10 June 2020

Passing the AWS Certified Solutions Architect-Associate

How to pass the AWS Certified solutions architect

I took the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Test on 8th June and "passed" it. While the journey has been long and grueling learning and understanding the AWS ecosystem and its 150+ services, its also been highly satisfying.  I scored 860/1000.  Before taking this exam, I had finished my AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner back in February of 2020. 
As I hit this big milestone, I am filled with emotions of gratitude towards my family and friends. This post is being put together with the hope that this will help inspire someone else too, hopefully. I am sharing my test prep method, time mgmt, etc which have been some valuable lessons learned along the way.
If this can help even one person either get inspired to take action or make any other mode of investment in their career and life, my purpose will be met. Read on.

Here is a quick set of links to navigate this document, depending on what is your interest and what you came looking for
Before I get into the weeds of the preparations, Here is a recap of my journey for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Exam. 

 Objective Recap
  • I spent a whopping 116 study hours across 4 weeks. 
  • I took three off days, including one sick day. 
  • Approx 20-25% time went as Lab work. which gave a pretty good understanding of the AWS ecosystem, their complete stack of Compute, Storage, Analytics, Networking, and Access Mgmt Services.
  • I wrote a really long Quick reckoner document to capture all the services and their salient points. This helped at the end. Evernote Struggled to convert into a good quality PDF document but with some fiddling, its just shy of 30 pages.
  • I took approx 7 Practice tests.
 my AWS certified solutions architect associate study metrics

Started Preparing on 9th May 2020
Took the test on 8th June 2020
Total Hours logged: 116
Average daily hours spent: 4 hrs
Longest Study day: 8 hrs
Study Breaks : 3 days in between including 1 sick day
My final score in the test: 860/1000

When I began preparing for my test, my daughter crafted a schedule chart for me, which was pasted in my office. End of every day, I would log daily hours on it. 

Every week, we would take a pause and tabulate the hours spent and see how we were doing. 
She is 10 years old but would give me advice on how to apportion time for my studies and how to revise.

There is not a single day through this journey, where she didn't ask me 'Aapke padhai kaise chal rahe hai?', which translates to  'Howz your study coming along?'

My wife completely supported my late night studies and weekends, even though once in a while, she would turn around at 1 am in the night, and seeing me awake would get really mad the next morning! 

But, her cups of Ginger tea, a healthy dose of snacks,  always pushing me to go outside and exercise so I am not sitting in front of my computer all day, motivation and support has been immense. 

I am overwhelmed with the support I got through this period.  I am hoping it continues as I begin on another Certification in the future, shortly.

Apart from the family, there are few colleagues who were great friends as well. 
I have banked on them to get words of inputs on preparing for the exam, asking questions on certain concepts, and learning in many ways. 
I am extremely thankful for their generosity and openness to sharing.

A word about my AWS Journey

I started working on an AWS initiative, specifically building a serverless Data lake in early 2019. At that time, I was coming from a pure sales role and background of 5 years. 
My previous company was not doing anything with AWS in any significant way and our focus was on Digital commerce, Digital marketing, and many other products and offerings, but they were still using the platforms and infrastructure provided by the vendors- Oracle, Adobe, etc. 

Personally, I have had a good data background working with Target, Verizon wireless, RH, and helping a dozen other customers with their digital transformation journeys and also dealing with data related deals.

However, this Journey with AWS began as a completely new adventure.

The below chart tells the tale.

 my journey of learning AWS

My Journey began with optimism. I knew I will figure it out as I always do. 

As I dipped my toes in, It felt natural. After 6 years of sales role, getting really deep with delivery felt different but something I knew (Agile, Scrum, Teams management, Building a product, Working with business). 
And yes, in a sales role too, I have always stayed very close to all of this action. So, nothing too bad. 

This was the Yaass phase of my learning. I was learning a bit of AWS stack. I could get through this. Feeling good!

