Friday, December 15, 2017

Passing the AWS Certified Solutions Architect exam

Before last week, the only certification exam I ever passed was the Microsoft .NET Framework Application Development Foundation certification. This was almost eight years ago. My manager back then thought getting certified was the best way for me to get a raise. It would be a win-win. I for one would learn something along the way, and the company would have less trouble keeping its Microsoft Gold partnership. As far as I remember, I spent a good six months reading, studying and memorizing this 794 pages thick book. Although the book did teach me a fair amount of solid .NET framework internals, most time was spent force feeding myself the ins and outs of framework API's you only need once in a blue moon and should just Google for when needed.

This time around though, it was my own decision to get certified. Mid 2016, our components were getting more and more structured in a way that allowed us to deploy them away from our on-premise data center. Components that didn't own data bound to a specific territory by regulatory requirements and that would allow for some down-time were the obvious candidates.

Moving some of our infrastructure to the cloud, we had a few goals in mind:
  • Take advantage of managed cloud services to reduce operation cost significantly.
  • More freedom to scale up or down. The structure of  the contracts with our data center (and regulations that require us to own our own racks) generally forces us to over provision our infrastructure. Making changes halfway the contract takes time and is costly.
  • Ease into learning how to run software on the cloud for when we move to other markets or when we build services that have less strict territoriality constraints.

Getting started with AWS is easy enough. Starting an EC2 instance, attaching a disk, using a managed database, configuring a load balancer is child's play. But when it came to networking, security, fault-tolerance and properties guaranteed by AWS, I had a lot of questions. I hoped to find answers going over the AWS Certified Solutions Architect material. Why not set myself an artificial goal and get certified while I was at it?

After three months of studying, I passed the exam with a score of 95%. Here's a list of the resources I used, including how much money and time were spent.

Exam Blueprint

You should go over the exam blueprint to understand what they expect you to know to pass the exam. It's a good idea to go over the document while studying and to tick off domains you feel comfortable with.

Money spent: €0, time spent: 30 minutes

A Cloud Guru

A good collection of short videos and mini-exams covering all the topics needed to pass the exam. Details that require extra attention to pass the exam are highlighted throughout the course.

You can get the videos on for €99. I got it through Udemy for only €10. Worth every cent.

Money spent: €10, time spent: 26 hours

FAQs and Whitepapers

AWS advises you to read a specific set of whitepapers and FAQs. The material can be a bit dry, but it's extremely useful. Not just to pass the exam, but to avoid nasty surprises in production.

Money spent: €0, time spent: 6 hours

AWS Open Guide

An open-source effort to document real world experiences running environments on AWS.

Money spent: €0, time spent: 1 hour


Somewhere around 500 practice questions that tease out the topics you don't completely master. When I got a question wrong, I would read up on the topic and play around in the AWS console until I felt like I got it.

Although there were some questions that were very similar, you can't pass the exam by just studying these questions.

Money spent: €20, time spent: 12 hours

Exam Guru

Mobile app affiliated with A Cloud Guru containing more practice questions. These are less scenario based and less in-depth. The Whizzlabs questions are much more in the direction of what to expect on the actual exam. Disappointing to be fair.

Money spent: €20, time spent: 2 hours

Test exam

A small set of questions provided by AWS in the style of the actual exam. This was very much a waste of time and money. Whizzlabs had copied all of these questions word for word.

Money spent: €20, time spent: 20 minutes

Test day

The least enjoyable part of the experience.  55 multiple choice questions need to be answered in 80 minutes. Half of the questions are quite straight forward. The other half are more involved. For the longer questions, I first read the answers and wrote down the options. For then to read the question and strike through the options that definitely were not a part of the answer. This helped me to focus on the important bits of the question and to gain momentum plowing through the questions at a steady pace. I finished with 25 minutes left.

Money spent: €135, time spent: 90 minutes. Extra money spent on parking in the city center of Brussels: €10, searching for a spot: 60 minutes

In short... Go over the material, practice, take notes, practice some more, review your notes until you get sick of them.