I have just passed the AWS Solutions Architect Associate Exam [Code: SAA-C01] and before studying for the exam. So, in this blog post, I am going to share with you my studying strategy, what works and didn’t work for me, and how I passed this exam in less than a month.
Just to proof I actually passed this exam, here is a link to my digital certification.
One thing I want to ask you, if you pass this exam and you think this blog post helped you, please come back and add a comment below and share your success moment.
Why Taking The Exam?
Earlier this year, I was involved in a potential business opportunity that required some knowledge in AWS. I still didn’t know if this opportunity will work out or not, and I had one week preparation. During this week, I read couple of AWS white papers to prepare, but unfortunately, the opportunity did not come through.
I was upset that the hard effort I put in that week is wasted without real benefit as I studied 15 hours a day for a complete week in a hope for the business opportunity to be realized, but it didn’t.
I decided to look at the good side of the story and make that one week of hard work count. I was asking my self “why not to take a certification in AWS?”. I already invested one week of studying, so why not to study more and get certified? That way, my efforts won’t get unnoticed.
Now I have over 15 years of experience, 8 of them in cloud computing. However, most of my experience is with Microsoft Azure and not AWS. I have some sort of experience working in AWS including proposing solutions, troubleshooting and making POCs for less than a year.
But I already have solid architecture skills already. I believe if you are an architect, then you already know the principles of a good cloud architecture, and you only need to learn how each cloud provider implements the details.
AWS Certifications Overview
I started to learn about the certifications available in AWS and here you can find an updated list of all of them. The AWS certifications can be looked at from two different perspectives:
- Years of experience in AWS:
- Foundation ( 6 months aws experience)
- Associate (one year experience)
- Professional (two years of comprehensive experience designing, operating and troubleshooting aws cloud)
Now in addition to that, Amazon realized that there is a need for a specialty certifications to cover in more details certain topics like advanced networking and security.
For example, if you are already an AWS Solution Architect Professional, you may know how to architect solutions, but the exam might not cover security in AWS in details. If you want to learn more how security in AWS works, you can go and take the AWS Certified Security Specialty Exam which was announced in April 2018. Of course, to take a specialty exam, you should have a Cloud Practitioner or Associate-level certification as a prerequisite which makes sense.
So the AWS specialty exams are new and they allow you to specialize in different areas like:
- Advanced Networking.
- Big Data.
- Machine Learning.
- Alexa Skill Builder
Note: things might change when you read this blog post. Make sure you visit the official AWS certification page for updated exam information.
Now for my situation, I already have good knowledge and experience in Microsoft Azure cloud solutions and I have over 15 years working in the IT industry. So I know what a load balancer is and I am familiar with the concept of auto-scaling groups.
I did’t go for the Cloud Practitioner exam because I assume it will be so basic and I wanted an architect level certification if I am going to invest time in this. I also didn’t go for a Professional Level certification because I don’t have a lot and extensive experience designing and operating solutions using AWS cloud.
The perfect balance for me is to study for the AWS Solutions Architect Associate exam. It is neither basic nor advanced. It also qualifies me to take any specialty exams in the future (like the Security Specialty exam).
Note: Previously, you had to pass the AWS Solutions Architect Associate exam before taking the AWS Solutions Architect Professional exam. Nowadays, you can jump directly and take the AWS Solutions Architect Professional exam without any prerequisites. This is why you see people previously start with the AWS Solutions Architect Associate exam first before taking the professional one, but this is not the case now.
Study Materials & Resources
1. Official Study Guide
Now that I know what exam I am after, the next thing to decide is how to study for the AWS Solutions Architect Associate Exam and what resources shall I use.
I was visiting Seattle at that time for a week (March 2019) to attend the Microsoft MVP summit and I thought why not to visit the Amazon head offices in Seattle. I remember walking in Seattle and I found an Amazon Go shop and I enjoyed the new shopping experience. I then saw the Amazon buildings and Amazon employees in the streets with their badges. I guess I wanted to see and learn about the Amazon culture before studying for the exam.
