Career / Career Progression

How Tough Are AWS Certs?

by Matt McClure
How Tough Are AWS Certs? picture: A
Published on March 26, 2019

AWS is a beast of a platform that requires extensive knowledge of application deployment and cloud management. At last count, AWS had well over 100 services — and new ones are added regularly. Each one of these services will be covered somewhere in our AWS training courses.

Each service has its own lingo, own GUI, and own CLI command set. Mastery of any AWS service first requires a firm understanding of the basics. Without knowing VPCs, regions, AZs, and security groups, you're sunk before even getting started. Studying and regurgitating facts will only get you so far. If you're looking to get certified in AWS, you need to know your stuff.

Let's go through each AWS certification level, correlate some opinions, and attempt to give you definitive answers about how difficult AWS exams are.

Foundational: Entry-Level Should Be Easiest, Right?

The first rung on the AWS cert ladder is Foundational, which includes the Certified Cloud Practitioner certification. The exam tests the basics we mentioned earlier — plus the shared responsibility model, billing and account management, and support options.

AWS recommends six months of experience with AWS in any capacity whether it is "technical, managerial, sales, purchasing, or financial." That's a good indicator for who should take this exam — basically anyone with skin in the game. Not just engineers.

Are you an IT engineer with years of networking experience? This exam won't be too hard. There might be some new concepts, but everything correlates to something you already know — S3 is file storage, EC2 is virtual machines, RDS is databases, etc. You might be itching to jump ahead to the Associate level. However, the general consensus is to master the basics first with this Foundational cert.

Maybe you're in your first IT role and a little more green? This certification is the perfect place to start. Expect lots of new stuff. Go through the material, set up a free tier AWS account to practice, and enjoy getting your hands dirty. You'll get up to speed pretty quick.

Not in IT? You've got an upward battle no doubt. The good news is while there's a lot to understand, the material can run parallel to roles in sales, finance, management, and more. For example, why this new big monthly bill is worth it or how an HA app can be a major business win?

The Verdict: If you're brand new to AWS, you will need to put in the time to learn the minutiae of AWS to fare well. But if you've dabbled in cloud technologies and AWS (even in a free tier), this will probably be the easiest cert on this list for you to earn.

Associate: Don't Go In Blind

The next AWS certification level is the Associate — which contains certifications in Solutions Architect, Developer, and SysOps. Earlier, we said certain people could skip Foundation and jump straight into Associate. This is indeed possible, as there are no prerequisites for Associate tests. Get ready to start drinking from the firehose, though.

Those who have sat for Associate exams recommend the same two things — use every resource you can find and practice on the AWS console.

Be ready to set up a study plan for yourself. Set aside a chunk of time to study. Use every resource you can find, including videos, labs, practice tests, and especially the AWS white papers. The white papers can get a little dry and dense, but they're essential.

The exam questions go deep into specifics, and the answers aren't always straightforward. Many AWS test takers have reported some headscratchers. For instance, a scenario question might ask, "What's the best way to meet the requirements?" Most of the answer choices might be technically correct, but there's one that's, well, more correct.

AWS Associate-level exams are tough because they cover a LOT of ground. Test takers who fail once (or twice) report questions about completely different services the second (or third) time around. This reveals just how broad the testing objectives can be, so don't rely on one source of study material.

We can't say it enough. Use every resource you can find and practice on the AWS console.

The Verdict: Associate-level AWS certification is where you take your first step toward cloud specialty. It's the most common AWS cert, so there are a LOT of study materials available. This one's not going to be a walk in the park — even if you put in hours of studying.

Professional: Hard for a Reason

If Associate is tough, AWS Professional certs are tough times 10. In a way, it's more of the same, just next level. The Professional-level exams are built around a much greater level of experience and intuition. We're well past starting from scratch. You not only have to understand but also know how to use AWS products and services.

When studying, you'll have to do some deep analysis of big questions to ascertain your readiness. For instance, "How would I architect an application in AWS that could scale affordably and automatically to millions of users?" or "How would I migrate from an on-prem app, recreating all the functionality with AWS services instead of expensive VMs?"

Test takers report exiting testing centers with shell shock from the pummelling they endured. You only have 170 minutes to get through a question-heavy exam. There are long walls of text spelling out complex projects followed by questions about intricate technical details. You'll then see answers that are all technically correct. Which is the best answer? Just like Associate-level exams, the devil's in the details.

The Verdict: Professional-level exams are tough because you need to be able to synthesize answers and draw conclusions based on your knowledge and experience. It's less about knowing tools (although this is still important). AWS Professional certs validate that you know how to use tools effectively. You're a bonafide AWS pro in more than one regard if you nab one of these certs.

Specialty: Expert Certs Validate Expert Knowledge

While we're ending with the Specialty certifications, they aren't necessarily the hardest to earn. If the Associate and Professional exams are wide and deep, Specialty tests are narrow — but ultra-deep. Many say they're harder than Associate tests, but it's all relative to your experience.

The scenarios for Security, Big Data, and Networking Specialty certification are all complex in nature. You'll have to work your way through them quickly to finish the exams on time. Specialty exams will push your knowledge and experience to the limit.

Considering the narrow, deep skill set that comes with any Specialty cert, there's not much in terms of published commentary speaking to the difficulty of any of the three exams. But based on the study materials AWS provides for this level of certificaiton, there are some things we can assume.

Earning your Networking Specialty certification will come with knowing routing architectures, multi-region solutions, and connectivity practices inside and out. Walking into the Big Data Specialty exam should mean that you know exactly where AWS can fit into your data's lifecycle. If you're a security guru, fully versed in things like ACLs, KMS, and Cloudtrail, you'll have an easier time with the Security Speciality test than most people. Still, expect to cover a lotofground and walk out of your test exhausted.

The Verdict: Specialty is technically the highest level of AWS certification — and each Specialty exam is tough for its own reasons. But generally, folks who are considering sitting for Specialty exams don't go into any exam blind. They already have experience and knowledge in the Specialty exam they're sitting for. That said, you'll probably want at least 3-5 years of experience in whichever specialty you're aiming for.

The Final Verdict: Yeah, They're All Tough

Every AWS certification level can be tough. These certifications hold a lot of value in the market. Holding any of them validates a certain level of experience with the platform, which can be a big boost to your career.

As AWS keeps growing and dominating the cloud platform space, the need for experienced engineers will increase. Nothing will make you stand out of the pack more than an AWS cert — no matter the level.

At the end of the day, the perceived "toughness" of any AWS cert is entirely relative and is dependent on your own AWS knowledge and experience. So train up, and strive for AWS-certified greatness.


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