AWS certification process calls for experience in the trenches

Real-world experience with Amazon's cloud services is the best prep for AWS certs, and experience trumps passing grades for IT employers.

IT pros who take AWS certification exams may improve their careers, but whether it's a job search or answering test questions, there's no replacement for hands-on experience in the cloud.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers four certification exams: an Associate and a Professional-level exam to become an AWS Certified Solutions Architect; an Associate exam to become an AWS Certified Developer; and an Associate exam to become an AWS Certified SysOps Administrator.

Three more exams are on AWS' roadmap: a Master-level exam for AWS Certified Solutions Architects and a Professional-level exam for both the AWS Certified Developer and the AWS Certified SysOps Administrator.

You do have to get a lot of specific knowledge to pass these tests.
Mark SzynakaCloud architect, Cloud eBroker

IT pros on the hiring side said if they were in the market for a new AWS administrator, certifications might help, but experience matters most.

"I would be more interested in that person's exposure to AWS, their time spent and what they've accomplished than certifications," said Nathan McBride, chief cloud architect for AMAG Pharmaceuticals based in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Case in point: McBride recently worked with a company to investigate data warehousing on AWS and not a single one of their Chef wizards had any certifications.

"It didn't matter," McBride said. "They were able to build massive clusters in AWS and had all the experience."

Those who've recently taken one of AWS' certification exams say they hope it will help advance their careers, but with training courses that cost up to $600 a day, hands-on experience is generally the best way to study. Training courses are recommended, but not required for the exams.

"Over the past year, the services that I've used and the products that I've managed, I'm most familiar with those, so I figured that would be a good starting point," said Brandon Buchanan, infrastructure developer for Synaptian Inc., a Ruby on Rails Web application development startup in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Buchanan recently passed the AWS Solutions Architect Exam at the Associate level and hopes to take others, but will wait until he has more experience with AWS.

AWS certification prep

Unless you have the money to travel and take three days out of the office, self-guided study and online materials are really the only ways to pass the test, Buchanan said.

The good news is that a number of free online courses and self-directed labs are available on the AWS Training website.

For those still trying to decide which exam is right for them, consultants say the Solutions Architect exam is best for those with more experience, while IT pros just starting out should look to the SysOps Administrator exams.

"You do have to get a lot of specific knowledge to pass these tests," said Mark Szynaka, cloud architect for New York-based cloud consulting firm Cloud eBroker. "The challenge is that there is such a broad range of services that Amazon offers, and in the architect position you need to be familiar with most of them; it's for somebody with broad experience and a good number of years in the industry who now has spent at least 18 months focused on Amazon."

Szynaka also plans to take the Solutions Architect Associate-level exam, but like Buchanan, is hard-pressed to find the time to do the necessary training and to take the test itself.

While there is a lot of buzz around these certifications, it's unknown how many AWS-certified professionals there are today. AWS doesn't release any stats about the number of people who have taken the certification tests.

IT pros like Szynaka would love to know.

"I remember with the [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification], if you had a low number it was very prestigious," he said. "You could say, 'I got my CCIE in the first thousand.' That's not the case with the Amazon certification, but that might help people to actually get going on it."

About the author:
Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for SearchAWS. Write to her at
[email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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