AWS Solutions Architect – Associate

Studying toward your first Amazon Web Services certification

Ross Rhodes
Nov 13, 2018 · 7 min read

Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers a vast array of amenities for systems architecture in the cloud: spinning up virtual machines on Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2), storing files on Simple Storage Service (S3), reading and writing data through DynamoDB, and much, much, more.

Credit: Avanxo

With services left, right, and centre, how do we come to learn everything AWS can deliver? There’s two obvious approaches to this: study vigorously, or play with AWS and learn as you build. Why not do both?

On the study front, Amazon offers a range of certification exams to prop up the good ol’ CV. Delivered at three levels — foundational, associate, and professional — these exams serve as an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of AWS. If you’re new to AWS, studying toward one of these exams is a hugely rewarding experience.

Depending on your background, it would be wise to start with one of two options. The first is Amazon’s Cloud Practitioner exam, designed as an entry-level paper to equip students for the associate level certifications. This would be a good starting point for many, but is not necessarily a prerequisite if you wish to jump direct to the associate exams.

If, like me, you’re approaching AWS from a strong Computer Science background, then you may wish to jump to option two and go direct to one of three associate exams, depending on your desired discipline: Solutions Architect, Developer, or SysOps Administrator. Better still, sit them all!

In August I started studying for the Solutions Architect Associate exam. Aside from a brief stint working with EC2 and S3 back in 2016, AWS was completely new to me. Two months later I passed the exam!

The journey from studying in August to passing the exam involved plenty of work, and I found myself dependent on several excellent resources along the way. For the benefit of those planning to sit this exam, and those wishing to fill their curiosity, it would be worth discussing my study process and highlighting each of those fantastic resources.

Learning AWS

A Cloud Guru takes the stage, providing lectures and labs for the Solutions Architect – Associate exam, among others. Whilst “Hey Cloud Gurus” will be embedded in your dreams for many weeks ahead, Ryan Kroonenburg – the course tutor – does a tremendous job exploring the material you need to know for the exam.

Credit: A Cloud Guru

Beginning with a 10000 foot overview of every service, Ryan reassures us that we don’t need to know them all for the exam! However, there is a large number we do need to dig our hands into before we can build robust, highly-available and cost-effective cloud architectures. Ryan runs through the course material in good order, providing explanations targeted at all students, not exclusively those with a strong background in Computer Science. Throughout the course he offers his exam tips to help on the big day.

Toward the end of the course you’ll be directed to a handful of AWS whitepapers. Two of them proved particularly useful in reinforcing my understanding of the Solutions Architect material: AWS Storage Services Overview (December 2016) and Architecting for the Cloud: AWS Best Practices (February 2016). At the very least give these two a read, but if you have the time to spare it would be worth reading each paper covered in the course.

After running through the lectures, labs, and section tests, and reading these AWS whitepapers, you should be in good form to begin exam preparation. One vital piece of advice would be to avoid A Cloud Guru’s practice exam or scenario questions at the end of the course for now — these questions prove pretty tricky. It’ll be worth revisiting these once you have more practice under your belt!

Exam Preparation

One resource which springs to mind for examples is Amazon’s own sample questions. Offered through the Solutions Architect — Associate course page, they provide ten questions to test your knowledge. That forms a good starting point, but surely there’s more out there to help us prepare for the exam?

Look no further than Whizlabs, which serves as an excellent resource for practice material. Offering seven practice exams for the course, I found these to be invaluable in my exam preparation. Whilst questions in these exams did not follow the precise format of the real exam, I did find my performance in these papers helped to accurately predict my performance on the big day.

Credit: Whizlabs

In the exam, you will face 65 multiple choice questions, and answer them in 130 minutes (2hrs 10). Why the unusual number? No idea. It upset me. These questions take one of two forms: you’ll either be presented with four options, where one is correct and three are not, or five options, where two are correct and three are wrong. In the latter case, the two correct options collectively form an answer to the question.

Whizlabs doesn’t strictly follow these two forms in its papers— it’ll be worth bearing that in mind as you work through them, since you will sometimes be given fewer options or asked to answer with three or more choices available to you. However, the material covered in these papers matches that of the real exam, and that’s what matters.

In addition to these practice exams, Whizlabs offers section tests for a handful of the services covered in the course. These section tests are notably harder than the exam questions, much like the practice exam and scenario questions at the end of the A Cloud Guru course. Once the practice exams are complete it’ll be worth tackling these tests to strengthen your knowledge furthermore.

When you’re starting to feel comfortable with Whizlab’s section tests, I’d recommend trying the remainder of the A Cloud Guru material. The scenario questions are definitely worth multiple attempts, since A Cloud Guru cycles through a large number of questions which are randomly chosen in each sitting.

If you’re passing the Whizlabs practice papers, and given the section tests and A Cloud Guru’s scenario questions a try, then I think you’re ready to sit the exam.

Screenshot of where to “Schedule your exam”

Exam Sitting

The interface for the exam differed slightly from Whizlabs, but provided the same functionality and proved relatively easy to navigate. You answer the questions in any order, and may revisit each question as many times as you like until your time runs out.

One notable difference between the two — to Amazon’s advantage — is that for any question where two answers were required, Amazon makes you select two options before you can complete your exam. Whizlabs, on the other hand, would let you proceed without multiple answers – in turn meaning you may lose yourself an opportunity for more marks in the practice papers.

Each AWS sitting will involve different questions, with different weights on each service. The best approach to passing this exam is to exhaust all of Whizlab’s and A Cloud Guru’s resources, and make sure you know your numbers before sitting the paper.

Conclusion

Be prepared for services which are only mentioned briefly in the course to make a regular appearance in the exam. Whilst you may not go into too much depth in your lectures, you may find they form a critical part of several architectures you’re asked to design!

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