Earning entry-level certification is important not only to build competency in new skills, but as a guided path to higher certifications. Many IT pros remember their CCENT. Not so much for the value of the credential itself, but because it meant they were on their way to their CCNA.
Until recently, AWS certifications worked essentially the same way. Associate-level exams were the prerequisite for Professional exams. Similarly, you had to pass an Associate or Foundational exam to sit for a Specialty exam. Last October, AWS shifted away from that traditional path by replacing exam prerequisites with "recommended knowledge".
The difference between "prerequisite" and "recommended knowledge" might seem subtle at first glance. If you're qualified — as in you have the "recommended knowledge" — to sit for an exam, then the shift will certainly save you time. But if you don't have the right knowledge to sit for a particular exam, you're practically guaranteed to fail.
Here we're going to take a closer look at the distinction between prerequisites and recommendations — and what they mean.
AWS Used To Have Prerequisites…
Amazon Web Services is the dominant cloud platform, holding 35 percent of the cloud market share. Getting certified in AWS can greatly increase your value to your organization or prospective employers.
There are four levels of AWS certification:
Foundational: Intended for budding IT pros, along with those in those in supporting roles such as sales or managerial. This level of certification is seen as an introduction to the AWS Cloud environment for complete newbies.
Associate: Mid-level certs are aimed at professionals providing configuration and support on the ground. While more technical than the Foundational cert, Associate certs are also considered to be introductory.
Professional: Engineer-level certifications are for sysadmins or developers who architect complete solutions in the AWS environment.
Specialty: These certs are designed for experienced cloud professionals who are seeking to gain knowledge in a particular subset of AWS.
AWS Foundational and Associate certs have always been considered introductory level, and therefore, didn't require prerequisite certifications. However, you couldn't test for a Professional or Specialty cert until you first earned an Associate or Foundational credential.
But now, AWS has removed prerequisites for all exams — and it makes a lot of sense. For instance, AWS Certified Solutions Architect exists as both an Associate and Professional cert. There's a lot of crossover between the exams as they cover similar content. Not surprisingly, AWS received negative feedback from candidates who felt that it was a waste to have earn the Associate certification first.
This change doesn't mean you're completely off the hook, though. Going into any certification unprepared will practically guarantee less than desired results.
Amazon Still Has Knowledge They "Recommend"
You might be tempted to ignore Amazon's "recommended knowledge". After all, it's not required. But you're very likely setting yourself up for failure on exam day. If you don't have the knowledge base they expect you to have, you're in trouble. So, don't take their recommendations lightly.
AWS Cloud Practitioner
AWS Cloud Practitioner was designed for project managers, executives, or other non-technical stakeholders involved in decision-making processes. Foundational exams are oddly often more difficult than technical exams. That's because non-technical exams typically require a larger learning curve for the people who take them.
Amazon recommends a minimum of six months of experience working with the AWS cloud in any capacity. It's important that you're familiar with everything they outline in the exam objectives — from basic principles of cloud architecture to making cost-effective choices with AWS.
AWS Associate Certifications
AWS Associate certifications are more advanced than the foundational level, and technical experience is essential. Amazon recommends one year of implementation and support experience for Associate certifications.
There are three learning paths for Associate certifications based upon particular roles. You can select development, administration, or architecture routes:
AWS Certified Developer – Associate. To earn the Developer cert, it is expected that you are already a proficient programmer in at least one language. You should also have the general cloud knowledge that is recommended for the Foundational exam. The Developer certification verifies your ability to use your programming skills with a breadth of AWS tools.
AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Associate. The SysOps Administrator cert is intended for those who are in the silos every day, managing and supporting InfoTech systems. Experience-wise, you don't want to come into this exam as a rookie admin.
AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate. For the Architect cert, you'll want to know proper design principles that ensure scalability, availability, and fault tolerance for cloud-based solutions. The emphasis here is not just on creating solutions, but using best practices to achieve technical requirements with proper security and efficiency.
AWS Professional Certifications
Moving up the certification ladder, AWS Professional-level certs focus primarily on architecting and engineering applications in enterprise environments, and is geared toward pros with at least two recommended years of AWS-specific experience:
AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional. The Architect Professional exam requires a greater knowledge of using best practices, scripting with the CLI, integrating APIs, and application of Amazon's five pillars than the Associate-level cert.
AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional. From the DevOps perspective, the Professional cert tests a deeper knowledge of automation, security, and compliance from a software standpoint. Candidates need to have an extensive programming skill set, along with two years of AWS experience.
AWS Specialty Certifications
AWS Specialty exams are intended to validate highly advanced skills in specific technical areas of the AWS realm. For this reason, five years of industry experience is recommended before stepping up to the Specialty level:
AWS Certified Security – Specialty. The Security Specialty focuses on the proper application of secure internet protocols and data encryption methods. The depth of knowledge tested here is meant for highly experienced IT security pros. You'll probably need five years of experience working in infosec.
AWS Certified Big Data – Specialty. Training for the Big Data specialty brings candidates up to speed on designing big data systems and using AWS tools for analysis — if you bring at least five years of data analytics experience to the table.
AWS Certified Networking – Specialty. The Networking Specialty aims to get network pros with a recommended five years of experience up to date on the latest cloud networking topologies. Training for this cert involves learning how to deploy scalable network architectures in both native and hybrid environments.
Recommended experience is the one commonality among all the Professional and Specialty certs. Knowing AWS, for either a single cloud or multi-cloud strategy, can increase your knowledge base. It's not just about having walked the walk — but it's also about being able to talk the talk.
Going into an exam of this caliber with no experience borders on idiocy. But "recommended experience" is not as clear as it could be. Everyone learns and retains cloud skills differently, which is why AWS isn't setting a hard line. But especially for Specialty exams, you really should treat their guidelines as requirements.
What Can You Do To Prepare?
If you don't possess Amazon's "recommended experience," don't worry. There are plenty of great AWS resources to get experience, like setting up your own AWS lab environment using Amazon's AWS Free Tier. As its name suggests, the free tier provides access to AWS services like Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), Amazon Cloud Directory, and Amazon RDS.
Aside from diving right into the cloud, there are accompanying resources you can use to prep yourself for test day:
Use Amazon courses. Amazon provides exam readiness courses that map directly to certification exam objectives. These courses are taught at locations throughout the world. There is also virtual classroom sessions for those who can't attend live events. Readiness courses are available for the following certification exams:
Big Data Specialty
Use AWS documentation. Amazon provides resources for each exam that can be found via AWS certification pages. Start at the AWS Certification page and click Learn More on an exam. You'll find exam preparation guides, white papers, and links to appropriate AWS courses.
Take AWS practice exams. While browsing the documentation, pay attention to any available sample questions and practice exams. While not every certification has them, practice exams are a useful resource to gauge your exam readiness. They test what you know well, and what areas you might need to brush up on. Also, you get a better feel for the exam format, which comes handy on test day.
Get Trained Up. Alternate training can supplement the AWS resources, as well as reinforce your learning. CBT Nuggets currently provides training geared toward seven AWS exams! The most popular training is Solutions Architect, SysOps Administrator, and Cloud Practitioner.
It might be tempting to conclude Amazon's elimination of prerequisites means you don't have to prepare as much for AWS exams anymore. But that's a fallacy you need to avoid. Walking into AWS exam blind thinking you'll fare well is crazy.
Following the new recommended guidelines and training to a tee will ensure you have the knowledge necessary to tackle any level of AWS certification. If you treat the word "recommended" like it's "required," you can use the skills you pick up to guide you to success on exam day.