Preparing for the AWS Solutions Architect certification exam

Ready to go tackle the Professional certification? Here are some tips & advice from my personal exam journey

It may be an overused cliché to compare preparing for a certification exam to a long journey — my Capital One colleague Austen Novis used it in his article on the CKA exam — but today it indeed feels like I have traversed a long and winding road. Why? Because I have taken and passed the AWS Solutions Architect- Professional Certification. While the joy is in the journey, I’m pretty thrilled to now be at my destination. That said, I hope that others will be encouraged by this account of my experience studying for, taking, and passing this certification exam.

I would walk five hundred miles - how I decided to take the AWS Solutions Architect - Professional certification

Looking down at booted feet standing on leaves

You’ve heard the adage, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.” For me, that one step was taking the AWS Solutions Architect - Associate certification back in December 2017. Back then, I could not have fathomed taking the Solutions Architect Professional test – the Associate level exam was intimidating enough!

But I spent at least three months studying for the Associate Certification, with the last two weeks before the exam spent in intensive study. Our leadership here at Capital One is extremely supportive of associates getting AWS certifications, and I received support from both my manager and my teammates in the form of encouragement, test-taking tips, and time off work to actually take the test. Thankfully, that experience helped prepare me for what would be required to pass the Professional level exam.

The AWS certification continuum from https://aws.amazon.com/certification/ as published on 3/29/2021

The AWS certification continuum from https://aws.amazon.com/certification/ as published on 3/29/2021

As an aside, if you haven’t taken the Associate exam, I would highly recommend that you go that route first. My colleague Quinn has a very good writeup on strategies for preparing for the associate level exam, and you will see many of his tips echoed here.

Fast forward to mid-2020. I was approximately six months away from the expiration of my associate certification. I knew that I wanted to renew, and as I said earlier, thankfully Capital One is extremely supportive of its associates achieving advanced certifications. After talking with my colleagues and friends, some of whom also hold the AWS Solutions Architect - Professional certification, I made the personal decision to aim for the Professional level certification this time around.

Differences between the Associate and Professional level certifications

So you might be asking, “What is the difference between the Associate and Professional exams?” From AWS, these are the abilities that are validated by each exam.

Abilities Validated

Solutions Architect Professional Solutions Architect Associate

Design and deploy dynamically scalable, highly availablee, fault-tolerant and reliable applications on AWS

Effectively demonstrate knowledge of how to architect and deploy seceure and robust applications on AWS technologies

Select appropriate AWS servicse to design and deploy an application based on given requirements Define a solution using architectural design principles based on customer requirements
Migrate complex, multi-tier applications on AWS Provide implementation guidance based on best practices to the organixzation throughout the life cycle of the project
Design and deploy enterprise-wide scalable operations on AWS  
Implement cost-control strategies  

*The above text is quoted verbatim from the AWS certification site as published on 3/29/2021

Recommended Knowledge and Experience

Solutions Architect Professional Solutions Architect Associate

Two or more years of hands-on experience designing and deploying cloud architecture on AWS

Hands-on experience using compute, networking, storage, and database AWS services

Ability to evaluate cloud application requirements and make architectural recommendations for implementation, deployment, and provisioning applications on AWS

Hands-on experience with AWS deployment and management services

Familiarity with AWS CLI, AWS APIs, AWS CloudFormation templates, the AWS Billing Console, and the AWS Management Console

Ability to identify and define technical requirements for an AWS-based application

Explain and apply the five pillars of the AWS Well-Architected Framework

Ability to identify which AWS services meet a given technical requirement

Design a hybrid architecture using key AWS technologies (e.g., VPN, AWS Direct Connect)

Knowledge of recommended best practices for building secure and reliable applications on the AWS platform

Ability to provide best practice guidance on the architectural design across multiple applications and projects of the enterprise

An understanding of the basic architectural principles of building on the AWS Cloud

Familiarity with a scripting language

An understanding of the AWS global infrastructure

Familiarity with Windows and Linux environments

An understanding of network technologies as they relate to AWS

Map business objectives to application/architecture requirements

An understanding of security features and tools that AWS provides and how they relate to traditional services

