Cloud Services / Culture / Sponsored / Contributed

One Woman’s Journey to Crack the AWS Cloud Exam

12 Jun 2019 9:11am, by

Stackery sponsored this post.

Toby Fee
Toby is a community developer at Stackery. Her roles and experience combine working as a software engineer, writer and technology instructor, building interesting projects with emerging tools and sharing her findings with the world. Prior to joining Stackery, Toby was an engineer at NWEA, Vacasa and New Relic.

The Amazon Web Services Certified Cloud Practitioner Exam asks you to demonstrate familiarity with AWS services as the first step on your way to earning other AWS certifications. In order to pass this first exam, you must be familiar with AWS’ features and how to select the best product among the compute, storage and database categories for your needs.

Cool — let’s just look at the complete list of AWS Products and… oh no.

Once you start browsing all the white papers, documentation and blog posts about AWS products, the guidance of “be familiar with AWS Services” starts to feel very daunting.

This post describes how I passed this exam on my first try. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t easy.)

What I Knew from the Start

I work at Stackery, where we make the best tool for your team to deploy serverless applications. How did this help me?

  • I had people to point me to good study resources all of which I will link you to below;
  • I knew everything about the business side of Lambdas and CloudFormation, both of which are listed in study materials but barely mentioned on the actual test;
  • I had a basic understanding of economic theory, my next article will cover why this is so important: why capacity purchased in the short term will always cost more than reserved capacity.

Overconfidence

At first, I thought I just was ready. I’m a smart gal — I have also spent over a year writing about AWS-related topics.

I continued to think that I was pretty much ready for the test up until three days before my scheduled testing date when I took a practice test.

I got… 20% of the questions correct.

This was… not a passing score.

So, I had a few days to get fully ready, how was I going to get all this material under my belt in that time? With the right tools, it was fairly easy.

Resources I Used to Prepare

  • Jayendra’s blog: This was a great map of the resources that were available. Most of this data is available somewhere on the AWS documentation sites, but this is a nice distillation;
  • Braincert practice tests: This was the key to my success. These practice tests are in the exact format of the actual exam. The multiple choice questions and “choose the 2 correct answers” questions are all in the exact format they will be on the real test. Even better: each question comes with 1-2 paragraphs explaining why you got it right or wrong;
  • AWS online training: Cloud Practitioner is the only exam where every test “answer” is more or less available in a single online training series. These could be super helpful! I have trouble focusing on video content but they may be great for you.

My Tips

The Questions Are Odd

In any multiple choice test, when you don’t instantly see the correct answer, you should eliminate the other possibilities. This is doubly true of the AWS exam. Some of the question-phrasing is just downright odd. I’ll give one generalized example, imagining the test is about library science:

Q: A user wants to look up a high volume of words to find their definitions, which option is intended for this purpose?

  1. Thesaurus;
  2. Card catalog;
  3. Apocrypha of the Talmud;
  4. Books.

Which of these is correct? The answer is 4: books. Choices 1 and 2 are both things that could sort of work, but the question was “which is intended for this: and neither a thesaurus nor a card catalog is intended for that. Option 3 refers to something that does not exist. So, option 4, despite being an incredibly unhelpful and general answer to the question, is the only correct one. You’d use books. You wouldn’t use magazines, you’d use books.

The AWS-specific example of this I remember from the test was something that mentioned several compute options by name, but the correct answer was just “AWS Compute” because the specific answers were just wrong.

Randomized Exams Mean Questions Aren’t Well Distributed

I’m a very good test taker and this really threw me off. When taking a test where all the questions were selected by a human, there’s a thing in the back of my mind saying “we haven’t had any questions on Elastic Beanstalk, which is a top product so some are coming up.” But while the questions on the AWS Cloud Practitioner exam are written by humans, the selection is random — you might get three questions right on AWS Snowball, but none on S3.

This also means you can get two questions that are essentially the same. Again this really threw me off. If a human had selected these questions I would assume that asking me:

  • “Which of these are options for high-volume storage of thumbnails;”

followed by:

  • “Which of these is the best-performing way to store image thumbnails.”

This would mean there was a subtle difference between the questions; one I was supposed to identify that would change my answer. Nope! Luck of the draw. There’s no meaning to be drawn from the distribution.

The Test Has Some Key Themes

The test is described as “familiarity with AWS services and products” but there are basically four key groups of knowledge:

  • Which Compute option to use? Again I plan to write a whole article about this:
  • Which Database options? What kinds of database formats can be hosted on which AWS products;
  • Which support levels come with which services? This could be answered by this page so maybe just put it on some flash cards?
  • Who is responsible for encryption? Variations on who manages what when you host on AWS. See the Learn when Amazon will say “not my problem” section below.

Names Matter

Take the time to learn the exact name of a few of the top services, since you will be quizzed on whether it’s Elastic Block Store or Elastic Block Service (it’s a store).

That said, it doesn’t get *too* specific. I learned recently that some product names are supposed to have “AWS” before them and some not, this isn’t on the test.

Learn When Amazon Will Say ‘Not My Problem’

You’ll get multiple questions about “which of these things is Amazon’s responsibility to manage?” and they’re all pretty easy questions if you use a bit of common sense. For hosted virtual machines (VMs) in EC2, Amazon doesn’t take responsibility for the code running in that VM. That includes the operating system. AWS may have let you pick a particular Windows Server image to install on your VM when you started, but it’s not AWS’s responsibility to keep it updated. This is Amazon’s “Shared Responsibility Model” and it differs significantly from a contracted or self-owned data center.

On the other hand, Amazon will guarantee the physical security of the server that VM is running on. No Amazon service will have a surprise fee for security guards.

In general, it’s a good idea to remember the sort of person AWS is hoping takes this exam: someone working in a large-ish corporation who’s advocating for the use of AWS. The concern on AWS’s part is that their service will somehow be confused with a data center service when cloud services from AWS don’t require you to maintain the physical infrastructure and if you get too specific about what you need, Amazon won’t even really let you inspect that deeply.

A good metaphor here is that AWS services are like menu items at McDonald’s: they’re cheap and available at any scale. You don’t need to worry about where every ingredient comes from and if you ask; “could I tour the horse farm this burger came from?” people will look at you weird.

Learn the Utility Players

While the Compute, Database and Storage services from Amazon have different technical specs, there are several services that relate to business concerns and are useful to all accounts. Here are the ones that came up for me:

  • AWS Artifact: Documenting your standards (e.g. HIPAA) compliance;
  • CloudWatch: Look at logs for your services and set pricing alarms;
  • CloudTrail: “Which of our users provisioned 800 new DB instances last night?” and variations on this question. Basically logging about any AWS Config changes;
  • CloudFormation: Store your configuration for Lambdas and other services in a template file for consistent deployment of complex stacks.

Go Forth and Certify

I’m working on at least two more articles on things to remember for this exam, but the resources listed above should help you get started.

Feature image via Pixabay.

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