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Hou - Engineer & Tech Educator

How I passed the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Professional Exam

career, AWS cloud, AWS professional certification7 min read

Clouds in the sky

Recently, I wrote about my experience completing Udacity’s AWS Cloud Architect Nanodegree program. I wanted to follow up with a blog post on a similar topic - passing the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Professional exam, since I received several inquiries about it as well.

About the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Professional exam

AWS offers a variety of certifications to validate your cloud expertise. These certifications range from beginner-level (e.g., Cloud Practitioner) to advanced-level (e.g., DevOps Professional) certifications. The certifications are fairly well-documented on the AWS website, so I won’t go into detail about them.

I took the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Professional exam, which is an advanced-level certification. In the past, you had to first clear the Associate-level certification before pursuing the Professional-level certification. However, in 2018, AWS changed the rules so that you can now pursue the Professional-level certification without an Associate-level certification. This is what I did.

It can be hard to pass the Professional-level certifications without some prior AWS experience. If you are new to AWS, then I’d recommend tackling the Foundational and Associate-level certifications first.

According to the website:

“The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional exam is intended for individuals who perform a solutions architect role with two or more years of hands-on experience managing and operating systems on AWS.”

The exam covered various domains of cloud expertise and spanned an extensive range of AWS services and cloud architecture patterns.

Why I decided to go for this certification

My specialty lies in full-stack JavaScript development. In 2020, one of my professional development goals was to become a more well-rounded, “T-shaped” developer who can contribute to every part of a project. I wanted to become the kind of engineer who could not only build an application from scratch but also scale it in the cloud. Additionally, I wanted to gain an in-depth understanding of AWS services and use cases that I might not have encountered so that I can communicate better with other cloud developers.

Why did I choose to get a cloud certification specifically from AWS? The AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Professional certification is one of the most desired and reputable cloud certifications in the industry. Other options were Azure and Google Cloud Provider, but AWS is still one of the oldest and most established cloud providers. Moreover, many of the concepts that you learn as you prepare for the exam are applicable to cloud computing in general, not just to AWS, so the knowledge gained from this certification could transfer to other cloud environments.

As more and more businesses are adopting “cloud-native” or hybrid architectures, job prospects for cloud professionals are also looking pretty bright, which I believe makes it a no-brainer to invest in this certification.

How long it took me to prepare for the certification

The Pomodoro technique worked wonders for my productivity (more about that below). To clear the exam, I spent around 95 hours of focused study spread across 3 months. Since each Pomodoro session lasted for 25 minutes, this translated to roughly 228 Pomodoro sessions.

How I prepared for the exam

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional is one of the most difficult AWS certifications. To clear this certification, you would need in-depth knowledge of cloud computing and many essential AWS services. Prior to pursuing this certification, I already had several years’ of AWS experience under my belt. Moreover, Udacity’s AWS Cloud Architect Nanodegree program increased my confidence in my cloud skills.

Here are my strategies for passing the exam on the first try:

Devise a study approach that works for you

I considered various approaches to prepare for the exam. I ruled out flashcards because I didn’t want to spend too much time making them. I also ruled out video-based courses because I knew I had a knack for falling asleep during these. Based on personal experience, I also knew I could generally read and absorb a tutorial faster than a video or person could present it.

I ended up purchasing a Udemy course by Stephane Maarek. The course included a concise 500+ page slide deck that covered all the content needed for the exam. As I studied the slide deck, I also took notes within Google docs. Describing the concepts in my own words further cemented my understanding of the material. If anything didn’t make sense, I turned to the videos for clarification.

At times, I also described the concepts out loud to myself. Seeing and hearing the information at the same time helped me absorb the material even better.

Tutorial Dojo’s cheat sheets significantly helped with retaining the material.

Near the beginning of my exam preparation, I had read a couple of AWS whitepapers. However, since I was pressed for time, I didn’t manage to read all of the AWS whitepapers by the time I took the exam. That said I’m now just coming back to reading them for fun.

So that was my learning approach. Try to create an approach that works for you.

Focus on the big picture

The amount of content you’d have to learn for the exam can be quite overwhelming. I took over 200+ pages of notes. My most important advice is to focus on the big picture.

