Reflections on AWS Solutions Architect Exam

By | July 7, 2015

I’m happy to say I just passed the AWS Solutions Architect Certification Exam with an overall score of 75% (not to say that I’m thrilled with the 75% score, but I think the exam was fair). FWIW, I wanted to share a few reflections on the experience overall.

To begin with, I had a lot of traditional CS background, but very little to no background on cloud services. I had no operational experience with AWS, Azure, etc. I started a little over a month ago looking at online classes, and settled on the “AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate 2015” class on Udemy by Ryan Kroonenburg. This class was terrific, I would highly recommend anyone considering getting a technical intro or overview of AWS to take this class. Ryan’s organization and presentations, with a mix of practice opportunities, was exactly what I needed to get me some practical experience to back up the didactic knowledge. Also, I got an odd kick out of Ryan’s start of each lecture with “Hello, Cloud Gurus…”.

I had browsed other online classes, but I figured that the focus on the exam, along with the operational practice part of launching a scalable and fault-tolerant WordPress site on AWS, was a winning combination.

I went through the Udemy class and lectures twice — first, at regular speed, about 3-4 weeks ago, then at an accelerated pace about 1-1.5 weeks ago. I went through all the quizzes in the class until I got them all 100% — which is not particularly challenging because neither the questions nor the order change. I was going to do the webassesssor practice exam in the past few days but had some issues and ultimately never got to it.

I read/skimmed the suggested white papers as well as the FAQ’s for the AWS services, but at best I don’t think they helped anymore than just doing the class work.

Regarding the test, I think it was a pretty good assessment of my overall knowledge. Here are some observations:

  • My overall strategy was to get through all the easy questions with sufficient time to review the ones I had doubts about, or completely didn’t know. I found that I got through a first pass of questions in about 35-40 minutes. I had marked 20 questions to review later, and of those, 9 I was pretty unsure of the answers. After finishing the first pass, I went through the dubious questions in about 15-20 minutes, then took a 3 minute break from the desk to clear my mind a little bit. I came back to the hardest 5 with about 20 minutes remaining, then finished with about 10 minutes left overall.
  • I found many more multi-part questions than I expected, I would say about 15 or so of the total. For those questions, I usually knew 1 of the answers immediately, but it was the 2nd or 3rd choices I had questions about. I can sometimes read way too much into questions or answers, and that makes me agonize more than I should, so my advice would be to read the questions or answers as plainly as they appear, without so much subtlety (again, easier to say than do).
  • Breakdown of my results (topic level scoring):
    • Designing highly available, cost efficient, fault tolerant, scalable systems : 70%
    • Implementation/Deployment: 50%
    • Security: 87%
    • Troubleshooting: 100%
  • My weakest area was “implementation/deployment”, but I think that is somewhat reflective of my current lack of real operational experience (which will definitely change moving forward!)
  • I tend to believe it would have been better if there were parts of the exam in which I demonstrated competency/proficiency at a task. I would have loved it if there were simulation exercises in which I could demonstrate I knew how to set up and troubleshoot a VPC, for example (one thing Ryan stresses).
  • I believe I would have done better if I were more familiar with
    • The specific behaviors/consequences after stopping EC2 instances (for example, what happens to the EBS-backed volumes);
    • Different types of instances. Since we worked mostly with the free tier, I ignored the differences in other tiers. There was 1 or 2 questions about characteristics of those other types, and I just winged it;
    • VPC peers; and
    • More use cases for services like Kinesis, RedShift, etc. Things I should have remembered from the FAQ’s.
  • I should have taken the practice exam, that would have helped.
  • Of course I don’t know really what I got wrong or right, so it’s possible the things I thought I got right I got wrong. I would have loved to get any sense of what I got wrong, so I could study those further. I understand why Amazon doesn’t tell me, but it’s still something I would have liked for my professional development.

My biggest complaint about the exam is not really about the exam itself, but the lack of direction in the overall process. I see three main parts for this learning:

  1. Training to learn the services and pass the test
  2. Taking the test
  3. Applying the knowledge beyond the test.

I understand that the certification, especially from Amazon’s perspective, is really about #2. However, to make the certification worth something to employers, I would think an employer would want to know that the person has direct experience with a relevant type of situation. I feel I got a great introduction to the services, but I recognize I need more practical experience. It would be great if there were some kind of structure apprenticeship, say for a month or two, along different real-world tracks, maybe db-management, mobile app development, big data stuff, etc.

I have a few projects I want to pursue with AWS, so I’m excited to get going with them, and of course I’m super-relieved to be past the exam.


3 thoughts on “Reflections on AWS Solutions Architect Exam

  1. Sreejayan Cheri

    Great feedback and excellent write-up Jonathan. I am also in the same boat, with no practical skills on AWS; but loving Ryan’s course and the intricacies of AWS. Hopefully with more effort, I should be able to pass this exam.

  2. Arnab

    Great write up and feedback.

    I am taking the test in 3 days and slightly weary on what to expect. I have done my fair share of practice. I am kind of overwhelmed with the volume of content in the whitepaper and faqs.

  3. Jonathan Kaye Post author

    @Arnab – thx, agreed, the amount of potential content is overwhelming, but I think Amazon does a good job of keeping things at a reasonable level for the test; @Sreejayan, thx!

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