Deciding to take the AWS Certified Solutions Architect: Professional exam at re:Invent

A couple of weeks ago I got back from AWS re:Invent 2018, freshly minted as a Certified Solutions Architect: Professional. This certification is considered one of the toughest to achieve in IT, and it lived up to the hype. It was brutal. So brutal in fact, that after seeing that I passed, I questioned why I took it, whether it was worth it, and if it was worth the stress taking it in Las Vegas at re:Invent versus a local testing center.

I have a few goals for this post:

  1. Outline the CSA: Pro exam and whether you should take it
  2. Help you make a decision about whether or not to take it at re:Invent
  3. Discuss my preparation process should you want to take it at re:Invent

What is the CSA: Pro Driving the decision to become Pro

I have a non-traditional IT background, and despite my experience I can’t help but feel imposter syndrome at times. AWS certifications validate my knowledge in the domain. At re:Invent 2017 I took the CSA: Associate exam and passed, which felt amazing. In preparing for the exam, I felt that I was learning useful stuff, which surprised me.

Naturally, this year I had to decide what, if any, certifications I would shoot for. At first, the DevOps Professional exam looked inviting. However, at the time, professional certifications required you to “unlock” them by achieving an associate cert (this changed recently). So, if I wanted a professional cert this year, I’d need to shoot for CSA: Pro.

I began to take a deeper dive into the CSA: Pro exam and the first impressions were not inviting. It was a lot of material, although the technical material did not seem too difficult. Instead, it looked like a reading comprehension exam where you’re given multiple solutions and must select the most correct one. Sometimes there are multiple correct answers–with no partial credit. Just to pile on, each question is a marathon to read through–and you have to answer 77 of them in 170 minutes. Overall, this test didn’t seem hard, just annoying!

So I took a step back. Why am I doing this? Two reasons – one business and one personal.

Professional-level certifications benefit Element 84, giving us additional expert-level in-house AWS expertise that is tangible and measurable. Personally, I wanted to fill in gaps as a solutions architect. I knew much of the material, but not necessarily why or not within the context of the AWS recommended way. A lot of the preparation is working with customers to understand the value of AWS, and help people make informed, cost-effective, secure, and scalable decisions evaluating the cloud.

Ok, so I’m going all in! Time to register. Wait, there’s a beta exam, what’s that?

Beta Exam

As of October 2018, AWS has released a Beta exam for the CSA: Pro exam. Naturally I thought, “what’s a beta and should I take it?”

Beta exams for existing exams are used by AWS to evaluate new questions and domains. They also pilot new certification exams, such as the Security Specialization.

One of the resources I used in preparing for the exam was acloud.guru, and they had released a new series for the beta exam. I had started using the existing exam prep, but some of the talks were from 2015 and the information was no longer up-to-date. Since my primary goal for attempting the certification was to use what I learned, it made sense to use the beta prep. I started watching the videos and decided to register for the beta exam.

Registering for the beta was a mistake. Here’s why:

There are a couple nuances about beta exams that were important to me and I assume apply to you too. Let’s look at the beta exam FAQ:

Q: What is the benefit of taking a beta exam?
Beta candidates have the opportunity to take the newest exams first. If the beta is successful, candidates who pass the exam will be among the first to hold the new certification. In addition, beta exams are typically offered at 50% off standard exam pricing.

At first glance this looks sweet, a 50% discount! The key statement here is, “if the beta is successful”; this means that if the beta has too many experimental questions that aren’t used in the future exam, your efforts do not result in a certification. That’s a dealbreaker for me, spending my free time preparing for a challenging exam and there’s a chance it might not count? Yikes.

Q: What happens if I do not pass the beta exam?
Individuals who participate in beta exams but do not pass are eligible to receive a voucher to retake the exam at no cost once it is released.

This is nice, but you should plan to pass. It certainly does not overcome the previous point that you may not get a cert even if you do pass.

Q: When will I get my beta exam results?
Beta exam results are typically available 90 days (13 weeks) or less from the close of the beta exam.

This is obnoxious at best if you’re planning to take it at re:Invent, because you want the satisfaction of clicking a button and getting results! But it was a dealbreaker for me–I would have forgotten so much material 3 months later and it’d be hard to motivate myself to try again.

