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November 14, 2018

My AWS Certification Journey

Cloud
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In 2006, Amazon Web Services (or AWS) began delivering their cloud computing service. Today, many companies use AWS to build services for everything from selling goods and services on the web to artificial intelligence applications and even storing music, movies, and pictures to stream to their own customers. Some of the best-known companies on the web use AWS as the foundation for their global systems.

When AWS started, it offered three simple services: computing, storage, and database. Virtually any application a company would build uses these three things. They were delivered in the cloud and were easy to use, so customers immediately gravitated to AWS.

Now, there are many choices from AWS for each of these categories. There are nearly 150 services in 19 different categories. Companies can use these services to build, globally deploy, and secure their cloud infrastructure. With so many options, AWS has become more powerful and more complex.

The Start of My Journey

My AWS journey started in 2012. I first used AWS to build web infrastructure to help companies deliver better experiences for their customers and scale to handle higher traffic volumes. Since then, I’ve helped companies transition legacy SaaS workloads involving many physical servers (sometimes in old-fashioned-managed hosting environments) to AWS. I’ve led efforts to plan and build new transactional and content management systems.

AWS Global Summit

I attended the AWS Global Summit in San Francisco about a month before I joined Perforce in May 2017. This event is held in cities across the world and was well attended in San Francisco, as one might expect! I went to the event to learn about the latest technology, attend presentations, and learn from other attendees. Also, Alexa was new, and the sessions for developers were packed!

I spent the rest of 2017 learning the products offered by Perforce, doing demos, writing blogs, making movies, and working with new teams, our customers, and our sales force. Our customers were starting to adopt the cloud and were beginning to ask us a lot of questions. We realized we needed to start offering advice on how Helix Core should be used in the cloud.

I attended the AWS Global Summit in San Francisco again in 2018, and, coincidentally, the focus had shifted to larger companies and digital transformation. Instead of Slack and Splunk joining Amazon CTO Werner Vogels as keynotes at the event, it was Cerner, a venerable health information technology company with 27,000 employees. They discussed how they’re using AI with AWS.

Another keynote was Peloton, the fitness product innovator. They make a hardware and software product, similar in nature to the innovation of some of our customers at Perforce. I also saw a line around the building to attend a session on compliance and governance. This really hit home for me. I knew this was something our customers would adopt. Perhaps not by moving everything to the cloud, but definitely going beyond experimentation to deployments.

I wanted to broaden my AWS knowledge, so I could help our customers better understand how they can use Perforce products and services with AWS. I decided the best option was to become an AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate. I went into the process confident that it would help me talk to our customers about how best to use Helix Core and AWS.

Starting the Certification Process

First, I started researching the AWS CSAA. I also bought AWS Certified Solutions Architect, Official Study Guide, Associate Exam, a book by Joe Baron, Principle Solutions Architect at AWS, and a team of experts. Then, I found aws.training, the official AWS training and certification site.

It’s loaded with resources, including free digital training content. Clicking the certification link,  I found comprehensive information about certification, including a step-by-step path to the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate exam. This gave me the complete outline, including the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate Exam Guide, which contains a blueprint of what to study.

That blueprint referred me to two white papers: “Architecting for the Cloud: AWS Best Practices” and “AWS Well-Architected Framework.” Well-Architected is kind of the solutions architect’s bible. It’s gigantic, both in number of pages and in the important information it provides. These white papers teach The Five Pillars of the Well-Architected Framework:

  • Operational Excellence
  • Security
  • Reliability
  • Performance Efficiency
  • Cost Optimization

By now, I had thousands of pages of reading to do! But I also wanted some training, not just reading, to provide direction, insight, and hands-on practice with the AWS technologies I hadn’t worked with before.

Hands-on Training

I went back to aws.training. You can choose a role, such as Architect or Developer, or browse by Content Domains, such as Compute, Database, and Developer Tools. Under the roles, you can find instructor-led training. I chose Architect and found a three-day Intermediate Architecting on AWS class, which could either be taken in a classroom or virtually.

After reading the materials I had collected (or at least skimmed some of them), I realized that a three-day class wasn’t going to cut it — there was too much information. At this point, I’d told my colleagues about my journey and was looking for advice. One friend told me about Ryan Kroonenburg, who is famous in the AWS community and has been an AWS Community Hero (an exalted status) since 2016. His company, A Cloud Guru, offers online training for AWS.

The AWS CSAA course from A Cloud Guru provides about 20 hours of video, all delivered by Ryan. The quality is excellent, and a low monthly subscription fee gives you access to all of their content. The course is divided into primary topics that include lectures and hands-on labs. Topics include IAM, EC2, Storage, VPCs, Route53 (Amazon’s DNS), Databases, Application Services, and even new topics like Serverless. It also included a lab to build an Alexa application. Helpfully, Ryan is quick to point out which AWS services you should delete after activating them in a lab to prevent incurring unwanted AWS charges.

Practice Makes Perfect

Each topic section had a quiz at the end. Since I already knew a lot about AWS (or at least, I thought I did), I could bounce through the content in the course and try to “test out” before watching the whole program.

Once you’ve covered the material, the course has a Final Practice Exam. It’s 80 minutes long and has 60 questions, like the real test. The first time I took it…let’s just say, I could have done better! But it clearly showed me what I needed to study before the real test. The next step is an Exam Simulator, which is yet another set of questions.

I had originally planned to take the test on July 1, 2018. As the date approached, I decided to push it back to August 1 — both because I felt like I wanted more time to study and because if I didn’t pass, it would ruin my Independence Day holiday plans! I took the official test at the exam location on August 1, 2018. Though I was nervous going in, I was confident in my knowledge, and I passed!

The Next Destination

Since then, Perforce has done an AWS webinar, and we have more content on AWS in the pipeline for our customers! I plan to study for the AWS CSAP exam (the professional exam), over the holidays and take the next test in early January!