As the AWS Certification Challenge for Minnesota kicks off, I want to share my own journey with certifications and some tips for studying. I've been doing various cloud-related work as a software engineer, tinkerer, and business owner for the last ten or so years. Cloud and AWS were not new to me when I started my certification journey, which means your certification journey, reasons for pursuing a certification, and preparation tactics may be different than mine. The six tips I share below are what has been working (or in some cases, not working) for me, and maybe they can help you too.
My own journey
When I started at AWS back in May, I decided to pursue the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner certification as a way to figure out how much foundational AWS knowledge I had. This exam really helped me better understand how I learn in the context of studying for an exam. I haven't studied for a test or taken a certification exam since the Sun Certified Programmer for the Java 2 Platform 1.4 in 2003 (yes, that long ago). I don't remember much about that process other than I've never been amazing at threads 😂. For this certification, I really had to figure out how I was going to retain this information. I started filling a notebook with handwritten notes based on the video course I was watching, essentially rewriting their slide deck with extra notes of my own. It was helpful enough for that exam but left me wanting more.
After finishing (and passing) the Cloud Practitioner exam, I decided to pursue the AWS Certified Developer Associate certification to get a deeper, more hands-on view of AWS services. I chose the Developer Associate certification (rather than the Solutions Architect Associate certification) because I thought it would give me a better perspective of the developers I get to work with every day. I've also heard (and cannot confirm) that studying for the Developer Associate will prepare you for the Solutions Architect Associate exam but is more hands-on.
I have known for a long time that I learn by doing, by getting my hands (literally and figuratively) dirty, trying things out, having something to demo or play with at the end. I found that slide decks, lecture-style videos, and blog posts alone were not going to cut it. My "filling a notebook" approach to studying was still helpful, but my writing hand was starting to get tired!
What if I had videos in the form of workshops that I could follow along with and actually do the thing, not short 3-8 minute labs that walk through the happy path with default options/settings? I started looking for these types of videos and used them to complement my learning. As soon as I come across an area or concept that I want to know deeper or that I'm not catching on to, I'll seek out these types of videos and start building.
My Six Tips for Successful Prep
As I started my certification journey this past May, I found things that were helping me or hindering me with my preparation. Everyone's study journey is different, but these six tips might help you.
1. Figure out how you learn
Start by figuring out how you learn. Knowing how you learn can help you choose the tactics and training content that work for you and for the topic. You could take any number of the learning style quizzes out there on the internet to see which way you lean, but knowing about different tactics might be just as helpful. Keep in mind tactics for one style might help you with one topic and tactics for a different style might help you with another topic.
Some tactics that might help you:
- Create your own flashcards
- Create sketchnotes
- Use or create maps or diagrams
- Ask questions and explain to others
- Write down key ideas or lists in your own words
- Read blog posts or books
- Listen to podcasts
- Watch videos
- Create or tweak demo code
- Join or lead a study group
- Listen to a video or podcast while on a walk
- Knit while listening or watching a video
If you try out one of these tactics and it doesn't work, try a different one. For me, I had to try a few different ones before landing on a combination of handwriting my notes, watching lecture style videos (on 2x speed), and doing more lab-style, hands-on type activities. Again, everyone's study journey will be different so don't be afraid to try something out that you might not have considered before now.
2. Find your community
I highly recommend not studying for a certification alone. Find your community, the one you feel comfortable learning with, contributing back to, where you find the right resources for your journey, and where you feel safe.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
-- African Proverb
Join others who are also preparing for an AWS certification. Study together, set goals together, and get help from each other. Here are a few places to find people:
- #AWSCertified on social media
- #AWSCertificationChallenge on Twitter, LinkedIn or sign up here if you're in Minnesota
- #100DaysOfCloud on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or the Discord community
- Your local AWS Meetup
You could partner up with a coworker or ask a family member to help with flashcards. And if this isn't your style, that's ok, too!
3. Take the practice exams (yes, plural)
Take multiple practice exams and work through the sample questions before taking the real exam. Both of these will help you see how questions will be asked. There are two types of questions. Multiple-choice has one correct response with three incorrect responses. Multiple-response has two or more correct responses.
When you take the real exam, it may feel like there are multiple responses to multiple-choice questions and no responses to multiple-response questions. This is meant to distract test-takers with incomplete knowledge. If you find yourself getting caught by these, I recommend going back to review the question and why each response is correct or incorrect.
For me, the best part about the practice exams and sample questions is that when you do answer a question incorrectly (and often when it's correct), they explain why it's incorrect and what the correct answer is. Quick feedback like this can reinforce what you're learning.
The practice exams can help you with time management since each exam has a set amount of time to finish it. After you've taken a few different practice exams and scored consistently above the passing level, you might be ready to take the real exam. Some people wait until they are consistently in the 90% range and some wait until they are consistently above the passing level (which is different for each certification). It's up to you and when you feel ready, but these practice exams are a good way to assess your readiness.
4. Carve out time (almost) daily
Reserve time in your calendar regularly to study and to practice. Take breaks. Breaks are good for letting your brain relax and to better understand what you've learned in the context of the bigger picture. Don't let too much time pass between study sessions or you might forget or be less motivated to continue studying. Consider scheduling your exam and use that as motivation.
5. Review once a week
Review what you've already learned once a week. By regularly looking over your notes each week, and even rewatching some of the videos, this can help to reinforce what you've already learned and can help you see how your knowledge fits into the larger context of all that you're learning. Even repeating some of the labs or workshops will allow you to poke around more and take your knowledge beyond the default options or settings for that service.
6. Share what you learn
One of the best ways to reinforce what you've learned is to share it with other people. That could be in the form of a tweet, a blog post, or giving a conference talk. It could be challenging yourself to #100DaysOfCloud and sharing a small bit of what you learn daily. It could be contributing back to the communities I mentioned above, helping to lead a study group, or answering questions from someone who's working through what you just learned last week. Even if you can't answer all their questions, breaking down the concept into understandable chunks, both for the person you're teaching and for yourself, can help you both.
What are your tips?
These six tips have guided my (almost) daily study. Feel free to drop your own tips in the comments about what has helped (or not helped) in your journey. In part 2, I'll take a look at the various resources that have been helpful to my own certification study.