Is there ever a time where a beta exam is worth it?

I think yes! One possible use case is if you’re interested in taking a brand new exam such as the Security Speciality and wish to provide feedback to AWS with how well you do. Another might be for recertification, although I still would not recommend this for a CSA: Pro re-cert.

For me, taking the beta was not the right choice; I wanted immediate feedback and if I did well I wanted a certificate-in-hand. Luckily, you can cancel your exam for a full refund as long as it is at least 48 hours before the test begins. I got my full refund and registered for the current CSA: Pro about 10 days before the test.

Alright, dodged a bullet here, and I want to take the regular exam. Do I want to take it in Las Vegas at re:Invent, or locally?

Deciding where to take the exam

Having passed the associate exam at re:Invent last year, I knew I could take the professional exam at the conference. But I did remember the stress. I had preferred to take it the week before re:Invent this time, but that’s a holiday week and it’s important to spend time with family. Still, I had the option to take the exam after re:Invent, which prompted me to evaluate the pros/cons:

Pro: You feel like a hero if you pass

I took the CSA: Associate exam at re:Invent in 2017, and I will admit I was a bit of a wreck leading up to it. I was the only person from my company sitting for an exam, and I had not sat for any type of exam since graduate school. But then I passed, and it was AWESOME. I took it the first day (Monday early morning) and when I walked out I had ice cream for breakfast. I just passed my AWS exam, I’m in Vegas, life is good!

Pro: You get swag

This year we got pins, an extra t-shirt, hat, and sticker. You’ll also be able to get into the Certification Lounge, which has quick access to snacks/coffee. I don’t think these perks require you to be certified at the conference; I think I would have gotten everything except pro-level pins/stickers with my CSA: Associate cert still being valid.

Con: You will probably be in a bad mood if you fail

Particularly if your co-workers pass the exam you’re taking, I imagine you’d feel pretty depressed for at least the rest of the day. I was fortunate that not only did I pass, but 4/4 of my coworkers passed their exams as well! (3 Associates, 1 Pro CSA)!

Con: You will be exhausted in Vegas regardless of when you take it

When you take the exam is personal preference. I like the approach of taking it first thing in the morning the first day. I got to bed 11PM PST and took the exam at 7:30AM PST the next morning (Monday). I knew I’d be jet-lagged, but I value getting it over with and being able to enjoy myself the rest of the conference. Am I really going to be able to sleep anyway with this exam looming?

Most co-workers scheduled their exams on Tuesday, after they adjusted. This is fine too, again personal preference. However, the conference itself is exhausting. It’s a mass of people, techno music, running between casinos, lunch and dinner invitations. You may feel burnt out even after one day.

One co-worker scheduled his exam Thursday. In retrospect he feels it was a mistake. I’m sure he felt added pressure knowing everyone else had already passed. He also skipped out on a couple night events to prepare.

These are the primary downsides of taking the exam at the conference. If the stress will get to you, schedule the test at your leisure and take it at a local testing center.

Preparing for the exam in Vegas

Study materials

I used acloud.guru for my associate exam and used the new 2019 beta for this professional exam. If you do use acloud.guru, one thing to keep a close eye on are the domains covered in the beta prep vs the existing prep, as they are significantly different. As I mentioned earlier, my primary goal was to learn, so I still watched all the videos, but only rewatched those that were on the exam I was taking. Acloud.guru is an amazing resource, but as they say in their intro videos, you cannot rely on it alone to pass the pro exam.

My main concern was whether I would have the stamina to make it through the practice exam without getting frustrated/tired. I purchased some 3rd party practice exams and did three of them to make sure my timing was OK. I would recommend purchasing the actual AWS practice exams, as you’ll probably get a better sense of questions.

I’d also recommend reading AWS whitepapers in domains that you’re testing weak. And don’t snooze on the FAQ for services, you’ll find a lot of gems in there as well.

Understand that test topics vary greatly and you will get at least one question that is going to make you mad. Not frustrated, full on angry at the person who decided this is appropriate for the test. It’s important to not let this rattle you as you take the exam; it’s only one question.

Pre-routine

As I mentioned earlier, the weeks leading up to re:Invent are the holidays. It helps to get into a good routine, especially if you don’t already have on. For me, I started an exercise routine two weeks before (7 minute app) using an app that only requires body weight. I was able to work out with this in the hotel the morning of the exam to burn off coffee jitters.

