AWS Certifications: Which Do You Need and Where Should You Start?

Sunday, May 3, 2020
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Before we dig into specific AWS certifications and training paths, let’s first address the elephant in the room. With Microsoft’s Azure and GCP on the rise, your first question might be – is it still worth going all-in with AWS certifications?

Here’s the way I see it. Yes, AWS has seen a lot of competition over the past decade and this trend is likely to continue in the future. However, AWS still holds the largest market share in cloud computing and let’s not forget that Amazon has had a major head start in the industry.

With more and more companies moving their software environments to the AWS cloud every year, AWS is here to stay. In fact, it’s very unlikely that Amazon’s cloud service will lose its significant market-share advantage over the next couple of decades.

In other words, if you already have some experience working with AWS, obtaining proper certifications remains a worthwhile investment. Once passed, these exams help solidify your career, improve your income, and tell prospective employers that you know your stuff.

Becoming Familiar with the AWS Certification System

AWS currently offers 12 certification exams grouped into four categories. Let’s take a closer look at your options.

The AWS Entry-Level Certification

Officially referred to as the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam, this evaluation tests your overall understanding of the AWS cloud. While this certification is one of the recommended prerequisites for more technical examinations, my advice is that you only take it if you fulfil a non-technical role: for example, if you work in sales, business, finance, and management and you want to better communicate with your IT colleagues.

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The Certified Cloud Practitioner exam can be useful for those who have just started in their IT careers, but if you already have some experience with AWS solutions, you’re better off skipping straight to an associate-level evaluation.

AWS Associate-Level Certifications

As an IT specialist working with AWS, these are the certifications you want to obtain first. You have a choice of three exams, depending on your main focus:

  • The AWS Certified Solutions Architect exam (Associate). Confirms your ability to build and deploy systems in the AWS cloud using best practices.
  • The AWS Certified SysOps Administrator exam (Associate). Confirms your ability to provision, deploy, manage, and secure systems in an AWS environment.
  • The AWS Certified Developer exam (Associate). Confirms your ability to use the AWS ADK to develop and optimize applications native to the AWS cloud.
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AWS Professional-Level Certifications

Following one or several associate-level exams, these certifications are your next step. You have a choice of two professional-level exams, based on your main focus:

  • The AWS Certified DevOps Engineer exam (Professional). Tests your ability to provision, operate, and manage applications using the AWS platform, with a heavy focus on the automation of processes and continuous delivery. Taking either the developer or SysOps administrator exam at an associate level is a prerequisite for this certification.
  • The AWS Certified Solutions Architect exam (Professional). Tests your ability to implement and deploy applications on AWS, with particular focus on best practices and cost optimization strategies.
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AWS Specialty Certifications

These exams are usually scheduled following an associate-level certification in order to help the student demonstrate expertise in a specialized field. At present, AWS offers six specialty certifications:

  • Advanced Networking. Focuses on complex AWS networking tasks and hybrid IT networking architectures.
  • Security. Covers key security topics like data encryption, infrastructure security, access management, monitoring, and incident response.
  • Database. Requires specific knowledge of AWS’s database services and how these can be used to add value to businesses.
  • Data Analytics. Tests your ability to use AWS services in order to design big data solutions and extract value from data.
  • Machine Learning. Covers AWS services that can be used to create and maintain machine learning (ML) solutions in a business context.
  • Alexa Skill Builder. Demonstrates your ability to create and deploy Alexa skills, with a focus on the value of voice, user experience, and security.

Some AWS specialty certifications, such as Advanced Networking and Security, can help you better prepare for a professional-level exam. Others, like Machine Learning and Alexa Skill Builder, are only useful if your job involves these specific issues.

Recommended Learning Paths

Being able to select from so many certifications allows you to focus on the skills that you are most likely to use in your career, but without a clear path in mind, the choice can become confusing. Even if you know which certifications you need, where do you start and how do you train for examinations?

Fortunately, AWS does offer some guidance through its recommended learning paths. For example, the path to becoming a certified Solution Design Engineer includes the associate- and the professional-level Solutions Architect exams, as well as four AWS training courses, and two exam readiness sessions.

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The courses can be taken either in-person, at one of AWS’s dozens of learning centres around the world, or online. Some courses are carried out in a regular or virtual classroom over one to three days, while others are self-paced, which means that you can complete them at any time. Although it is possible to obtain training from third-party platforms, AWS’s courses are praised for their hands-on approach, which is why they are preferred by most students.

In case you want to take an AWS certification exam, but are not yet hired in a position that allows you to practice with AWS services, you can sign up for the AWS Free Tier. This gives you the opportunity to experiment with different products for up to 12 months.

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Generally speaking, you need about 120 hours of learning and practice in order to ace an AWS associate-level exam, whereas specialized and professional-level exams tend to require more time. This usually translates into upwards of three months of training per examination, although some IT pros can prepare for two-three certifications concomitantly.

Staying Up to Date with the Latest AWS Developments

AWS is at the forefront of innovation in cloud computing, which means that new services are added on a yearly basis, while older products are being constantly refined. For this reason, AWS certifications must be renewed once every two years, which you can do by taking a higher-level examination on the same topic or through a recertification exam offered by AWS for half the original cost.

Between exams, you’ll want to stay up to date with the latest developments in AWS. To this end, you could subscribe to the AWS Cloud Academy blog, as well as the AWS Release Notes newsletter. You can also participate in a few Cloud Academy Hands-On Lab courses and continue to take AWS practice exams even after you’ve aced your evaluations.

The best of luck to you!