Verified certifiable: Lessons learned from the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional exam
I became AWS Certified for the second time last weekend. The Professional level Certified Solutions Architect exam was an ordeal, but I was fortunate enough to break 875 on my first try. Now it’s a problem for 2024 me, as I dutifully waddle forward with my AWS Certified compensation differential and dozens of people asking me for advice on how to beat the exam. This essay is my single source of truth on how to pass on your first try, every try. This approach has worked 100% of the time, albeit with a minimal sample size, so I’m confident it can help you too.
In a Q&A format:
What site offers the best study material for the exam?
OK, if you insist, we’ll start with the bad news.
There are a lot of great training options, but the two websites that were most helpful for me are:
This first block is a CYA disclaimer and word of caution for the overly ambitious, so if you’re a tenured industry professional skip to the next section for practical advice. Otherwise, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The best study advice for the Professional level certification (and many other IT achievements) comes from my favorite episode of Doctor Who:
I am very, very sorry. It’s gonna take you a while.
The single most important study material for this exam is relevant industry experience. I encourage any aspiring solutions architect to use continuing education sites, and I recommend AWS whitepapers to my mailman; however, unlike the Associate level exam, book smarts are only going to take you halfway on this one. The Professional level exam tests your intuition as well as your knowledge, so you’ve gotta get in there knowing how to “feel” it.
I would compare AWS certifications to getting your first driver’s license. The written portion is the Associate level, but Professional is when you have to drive the grouchy DMV clerk around downtown Seattle for half an hour and not run any red lights. You’re being tested on the same fundamental topics, but no number of driver’s ed pamphlets will help you merge onto the freeway. Not on their own.
But I don’t have any industry experience. How am I supposed to get a job without a certification?
Apply for easier jobs.
To be clear, if I need to interview someone whose resume has a professional level certificate and little to no experience, I’m going to go in there skeptical and give them hell for 45 minutes. All the cert tells me in a vacuum is that you can pass a very difficult exam. I’m not going to be inclined to hire you based solely on your 2400 SATs either.
Any time you put a credential on your resume, you need to be prepared to rigorously back it up in a technical loop once you get that call back. This is why I recommend keeping your resume down to one page: you add too many “competency” bullet points and they become a threat surface rather than a selling point.
I have never seen an entry-level job that requires a Professional AWS certification. The CCP and SA Associate certs will be more than enough to get a foot in the door as long as you interview well and are passionate about cloud technology. You’re off the hook on this one for now — go have fun!
OK, wise guy. I either have industry experience or I scoff at your warning above. What actual study resources did you use to get ready for the exam?
How I used it:
When I left AWS, I rolled over my LinuxAcademy subscription to a non-corporate one under my own name. They were since absorbed by ACG, so I ended up using those videos for a quick refresher on some of my weaker points (managed data stores and WAN routing). I’d recommend taking a similar step, because the exam likes to bring up situational services (e.g. Neptune and X-Ray) that you might not encounter in your day-to-day.
Keep in mind that while Associate-level questions have only one correct answer, Professional level ones often ask you to choose which answer is the least wrong. If you see a flashy service name you don’t recognize (let’s be honest, that probably happens monthly at work anyway), you may be tempted to pick it just because all the options you do understand are just a little off. Make some flashcards if you need to.
This exam tests you on when to use specific services, not always how to use them, so the bare prerequisite for every service covered is for you to know what purpose it is intended to serve. For example: if you’re aware of how relational databases are different from NoSQL, graph databases, and Redis — and which AWS services support those technologies — you’re in decent shape for many storage “gotchas”.
How I used it:
I wanted to use practice exams from a handful of sources, so I went through Udemy to buy more. Those ended up just being TutorialsDojo material, and they were excellent. Every night for a couple months before the exam, my wife and I would have a glass of wine and she’d read me one or two of the questions. She works in the medical field and had no idea what the questions were about, but she was consistently supportive. As I got more questions right, she’d be more encouraging, and I went into the exam feeling pretty good emotionally.
Those practice questions were very similar to the real-life exam, and each answer comes with a detailed explanation and documentation/cheat sheet links. The main objective I had with practice tests was to figure out which services I was weakest in so I knew what to focus on during my limited study time. Any certification study guide is going to mostly be composed of material you’ve mastered (or at least worked with) during your day job; any service you spend regular hands-on time with can be safely skipped from study materials. Set aside time for reading docs and whitepapers for stuff you suck at. Ideally, build it out in a sandbox to build up kinesthetic memory.
3. More experienced coworkers
The more tenured architects at my company fed me some really useful technical whitepapers and lifehacks. These are all beyond the scope of this essay, but go talk to the greybeards at the office and see what wisdom they have for you.
Should I prioritize deep dives into my key services or systems I don’t work with often?
You should have near-mastery of IAM, EC2, and VPC, because all other services depend on those. But since we’ve already established you have industry experience, I’ll take this as a given.
If you’ve taken practice exams for SA Pro, you’ll see that a lot of the single-answer questions include four multipart answers. Sometimes the answers are longer than the question. When you’re asked to implement a three-tier architecture, the options will usually propose one AWS service for each layer of the application (for example, CloudFront/S3, EC2 , and RDS for frontend, worker, and backend database respectively). If you have ever designed or implemented a cloud migration, you almost certainly will have expertise in at least one of those layers. That expertise can carry you over the finish line.