However, it didn't last very long. 
Soon the details started to emerge and discomfort set-in. 
AWS services are an ocean with a lot of breadth and depth. 
For any given project, unless a company decides to use only storage or only compute or a small portion of the pie, every implementation will have a daunting number of services being engaged. 
And on top of it, if you have not dealt with networking until now, with AWS Stack there is a lot of knowledge to be had on the networking aspect of the cloud which is key. 
Not to forget, Security is more important than ever.  

So, all of these aspects started to come to light as I got busy and this downward curve felt like 'oh shit'. I asked myself multiple times that what have I got myself into. I don't know enough to manage this. 

This downward curve lasted a very long time, whereby getting a hang of AWS stack, Networking, understanding the fundamentals of data security, and balancing business priorities came on, full-blown.

However, as they say, that if you stay long enough you can break through the biggest mountains. 

Among these unknown and uncharted waters, I also found a lot of friends, who were ready to share and teach, who would accept that they don't know enough and they are learning as well, and folks who were doubling down and learning themselves. 
After a long grueling phase, the point came where the downwards trend in the curve was arrested. Things started to make sense and slowly started coming together.

Very soon, I got my AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner certification done. 

The thirst for knowledge further pushed me further and now I got my AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate Certification completed as well.

It's been a hell of a ride.

Where to go from here?

As I type these notes, I have already received a certificate, I am already thinking about my next certification. 
With the Solutions Architect- Associate, there has been such an investment made already that It would be a shame not to capitalize on it, both in extending knowledge gains and some work-related gains where I am able to use all the knowledge.
I am going to be beginning the journey towards Big Data Specialty Certification, as I assess the program, and then will be sitting down to do the planning work, but more on that later.
The Solutions Architect-Associate Certification now has two variants, SAA - C01, and SAA-C02. I took SAA-C01 which is set to retire at the end of June. I planned my preparation in a way that I have the opportunity to finish the test within that period. However, AWS has also come out with SAA-C02 which is the new version of the test and expected to last for the next few years.
The good thing about AWS is that they keep releasing new services, features, and improvements which means the knowledge you gain at a certain point could become stale if not kept updated. The updates to these tests help with that. I will be planning to take SAA-C02 later this year to stay on that updated curve.

AWS published the guide for these exams so you can download them SAA-C01 exam guide and SAA-C02 exam guide.

The exam guides are pretty useful in getting started with getting the base information on the test. One thing AWS doesn't mention in their exam guides is the total number of questions. This can be between 60-65 questions although the time duration, Total marks are fixed. I am assuming they play around with the weights of each question to tabulate a total of 1000 points.

Passing marks for the exam are a high of 72%.

The cost of the certification is $150.

What do you(or can you) gain from this certification?

This is a pretty important question to ask, at the beginning when you plan to do any certification. 
I for one, have not done any professional certifications in the past 4-5 years, but I had my answer figured out early as I began my journey with AWS. 

But, here are some thoughts on what can you gain from this certification:
  1. Knowledge: If you are new to the AWS eco-system base-level training from AWS and Certifications will help you acclimatize and understand the offerings better. We are all part of the knowledge economy and hence folks who are serious about gaining knowledge, AWS has made getting certified, sexy again. I mentioned this in my other write-up on LinkedIn as well.
  2. Opportunity: For a lot of people getting these solid certifications to help open new doors in their world. Potentially being able to position yourself for a new role or being able to position for a different company, or just being able to add higher value to self or the company or the project you are working on are great opportunity motivations.
  3.  Higher Moolah: In a lot of cases, these new opportunities also help folks land more money in the bank by being able to capitalize on their knowledge and become more valuable in the market. My own philosophy has been to focus on becoming valuable in the marketplace rather than chasing money. if you do so, most cases $ chase you back.
  4. AWS benefits: I was not aware of this until I got my first certificate.  AWS does offer a few benefits for completing these certificates, which include discounts on future certifications (mostly 50% off), Access to exclusive merchandise store, access to free practice tests and then at the conferences(i am told) that there are reserved areas for individuals who are certified, and they can pick up some AWS swag. 
  5. Bragging rights: yes, some of these certifications will enable you to get bragging rights as they validate a certain level of competence.
I also wrote a post to touch upon What Certifications don't give you and still how do you continue moving forward and making those investments.