Architect a continuous integration and deployment process

 

*The above text is quoted verbatim from the AWS certification site as published on 3/29/2021

You might ask why would I want to put myself through the amount of effort to pass this exam? I think for me there was a certain amount of “been there, done that” about simply re-taking the Systems Architect Associate test to re-certify myself. I’ve always been someone who wants to keep pushing himself to greater and greater achievements and this was a good way to do that. It also seemed like just re-certifying at the Associate level would be selling myself short with regards to the level of experience I have with AWS. I’ve been working with AWS every day for over three years now on some very in-depth projects, including several parts of our cloud migration journey.

That said, our culture at Capital One also influenced my decision to take the Professional level exam. In a company that values certifications and encourages its associates to achieve them, this particular AWS certification was a way to differentiate myself from my peers taking the Associate exam.

Life is a highway - scheduling myself for the professional certification exam

Once I made the decision, it then came down to timing. One of the most important things you can do in the journey to certification is to register for the test. Once you have a date set, you’re working toward a concrete goal; until you’ve registered for the exam and paid for it, you don’t really have skin in the game.

As noted above, my original associate certification was expiring in December 2020 — AWS certifications are valid for three years — so I had some time to prepare. In early December I registered to take the exam on January 29, 2021, giving me approximately two months to study. Capital One provides associates with an extensive selection of on-demand training, so I began searching through the various offerings for AWS certification preparation courses. My teammates recommended a few of the online courses, so I began working my way through those; but it turns out, that style of learning is not for me.

Temet nosce - know your learning style before you begin

This brings me to the most important advice I can give anybody, not just for passing a singular exam, but literally for life — Temet Nosce. Know yourself.

Give yourself permission to be human, to make mistakes and grow. Knowing how your individual brain works, how you learn - and perhaps more importantly how you don’t learn - will save you an immense amount of time and frustration. In this case, it was more than just knowing how I learn, it was also knowing how I function on a daily basis, what my schedule looks like, the responsibilities I have to attend to, and those that I could temporarily pause in favor of studying. Once again, Capital One is very supportive of its associates and provides us with monthly “Invest in Yourself Days” — time during work hours to study for certification exams and to learn other skills. I most definitely availed myself of this time when studying for the AWS Solutions Architect Professional Certification.

I know from experience that I learn from books. I also prefer to read those books as I wind down from my day, that is to say, right before I go to bed. Assuming that I’m interested in the topic, give me a book any day and I’ll pick up that skill. I’ve learned many diverse skills directly from books, everything from programming to 3D modeling to taekwondo forms. Sitting through a video — the format of many online learning resources — is not my preferred learning method.

Interestingly, as part of this journey I discovered why that style of learning doesn’t work for me – because the video is mostly reviewing knowledge I already have. For me, it is annoying to sit through a rehash of already gained knowledge just to find that little tidbit that I may not already know. Rather, give me a book so I can skim until I find the part that interests me.

In my role as a Devops Engineer I modify IAM and bucket policies, create and launch CloudFormation templates, deploy Lambda functions and architect new applications in AWS on a nearly daily basis. With my background I didn’t need to devote as much study time to these things. What I needed to study and learn in this case was information targeted directly at the gaps in my knowledge.

I did it my way - developing an exam study style that suited my needs

Once I got through the video course and realized that I needed something more, how did I study for the AWS Solutions Architect Professional Certification? One common recommendation is reading the various white papers that AWS provides, and this certainly would have provided the knowledge I needed to pass the exam. That said, for me, reading white papers would not have been an effective learning path as they generally put me to sleep. White papers tend to be quite dry (on purpose, they’re not written for entertainment), but they also tend to be somewhat clinical in their presentation, and may not provide the scenario type context that you will encounter when taking the test.

I ended up buying an e-book of approximately 300 sample test questions. In this particular book, the questions are in the front, and the answers are in the back, with hyperlinks between the question and the answer. Along with the answer, the book includes a discussion of “why” the answer(s) are correct, as well as links to the relevant AWS product pages. I could work my way through the book, answering the questions and seeing if I got the right answer. When I got wrong answers I had new, targeted knowledge presented to me about that specific topic.

