To take or not to take [certifications]? The age-old question in the cloud community, or at least the most common topic I’m asked about. This month, I return to my What I Learned series to reflect on what studying for my recent AWS Certifications taught me and tips for those considering their own.
When I started at AWS, I had no certifications. I had studied an online Computer Science programming course, practiced hands-on workshops, tried (and purposefully stopped) 60 days of cloud, started studying a certification course, and had practical experience building personal and professional projects, but no exams. Honestly, I didn’t really “get it”.
I still don’t think you need certifications to get a job in our industry – I didn’t, many of my colleagues, peers and friends didn’t. Oftentimes, I feel like those who strongly push certifications as a route into a tech career overlap with those that demand a certain type of degree background or say statements along the lines of “if you don’t have a GitHub portfolio with a fifty shades of green you’ll never get in” (I’m paraphrasing).
However, as part of my job I have to take the AWS Solutions Architecture pathway. At first, this made me very nervous. I hate exams. But, I learned a lot about my learning style, interests and growth areas during the process. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it.
So, I’ve summarised my top five learnings to help you navigate the process and take your learning beyond the exam.
Be honest, selective and purposeful
I personally see it as a red flag if I see a profile full of badges, but the individual can’t articulate why they took that exam, what they learned and, crucially, enjoyed.
Are you an aspiring SRE or DevOps superstar? Do you want to get a secure foundation in solutions architecture? What services have you used since studying for the exam? What are you excited about?
Studying is difficult, certifications can be expensive, and employers can smell the bullsh*t in your answers, so your motivation needs to extend beyond passing an exam or ticking a box.
Benchmark before you begin
Take a practice test before you start your learning. Whether you score 10% or 80% doing this will help identify gaps you need to work on and how much prep time you’ll need.
On the job experience, hands-on projects and wider reading teaches you far more than you realise and benchmarking this can also help you identify which exam to start with.
For example, if you’ve been working with AWS for a while, the Cloud Practitioner (CPC) exam won’t be the most exciting place to start. But, if your role focuses on one technical area, you’re from a non-technical background, or you’re new to AWS, starting with the CPC will help you build a foundation and give you the confidence to keep going.
Practice, practice, practice (and practice some more…)
A revision classic.
Before each exam I took practice tests until I was averaging 5% above the pass mark. Dive deeper into areas where you’re scoring low and go back to hands-on labs or documentation for services you haven’t got your head around.
This isn’t just to help you pass, but it’ll help solidify your learning beyond your exam date. If you have time, create your own projects, get hands-on and work through topics you find challenging. I advise this for all technical learning. Building helps me understand the concepts I’ve just learnt, and it’ll help you teach others in the future.
Those who follow me on Twitter will know I am a serverless fan, but I spent little time in exam prep building with this suite of services. Instead, I focused on the foundations of compute, networking, and security so I could strengthen my understanding of areas I was less experienced in – areas I’m now confident to talk about in my work.
Develop a tailored study routine
We all need inspiration. If you’re reading this post it’s likely you’re looking for ideas or study tips. I’m not averse to trying out others’ recipes. But, feel free to ditch a study guide, tutorial, or routine if it’s not working for you.
When studying for certifications, I blocked out mornings in my diary. I focus much better in the morning and it’s when I do most of my research and building.
I also noticed I consistently did worse on practice tests when I took them after dinner than if I took them after breakfast so I made sure to book my exams in the morning.
I’ve also taken this observation into my work. Three days a week I block off my morning to study, focus and prepare for meetings and presentations. When I create these boundaries, my productivity soars, and, importantly, I’m much calmer.
Pay attention to these trends and design a routine that works best for you.
Share your goals and achievements with others
My colleagues and loved ones were my rocks during study periods. Messages of encouragement, moving meetings and dinner dates, sharing learning tips and horror stories, and reminding me how far I’d come in my learning.
You don’t have to share the date of your exam if that adds too much pressure (though I did), but I would strongly advise sharing your goals and your wins. I’ve said this before; studying can be fun but learning a new topic, rehearsing material and exam anxiety is difficult and very common.
Learning in the open continues to be the best decision I’ve made since joining the tech community and I wouldn’t have got where I am without it.
You’ve got this!
I’ll be returning to What I Learned on this site as I continue to navigate my personal and professional journey – but if there’s something you’d like to hear about please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit the socials below.
Disclaimer: All views shared in this post are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.