While still in Seattle, I visited a book store to see if there is any official study guide for the AWS Solution Architect Associate exam. It turned out that the exam was updated and there is a new official study guide that should be used. Lucky me, that new study guide was published in my last day in Seattle. So I purchased that new AWS Solution Architect Associate exam study guide before leaving Seattle.
The study guide is 300 pages (if you only count the actual study chapters) and is very easy to read and navigate through, but it is also boring for a person who is new to AWS. I read half of the book and I can say it count for 20% of what it needs to pass the exam or even less.
2. Online Training Course
You should always ask for help and this is what I did. A friend of mine told me about the most famous AWS online training platform (Cloud Guru). These guys are professionals and many people who are taking the AWS exams are using Cloud Guru training to prepare for all AWS exams.
I was looking at Udemy (a famous online training platform) and I found a course authored by the same Cloud Guru guys in Udemy for the AWS Solutions Architect Associate exam. I purchased the course for 10$ and watched it fully. I HIGHLY recommend you take this course (13 hours) as it is customized to the AWS Solutions Architect Associate Exam objectives.
The great thing about this online course are the labs. As a person who didn’t work much in AWS (except for preparing a small POC, and writing a proposed architecture for couple of small business in AWS), the labs helped me see how the management console looks like and how to configure various AWS resources. The instructor is obviously skilled and he speaks native English. He have also a slide after each lecture about the exam tips and what you should focus on.
3. White Papers
You can’t consider your self an AWS architect by any chance without reading AT LEAST these two white papers by Amazon:
There are many other white papers published by AWS, but those are like the essentials, the heart of AWS, the basics you need to know before entering that exam room. They are not just good read for the exam, but they help you understand how to architect solution in AWS and what makes a good architecture in terms of cost optimizations, scalability,…etc
4. AWS Docs and AWS reInvent
If you want to pass this exam, you can skip the official study guide book, but you should watch that online course by Cloud Guru, you should read at least the two white papers mentioned earlier. But, you are not there yet.
There are some topics that you should MASTER and really understand how they work in order to pass the exam. Here are some example of such topics:
- AWS Elastic Load Balancer (Deep Inside Out, and don’t tell me you know how Azure load balancers work or how your on-premises load balancer work. It is different in AWS)
- Auto-Scaling Groups (the hero of availability and elasticity in AWS. You should know how they work, what instances get terminate first and why, how to monitor them, what if scenarios,….)
- STORAGE (you should go to the exam memorizing all storage type, when to use which, scenarios, throughput, types, durability and availability for each type, how to encrypt, how to backup each, how to migrate to another region, which workload types work for each storage type). And I mean it, storage is one of the huge topics in the exam.
- Networking in AWS (VPC, Security Groups, NACL, and how networking work in AWS)
- CloudWatch, CloudTrail, SQS, SNS and Route53
Now these topics mentioned above requires special attention. You have to master them and understand how they work inside out. To do that, I used two ways to master these topics:
- I read the full AWS docs about them. AWS docs is the technical documentation for AWS like Microsoft docs. So for the AWS load balancer, I would read everything in the AWS docs about each load balancer type (Classic ELV, Network ELB and Application ELB). I will start with reading the whole thing in AWS docs about the Application load balancer mentioned here. What are target groups, what are the health checks available, how it is different from classic and network load balancer, listener types, integration with other services,…etc
- Sometimes, I need more information about a topic like the elastic load balancer. It is big topics and after reading the AWS docs, I still want to know more to really master it. I always go and watch a session on YouTube for the AWS reInvent Conference. ReInvent is like Microsoft’s Ignite conference. It happens every year with a lot of technical sessions hosted by AWS themselves. So for example, if I want to learn more about load balancers in AWS, I would search YouTube for (AWS load balancer reinvent) and watch the (Elastic Load Balancing: Deep Dive and Best Practices) video, at least the first part of it.
5. Practical Exams
Please, Please, Please… Do not go to the exam without taking couple of practice questions for the exam. These questions will help you expect how the AWS Solutions Architect Associate Exam questions look like and how to improve your skills solving scenario-based questions. It also helps you be more comfortable in the exam.