A rock with a weathered yellow arrow spray painted on it.

I then took this up a notch by creating a spreadsheet to keep score. When I first started working my way through the book my score was ~65% — not a passing score by any means. By the time I finished my first pass of the book, I had upped my score to ~75%, just barely passing.

Once I had been through the entire book once, I started over from the beginning, treating it like it was the real exam. I did questions 1-75, then did 76-150, the whole time keeping score, tracking the questions I got wrong, and making notes of the new pieces of knowledge I was gaining. I was pushing 89% correct by the time I finished the second set of 75 questions.

I should say this: none of the questions in that book were on the exam, at least not verbatim. That said, the architecture patterns that the book reinforced gave me a great advantage as I was taking the test. Additionally, if you’ve taken any kind of AWS certification test you know that they like to write the questions in a certain way, and this book helped me wrap my brain around what to expect.

Another advantage that the ebook gave me was that it got me used to the keywords that the exam uses to indicate a certain technology, product, or pattern. For example, the words “Highly Available” usually means that the correct answer will involve a multiple availability zone or multi-region solution.

Be good to yourself - preparing for the day of the exam

I spent the last two weeks of January studying very intensively for the exam, and interestingly enough, as test day approached, I wasn’t all that nervous. However, the day of the test, the nerves came on with a vengeance. I’m not sure why I was suddenly nervous, but this comes back to something I said before — know yourself. If you have read any of my other articles, you might know that I have an undergraduate degree in Music Performance and have been studying and performing music since I was 9 years old. I have been a performing artist long enough to know how to channel and harness nervous energy, so I was able to use this to my advantage.

The morning of the exam I got up and made sure I had a good breakfast. I had scheduled the test for 10:30 AM, so I had some time to eat, check on work, do a little review, and most importantly drink some coffee.

A cup of coffee with surface bubbles that look like a smiley face

Do not try to take an AWS certification (or any certification for that matter) without caffeine. You have been warned.

I made sure to arrive at the testing center with plenty of time to spare before my test, and purposely scheduled it for a time of day when I knew traffic would be lighter. Again, know yourself (I hate traffic). I arrived at the testing center, signed in, and completed the requisite paperwork.

An important detail: your testing center will require two forms of identification. The first form must be a government issued photo ID, usually a driver’s license or a passport. The second form can be something that you have signed, in my case I provided a credit card.

Ain’t misbehavin’ - what to expect taking the exam

Another important note: testing centers are extremely detailed about the anti-cheating policies that are set forth by the certification authority. Make sure you know what those rules are for your exam. For an AWS Certification, you can’t take anything into the room with you. No phone, no car keys, no wallet, and no water. The center should provide a (fairly small) locker for you to put your belongings in, and since I had to present ID and drive to the testing center, I had car keys and my wallet on me — I had left my phone hidden in my car.  My car keys and wallet easily fit in the locker, and I was allowed to keep the key to the locker on me while I was taking the test.

Pro Tip: Turn off your phone; you won’t need it while you’re testing.

The testing center will be a designated quiet zone. Please be respectful of other testers and keep your voice down. My testing center did provide earplugs and noise cancelling headphones. I’m used to working in a somewhat noisy environment, so I didn’t end up using these, but they will probably be available if you need them.

Until we achieve herd immunity to COVID-19, you will also be required to wear a mask the entire time you are taking the test. If you’re like me and wear glasses, this could prove to be a bit of a challenge because my glasses constantly fog up while wearing a mask. I purchased some anti-fog wipes for my glasses and used them that morning before taking the test, which helped.

The test itself is 75 questions and you have 180 minutes (three hours) to finish. For this exam you are not allotted a scheduled break. Should you need to take a bio-break, the timer does not stop. If you’re like me, you’ll probably need a break so plan accordingly and make sure you know the testing center’s procedure for a break. In my case, they were monitoring us via closed-circuit camera, and I simply had to raise my hand.

