Last month I attained my AWS Solution Architect Associate Certification(CSAA). It’s the first certification of my IT career and I’ve learned a lot from the whole experience. When researching the certification I came across a ton of articles talking about how to get it in a few months. I bought into these articles and began my studying thinking that I would finish in three months tops. What I’ve learned is that those articles are hyper misleading. Can you get your CSAA in a month or two? Sure, but don’t expect to do anything outside of work and study. I want to share my thoughts on how us mortal humans can get certified while working a 9–5(or longer) job, having a family, and keeping our pets happy. I linked my badge to prove not only is this possible but I did it.
The best way to maintain your lifestyle and get certified is to look at how much time you can commit to studying. AWS recommends around 80–120 hours of studying. Consider how many days and how many hours a day you can study. When figuring this out low ball yourself. It’s easy to think you can study 7 days a week but when you’re knee-deep in DynamoDB documentation on batch put calls memory limits you will regret being ambitious on your time estimate. I fell for this trap and was ambitious with my estimate on how much time I could study a day. My bravado ended up burning me out on studying. I pushed my exam date by about two weeks to take some time off and recover before my last big push of studying.
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I’ve found that the 80–120 hour estimate by Amazon is very accurate. I spent 100 hours studying for the exam and it wasn’t until around 80 hours that I began to feel comfortable with the material. Other friends that have taken the exam have also been around this time range. You might be able to take the exam before 80 hours but these numbers come from Amazon, the makers of the exam. I would plan to follow their advice then pat yourself on the back if you manage to pass the exam under 80 hours. I got it into my mind that I would be ready to take the exam around 60 hours and became discouraged when I hit 60 hours and realized I was nowhere near ready. Avoid this situation by being realistic and expect to spend the recommended time studying.
Make sure to consider how much time you have spent using AWS. I came in with little experience and had to spend about 20 hours ramping up and learning the basics. If you’re more comfortable with AWS I would still plan to study for 80–120 hours. Outside of saving yourself a little study time there is no need to know AWS before you begin studying. Any respectable course should start with basics before getting into complex things.
There are things that most people are unlikely to have experience with that will show up in studying. Have you ever migrated a data warehouse from on-premise to the cloud? Most people haven’t either but that doesn’t mean you should go do that before taking the exam. There is no single thing you can do that will give you a distinct advantage before studying for the CSAA exam. Having experience in AWS will help but don’t let that stop you from getting certified. The important part is pacing yourself so that you learn it all and don’t burn out while doing so.
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The most helpful pacing tool I found was using a Pomodoro timer on my phone. It allowed me to track my study time and give myself breaks when needed. You don’t have to use the Pomodoro technique but I do recommend keeping track of time spent studying. It always gave me a feeling of accomplishment seeing how long I had spent studying. Seeing the time invested encouraged me to think back to how much I had learned 10, 20, and 30 hours ago.
I spend a decent amount of time at my job working on serverless and those questions were easier on the exam. The CSAA exam does a great job of having questions based on real-world scenarios and the best way to prep for that is to have faced similar scenarios to those. If you have a chance to use AWS at work I encourage doing so. Using AWS at work will save you some time that you would otherwise have to spend studying after work.
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If you cant get AWS exposure at work check out local or remote AWS meetups. I found a local meet up in Charlotte that meets once a month. It gave me good exposure to how AWS is being used and exposed me to services that I may not have studied. Don’t forget the whole point of getting certified is to gain knowledge to help you, not to have a badge you can show off. Going to monthly meetups was a good reminder of that for me.
I recommend waiting to try out anything you learn until after you pass the CSAA exam. At the start of my studying, I decided to try out a few things I had learned and built a small website. That small website ended up eating into hours that I could have been studying or spending with family. I came away from it not having gained any more knowledge on AWS. I found myself always wanting to try out some of the services I was learning about but those services will still be there after the exam.
At the end of the day, the CSAA exam is a grind no matter how you approach it, but it doesn’t have to be an all-consuming grind. Figure out how many hours a day you are willing to study. Work backward from the 80–120 hours to set an easy pace that will get you certified and allow you to keep living your normal life. This is a marathon, not a sprint the CSAA exam isn’t going anywhere there is no rush. Save your money and your social life, study slow but consistently, and then take the exam once instead of trying to sprint to the end and struggle through the exam.