On August 20th after a chat with my lead, I decided to practice to take on the AWS Solutions Architect Associate exam. I spent the rest of the afternoon discussing with some colleagues and looking up resources to get started. Another thing I had to figure was how to expense the exam and potential courses. Before we get into the meat of the topic I would like to thank Tom Day. He helped a getting me on track to get through the training through these 10 days. He provided me with tips and resources links based on his experience passing the exam. Thank you Tom you’re a real G.
I worked with AWS on and off since my career started but never went too far. Sometimes needing to check some logs of an application, configuring API gateways, playing with EC2 and S3 mostly. Nothing crazy. Only now that I went through the training I realise how little I knew about AWS. I guess deep down I knew it. Especially since I went through this whole process assuming I didn’t know anything.
Day 1 – Wednesday, August 21st
First day on the training trail. I registered in the AWS partner website using my professional email to take advantage of our partner program resources. One thing you need to know is that all the training resources require an APN Account. APN is basically the AWS partner program. You may contact your company to figure out whether it is part of the programme. Potentially request to join it at no cost. If you are creating your own business you may create the account yourself.
However, you may note that some of my colleagues didn’t need to rely on the training courses to pass the exam. Indeed, they just were confident their experience was enough and it proved true for them.
Tom advised me to start with our company recommended accreditations. This comprises the AWS Business Professional, the AWS Technical Professional and AWS TCO & Economics. As it turns out, these served as a good start for my training. So I went through the free AWS material for the Business professional accreditation within that first day. Nothing particular to say about it. Nothing except it serves as a great introduction to AWS for both technical and non-technical staff. A few videos and quizzes later I reached the end of the day, ready to take on the next accreditations.
Day 2 – Thursday, August 22nd
This is the day where I realised I probably should take notes of everything I do just in case I write a post about it. What started as a list of things to do in order to pass the exam became the outline by which I took notes. Day after day, topic after topic.
I started going through the course material to pass the AWS Technical Professional accreditation which you can also do online. This one had a fair amount of overlap with the Business edition but there was more technical stuff. It included, however, a small tutorial to create a highly available web app with a couple of EC2 instances behind a load balancer across various availability zones.
Unfortunately, the example from the video didn’t work. At least for me. In the example you could pass an initialisation script to each of the EC2 instances to create your web app. I actually restarted the exercise a few times to make sure I did nothing wrong, I guess probably still did. I eventually managed to get it working by connecting into each instance through ssh to sudo the initialisation commands. It wasn’t pretty but got the job done and wasn’t the point of the exercise so no point lasting there more.
Aside from that I mostly went through the content and the knowledge checks sprayed around quite fine. At least I thought until I failed the test with a weak 67%. I decided to just take a break persuaded I knew better. I assumed all this time going through videos without break caused the failure. So I went to clear my head on our rooftop for about half-an-hour then went back to take on the test again. I had 38 out of 40 questions answered correctly with a sweet 97%. Way beyond the required 80. This definitely helped to set the mood for what would come next. Now that I write this knowing how it all ended, looks like I was set to have a training that rhymed on the cosmic plane. At that point, I went home because it was probably close to 6.
Day 3 – Friday, August 23rd
Still following on Tom’s recommendations, I went to take on the AWS TCO & Economics accreditation. This one is very literally focused on the financial aspect of AWS. Not financial as in getting the cheapest stuff but as in getting the right service for a fair price. TCO or total cost of ownership basically allows figuring how much savings a business can have by moving to a cloud provider which here is AWS. Towards the end of the course, there was what they call passive and active examples which are run-through the TCO tool from AWS. I thought I’d skip the passive example and go straight to the active one. Big mistake.
As it turns out, there were quite a few issues with the UI of the active example provided within the course. I kept on getting errors on the first screen while certain I put the right value in the right place but nope. Some were hidden and/or shifted compared to the underlying image representing what the tool looks like in AWS. Per example, I couldn’t select the right radio button for a given option because hidden and so on. After some time, clearly annoyed, I decided to skip the rest of the course right to the exam. Yet another mistake. I hit the wall with a mere 64%. A lot of the failed stuff laid around TCO stuff I skipped and a couple of other unknown concepts that definitely were in these last modules I dodged. The time for a break arose.