You will be in a room with other test-takers. They may or may not be taking the same test you are taking, as the testing centers cater to all types of learning. I’ll say this again as it bears repeating, please keep your voice down and be respectful of other test takers.

The exam will test more than just your knowledge of AWS. It will test your physical and mental stamina. When I took the test, I thought sure I had failed it after the first five questions, as they seemed to be dealing with topics that I hadn’t studied. Others I have spoken with have also echoed a similar sentiment.

Pro Tip: Keep going!

For me, this is where the book of sample questions showed its value — I was so used to the way this test’s questions are structured that I fell back into those patterns. I kept answering questions and soon I noticed that I was on question 45 with 110 minutes left, meaning I was on pace to finish the test with some time left over.

The software that the exam is presented through provides a couple of nice functions that you should absolutely take advantage of. It allows you to make “notes” on each question that will be preserved after you leave the question and it allows you to mark questions for review (a flag icon and text in the upper right corner of the screen). Once you have seen every question on the exam, you will be presented with a “review” screen that will show you all of the questions on the test, marking the questions that you flagged for review. You should try to have at least 10-15 minutes left over for a quick review before submitting your test for scoring. I’m pretty sure that I had a few of the questions that I had flagged wrong, and that I chose the correct answer when I went back via the review screen.

After you submit your questions, you will be given a short survey about the test, and then the computer will inform you if you passed. After you’ve completed the test, be sure to continue to follow the testing center’s rules and be respectful to the other test-takers in the room. Sign out, turn in your materials, retrieve your belongings, and be on your way.

I was given a sheet of paper stating that my results could take up to five days to be made available to me but my new certification showed up on the AWS certification site the next day and I received various emails overnight.

If you’re goin’ my way...

I would be remiss if I didn’t list a few tips and strategies that will most definitely help you when the time comes to take the exam. This is an article about passing a certification test after all.

Use the test to take the test

  • Oftentimes a question will reveal the answer to a previous or subsequent question

Learn the “keyword mappings”

  • The exam will use certain keywords when they are looking for a particular answer
  • For example, if the question includes the words “durable storage”, they’re probably looking for an answer that includes S3
  • This is where practice tests and practice questions come in very handy

Try to eliminate obviously incorrect answers

  • If you can eliminate half the answers, you now have a 50% chance of getting the question correct
  • In some cases you will be able to select the correct answers by eliminating the obviously incorrect ones

Memorize the menu

  • Know the names of each service and what that service does
  • Perhaps even more importantly, know what each service does not do
  • This knowledge will be invaluable for eliminating incorrect answers

Build the actual patterns

  • Go into the AWS Console and build one or more of these architectures
  • Go through all the menus up to pushing the “create” button
  • Especially do this for any services you’re less familiar with

Take a practice exam and use that to expose the gaps in your knowledge

Ramp up your studying in the two weeks before the exam to reinforce the knowledge you have been accumulating

Take advantage of the features of the testing software

  • Be sure to mark questions for review
  • Be sure to have some time at the end of the exam to review those questions

Do not be intimidated by the questions or the test

Pace yourself

  • You will have approximately two minutes per question

Don’t stop believing - if you don’t pass you can, and should, try again

If you don’t pass on the first try, do not be discouraged. Study up and try again. There is a two week waiting period before you can take the exam again. While the AWS Solutions Architect Professional Certification is not an easy exam, it’s also not insurmountable. If you’ve taken the exam once, you’ll know what to expect and how to better prepare. Whatever you do, don’t stop believing in yourself!

If you do pass, congratulations! Be sure to take some time to add your new certification to LinkedIn or any other sites you use for professional networking. Now that you have some momentum, set yourself another goal and begin working towards it.

Whether you pass or not, it’s time to party like it’s 1999. Go out and celebrate your new knowledge or your new certification. Remember that the joy is indeed in the journey, and yours is far from over.

Like the song says, “Don’t stop believing; hold on to that feeling.”

I’d wish you “good luck”, but you’re not going to need it.

Resources and further information


Michael Mucciarone, Sr. DevOps Engineer

Artist at heart, Technologist by day. Container and DevOps Enthusiast with a side of UI/UX designer and a degree in Music.

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