Immediate Reflections on the AWS Solutions Architect Associate Exam (February 2019)

February 11, 2019

I passed the AWS Solutions Architect Associate Certification Exam today and I wanted to write up a few immediate thoughts because I still feel as though the process is somewhat opaque for most people. Part of this may be because of the NDA that you are required to agree to prior to taking the exam. To be clear, everything mentioned in this post will be from a broad perspective and will not include any questions, materials, or test-specific information. However, there will be a few preparation tips I feel will be helpful for anyone who is pursuing this specific certification (most of it also holds true for other AWS certifications, but I have not taken any others so I cannot say for sure).

Memorization is the Foundation

While it may seem silly to memorize how many 9’s of availability a given AWS managed service offers, knowing this information will provide a foundation for forming more insightful conclusions. Naturally, the safest place to find information on AWS services is their own documentation (which is updated frequently). Nearly every offering has a usage guide and an FAQ page, which I found to be one of the best places for information due to the question format.

I have compiled a repository of questions here (all of these were created prior to taking the exam), but I would highly advise creating your own information bank. I found that creating my own questions about various AWS services forced me to think critically about aspects I was not familiar with.

Create Your Own Scenarios

Speaking of thinking critically, AWS really doesn’t want the people designing systems on their infrastructure to only be able to recite a bunch of facts to clients. For this reason, there is a heavy focus on scenario-based questions. If you are someone like me who recently finished an undergraduate degree and hasn’t been able to amass a decade of experience implementing diverse technology solutions in a variety of settings, this can be a real hindrance. To make up for the lack of hands-on experience you are going to need to read about business situations and think about how you would solve them. Then, critically, you will need to actually do so (at least on a small scale). I had the privilege of access to a test environment on AWS provided by my employer, but it is relatively easy for anyone to obtain credits and utilize the free tier to implement short term solutions on a small scale.

Look for Buzz Words

Especially when thinking about the different tiers of an AWS offering, look for key buzz words or situations that allow you to choose one option or the other. For instance, because all of the available options for S3 have 11 9’s of durability, choosing a storage tier almost always revolves around availability. The AWS landscape is so vast that you need to be able to create mental shortcuts to allow you to focus depth on a subset of information, and compress the rest into broad understanding.

Think In Terms of the Well-Architected Framework

As the first-mover and the prevailing standard in the cloud provider industry, AWS has practically written the book on bullet-proof cloud architecture. Their philosophy can be summarized by their white paper on the Well-Architected Framework. While you don’t need to be able to regurgitate every word of the paper, you do need to get into a habit of thinking along its concepts. Nearly every situation you will be confronted with as a cloud architect will boil down to balancing performance, security, and cost. Finding the right mixture of these categories is what makes an optimal solution. AWS has done quite a lot to make infrastructure much easier to manage compared to the days of setting up your own racks in a datacenter, but much of the responsibility still falls on you. The attack surfaces of modern applications are becoming larger every day as more and more appliances are being networked together. The Well-Architected Framework is valuable because it focuses on the theory of a system, rather than the gritty details. For this reason, as AWS introduces new services every week, the Framework continues to hold true.

Solve the Puzzle

Lastly, if you are taking this exam, you probably like solving problems. Look at each question as a puzzle. You have a set of pieces (procured through memorization) and you simply need to put them together to create the final picture (the scenario solution). Don’t stress, have fun, and take joy in the endless possibilites of products that you can craft with the knowledge you are obtaining!

As always, send me a message @HashedDan on Twitter for any questions or comments!