After a lunch break having a delicious yet heavy short-rib baguette from the butcher, I got back to it. It actually made me quite sleepy and I had to get a double expresso to shake it off. Following my new awakening, I went back to the modules I skipped from the passive TCO example. I thought I might as well go through it as the active example can’t be used. After that, I landed again in the (inter)active example once more. This is when it hit me. The UI issues were CSS.
From there, I could guess that the input “hitboxes” lined up a few centimetres to the right and some dropdowns were invisible. At that point, it became easier to get everything right despite the poor experience so I went through it all. Eventually, after much pain, I managed to fill properly that simulation TCO calculator. I feel like this is a great exercise to get to know how TCO works and how it can be used in real life but for Chrome Mac users it is more painful than it should be.
Before you slam me for not sending feedback I actually did use the email they provided mentioning the issue with screenshots attached to help out and gave details about which build of Chrome and macOS I was running. If there is a thing I learned as a software guy, is that you won’t see all the issues your users have unless you have a scenario to reproduce the issue as close to what actually happened as possible. Surprisingly they did get back to me a couple of weeks later letting me know they would look into this.
Sometime after resuming my enterprise, I took on the test and failed again. 76% which is 4% below the passing score. I just went for it again and hit 80%. I figured this wouldn’t be that important later. Drink Friday was upon us so I went to go and enjoy some rose in our kitchen. After about an hour, I headed off to the weekend.
Day 4 – Tuesday, August 27th
After a day doing my best to avoid attending the Notting Hill Carnival, I am finally back in the office and ready for more AWS training action. Now that I completed the three basic accreditations we’re recommended to pass I could go a bit more freestyle on my training. I inspired from the Technical Professional path AWS suggests for Partners and took on the Cloud Economics accreditation course.
As I expected, this course massively overlaps with TCO & Economics from the previous day. Especially the module around cost savings which mentions the TCO as a basic tool which should not be used to assess the cost of cloud migration. I found that weird this directly contradicts the TCO course. After double-checking, it turns out the TCO course is from 2014 while this one is from 2019. And you can feel the difference just in terms of UI and UX.
That course felt more complete and less sleep-prone. I really enjoyed going through that material. When the time came for the test to take on another accreditation, I passed on the first try with a whopping 95%. I can’t tell for sure that this has nothing to do with the overlap from the TCO & Economics course but I would say this one is definitely enough.
From there I headed to our rooftop for a short reading/sunbathing break. I read a blog post from a girl who prefers to implement BDD through code than frameworks like Cucumber. Quite the interesting read with sensible points as it turns out. Upon returning from this pause, I attacked the first section of the AWS STP Foundations course. The tech-oriented one.
While the first section heavily overlapped with the accreditation courses from the previous days, it acted as a nice refresher. The novelty is that it is the first course with the word architecture in it since I started. I went through most of the first section pretty steadily. However, the last module of that first section felt like a waste of time. I still went through the video content all the way to the end. All despite being convinced the AWS Technical Professional material definitely covered 99% of it.
Here’s to an hour I will never get back. And who knows? Maybe it helped me achieve the outcome I titled this post after. I am surprised I went through very similar content twice within the Technical Professional Path recommended by AWS. They must have their reasons. Maybe that 1% makes all the difference. Maybe the courses were designed individually then put together as fair to go through for one that wishes to become a tech professional as far as AWS is concerned. Once more, it is time to pack up and go home. My new Xbox controllers arrived and won’t use themselves. Also, I still have a podcast episode to edit at that point. Unlike other days, I hadn’t taken any break to look at the Go tour course. I didn’t miss it though so all good.
Day 5 – Wednesday, August 28th
Still dealing with the tech AWS STP Foundations course, I go through all the remaining sections. The second section took me through questions customers would ask and how to get elements of reply together. Fairly interesting on the consulting side of things but nothing to rock your boat on the tech side. After that, all the other sections covered the Well-Architected framework which is best summarised as a set of questions to ask to get a project started in the best possible way. The last remaining sections focus on a case study that walks you through discussing with a company going for cloud migration. Pretty interesting stuff.