Understand that it’s just an exam and make sure you don’t let the stress manifest itself and make you miserable to be around during Thanksgiving. This is something I consciously worked on and found balance of study/family time.

I also made sure to not drink too much alcohol (preferably at all). We need those brain cells for the exam!

Morning of

You’re probably going to be wiped, especially depending on your flight/timezone change. I started by going downstairs for a coffee and a big water. Be mindful of your liquid intake, but make sure you drink water. I thought I had this down but ended up needing a break at the end of the exam prior to reviewing my flagged questions. You can take water/bathroom breaks at your leisure, but you cannot pause the exam.

Finally, I did a quick meditation. I told myself I’ve done the prep and there is nothing they can ask me that I won’t be able to figure out. I put myself in the position to be successful. Bring it on AWS!

Exam

Make sure you show up to the exam room early, at least 30 minutes before it starts. If you’re taking it first thing Monday morning, try to get your badge ahead of time (this year they did badging at the Vegas airport, which was sweet!).

First, you’ll check in and get your seat card with a code. You will be given a piece of paper to go over the exam rules. Nothing unexpected here. Next, you’ll have to empty your pockets and take off your watch (even if it’s not a smart watch), storing them either in your laptop bag which is placed in a cubby or a provided plastic bag and put under your exam table. I did the latter.

You’ll be brought into the exam room. Although there are proctors, there was no formal “you may begin the test,” so I began after everyone was settled.

Expect a library-like atmosphere. The room is quiet but not silent; there may be some proctors whispering.

I will mention that the chairs are quite uncomfortable. Especially if you’re taking the pro exam, be prepared to be sitting in a crappy chair for three hours.

After you complete the exam and anxiously click “Submit,” there is a 10 question survey about things like testing conditions. Submit that, and you’ll get your pass/fail. Sometime later (hours or weeks) you’ll get your actual certification and a breakdown of your score and score by domain.

Overall exam tips

I wanted to include some other test taking tips/notes for the professional exam.

Spend the extra time on questions upfront (if you can)

I was finishing my practice tests within 40-60 minutes, despite telling myself to “go slow.” On the exam I finished with 20 minutes to go back and review questions, which I think worked perfectly. Because the questions are so long and laborious, it is preferable to spend a few extra seconds to really think about the answer the first time versus going back at the end and needing to regain context.

Review the first few questions, no matter what

When you are reviewing your work, I would recommend going over the first couple questions, even if you think they were “easy.” I found on my practice tests I would be so amp’ed up that I would make a lot of simple mistakes on the early questions.

Develop a strategy for attacking the questions

Your mileage may vary, but my approach was to skim the question and answers, then read the question, then make sure to identify the specific thing they are asking. The exam tries to trick you both with answers that “sound good” but use features that aren’t supported by that service, and by providing a lot of context that does not apply.

There’s a balance with “I see this word and think this service” or “I see this scenario and jump to this solution.” This does come up, for example if you see “clickstreams,” think “kinesis.” However, try to avoid getting hung up on where you think the question is going vs what is being asked.

They may give you costing context and you’re thinking the solution should also be cost effective, but really the question did not have costing as a requirement. Experience definitely matters, use that, but catch yourself from jumping to a solution. It’s hard, and that’s where practice testing really comes into play.

There may also be times where there are two answers, one is “how you would do it,” and one “how AWS would do it.” This was the most frustrating part of the exam for me. The answer is almost always how AWS would do it. Looking back at some of these questions – it’s because there was actually a nuance that invalidated the solution that appealed to me.

Would I do it all again?

Looking back, I think the answer to this question is a tentative “yes.” I believe taking it in Vegas was the right timing decision. The value of the test for me wasn’t a big of a jump as the associate exam, but it was still a worthwhile endeavor.

I actually enjoyed the topics preparing for the beta exam. I’m interested in how the test changes. It should be changing for the better. The direction it seems to be headed is more real life scenarios that solutions architects experience and less “AWS standards.”

I hope my experiences with this exam help you make a decision about the certification, if it’s worth the time commitment, and if you should take it at re:Invent. If you decide to go for it, maybe you can use these tips put yourself in an environment to be successful.