the ages with real tin, then virtualisation and now cloud, a lot of those concepts travel with it. For example, Direct Connect uses virtual interfaces and BGP, so if you know networking to say a 300 or 400 level, you’ll be OK.

There are increasing amounts of study materials out there, quick shout out to some that I used include:-

  • Acloud.guru (sensibly priced training that keeps being updated)
  • LinuxAcademy (longer more in depth tutorials)
  • CloudAcademy (slightly shorter format)
  • AWS Documentation (info from the horse’s mouth)
  • ReInvent sessions (mainly 2015, but some 2014 too)
  • Qwiklabs (they now do an “all you can eat” subscription for around £37 a month with scripted hands on labs on various topics)
  • Practice Exam (Provided by Kryterion, this is a 40 question sample test that has questions of a similar type to the real thing)

The practice test is quite useful and don’t get too downbeat if you don’t pass this or get a good score. I’ve never known anyone actually pass this test. Some of the questions aren’t worded too well either, but it gives you a flavour. As it’s a practice exam, I took screen shots of each question so I could take it away and research the possible answers to make sure I was well prepared.

AWS recommend the “Advanced Architecting on AWS” class, but I’ve heard nothing good about this course and from what I can gather, it gives you no real lead into the Pro exam itself, which it’s supposed to. As ever, I believe taking a hybrid approach to learning provides the best return, but everyone is different.

The ReInvent YouTube channel is learning gold, and well worth a look. Many questions are “case study” type questions, so it’s always good to see real AWS customers and how they solved problems using the technology. This way of thinking can help you in the exam. All sessions slides are also published to SlideShare, so you can download them and take them with you for learning purposes.

The ReInvent sessions are a broad mix of deep dives, 101 level sessions, cases studies and are well worth the time. Remember you can play them at a faster speed if your attention span is as short as mi….

Another good tip I had was to have a look the FAQ pages for each AWS product, this can be useful for example when weighing up when to use SQS and when to use Kinesis Streams, for example.

It goes without saying that you should make notes as you go. Lots and lots of notes. I think I was up to about 54 pages of them by the end. I might try and corral them into some sort of logical order and publish them as a study guide, but that depends on the time I have. What makes sense to me might not make sense to others.

Finally, I think I’d say that you need to make the most of the time you have in the exam. It’s long and tortuous and you have to be able to focus for all of that time, which is virtually impossible for me, hence scraping a pass. Read and re-read the questions and answers and make sure you understand what is being asked and what is being proposed in the answers. Not all questions are war and peace, some are short and so don’t worry about the “two minutes per question” thing.

Look out for certain key words too in specific contexts, this will help you weed out the incorrect answers in the question. For example:-

  • Scalable, highly available storage (S3)
  • Ingesting data in real time, sensors etc (Kinesis)
  • Sending out notifications to users (SNS)
  • Scalable, high availability (ELB, Auto Scaling Groups)
  • Monitoring (CloudWatch. CloudTrail is an audit tool)

Good luck if you’re planning on taking it anytime soon. A word to the wise, if you’re thinking of going to Pitman Training in Stratford, call ahead of time and make sure they aren’t doing any building work on the day you want to schedule the exam. I had incessant drilling from next door for the last 90 minutes of my exam and it drove me round the bend, nearly costing me a pass. Thanks, Pitman. I know it’s not directly your fault, but if you know building works are taking place, it’s not fair to expect people to sit important exams in that kind of environment. If we fail, we bear the cost and stress, not you.

Onwards now, probably to the SysOps Associate exam. Hopefully this post helps you get past the Pro exam. It’s a hell of a journey but worth it!

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