Let’s do a practice question to illustrate the point I’m trying to make here.
Imagine that you have strong experience using peanut butter, but almost no exposure to bread or jelly. You get a question about making a PB&J, as below:
A customer is attempting to deploy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The solution must be cost-effective, able to recover from depletion within five minutes, and not get stuck in their teeth. How can you go about meeting the customer requirements with only one person in the kitchen?
A. Use a fleet of Ritz Crackers to support variable demand in bread. Use Amazon Scissors to open single-serving packets of peanut butter for each cracker, and leverage dedicated strawberries as a high-performance substitute for jelly.
B. Assign two slices of a Dedicated Loaf to a plate to maintain the bread layer. Use AWS Corkscrew to open two jars of peanut butter for creamy and crunchy use cases respectively, and distribute appropriate amounts of peanut butter to bread slices with even indexes. Draw jelly resources from a jar of preserves reserved in Amazon Fridge using a tablespoon.
C. Purchase bread, Nutella, and jelly from the AWS Marketplace and use a Chef cookbook to deploy the sandwiches. Use Batch to create standby resources for future use and store them in Amazon Fridge.
D. Assign two slices of a Dedicated Loaf to a plate to maintain the bread layer. Use AWS Hands to unscrew the lid of a jar of creamy peanut butter, and distribute appropriate amounts to bread slices with even indexes. Draw jelly resources from a jar of jam stored in Amazon Fridge using a knife.
Without even acknowledging the bread or jelly parts of the sandwich, you know that:
- Individual packets of peanut butter are fault tolerant and scalable assuming you have sufficient cooks in the kitchen, but not cost effective. This rules out answer A.
- Using a corkscrew to open a jar of peanut butter will result in resource underutilization as you cannot reseal the jar. Launch times will also be slow as you need to stab the lid repeatedly to make enough room for a spreading utensil. Furthermore, crunchy peanut butter cannot fulfil the customer’s specifications of not getting stuck in their teeth. This rules out answer B.
- Nutella can substitute for peanut butter in many cases, but licensing costs are prohibitively expensive. At this scale, the solution would be overkill. Furthermore, our RTO of five minutes does not require us to maintain backup sandwiches in the fridge. This rules out answer C.
You also know that using your hands to open a jar of creamy peanut butter is a sustainable, cost-effective way to meet the customer specifications. Therefore, you don’t really need to consider bread or jelly at all to get the correct answer (D). You don’t even need to know about Fridge for this question, but in real life you should as it’s an obvious allegory for S3.
You can’t count on every question being like this, and the strategy doesn’t apply to multi-answer questions, but the exam’s design means you don’t need to devote significant cycles into SME-ing every service. The exam is testing you for your skill as an architect rather than your ability to regurgitate facts.
You should prioritize enough familiarity with exam-relevant services to build useful alarm bells. For the services you are strong in, make sure you can recognize the obscure stuff, like the contents of AWS-managed IAM policies and advanced configuration options.
The practice exams will highlight your weak points, so in general focus on those until you start passing practice exams.
Key takeaway: This is a skill test, not a knowledge check.
What was the most difficult part of the exam?
You’ll hear this from everyone, but the test is very long. You’ll have your cert exam endurance pushed to the absolute limit. 75 questions over 3 hours doesn’t sound too bad if you’re used to normal tests, but SA Pro has some caltrops to keep in mind:
- It’s a lot of reading. The questions are measured in paragraphs, and you can expect answers to include more than two sentences on average. To beat this, use practice exams to learn how to read questions quickly. The customer’s business model is seldom relevant, so learn how to pick out constraints. When the answers are very long, look for key words that you recognize well (see previous section) and try to rule out bad multiple-choice answers. While the answers often fall on a spectrum of good to bad (you choose the best one,) you can assume that any solution which would fail technical validation is not correct. When you see a sentence that makes you go, “wait, that would break it,” move to the next answer.
- It’s a lot of context switching. You know the feeling of exhaustion you have at 5PM if your entire day is packed with 30-minute meetings? It’s like that, but compressed. You don’t get a chance to build up momentum because the situations in the questions bounce all over the place. If you need to take 15 seconds between questions to take a deep breath and perform some mindfulness exercise, do that. You’ll be more efficient if you go into each question with fresh eyes.
- Some questions take more brainpower than others. Budget two minutes per question, but understand that the budget has some wiggle room. The “Flag for review” button is your friend. If you really want to think on it for a bit longer, just come back at the end. When I took the exam, I got to question 75 with almost 40 minutes to spare, but submitted my reviewed answers with under 5 minutes on the clock. I changed half a dozen answers on review, so the time was well-spent.
- It’s not a picture book. You’ll need to use your imagination to mentally build the Lucidchart diagrams if you want a visual aid.
When people say to pace yourself, they mean don’t go too fast or too slow. Shoot for 2 minutes per question and you’ll be OK.
What are the perks for passing?
I unlocked a new water bottle in the merch store and got a ton of party parrot reacts on Slack when I told my team I passed. My wife and I went out for margaritas to celebrate, and they were pretty good. Shout out to the best bartender in town, Pepe.
I hope this review gives you a better idea of what to expect. All in all, the exam isn’t as bad as people say it is (but that’s a low bar). Keep studying until you’re very nearly confident, and then get to the testing center to knock it out of the park.
You got this, homie.