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Smooth your AWS certification path with this advice

With AWS certification in heavy demand, many IT professionals are headed back to the classroom. Cloud trainer Anthony Sequeira offers some advice to help you pass the exam.

Thousands of IT professionals will descend on Las Vegas for AWS re:Invent this week to absorb info about new services...

or functions. Others just want to follow the AWS certification path.

IT professionals can attempt to gain certification for the first time or renew an expiring certification at the AWS Certification Exam Testing Center. AWS certification can open up doors to new job possibilities or simply affirm a cloud professional's knowledge of the AWS platform.

Demand for AWS certifications has skyrocketed. There were only three job postings that required AWS certification in 2013, but that number grew to 507 in 2015 and will be roughly 2,000 by the end of this year, according to Burning Glass Technologies.

AWS offers specialty certifications for areas such as big data and networking, as well as more demanding, professional-level certifications that require associate-level certification and two-plus years of hands-on experience. But the associate-level AWS Certified Solutions Architect exam, which tests a professional's ability to design and deploy systems on AWS, is now seen as an industry standard and remains the cloud provider's most popular test, according to Anthony Sequeira, an online trainer at CBT Nuggets, an IT training provider based in Eugene, Ore.

Anthony Sequeira, CBT NuggetsAnthony Sequeira

"[The popularity of that exam] crushes all of their other certifications," Sequeira said. "Often times, the learner gets the Solutions Architect [certification], and they're off and running."

Sequeira, a former IT professional whose credentials include CCNP Security and VCP certification, teaches courses for skills pertaining to vendor platforms such as AWS, Cisco, Juniper and Microsoft. If you plan to follow the AWS certification path, Sequeira offers the following tidbits.

Brains over brawn

The 55-question multiple-choice AWS Certified Solutions Architect exam runs the gamut of Amazon cloud services and tools. A veteran IT manager might require AWS certification for an open position but might view it as less impressive than other IT tests.

The Cisco CCIE Routing and Switching exam, for example, requires applicants to complete a two-hour written exam followed by an eight-hour lab exam. "It's really about 10 to 11 hours of work that you've got to get done in eight hours," said Sequeira, who holds a CCIE certification. "It is extremely grueling, extremely difficult. But that certification carries a ton of weight."

An AWS certification may help get a foot in the door, but an IT job candidate should demonstrate hands-on experience as well, Sequeira said.

"I think that's a little bit of a difference [to hiring managers]," he said. "'Ok, yes, so he did 55 multiple choice questions on AWS, but what can he really accomplish for us with the CLI or an SDK?' But for a lot of candidates, it's going to help get them in the door."

Ignore the rumor mill

Not everyone passes the AWS certification exam. IT professionals might obsess about questions on the exam or exaggerate how many questions were on a particular service or technology. These tales of woe can serve as a disservice to other IT professionals looking for a leg up in their study habits.

"There will be some pretty involved scenario-type questions," Sequeira said. "Let's say [the scenario] is on S3 (Simple Storage Service). That one question is all that the candidate that failed remembers. And then they start telling everyone that the exam is purely scenario-based, and if you don't have five years of experience with Amazon Web Services, you have no chance. And that rumor proliferates."

Many IT professionals that have already passed the exam won't bother to refute such rumors -- and some benefit from the confusion and frustration. "They want to be in that elite group, and they'll help propagate those rumors of how impossible the exams are so people won't try, or so that they can look smarter," he said.

It's no popularity contest

AWS pushes the envelope with new cloud services and technologies, which presents a challenge for an exam-taker to understand the ins and outs of dozens of services. But just because a particular technology, such as AWS Lambda, gets all the love on message boards, doesn't mean it will receive lopsided attention in the exam.

"The Solutions Architect test is in no way, shape or form going to be biased to that," Sequeira said. "Might there be a question or two on Lambda out of the 55 questions on that test? Sure. But if the student has done their work in the core services of things like [Elastic Compute Cloud] and S3, there's no way that question is going to fail them."

In fact, AWS might even throw in something of a red herring, a question out of right field on some brand new service. "They might be collecting data on whether people would know that or not, and actually not count that question against the grade," he said. "Certainly these one or two questions are not going to be enough to fail."

Know your weaknesses

Seasoned IT professionals make up more of Sequeira's AWS students than recent college graduates, which runs contrary to some of his other courses, he said. But while experience can help with some elements of the test, veteran IT professionals might be in the dark on unfamiliar concepts.

For example, to a CCIE-certified professional everything involving network services, such as Virtual Private Cloud, internet gateways and NAT gateways, will seem ridiculously simplistic, Sequeira said. "But when we get to database services, for example, which they have zero experience with, now they are deer in the headlights," he said.

Even concepts like data storage that might be simple to some IT pros but vex others. So before you take the exam, know what you don't know.

Try, try again

IT professionals on the AWS certification path will have many opportunities to pass the exam. AWS only requires a 14-day waiting period after failing an AWS certification exam, and at $150 a pop for associate-level exams -- inexpensive in the scope of certifications these days -- most IT professionals won't have to break the bank to give it another shot.

Failure is a bummer, but IT professionals can study or train to get back on the AWS certification path. And if you hit a rut, Sequeira recommends using the AWS free tier of service to familiarize yourself with the technology.

"If they are brand new and haven't studied, of course they're not going to pass. But they will get tremendously valuable experience in taking that exam -- and I bet you they'll pass the next time."

David Carty is the site editor for SearchAWS. Contact him at [email protected].

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