A Guide to AWS Certifications

certs

Many of my customers have asked me what type of AWS certification would be the right one for their job roles. In this article I will try to map IT roles that are typically found in enterprises today to the existing AWS certifications. Also, there will be a brief explanation of each AWS certificates with some recommended study guidelines. Hopefully that can help a bit in deciding which one to take.

AWS certifications are considered to be one of the toughest in the IT industry. Having achieved at least one of them is beneficial to show your expertise, to give you recognition and credibility with your employer and customers, as well as to advance your career and provide more options for your next job.

Currently there are 9 AWS certifications. However, not all of them are needed for the job roles you are currently doing in your company. Unless you are a “certification junkie” or see achieving all 9 as a personal challenge, there really is no reason to go down that route. It took me about 2 years to get all 9 certificates. However, it is a special feeling having achieved all of them.

Here is a brief description of each of AWS certificates (for more detailed explanation, check out the official AWS certification page):

  1. Cloud Practitioner

This is an entry level certificate. It is not a technical exam as it covers more benefits of the cloud, cloud economics, cloud migration, security in the cloud and some basic understanding of compute and storage services. The intended audience are those who are just starting with the cloud journey. This is the easiest certificate to get compared to other AWS ones. On the difficulty scale from 1 (easy) to 10 (hard), I would rate it is as level 2.

  1. Associate – Solutions Architect

Solutions Architect Associate verifies your knowledge of designing applications in AWS. Questions are very technical and you would need to know a broad set of AWS services in order to pass the exam. It is essential to know how to design scalable, secure and fault tolerant applications by applying AWS best practices. On the difficulty scale, I would rate this one as 4.

  1. Associate – Developer

Developer certificate is similar to the Solution Architect one but the focus is more on developing, deploying and debugging applications in AWS. You would need to know all the concepts/services from Solution Architect as well as some other more developer oriented such as CI/CD pipelines, working with SDKs and CLIs etc. On the difficulty scale, I would rate this one as 4.

  1. Associate – SysOps Administrator

SysOps Administrator exam tests your knowledge of deploying, maintaining and troubleshooting applications in AWS. I personally found this one to be more difficult than other two associate certifications, since you really need to know how to solve problems in production. You still need to understand all the services that are covered in Solution Architect and Developer certifications plus to have experience in solving real deployment/production level issues. On the difficulty scale, I would rate this one as 5.

  1. Specialty – BigData

Specialty certifications are focusing on a specific domain and in this one it is all about data analytics. You would need to know how to ingest streaming data to AWS, how to process them in real time and how to store and visualize them. If you are seasoned data scientist who is already using Hadoop/Spark extensively, you might find this exam easier than others but still you need to learn how to apply all these concepts in an AWS environment. Big Data Specialty certification requires that you have either Cloud Practitioner or one of Associate levels done already. On the difficulty scale, I would rate this one as 7.

  1. Specialty – Security

Security Specialty tests your knowledge on building secure applications in AWS. There are plenty of services and best practices on how to protect your environment at perimeter, in-transit, at rest and build applications that are compliant to different standards. Together with Advanced Networking certification, I think this one is the most important certificate to have. Security should be the highest priority and mastering these concepts is essential in building bullet-proof applications. Security Specialty certification requires that you have either Cloud Practitioner or one of Associate levels done already. On the difficulty scale, I would rate this one as 7.

  1. Specialty – Advanced Network

As mentioned previously, this is one of the most important certifications in AWS. It covers foundational principles of AWS networking. Whether you are building hybrid or cloud-native applications, you will need to understand almost everything that this exam covers. Advanced Network Specialty certification requires that you have either Cloud Practitioner or one of Associate levels done already. On the difficulty scale, I would rate this one as 10.

  1. Professional – Solutions Architect

Professional level certifications, such as Solutions Architect, are assuming you are already experienced in designing cloud applications and you understand most of the AWS services that are out there. You are being tested on different scenarios here. How to design applications based on a specific set of business requirements. Professional Solution Architect certification requires that you have Solution Architect Associate level done already. On the difficulty scale, I would rate this one as 8.

  1. Professional – DevOps Engineer

Similar to SysOps Administrator, DevOps Engineer requires you to have hands-on experience in provisioning, operating, and managing AWS environments. You are being tested on many scenarios where deep understanding on how to troubleshoot operational issues is required. Professional DevOps Engineer certification requires that you have either Developer Associate or SysOp Associate done already. On the difficulty scale, I would rate this one as 9.