Who should take this test? 

I am specifically talking about the SAA-C001, or SAA-C002, which are both for the Certified Solutions Architect- Associate. 
These tests are well suited for someone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of the AWS eco-System and wants the ability to relate across various services, in the AWS environment.

The test expects you to have been working with AWS for at least a year. The Certification puts you right on the path for becoming a Cloud Architect or Cloud Solutions Architect.

So, if you are someone who wants to gain a deeper knowledge of the ecosystems and overall solution or someone who has been eying to move into solution architecture space, this certification is meant for you.

How hard is the test?

There is no black and white answer for this, but I will make it as simple as possible giving my own example. This will vary differently for everyone and their backgrounds.
    SAA-C01 test coverage
    My large whiteboard covered with just the high-level topics which the test covers

    • The Dimension of coverage of material:
      • While there is a lot of material available on this test (since so many people have taken it), the breadth and depth this test covers is huge. That's why it's a great certificate to take upfront because it calls for a lot of investment early on. The test covers compute, storage, database, analytics, security, access mgmt, networking, serverless and many more aspects of the AWS eco-system
    • The Dimension of Preparation (time and effort):
      • I have been working in the AWS space for the past year. I have not been hands-on but fairly involved. I have had a technology background but never really done any development or engineer work hands-on (except for probably 1st year of my career).
      • Given that background, I spent 116 hours on my preparations across 4 weeks. You can map yourself accordingly, with where you are in comparison.
    • The Dimension of questions and difficulty levels:
      • The test questions are mostly scenarios based. If it helps you, most of the questions are 3 to 4 lines of a scenario of a company wanting to do something but either an issue has come up, or they want to prepare for something or there is an audit which has happened. The multiple-choice questions can be some times a scenario-based response, sometimes a simpler answer.
      • Every question and its answer is not about one service at all. It will cut across various services and use cases, so that means a decent understanding across services will be challenged in every question.
    • The Dimension of Exam format and time allocated:
      • In my practice tests, I normally averaged finishing 65 questions in approx 70-80 mins. However, as I got close to the test I began focusing on taking a second pass on my questions and reviewing the questions which I don't know well.  In the real test, I finished the 65 questions in the same time frame, however, I spent another 35 mins going through the questions again. Allocated 130 for the test are fairly sufficient in my view, If you have taken a couple of practice tests and have conditioned yourself to the test

    What to focus on for the test (my 80/20 rule)?