Now these are not the same questions you will find in the AWS Solutions Architect Associate Exam , but they are similar. For me, These questions help me in two things.
First, Before starting to study for the exam, I looked at couple of questions to see how these questions look like. For example, there are a lot of questions asking about the right S3 storage type to use, so when I study the S3 part, I focus more on the S3 storage types and when to use what.
Second, once I finish studying for the whole exam. I use the practice question exams to study even more. For each question in the Practice question exams, I did the following:
- I try to see if these is any term in the question that I don’t understand. If I see the word dynamodb streams in the question which I didn’t study about before, then I go to google and spend couple of minutes reading about it. This is great way to study because now not only I learned what a dynamodb streams is, I also know now how it can be used given the question scenario I am looking at right now.
- If I see a question about a scenario that I don’t know how to answer, I look at the answer and this help me understand how AWS services fit together and how they can be used in real scenarios. For example, I already studied about SQS and I know the definition of invisibility timeout but when I read a question talking about a scenario where invisibility timeout is used, it makes this information stick in my head.
- I don’t care if answer wrong, the idea is to enhance my knowledge and learn from these question how AWS services can be used from the scenario in the question. In fact, after my whole study, when I first start looking a these practice questions, I couldn’t answer 85% of them. I spent 3 to 4 days (6 hours a day minimum) to study these practice questions and they help me the most pass the exam.
One final tip before you go to the exam. Try to understand which services can trigger other services. So after studying for the exam, can you list which services can be triggered when a new object is created in S3?
As per AWS documentation, the answer is Amazon S3 supports the following destinations where it can publish events:
- Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS) queue.
- AWS Lambda
- Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS) topic.
Now why this is important? Suppose you get a question that a new mobile app is uploading photos to an S3 bucket, and you need a solution to create photo thumbnail with the least cost and ability to scale automatically. The question also gives you four possible solutions to do that.
Knowing that Lampda can be triggered when a new object is created in an S3 bucket will help you choose Lampda function as a possible answer here.
Same thing with the AWS API gateway. Knowing that it can trigger a Lampda function, then when you have a question asking about building a serverless solution for an application and they want to use an API gateway, then immediately you can consider Lampda functions as part of this solution, because you know it can be triggered by an API gateway.
Check Out Pluralsight Courses
Pluralsight recently published a lot of AWS courses but they did that after I finished my exam unfortunately. I trust Pluralsight and I know for sure they are the best in IT online training, so give it a try. You can subscribe for one month for free, and this is all the time you need to prepare for this exam.
There is one specific Pluralsight course that explains what the exam covers to give you head start before or after studying for the exam. It is a one hour course called [Demystifying the AWS Certified Solutions Architect: Associate Exam]. You can click here to view it.
How I Passed AWS Solutions Architect Associate Exam
The best way to pass an exam is to schedule the exam before you start studying to force yourself to commit your time in advance. This is what I did actually. Before I started studying, I scheduled the exam three weeks a head, and I spend 4 to 6 hours daily studying for the exam.
I was committed and I didn’t want just to pass the exam, I really wanted to learn about AWS. I created an AWS account and took advantage of the free tier services in AWS to do some labs and explore services in the management console. You don’t need to do that if you want, as the Cloud Guru course I mentioned previously will walk you through many labs, so you can learn just by watching the instructor going through the labs.
The exam duration is pretty fair and I finished the exam after 70 minutes and I had 65 questions. All questions are multiple choice where you have to choose one or two possible answers from a four choices. It was easy exam for me just because I spent 35% of my study time solving and learning from the practice questions I showed you previously.
The strange thing though is that after I finished the exam, I got a screen said that I passed the exam, but there is no exam report getting printed like other exams I took before. It turned out that I have to wait for couple of days until I receive my exam score by email. It took 24 hours for me to get an email with my score (881/1000) and until the results appear in my AWS certification account online.
Wishing You Luck
I want to wish you luck in your Journey to pass the AWS Solutions Architect Associate Exam. I hope this blog post inspires you or helps you by any means. If it did, please write a comment below and let me know what you think. If you pass the exam, I appreciate taking the time and writing a comment below to share your success with me. Good Luck !