It is, after all, a solutions architecture exam, which means you will be tested on your ability to connect discrete AWS services together to create highly available, scalable, secure, reliable, and resilient architectures.

During the learning process, I practiced sketching out solutions architecture diagrams for a variety of real-world use cases (e.g., fanning out messages using SNS/SQL, supporting SSL on an Elastic Load Balancer, etc.). I focused on honing my ability to identify and justify the use of key AWS services in various cloud computing scenarios.

In my experience, it was not necessary to memorize every nitty-gritty detail for every AWS service that exists (e.g., the specific RAM limits allowed by a Lambda function).

However, it was helpful to be familiar with a few ballpark figures for key AWS services (e.g., an AWS snowmobile can store several petabytes of data whereas an AWS snowball can store tens of terabytes of data).

Again, focus on the big picture.

Do practice exams

Jon Bonso’s practice exams were excellent - I completed all four of them. Each practice exam came with 75 questions accompanied by comprehensive explanations for every question and a summary of your performance across various AWS knowledge domains to help you identify areas to spend more time on.

Braincert is another helpful resource. Their test package included seven practice tests, of which I completed two. In hindsight, I’d rather have spent more time on Braincert instead, as I found their tests to more closely mirror the actual exam questions.

Additionally, AWS offers an official set of practice questions for USD 50. However, it only contains a handful of questions. I did not purchase them, but it could be worth looking into.

When doing the practice exams,

  • I completed the practice exams under real exam conditions, which involved answering 75 questions in 3 hours (so the exam is also going to put your mental stamina to test!). Note that the questions are quite long-winded. Learning to pick out the important details under time pressure is an important skill.

  • I made sure to review every question I answered incorrectly. If I tested poorly in a particular knowledge domain, I went back and studied my notes to fill in any knowledge gaps.

  • I learned how to identify the correct answer(s) by eliminating the wrong answers. Wrong answers typically suggest irrelevant AWS services to solve a particular cloud computing problem.

Keep your study sessions productive

Since I was holding down a full-time job along with a few side projects while preparing for the exam, I knew I needed to be laser-focused if I wanted to clear the exam by a certain deadline.

I applied the Pomodoro technique to optimize my study time (and any work in general).

Unlike the traditional 25-minute block, my Pomodoro sessions are 50 minutes long, followed by a 5-10 minute break. I’m in the middle of a Pomodoro session as I’m writing this blog post :) Do a google search if you’re curious about how to incorporate the Pomodoro technique into your workflow.

I’d say if you’re able to concentrate for ~80-90% of the time during each Pomodoro session, then you are probably still way more productive than most people.

Don’t feel bad if you occasionally give in to distractions during each Pomodoro session, especially if this technique is new to you. Feeling bad does not make anybody want to keep trying something! So just accept that it’s a muscle you will have to keep training over time.

The day before the exam

The exam can be taken from the comfort of your own home (provided it is quiet and has minimal distractions). You can schedule an online proctored exam at your convenience. For me, I picked a time in the early afternoon when my brain would typically perform at its peak. The day before the exam, I also checked that my computer setup, wifi connection, and exam venue would meet their requirements.

On the day of the exam

The morning before the exam, I gave Tutorial Dojo’s cheatsheets and my notes one last quick review. Since I was not allowed to leave my seat during the exam, I also had a bottle of water within easy reach. When the timer ran out, I received my results in a matter of minutes.

What happens after you pass the exam

Shortly after you pass the exam, you are awarded a really cool digital badge that you can display on your LinkedIn profile.

Other perks include access to purchase AWS Certified branded items, membership to the AWS Certified Global Linkedin Community, and a 50% discount on your next exam. Additionally, you may be invited to serve as a Subject Matter Expert to help AWS create and review questions for upcoming exams, which is a pretty cool opportunity.

Although I wasn’t actively looking for a job, over the next few weeks, I did start receiving emails from recruiters who were specifically looking for developers with cloud expertise, so it seemed like the certification might be holding some weight with employers.

Also, note that the certificate expires after 3 years, and you’d have to retake the exam to renew your certification then. As such, it’s important to continue to stay up-to-date on AWS technologies, which are constantly evolving, even after earning your certification.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and maybe even feel inspired to get AWS certified yourself (let me know if you are). It’s not too late to make this one of your 2021 goals!

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