Five years ago, in October 2015, I got certified as an AWS Solution Architect Associated. You can find the details under the certification credential ID AWS-ASA-DE-513. It was my first AWS Certificate ever, and I remember that I was quite proud back then.
This week I retook the exam. One of the reason is obviously that the certified status had expired already years ago. With this blog post, I would like to share my experiences doing this exam for the second time and provide insights into what has changed over time.
Let's start with taking a look at what are some of the formal changes.
The current version of this certification is called: AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate (SAA-C02). This version of the exam was released in March 2020 and is already the second iteration after the one I did. SAA-C01 was released beginning of 2018. You can find the official Exam Guide for the SAA-C02 here.
Most of it is very similar to how it looked in 2015. You get a total of 65 questions; these will be a mix of simple multiple-choice and multiple response questions. The latter also states how many correct answers you should pick. You get 130 minutes for this and need a score of 720 out of 1000 to pass based on a scaled scoring model.
The actual content has changed quite a lot. The current version still has questions out of 4 domains, but the subjects and the weighting have changed.
- 60% – Designing highly available, cost efficient, fault tolerant, scalable systems
- 10% – Implementation/Deployment
- 20% – Data Security
- 10% – Troubleshooting
- 30% – Design Resilient Architectures
- 28% – Design High-Performing Architectures
- 25% – Design Secure Applications and Architectures
- 18% – Design Cost-Optimized Architectures
AWS moves very fast, and therefore it's no surprise that the current version includes a lot of topics for features and services which did not exist in 2015.
For example, S3 grew a lot and got many new features and a few new storage classes. The AWS Snow family didn't exist at all, and the same goes for Athena or Macie. EC2 Spot is now way more complex than it used to be. On the Network side, we got things like VPC Gateway Endpoints, Private Link, or Transit Gateway. Back then, ELB was the name of the only available load balancer in AWS before he got renamed to classic ELB at the birth of its siblings ALB and NLB. Parameter Store, Systems Manager, or ECS were not yet released, and as far as I remember, even Lambda wasn't part of the exam in 2015.
How I prepared for each of them
I started using AWS as part of my day-to-day job somewhere around 2012/2013, giving me the recommended hands-on experience for my first exam in 2015. This was a huge help and provided a solid level of ground knowledge. To fill the gaps I used the online learning platform Linux Academy for preparation and study. They offer a digital course dedicated to the certification which covered all needed topics and a bit more. In addition to the video material and some references, I remember two features that also helped me a lot preparing:
- Practice exams that simulated a real exam, including a random mix of questions and actual time pressure. This gave an excellent impression of how the exam will feel. How questions and answers are structured, and how to approach such a set of questions with the given time limit.
- The possibility to define your own learning schedule. A small tool where you would specify how many hours you will put in on each day of the week. Based on that data a detailed plan gets created showing you which session you should take when. It also shows when you would be done with the entire content so that you can schedule your exam accordingly.
At the end of 2019, A Cloud Guru announced Linux Academy's acquisition. Both companies are in the same market and provide online learning for cloud and related technologies. However, both used to have a slightly different approach.
I was curious about which would be the better choice for my new preparation. So I took a look at the course for this certification on both platforms. As it turns out, both programs provide the same content nowadays and with exactly the same videos and materials for this specific course. This time, I picked A Cloud Guru to see if there are any other differences and get a feeling for the learning experience with them.
The only thing I missed was that tool to plan out my learning schedule. You only get an indication by looking at each video's length and the sum for each chapter. I believe it was ok for this time, as most of the content wasn't entirely new. But I assume that if I'd do another certification, one where I would have to put in more effort, I would appreciate that structure of scheduled learning for myself.
I started my preparation beginning of December 2020. With all the distractions of re:invent, Christmas, and the holidays I used effectively 4-5 weeks to watch 98% of all the videos, took the quizzes, and did the practice exam five times.
I took the AWS-ASA exam on an early Monday morning at re:invent 2015. It was a regular exam like you have it at any onsite AWS event or one of the many certification test centers worldwide. It's in a room full of tables arranged in rows and desktop PCs presenting you the exam questions in a web application.
This time was a lot different due to the current pandemic. Since the end of March 2020, AWS offers doing the exam virtually and from home together with their testing vendor Pearson VUE. I had used this approach for the AWS Cloud Practitioner in June 2020, so I was already familiar with the procedure.
In short: you need to download a particular application from Pearson VUE, which is available for Windows and MacOS. And on the day of your exam, you login ~30 minutes before it starts and follow the online proctoring instructions. You need a quiet room where you won't be interrupted by somebody, a clean desk, and a stable internet connection. During the onboarding, you use your laptop's webcam to show your ID, the room you are in, and that your desk is completely empty. You cannot have an external screen, use pen or paper, or any food and drinks during the exam. Your webcam will also record you for the entire time. That felt a bit wired initially, but it faded away as soon I started concentrating on the questions.
In both cases, I get a simple pass immediately after doing the exam and a more detailed overview of my score a few days later via email.
In the end, I'm pleased that I got certified again. Going through the preparation got me (again) looking at some features or details of AWS that I haven't encountered before. This is especially true for services I don't touch regularly as part of my day job.
It was definitely worth the effort, and I would like to encourage everybody who works with AWS to get certified as well.