Once done with the case study and AWS architecture pattern examples had a couple of mini takeaway sections/modules followed with a test. Pretty straightforward, couple hesitations here and there but passed it with 100% on the first try. Since I still have about 2 hours before 5.30 so I can do a bit of the cloud practitioner stuff before heading off. Plus I am attending that meetup about Memory Buffer Recycling not too far from the office so may actually have another hour. Let’s get as much out of the way as possible and potentially even go for the test exams tomorrow afternoon. From there I decided to take on the AWS Cloud practitioner course. I had no intention of taking on that exam but the course was recommended so it made sense.
Surprisingly, unlike all the courses I went through so far all the modules aside from intro and the exam are mandatory. Not an issue until I realised the first module and the next few afterwards overlap with the earlier accreditations.
It makes sense as one can take on that course alone to pass the Cloud Practitioner exam. I guess I’ll take this course as a refresher from last week. Plus examples are different so won’t complain too much. Also, the visuals are nicer here. And yet after like 5mn of that video I skipped through and went straight for the way too easy by now knowledge check and passed.
Since it worked so well I did the same for the third module and only went through each section knowledge check. Passed them all and saved me a whole hour so far. I’ll probably keep speed-running that course and see what happens. Same with the next module and another 1h40 saved. So I kept going and kept getting every single knowledge check right. The course is marked as passed but I still have 2h30 to go. I’ll take on that final course knowledge check, I might be able to 100% that flurkin.
That test was pretty damn hard and felt quite stressful. Probably because I wrote in my notes I would put in the post how I plan to ace 100%. That and the fact it was much harder than any assessment, accreditation or knowledge check I did so far. The course speed running gave me a feeling of false security so when I saw trap questions where no answer seemed correct I had a hint of panic on how I wasn’t ready to move on further. You can’t imagine the relief when I saw my score.
I scored 90%. Can you dig that? Still, had a couple of hours ahead of me so I went for one of the Cloud Practitioner test exams. At that point, I could see myself move towards the serious solutions architect stuff from the following day.
On this one, it looks really useful if say you started all the previous steps and didn’t practice nor got the chance to complete your training for a few weeks/months. From there I went ahead and bought some Cloud Practitioner practice exams on Udemy.
The cloud practitioner exam takes about 1h30 each so I’m taking a break. I didn’t think I’d do all 6 of them. I figured that passing a couple of times would set me up nicely for the well-architected best practices course on Friday. It’s only a couple of hours.
So the exam itself felt harder as the assessment at the end of the cloud practitioner course. Managed to complete and pass it with 72% in only 32 minutes. Might be standard but the only standard I know is the guidelines 1h30 to do it. I decided to review the correction because there is a whole bunch of stuff that definitely wasn’t in the AWS training material I went through. This could explain why people find practice tests way harder than the actual ones.
After examining my failed answers I realised that those were either stuff that wasn’t in the courses (99% was enterprise support plan stuff) I went through so hopefully not in the actual test or question misreads. Also, there was that weird one where the vaguest answer was the right one, totally got blind-sided there, at least my notes say so. I advise you look at the incorrect answers you gave as you get a fairly detailed explanation of why each wrong answer is incorrect alongside why the right answers are right. This will definitely come in handy later on.
Day 6 – Thursday, August 29th
It actually felt like I didn’t do much better than last night and then, I passed it. With 76% and no premium support question. Could be a fluke too so just in doubt, I’ll try and do it a third time. Just to make sure it’s fine for me to skip and move on the solutions architect meat. This time no or not many questions about premium support but some questions that had traps only in my head. Following that trend now I know about premium support and that some questions can be as simple as they look I should fare better next time. And 73%. I should be happy I consistently score above 70% but I should try one more time.
I’m gonna once more review answers and try it again after a swift break since I still have a fair amount of time before lunch and told my gf we’d go. And back from a tasty Smoko Loko lunch, I headed back to the office wondering whether I should take on the fourth practice exam. I probably will do just that, then go through the Well-Architected best practices unless I fail that one. And after a whole new world of confusing questions, I hit just on the mark to pass with 70% in 31mn. Close one. I spoke with the guys and apparently it’s common to hit a great score and then go down sometimes below 70% but still make it on actual exams. In the end, took on four different practice tests, passed all of them, time to move on.
And now I decided to take a deserved break with my first brew of the day. I’m talking about coffee of course!
It is 3.40 the course takes approximately 2 hours to go through including the course’s test. It is simply perfect to close the day before heading to not-my-leaving-drinks.
