• Tim Burns

The AWS Solutions Architect Exam is a Marathon

Updated: Mar 19

Photo by Miguel A. Amutio on Unsplash

The AWS Solutions Architect exam is a marathon. I had no idea what I was in for when I signed up for my CloudGuru account in November and resolved to pass the test. I watched the AWS official training video and thought, "yeah, yeah, yeah," as the trainer emphasized that you should already know all about architecture before thinking about taking the exam. I've been an architect and senior developer for over ten years. I got this.

I dutifully watched the lectures, read the white papers, and spent my morning coffee hours viewing re:Invent presentations in a blissful haze of self-unawareness. The bliss ended when I took the practice at the end of the coursework, and I scored a whopping %35 on the exam.

I needed a new plan. After all, if you sign up for a marathon, you've got to do it because if you don't, then what sort of quitter-type-person are you?

Focus on Passing the Test

I'm not a quitter, so I had to come up with a plan. I looked at the labs. They were a lot of work, and I do actual work for my job, so I don't want to add more "pretend" work. I want to pass the test, so I decided to focus entirely on doing what it would take to pass the test.

Rote Memorization is a Good Foundation

In college, I learned the maxim, "It's not what you know; it's when you know it." When it comes to extensive comprehensive tests, rote memorization is your friend. I took the CloudGuru test until I passed it at 100%. Doing so, I laid the groundwork for a focus on studying just for the test.

Buy a pack of Practice Tests and get Good at Passing Tests.

Once I memorized the 75 questions CloudGuru had to offer, I still had justifiable doubts about my ability to pass the exam. The best $16 I spent was purchasing a pack of four practice tests from Udemy. These were a Godsend!

The best feedback I got was taking the exam for the first time. I could power through an exam and see how I did with new material. Review my Trello list of articles again and add more when my knowledge fell short.

Focus your efforts on where you Fail

I took my time with the Udemy exams, and I would not take a new exam until I had reached 90% on the previous exam. The website Each exam summarizes all the questions missed, AWS articles, and curated help from I reviewed topics I thought I knew, like S3 and RDS, more times than I can count.

Test-taking is a valuable tool because it forces you to fail. For every question I missed, I created a link to a white paper or AWS article and put it into a Trello list. I categorized the links, and if I missed a question again, I unchecked the item, reread it, and rechecked it. Giving me enough of a blissful illusion of success every time so I kept going and did not quit. A marathon, remember?

Use Multiple choice to your advantage.

Standardized exams are a skill in and of themselves. Test writers have a set amount of material to work with and a limited number of tricks they can apply to get you to answer the wrong question. I improved at reading problems with practice, eliminating "red-herring" answers, and identifying key-word topics to spot. If I saw "high availability," I would scan for Multi-AZ. If I saw "read performance," I looked for Elasticache, Read Replicas in the answers. As I reviewed how the questions, I got better at spotting fallacies in questions.

Reschedule your Exam a Couple of Times

I consistently procrastinate and need several cramming sessions to learn something. The testing sites allow you to reschedule your exams once you've paid your $300. I used this "feature" to psych myself up to study hard, then take the weight off and push the exam out another couple of weeks or so. I did this until I genuinely did not care anymore whether I passed or failed, and that is when I knew I was ready.

Plan for Exam Day

On exam day, make sure you get enough sleep the night before. During my practice exams, I learned that I do best on my exams in the morning and on Tuesdays. Be ready on the day of the exam. The test provider people are assholes: They won't let you take a bathroom break. They don't let you stand up if your leg goes to sleep. If you mutter a question, they tell you that you forfeit the exam if you do it again. Be ready for that bullshit.

When Done, Celebrate the Process, Not the Outcome

Pass or fail; the certification process made me realize the value of getting a professional certification. I am a better architect and developer than before starting my certification journey, and that has more to do with the process than the outcome. The scope of the exam gave me an understanding of the breadth of the AWS core cloud services. It gave me a much deeper understanding of enterprise architecture, networking, systems migration, even project planning. I have confidence in a toolset that I'll use throughout the rest of my career.

Professionalism is Important for Developers

Certifications such as the AWS professional certificates reflect the maturity of the profession. Getting certification encourages others. It sets a standard of excellence, and as social beings, we want to emulate each other.

As a hiring manager for many years, I've had the advantage of reviewing many resumes and doing many interviews. I don't think I placed enough value on certification over those years. It takes me a long time to trust a new acquaintance's professional opinions. A common certification automatically gives me a watermark of common knowledge and competence, and I will trust the new colleague immediately.

I don't think I will get any more certifications. My calling lies in building systems, not studying them, but I am glad I earned the AWS Professional Solutions Architect.

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