10'ish years of AWS Certification

I have actually never seen this movie. Sorry.

I sat my first AWS exam: AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate in April 2015. In the 6 years since, I have sat a total of twenty two AWS exams. I failed 3: my Advanced Networking specialty (beta) in 2017, my Solutions Architect Professional & Devops Professional re-certifications in 2018. Each of these three I then passed after the 30-day (then) timeout. My current ‘all eleven’ will expire in July 2024. (Hence 10'ish years of being certified). Don’t forget to clap (the story, not my achievement).

I am bad at failing things

To be clear, I am terrible at failing things. The despair I felt after failing my Architect Professional exam in 2018 was profound and left me incredibly dispondent for weeks afterwards. I’m supposed to be an AWS Expert! Clearly I am an idiot! And so on. I am slowly getting better at dealing with this.

What follows below, is essentially me doing immersion therapy on myself to try and shake off the fear of failure, how people see me (according to me) if I fail, and the ‘consequences’ of that failure. To this end, during my month-of-certification-madness in July 2021, I didn’t even communicate I was doing any of this to my people manager until the final exam was PASS, so afraid was I of falling at the last hurdle*. So clearly I still have a ways to go on myself.

* the ‘hurdle’ was an arbitrary deadline I had set to complete this task in July.

Dialling it up to 11

So in July, having previously decided I absolutely/definitely/100% no way/for sure wasn’t going to renew expired certificates (from April 2021), I faced a couple weeks ‘on the bench’ and so set about retaking those expired certificates (Solutions Architect, Associate and Professional; Big Data (retired)/Data Analytics Specialty; and Security Specialty) as well as collecting the rest of the Specialty certificates for a total of 11. Within my organisation, we celebrate this achievement with the accolade of Cloudius Maximus and each Victor gets their own WWE style belt to take home and keep. I am indeed, entertained.

In the four weeks of July, I sat 7exams.

  • week 1: Security, and Data Analytics Specialty
  • week 2: Architect Professional, and Machine Learning Specialty
  • week 3: Architect Associate, and Database Specialty
  • week 4: Devops Professional

The Machine Learning Specialty certification is extremely challenging. This is not an area I’ve explored at all and the training courses are teaching against the exam material, so for me there was very little context around much of what I was speed-learning. Do I remember what regressional models are? Of course not. Can I now explain the key differences between supervised and unsupervised learning? Barely. But I got it done.

Instead — and the thrust of this piece — I’d like to talk a bit about what I’ve learned about six years and 21 exams worth of AWS certification and how this was possible. This essentially comes down to a few simple things:

  • having learned AWS’ style of questions and answers
  • accepting PASS as the only requirement for success
  • flagging questions I’m unsure about, but being mindful that another question in the exam may provide clues to the correct answer
  • speed: on a first pass of questions, not lingering too long on one I’m not sure about; flag it, move on
  • new for 2020 onwards: the home turf advantage. Learning and certifying in the same environment.

Knowing the Answers, Understanding the Questions

Seems obvious. But really here I’m trying to edge toward the idea that certainly for most of the multiple choice questions, you tend to have four or more choices and two are, most often, almost the same. On these types of question you are then always in a position where you are down to a 50/50 choice, where one answer is only slightly incorrect. You will already have a feel for this. Similarly for other question types, half an answer seems legitimate, but then a service or feature is mentioned that you’ve never heard of — there’s probably a reason for that.

Each question is asking something specific. There are likely 3 or 4 keywords including AWS’ own EMPHASIS on important words. Look for ‘near real time’, ‘most cost efficient’, ‘quickest and easiest’. You may fundamentally disagree with the problem statement and the answers but the clues are always there.

Due to the way AWS write, select and use questions for their exams, you may also notice that a question with an answer you were unsure about earlier, is actually sort-of answered by the way another question is worded. This is because AWS invite candidates to write exam questions for them but only after candidates take an exam-writing course and passing its exam, then submitting a few questions of their own for consideration to be eligble for being officially selected. Whew. It’s a small pool of folks, folks.

PASS or FAIL

There’s lots and lots of people out there crowing about their 954, 987, 846, etc. scores. To avoid doubt, I’d just like to say: who gives a fuck. My certificate, your certificate, their certificate is valid for the same 3 year period. Your score only appears on the PDF that you can download from Certmetrics. It’s private to you. That’s it. ‘Perfection is the enemy of good’. Your peers will challenge you to reveal your score. This isn’t like disclosing your wage compensation. Your learning style might be different to theirs. I spend most of the time during the exam sweating and worrying about failure to the point where I’m clicking through the survey at the end and I CAN HEAR MY HEART BEATING IN MY EYES until I see PASS or FAIL. That is all that matters. Don’t tell them. It doesn’t matter.

true to many things. This included.

Speed and Overthinking

This will 100% sink you. The Specialty and the Professional exams are tough. English is my first (and shamefully only) language so I can whip through questions and answers on a first pass in about an hour and a quarter. For the rest of the world, deciphering AWS’ questions and reading answers must be an additional language challenge. But either way, don’t delay. Answer the questions as best you can on first go-round and REVIEW ALL once you’ve completed. You will already have answered a whole bunch of questions correctly, will be feeling good about a bunch more, and can then zero in on questions you definitely don’t know. If you spend too much time worrying on questions 7, 15, 29 and 52 on your first pass, you’ll burn time and you’ll rush yourself out of a PASS.

Playing at Home

Until 2020, I sat most of my exams at one of two test centres in London, England. Each one had a nearby Costa Coffee (the best terrible coffee chain as they serve Yorkshire Tea tea). I’d book a 1045/11am exam start, head to the nearby Costa Coffee beforehand and ritually have most of a cup of tea and a bowl of porridge before heading into the exam. Mostly, this was a good routine. Afterwards I was hot and sweaty the rest of the day. This was never good.

Now, of course, the world is both on fire and there’s a pandemic raging so we are mostly sitting in our houses studying for, and then taking these exams. This is a huge advantage. Ask any professional footballer. We are learning the material, then sitting the exam in mostly the same environment. It’s familiar. Exam questions feel much more familiar because we have the same association of location, space, smell, etc. Enjoy it while it lasts. Resist going back.

Tl;dr

July was hard. But I was trying to conquer my own fears of failure. So I can let-go of the idea that the world will crumble if I don’t pass (it won’t) or that my peers will think less of me if I don’t succeed (they have their own lives) and that I don’t need 956 for every exam. I just need to PASS.

I still have a way to go. I slept terribly on the night before the last exam as I had 10/11 certificates completed and what if I failed and I have to wait for 2 weeks to go round again and all the things that can happen in the meantime and how that ruins my perfect plan for July, etc. I’m still not over it. But I’m trying to let go. I encourage you to do the same. See you in 3 years.

Just kidding. I’m not doing this again. Definitely not. But you can! And you will. You got this.

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