    After taking the test I can clearly see that while the focus from AWS is to get you a complete broad sense of their entire stack(almost), there are few areas which are like the common minimum across the board, and strong knowledge in these areas will be must-have for one to clear the exam or do well with AWS. here is my view on it:
    1. Absolutely must do:
      1. Access Mgmt - Users, roles, IAM policies, resource policies, sts, ID federation, etc
      2. Networking - Understanding the networking portion really well, VPCs, subnets, what services function at what layer of OSI, VPNs, Direct Connects, VPGs, Transit gateways, NACLs, Security groups, IGs, Natgateways, etc
      3. Storage - S3 is absolutely the favorite. Storage gateway has a lot of use cases, hence its really important followed by EBS and EFS. Snowball, snowball edge and snowmobile get mentioned too
      4. Concept of Organization and complete account mgmt.
      5. Computer - EC2, EBS, ECS along with beanstalk, AMIs, Bootstrapping, various instances stages 
      6. Load balancers, Route53 both topics were also really hot and get used significantly
      7. Understanding the serverless offerings - Lambdas, etc
      8. Databases - Dynamodb is an absolute favorite, following by RDS and disaster recovery, high availability aspects
      9. Kinesis streams, kinesis firehose, Lambda, Step functions, SQS
      10. Cloudwatch and cloud trail
      11. Cloudformation
    2. Other considerations for preparing:
      1. It helps a lot when you begin to understand and compare different services and their application, which may initially feel like overlapping. for example ECS vs BeanStalk, EBS vs EFS vs Storage gateway, Cloudwatch logs vs VPC logs
      2. It's also highly valuable to understand the services and how they span - across AZs or Across region? Are they fault-tolerant or are they highly available or both?
      3. While you understand costing aspects, this test didn't go too much on the costing analysis side. Guess that's left for the professional certification.
      4. Spend as much time as possible on playing with actual services, than just reading about them. I am very thankful for Linux Academy's platform but In between, I also just started using my own AWS account to try to build things together. Lab work and actual practice is the king.
    3. Planning time:
      1. The calendar helped a lot. being able to plan the time ahead was helpful. From Linux Academy, the total course length shows 57 hours. 
      2. On top of that, you can add time towards reading all the whitepapers( I made a list and chose 6 whitepapers I would read). I added 8-10 hrs for those.
      3. I timeboxed myself by putting a target of 8th June for my test. I started preparing on 9th May. This would give me approx 4 weeks of time.
      4. I left last week for taking practice tests and revisions.
      5. plan before beginning: Now, with these constraints, I was able to figure out that if I spend approx 3 hrs a day I should be able to cover my course material in time and do some revision as well, and then begin taking practice tests. 3 hrs of study along with your 10-11 hr day at work can be challenging at times, but possible
      6. Actual execution: In the real world execution as the chart of my time log above shows, I was able to really speed up during the weekends. Especially the long weekend helped a lot and I was able to put in a good 7-8 hrs a day each. this helped me finish my course much ahead of time. 
      7. I gave generous time towards AWS's 300 and 400 topic videos especially on networking, load balancing, and S3 related topics. Most of the solid videos are 40 mins+
    4. What Study materials I used?
      1. I studied a few whitepapers from AWS as part of my AWS Certified Cloud practitioner test. 
      2. I took up the Well architected framework whitepaper to go over the architectural aspects
      3. Then I joined Linux Academy and took their training course. Its approx 57 hours
      4. I used multiple 300 and 400 level videos from AWS conferences, available in excellent quality on youtube.
    5. What practice tests I used?
      1. As I began, I took the AWS's sample exam initially. It's too easy and gets your hopes up. SAA-C01, SAA-C02
      2. Then, as you go through the course, Linux academy has module-level tests after completing a module and labs. Those were pretty good
      3. At the end of my course, I took the practice Test(Free via my previous certificate credits) by AWS. This was a much shorter version, approx 20 questions. I didn't see much value in it.
      4. I took the full-size test from Linux academy at the end of the course. This was 60 questions and was quite good
      5. I bought the practice tests from Whizlabs and those were good, although they also tend to swing a lot towards doing too much in a lot of areas. However, I am not complaining as it helps stretch the concepts further. Due to their tests, I did touch on quite a few new services, even though I don't think those were referred to in the real exam. Still, highly recommended to get yourself in a rigor.

    Download my Review Notes:

    As I went along I also compiled my notes in Evernote, for a quick reference so I can summarize everything in a fairly short amount of time. 
    I am sharing those out below. Go ahead and download this free file and use it. The only caution, to use it as a reckoner, and always consult the current status of a service as they keep changing.
    Click this link to download my Study Notes

    With that, its a wrap on my account of this journey I took and all the learnings I had. I wish you all the best and if this article has helped you, pls comment below or ping on Twitter and tell me so. 
    I would be delighted.



    1. One word for this... Inspirational!!!

    2. Saurabh, Your study notes are so neat. Thanks for this very detailed article. It is helping me to plan my certification.

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