Funnily enough, from the first module, I’m finding a bunch of elements that went deeper than architectural stuff mentioned in the previous courses but that still were present in the cloud practitioner test exams. Also serve as a nice, deeper refresher. Revisiting all of the well-architectured principles described in the tech STP Foundations or day 4 for you reading.
I do appreciate the level of detail you get for each of the well-architected framework pillars in terms of services and so on. There’s new stuff in there, as I thought it is a more detailed version of the earlier mentions. I find weird it wasn’t recommended before the cloud practitioner tests as a lot of these things I find out about now showed up in the practice tests I took. Some I was able to guess from common sense but others are less obvious. There is some overlap as a lot of the services mentioned were viewed earlier but now they’re framed under the lens of the Well-Architected Framework which is nice.
About 30 minutes into the course I took a break and got lost discussing with a colleague telling ourselves how cool that would be to have some software that would re-install everything we need on a Windows machine and then started researching that. Funnily enough, that will also lead to a blog post that should appear before the end of the year. And now I only have 30 minutes to go through about 1h15 of content and a test. I’ll probably go through as much as possible and finish the last pillars in the morning.
I have another colleague taking on the exam on Tuesday so going with him I will have the whole of Monday for practice exams. Oh shoot, just realising now that I’m already late. I’ll do 15 more minutes and then be off. 30mn late for drinks is definitely acceptable. I’ll finish going through the material tomorrow and maybe even take on one solution architect practice test before having a Monday full of them.
Day 7 – Friday, August 30th
Basically went through what turned out to be a slightly deeper overview of the Well-Architected framework, nice refresher, easily passed the test with 96%. Nothing special otherwise. However, with all the stuff that appeared here that came up in the cloud practitioner exam, I decided to take on the 5th of 6 I got on Udemy. Let’s just jump into it. And once more 73%, going through the bad answer I can see a lot of stuff that seems dumb now I re-read the question. It’s nice and all to do it in 30 mn and consistently scoring above 70% but I feel like I’ll need to take my time and use the remaining hour of the real exam time to double-check all my answers. Time to move on towards more architecture related stuff.
I went on to take on the “Architecting on AWS” course. It actually is a 3-day classroom course. I just can’t be bothered with that. Gonna try and go for the exam readiness then take on a couple of training exams to see where I sit. If not working then I can book the class. And skip.
The training path page will tell you it can be done only through a 4h class and some providers might try to charge you up to $300 for that session which is balls. Luckily, Tom let me know there was a link to a 2h video covering exactly that with the same name. It made sense to me as for class that offers IRL classroom and digital content, the digital content pretty much takes only half the time. No need to stress this is a massive incentive to stay as far away from people as possible and stick to digital content.
This is basically an overview of what to expect for the exam. This one is question focused, giving you a summary of the main areas covered in the exam, alongside some sample exam questions to test you. If you fail to answer you get an explanation for each good/bad answer. You’re also provided with some links to material to dig on areas you might be lacking or to fill gaps. I did spread this one through the day with a lot of video example repeats to make sure I caught anything that seemed unclear. Eventually got there.
I had some time left and decided to take on the free solutions architect short test (20 questions) from Whizlab (Tom advice) before wrapping the day up. Here I am, 7 days of training and 14 AWS courses later. Taking on my first real taste of that SA exam before a Monday filled with them. That will determine whether I’m ready enough to just churn out practice exams on Monday and pass on Tuesday or prepare more with the white paper reads to go deeper. Hopefully the former. Created my Whizlab account which took seconds and had access to a dashboard with the free CSAA test with 20 questions.
For some reason, the test says I completed the 15mn test at 9.38pm but it’s actually 5.09pm with a glass of Rose. That went way faster than I planned, actually had to think harder on these. Didn’t have time to reply to the last question so expected a passing score but nothing great. I’m not too surprised I scored 80% as there was none of that support plan nonsense. Just pure architecture stuff. Guess I’m ready to take on a whole bunch of practice tests Monday. The ones which are more IRL like, 65 questions in 130 minutes. Still a really fun exercise.
Day 8 – Monday, September 2nd
I had the nicest of breaks from a sweet Swedish weekend away in Gothenburg with my girlfriend who also happens to write blog posts. I finally returned to the office with some sweets to share and a hunger for this Solutions Architect exam. Armed with Honey, my dear discount code provider, I got the practice exams with 10% off.
