How I prepared for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate exam

A few days ago, I passed the AWS Certified Solutions Architect (Released February 2018) and I thought it would be useful  to share some thoughts with other people who might be preparing for the exam.

Exam questions

I did the latest version which was released in February 2018. The exam has 65 questions and you have 130 minutes to complete the exam. I found that I have enough time to finish the exam and check the answers that I had doubts about.

Most of the questions in the exam were related to the following topics:

  • EC2 instances: Security, different types and which one is better cost-effective
  • ELB:  Differences between classic ELB and ALB
  • Private/Public subnets
  • Internet gateway
  • SQS, Kinesis
  • ACL Rules vs Security groups
  • IAM Roles
  • S3: Use cases, encryption, signed URLs and lifecycle
  • EBS: Types, cost-effective
  • RDS, Redshift and DynamoDB: use cases and performance
  • Route 53: Routing policies
  • Lambda: Uses cases

There were a few topics I had a rough idea about but hadn’t expected to see in the exam (so hadn’t spent much time preparing for!):

  • EFS: This was the answer for at least two questions and in many questions it was one of the possible multiple choice answers.
  • S3 transfer acceleration
  • Lambda: I was expecting to have one or two question about lambdas, but not as many as there were.
  • Nat gateway: As with lambda, I was not expecting so many questions about this topic.

Finally, here there are the topics that came up that I didn’t know about:

  • DynamoDB Accelerator
  • Convertible Reserved Instances. In one of the questions we had to choose between convertible reserved instance, regional standard reserved instance or standard reserved instance. On the day I took the exam I was only aware of the standard reserved instance…

Studying material

In order to prepare for the exam, I used the official guide and the video course from A Cloud Guru. I then tested my knowledge by doing practice questions which helped me realise which topics I needed to improve on.

1. BOOK: AWS Certified Solutions Architect Official Study Guide

by Joe Baron, et al. 2016, John Wiley & Sons

This book was the principal resource I used to prepare for the exam. It is very well structured and each chapter contains the right amount information to pass the exam, without becoming too repetitive or detailed. However, some chapters are simply copied and pasted from the AWS documentation, although I do think they did a good job selecting the most important pieces of information and putting them together succinctly.

For me, there is one big problem with this book: it has not been updated since 2016. That means that there are many newer topics that are not included in this book or have not been updated recently enough.

The following topics have changed since the books was released:

  • SQS: The book only covers standard queues but not FIFO queues
  • Import/Export: The types of import/export has changed

The following list shows the topics are not at all covered in the book:

  • ALB: The book only covers classic ELB
  • EFS
  • Lambda and API gateway
  • ECS
  • DynamoDb Accelerator (DAX)
  • S3 transfer acceleration

2. Video course: AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate 2018

Ryan Kroonenburg, the founder of A Cloud Guru, is the responsible for this excellent training course, which was recommended to me by my colleague Katrin Perry.

The course is very well structured and to the point.  Each concept it is really well explained and most of the topics include lab sessions which give you an opportunity to put the theory into practice with real examples. In addition, at the end of each topic, the course includes a list of really useful exam tips.

The only problem with this course is that it does not go into sufficient detail to enable you to pass the exam using this resource alone. I found that the type of example questions given at the end of each chapter were easier than the ones that came up in the exam.

I highly recommend this course though, even if you are not preparing for the exam. You will learn a lot and the lab sessions are a really good way of learning how to solve every day problems at work. Furthermore, this course is really up to date (at the moment!) and covers a lot of topics you won’t find in the official guide.

You could find the course in the a cloud guru page and at Udemy. I did it through Udemy because it was cheaper at the time.

Overall, I found that the combination of the official study guide and the video course was enough to cover all the topics in the exam.

3. Exam questions: Associate Practice Exams

After reading through the official guide thoroughly (twice) and doing the cloud guru course I thought I was ready to do the exam but after doing some practice exam questions, written by braincert I realised that I actually wasn’t yet ready.

The Associate practice exams includes 13 exams of 50 questions each. The level of some of the questions is quite hard and in my case they helped me pinpoint the topics which I needed to focus on more before doing the exam.

To be aware however, there are some practice questions which will ask you about specific limits which you won’t find in the exam. Most of the question in the exam, especially in the February 2018 version, are based on scenarios.

Conclusion

As a senior software developer I have been working with AWS for a few years but I always had the impression than my knowledge wasn’t quite good enough. That was the main reason why I decided to take the exam. I wanted to learn more about it and I felt that taking the certification was a new challenge.

I personally really enjoyed preparing for this exam as I took my time with it, and learned a lot from it. I learnt a lot in particular from some of the videos on cloud guru, which teach you how to do cool stuff with Lambdas. Of course, the last few days before the exam, when you just have to learn bits of information off by heart, were not so fun!

Overall, I would recommend doing the certification to anyone who wants to learn (or test their current knowledge) how to build fault tolerant, cost-effective, scalable and secure applications.

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