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The Word “Architect” Used As a Verb

A couple of months ago I took and passed the Amazon Web Services Certified Solutions Architect Associate (AWS CSAA for those not in the mood to be verbose) exam.

It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Pass the Test)

It took about 10 months to prepare for this exam, although most of that calendar time was taken up by work, with the lion’s share of studying and cramming happening a week-plus before the exam (we were also leaving for UK/Norway a few days after that, so let’s say it was a bit of a hectic week-plus).

With that said and with the benefit of hindsight, here are the things I used or did on the way to the CSAA exam.

Udemyou? Udemy!

I purchased and completed three CSAA courses, and while there were understandably overlap in content among the three, I found Linux Academy’s offering to have the most focused in terms of lab work (although in order to take full advantage of their hands-on labs one should probably sign up with their “all-you-can-eat” course subscription).

The course, when purchased from Udemy, can be transferred to their proper site where its contents get updated fairly regularly to reflect changes and new features in AWS.

The third course was okay, but I think and Linux Academy were much better. With that said, I purchased all three during Udemy’s frequent sales, so not a huge hit to the wallet (between the study material and the exam cost, I’d probably spent around $200 getting this certification).

Don’t Book ’em, Danno

Of the books I’d read and referred to during all this, I’d guardedly recommend this study guide. It covers the exam materials, but some of the details and what one might regard “minutiae” have changed since the publication date (I found that out through practice tests, FAQ’s, and updated lessons).

I guess it doesn’t help that a new version of the CSAA exam came out since the study guide’s publication. It looks like there is a newer book that covers the 2018 exam, but I haven’t had the time or need to look into it.

GTFO: Get the FAQ’s Out

The one constant of AWS is that it is constantly changing. New features are added, existing features are changed (or sometimes deprecated), and their own documentation, especially their FAQ’s, do keep up with these changes pretty well.

Not that this particular tidbit showed up in the exam, but recently we were looking at FedRAMP compliance of AWS services for a project, and in the span of two weekly meetings, the Elasticache managed service got approved (we noticed the status changing in the middle of the second meeting).

There are better examples of how quickly and constantly things change with the AWS service portfolio, but the time-honored adage of “Read The Fine Manual” (the adage in question masterfully sanitized by George Takei in one of the Starfleet Command game tutorials) definitely applies.

Practice, Practice, Practice

As a coworker so rightly advocates, build your muscle memory. Following along with the videos to provision an EC2, VPC, etc. is great for being introduced to those concepts, but doing these exercises without guidance, repeatedly, and preferably for “real world” projects is critical for internalizing AWS knowledge.

I’m fortunate in that I get to work with AWS for work, and in the months leading up to the exam, I had an opportunity to migrate a million-plus user WordPress site to AWS, launch an ECS Fargate-backed analytics dashboard application, and set up a multi-environment AWS infrastructure. As well as launching regular old EC2 instances that host CMS sites.

While it’s awesome to be able to do this sort of “learn by doing,” one can still do quite a bit of exploring and building with the AWS free tier account (although be prepared to pay a few bucks at least – there is a price for knowledge after all).

Taking Tests to Practice Taking Tests To…

To follow through on another adage about cutting bait or fishing, I booked an appointment to take the CSAA exam, and started hitting the Whiz Labs practice tests. While not as compact as flash cards (nor 100% accurately reflect actual exam questions), the practice tests are a great resource to assess what you think you know and to focus on the bits that you now know you don’t know.

The Big Day

While it is possible to take the certification exam at home, I decided to do what most folks do and scheduled an appointment with PSI, who administer proctored exams for all sorts of things, from aspiring cloud architects to realtors and whoever needs a-testin’ to be a-certified.

The local PSI facility is in a rather unremarkable office building a few minutes from our house, and it is remarkably busy with exam-takers who show up by the half-dozen-plus, sign in, pack away everything (e.g., wallet, keys, and especially phones) in a locked zipper bag, and shuffle away to a room full of booths, each with a workstation ready to test your worthiness to be whatever you’re looking to call yourself.

A couple of hours after checking in for my appointment, I shuffled out of the unremarkable office building with a vague recollection of having passed the exam. Once you submit all your answers, you’re presented with the test results, but you don’t get any actual hard copy of said results. I remembered seeing the word “Congratulations!” on that final screen which would at least imply that I passed, but even the email that arrived immediately after the exam simply stated that I “completed” the test.

The actual results arrived via email the following day, and hey, just as I kinda recalled, I passed!

While I may have taken a lot of calendar time studying, doing, watching, and eventually cramming, I do think that if you do need to take that time to really use AWS in order to learn it. A part of the curriculum does involve a “trivial pursuit” type of memorizing the details of specific AWS services and features, but the exam does require you to understand how the alphabet soup of Amazon cloud offerings (EC2, VPC, ECS, ECR, ELB, ALB, S3, RDS, and on and on) work together, especially in “hybrid” deployments where part of the IT infrastructure remains on-site, while other bits get boosted into the cloud.

And For My Next Trick

What is that they say about potato chips and certifications – that you can’t just have one? I’ll be looking into the Certified Developer Associate exam next, and while once upon a time the CSAA and CDA exams were so similar that you could ace one and pass the other, that “feature” has been nerfed/fixed. So, time to start hitting the videos, clouds, and books again!