The difficulty of each certification is an individual thing that depends on your professional background. I have been a developer and a solutions architect for a long time so these types of exams were easier for me. However, I have never worked in the networking field before so I found Advanced Networking Specialty exam to be the most difficult one.

Companies starting their cloud journey with AWS need to mobilize their entire IT and business departments and educate them on AWS. The best way to prepare their staff for the journey is by going through the certification process. But how to select which certification is the right one for you and your employees?

The following table tries to map job roles to AWS certifications that are recommended to have for that role:

 

Role

Recommended AWS Certification

Software Engineer

Also: application programmer, developer, system programmer, system engineer

Associate – Developer

Associate – Solutions Architect

Database Administrator Associate – SysOps Administrator
Operations Engineer

Also: DevOps specialist, infrastructure engineer, operations engineer

Associate – SysOps Administrator

Professional – DevOps Engineer

Data Scientist Cloud Practitioner

Specialty – BigData

Systems Analyst

Also: product specialist, solutions specialist, technical designer

Associate – Solutions Architect
Business Analyst

Also: business architect, enterprise-wide information specialist

Cloud Practitioner
Enterprise Architect Cloud Practitioner

Associate – Solutions Architect

Solution Architect

Also: software architect, IT architect

Associate – Solutions Architect

Professional – Solutions Architect

Network Engineer

Also: hardware engineer, network designer

Cloud Practitioner

Specialty – Advanced Networking

Security Engineer

Also: CISO

Cloud Practitioner

Specialty – Security

CIO/CTO Cloud Practitioner
IT Director

Also: head of IT, IT manager

Cloud Practitioner
Technical Sales

Also: sales manager, account manager, sales executive

Cloud Practitioner

Associate – Solutions Architect

Project Manager 

Also: product planner, project leader, master scheduler

Cloud Practitioner

Associate – Solutions Architect

Web Developer

Also: web designer, web producer, multimedia architect

Associate – Developer
Software Tester

Also: test analyst, software quality assurance tester

Cloud Practitioner

 

Recommended study guide

There is no substitute for experience. The best way to prepare for the certification exams is to get your hands dirty on AWS. That means opening an account and starting to play around with services.

AWS services are broad and it can be overwhelming for beginners to find their way around the web console.  The way I started with AWS was by reading a book “Amazon Web Services in Action” by Michael and Andreas Wittig. It’s a practical, hands-on introduction to AWS and will speed your ramp-up with AWS.

Once you start developing an understanding of what AWS is, you can continue with reading AWS official certification preparation books. At the moment there are only three of them:

  1. AWS Certified Solutions Architect Official Study Guide: Associate Exam
  2. AWS Certified SysOps Administrator Official Study Guide: Associate Exam
  3. AWS Certified Advanced Networking Official Study Guide: Specialty Exam

I haven’t read the first two so can’t really comment, but looking at customer reviews it seems that they are a great source for Associate level exams. I did read the Advanced Networking book and was simply blown away! I can highly recommend this book to anyone who plans on doing anything on AWS. The AWS networking fundamentals are so clearly explained that even beginners in this area can fully grasp all the concepts and details about designing AWS systems.

Additional way to ramp-up your knowledge about AWS services and effectively prepare for the exams, is to attend digital or classroom courses. There are over 100 digital courses that are free and available to anyone. They range from short 5-minute courses to several-hours ones. The classroom courses are delivered by AWS or AWS Training Partners. They are delivered by skilled trainers with many years of experience who will explain most of AWS services in a practical way.  Both types of courses can be discovered and booked on the AWS Training and Certification portal.

Once you feel ready to take on the challenge, I can recommend testing yourself with a few official practice exams (and sample questions) from the same AWS Training and Certification portal.

And finally, the ultimate source of all knowledge are AWS documentation pages and whitepapers. Make sure you spend the majority of your time here as these are the most comprehensive and up to date sources of information.

Don’t just prepare to pass the exams. Study, understand and apply the knowledge you gained. AWS is the biggest revolution in IT industry ever and it’s great to have such a toolset at your disposal to build great things that we were not able to do in the past. Certifications are just a reward for the knowledge you gained.

“If you build it, they will come.”  – Field of Dreams

Good luck!