I am finally ready to roll in a valley of shadow and death, go through a relentless day taking on practice exams one after the other where only one failure can flip my confidence in passing. However, if all goes well, I will register to take on the exam tomorrow morning. There were 7 different exams with the same structure as the real one from this year. On top of that, there was an additional exam per section that can be covered. All intense and that’s exactly what I need. Let’s just jump into it.
The first attempt was a cold shower, only 58.46% after 1h16 answering questions that feel way harder than last Friday. I decided to go through the failed answers to get what was missing. After some read, I realised I tricked myself into thinking there were traps that didn’t actually exist. I noticed that a lot of that happened when VPCs were in play. So I decided to actually go through the AWS VPC user guide in order to fill the gaps I have. Similarly if while taking on tests you notice significant gaps on a given topic, you should definitely go and read about it. I went through the intro then the specifics that gave me a hard time. After about an hour I decided to go for the VPC specific test.
After taking on that VPC specific test, the end result was terrible. 25 questions, was too slow to reply to the last 5 questions. Ended up with a score of 28%. Pretty soul-crushing. The worst part is that often the answer felt too obvious to be right and since I’m mildly confident around that topic I chose illusory caution. And was so wrong about it. I realised how little I understood the ACL table. Yes, one would say it’s all network stuff and it’s platform engineers domain. It’s true. Maybe I won’t use nor think of these ever again or not before a potential exam success expires in two years time.
And yet I can’t just shrug it off. In proportion, it’s better to have 28% of VPC answers right on a VPC specific test than 5% of VPC stuff right on a general test. I feel like I need a break, a breather and to come back to take on another general test. Specific bits require hands-on experience, but some common sense and additional focus on the questions may allow me to get a passing score without spending months practising. Not really orthodox but if it gets me through the exam, I can keep learning over time. That or I can put it away in my little-used certification skills closet.
From here it’s is pretty clear that the chances I take on and pass the real exam tomorrow are pretty slim. Even if I am to turn things around with another successful or two attempts this afternoon. The first failures cut too deep. I will need to take on more practice exams tomorrow to build confidence back up.
On what was my second ride of the day, I was much more stressed than during the previous drill. Low in confidence, thinking about how bad I would do in the real exam from what I did this morning. Really not a great place. I felt like I did better but not necessarily enough to pass. That why I was so surprised to have passed that second test with 76.92%. I figured if I was to fail hard I might as well follow my gut when I don’t know and it worked!
Boy, I am incredibly tired today and it’s only 5. Probably last night’s delayed flight back to London didn’t help to reach home at an insane 12.30am. The weekend was worth it though. Gonna pack up and head out, my brain doesn’t respond anymore gonna need to clear my head after this emotional rollercoaster. Tomorrow’s another day. Another day to keep grinding on different tests and getting closer to that coveted AWS solutions architect Graal.
Day 9 – Tuesday, September 3rd
Thought I’d start going through the valid and invalid answers from last night successful run first. Whether I answered right or wrong the exam solutions always provide valuable insight that will help me for shots at different other tests. Then off to a third shot. After some time though, I realised doing that would take me longer than taking on another test. Might be worth doing when I bomb it. But not with 76-ish per cent scored. Therefore new break and then I’ll roll for a new one.
After an hour, eight minutes and thirteen seconds of stressing, double-triple reading questions I pressed the submit button. This would be a stepping stone towards a potential live exam tomorrow if successful. Even though the result took only a couple seconds to load, these were the longest I had today. Pretty worried I didn’t do well enough and fell again below 60% which is mediocre at most. You can imagine how relieved I was scoring 76.92%. Again. Exactly 50 good answers out of 65. Again. If this afternoon attempt yields a similar result I will definitely go for it tomorrow.
After a lunch break having some baked chips and Sicilian meatballs from Leon, it is a bit sleepy that I returned to my desk. Grabbed some Twix, a Coke Zero and a black coffee before taking on another practice exam. Still a bit stressed but more confident from the last two attempts. Towards the end, I just wanted it to be over and didn’t bother reviewing my answers before submitting. And boom! 78.46% or 51 out of 65 valid answers. And unsurprisingly, once more, I thought I might have bombed it and finger crossed to have at least 70%. I will take on that final practice test tomorrow morning and take on the Big Kahuna tomorrow afternoon. I feel ready.
