25 May 2017

Studying for the AWS Certified Solution Architect Professional Exam - One Approach

After I announced on LinkedIn that I had passed the AWS CSA Professional exam I received a number of questions from others asking me how and what to study.  Instead of responding to individual requests I therefore decided to write this post to explain how I studied for the exam; and what I studied.

Not to detract from the fantastic work that the A Cloud Guru team are doing, but doing the CSA Professional course alone is highly unlikely to get you a pass (and Ryan does state this in his course material in no uncertain terms!) I personally think that a lot more studies are needed. Hence this blog post...

First of all, I have somewhere between 3 and 4 years of AWS experience gained from various proofs-of-concept back in 2010-2012, working in a start-up between 2013-2016 and now consulting and working with a variety of businesses in the DevOps and Solution Architecture space.

I spent 5-6 weeks studying. As I started my studies I booked and therefore locked in the date of the exam - I find this a fantastic motivator to keep going with the studies. I find it hard to study for something if I can't see the goal post; there are so many distractions and tactical de-tours in life! ;-)

To get an idea of what I was facing I started out with A Cloud Guru's CSA Professional course and watched all the videos over approximately a week.

I spent another approximately two weeks reading the (currently 6) recommended white papers as per the certification blueprint and a few other white papers too:
  1. AWS Best Practices for DDoS Resiliency
  2. Using Amazon Web Services for Disaster Recovery
  3. Securing Data at Rest with Encryption
  4. AWS Security Best Practices
At this point I decided to go for Gold and took the Practice exam. I didn't do fantastically well with a 62% score and it was a call to arms for me in terms of realising that more studies were warranted (although note that the practice exam isn't great - see later).

I spent the final 2 weeks reading & skimming the actual AWS documentation (safely ignoring all the code samples ;-) Approximately 1 document every 1-2 days. The documentation is long but do not under-estimate the value of doing this! There are some valuable insights and constraints in there - and when there's a section with the headline Note or Important do take note! I focused on the following documentation:
  1. AWS Cloudfront - Developer Guide
  2. AWS S3 - Developer Guide
  3. AWS EC2 - User Guide for Linux
  4. AWS EC2 - VM Import/Export User Guide
  5. AWS Management Portal for vCenter User Guide
  6. Amazon Kinesis Streams Developer Guide
  7. Amazon VPC Peering Guide
  8. AWS DirectConnect User Guide
  9. AWS Storage Gateway - User Guide
  10. Amazon Glacier - Developer Guide


During the final 2 weeks I also watched the A Cloud Guru Domain Wrap-up videos a couple of times; and even a few of the full videos where I felt this was warranted.

In the end, using this approach got me an 86% score on the final exam.

Some important take-away points from my experience were:
  • Leave yourself 2 weeks from taking the practice exam before you take the full exam
  • Pay attention to the percentage breakdown of questions per domain - and spend an apportioned amount of time studying that domain. Combined with the results of the practice exam I put together a spreadsheet that calculated a relevance score based on how well/badly I did. Formula: (100 - % my domain score) * % domain coverage / 100. The final 2 weeks I spent focusing studies on the 3 highest numbered domains
  • I think it is fair to say that real previous AWS and general Solution Architecture experience you certainly stand the best chance of passing the exam - or indeed doing well in it. I can't say how much experience in terms of time is required as that depends on many factors but I would certainly say a minimum of a couple of years total. 
  • Much of the AWS documentation and even some of the white papers now come in Kindle form. This is most excellent because it means that you can highlight sections for later review! And if a white paper or document is only in PDF format then why not send it to your Kindle conversion and delivery email address?
  • Some of the practice exam questions are buggy and vague; I must admit I wasn't impressed with the quality. I suspect that one would generally achieve a higher score in the real exam

P.S: I took approximately that same approach when studying for the AWS Certified DevOps Engineer Professional exam and this worked for me then as it did now.

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