An eclectic blog with topics including (but not limited to): Software Engineering, Music, Recipes, as well as random bits of prose and poetry.

AWS Certified!

Yesterday I passed my AWS Associate Solution Architect Certification exam with 83%!
I was really excited about this result because two weeks ago I knew almost nothing about AWS.

Backstory

With my current employer, we do all our own hosting in Linux LXC containers. There hasn’t been much need to do anything beyond that. As a result, everyone on the team has some level of DevOps knowledge and will practice it nearly every day.

I’ve always been pretty curious, though, and it’s hard to ignore something as huge as AWS, which some say might be one of the catalysts of the startup boom we’ve been living in for the last 10 years.

So from one of the mailing lists I heard about the AWS Community day, which was happening in nearby San Francisco. I signed up, got the day off from work, and headed up.

I think hearing the AWS users share their tips and experiences was a much better introduction than I had been getting online. These were regular dudes just like me, sharing what they liked, what they didn’t like, tips, traps, and general philosophies about participating in the platform’s ecosystem.

My enthusiasm was stoked hearing about Serverless Architectures in Lambda. I was impressed by the scope of platform automation that people were achieving with EC2 Autoscaling, CloudWatch, and Cloudformation. My mind was buzzing with possibilities.

Homecoming

In exchange for getting the day off, I promised to write about what I had learned from the experience and share that with work (You can find my writeup here).

The response was pretty flat from most of the team, but I was still riding my own high, so it didn’t bother me much.

I decided that I need to learn how everything worked, and hopefully I could find some gems that we could use. Or at least further my own projects (such as this blog!).

A friend suggested the certifications were a pretty good way of learning how everything fits together, so I started looking into the Solution Architect Associate exam. $150 seemed doable. But the training courses were $2,000+!!
Plus I’m not so needy about having in-person training; I did my entire undergrad degree online, after all.

Searching around I discovered A Cloud Guru on Udemy, and there was a pretty decent sale going on so I purchased the ASA and Developer courses. A Cloud Guru has a pretty slick site, and they allow you to port your Udemy purchases over, so I did that and completed all but the first lesson on their site.

The Grind

This is where it gets crazy.

Not wanting to let this die once my motivation started to wane, in a stroke of insanity/genius I decided to schedule the ASA exam immediately. For a date 2 weeks in the future.

This was (nearly) a mistake.

I had no choice but to cram. After work. Before work. All weekend. I was an high-powered Learning Machine and RyanKroonenburg at A Cloud Guru was feeding my that streaming fuel on demand.

This was my workflow:

  • Watch lessons/labs while taking copious notes
  • Follow along in my own AWS account, pausing as needed
  • Practice what I had learned, sometimes forgetting to delete my experiments and running up a bill (curse you, ELB!!)
  • After each section, take the section quiz
  • Read whitepapers/FAQs about any questions I missed
  • Repeat

I got pretty burnt out, but I had the lessons done with a couple days to spare before my exam.

I started doing the A Cloud Guru quizzes and exams, practice exams on my phone on the toilet, as well as practice exams on Whiz Labs. As I did during my training phase, every time I got a question wrong I would return to the documentation and whitepapers to study up. I think most of my errors were with billing questions, probably a result of trying to stay within the free tier with all my experiments. :)

The Test

I showed up late because of Bay Area Traffic and some particularly confusing instructions (anytime my map apps generated route requires a U-turn, I get nervous). The guy at the testing center remarked “You’re late”, to which I replied “Yeah”. Unsatisfied, he warned me “We close at 8PM sharp. It’s 6:48 now. This test takes 90 minutes.” “I don’t think it’s gonna take me that long”, I answered, not sure who I was reassuring.

After some formalities that included emptying my pockets into a locker, he led me to a room full of ancient PCs manned by depressed-looking people taking what appeared to be 90’s era online surveys. After verifying the test name and my own name, I started the test and my escort retreated back to the front room to watch me from the camera mounted in the corner of the ceiling.

The test went a lot more smoothly than I expected. More of the questions had to do with reasoning out solutions than rote regurgitation of factoids, so I felt pretty comfortable.

I’ve always been better at thinking than remembering.

After about 40-45 minutes I finished, and review the questions that I was unsure about. After another benign interaction with the proctor, I received an email - 83%!!!

Followup

My partner and I celebrated with sushi, ramen, and sake. I was elated, mostly that I was done with all the cramming. I felt like Frodo after dropping the ring.

So now I’m AWS certified. I know a little bit about just about everything on the platform, and I’m hosting this site on S3. Can’t beat the durability guarantees, and Cloudfront + R3 simplify a lot of things for me.

Soon I’m going to (not out of necessity, but for fun) rework this to use a React frontend with API-Gateway, Lambda, and RDS on the backend. Or maybe DynamoDB. There’s a lot of cool possibilities, and I’m still pretty stoked to try them out.

Now if I could only get the guys at work interested…