After a little walk around the office to relax before the end of day meetings and calls left, I booked the exam for the day after.
Wednesday, 4th of September of the year 2019. This is Day 10. My first and hopefully only attempt at passing the SA certification takes place this afternoon. This is a make or break moment. If I get it right away, I get what could be the coolest time-boxed blog post one individual can achieve to inspire others in his domain. Excluding everything that you can do in less than 10 days of training. I will take on that Whizlabs Final Test they advise to take on the day before a final exam this morning. This can either boost or wreck my confidence going into the test. This is very risqué. But then, is living without flirting with the danger zone living at all? I will go all-in for that we’re in the Endgame now.
But first I went through them all, then just the failed answers from yesterday’s last practice exam I took. I feel like I gained more in insight but boy is reading through it was draining. It’s almost 10.30am and I feel like 24 hours went by instead of just 1h30 since I came in. I decide to take a break and walk around a bit to clear my head for that final practice exam.
There was a couple of questions that felt a bit too familiar from the other practice tests I took before. However, instead of filling me with confidence I was worried I’d lose confidence with a bad score. Also, the non-familiar questions, which there was quite the bunch of, were terrifying. I thought I’d be lucky getting away with 70%.
After an hour and eight minutes of pain without love, I pressed the submit button. And passed! Passed with 86.15%. 56 out of 65 valid answers. Huge confidence boost prior to this afternoon exam.
Maybe I shouldn’t worry too much but that might just work out. As it turns out I’ll go have lunch with my girlfriend and a friend of hers at the Spitafields market which happens to be next to the exam centre. Nothing better than a bit of chilled fun time before taking on a monster. Have the feast then slay the beast as I just made up right now taking notes.
I didn’t imagine how eventful the afternoon would be. And boy was this an eventful afternoon.
I started making my way out of the office. and take the elevator only to realise I left my wallet upstairs with my ID. So I go back up to get it and Tom is up there. I mention why I came back up and he tells that I need not one but two identification documents. We’re about 2h15 before the exam. There I go picking up all my stuff to ride like a madman to head home and grab my passport. Literally cycled there, grabbed it and rode back towards the market within hour Tour de France style.
About 1h20 before the exam, I finally meet my girlfriend and her friend to have lunch. At that point, I’m somewhat reassured, then check the conditions for the exam. The name put on the website needs to exactly match the one in the system. Couldn’t put accents in the system so there is a difference. Minor but who knows how strict it can be. They both already had lunch so I went and got myself a katsu curry and we chatted about random stuff. Chat punctuated with a coffee and some Italian pastries from another place in the market.
We’re 40 minutes before the exam. I walk my girlfriend to her office then head to the exam centre. I make it there 30ish minutes before the exam begins. Nobody else is there, only the examinator and me. I strip off all my stuff to be kept in lockers. Then I went through various security and fraud checks and walked into the room. From there my machine gets set up and the exam can begin. Even though I took on five practice exams, this one felt different. This was no practice anymore. I was big blind and the cards had been dealt. It was game time. I felt quite calm throughout despite a spike of stress when the time came to submit my answers.
There was some lag when selecting answers but nothing debilitating. I guess it could have affected me more had I not taken on a few practice rounds. Actually, I even went back and changed a couple of my answers. Retrospectively I like to think it helped improve my score maybe even get the pass. Eventually, came the time to submit them. There was still 40 minutes on the clock but I wasn’t gonna torture myself any longer. So I pressed. And I passed. You’re damn right I did. Ten days since I started practising and got it on the first try. Even though I expected to pass I mentally prepared myself to deal with potential failure. That first failed practice exam did come to haunt my thoughts a couple of times during the test. But in the end, it didn’t even matter.
Aftermath – Friday, September 6th
I received my score for the exam alongside the breakdown of how well it split across topics. I was quite unsure of how well I did. Thought I barely passed. You can imagine my surprise when I saw I scored 804 out of 1000. 80%. That’s like a solid pass. I was quite flabbergasted. Now I am the proud owner of an AWS Solutions Architect – Associate certification for the next three years.
Thanks for reading and if you want a short version of the steps I followed, you can check out this link.
Cover picture credits: Giada Migliavacca