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I completed 12 AWS Certifications during my Cloud internship - here is how and why

I completed 12 AWS Certifications during my Cloud internship - here is how and why

My journey traversing Cloud technologies through AWS certifications

GT
Glendon Thaiw
Amazon Employee
Published Dec 21, 2023

Hi there! I’m Glendon, a Solutions Architect at Amazon Web Services (AWS) based in Singapore. Over the past 2 years, I have been working with Software and FinTech startups in Southeast Asia to build and scale some of the coolest workloads on AWS.
My foray into the Cloud began in 2020, when I started my first Cloud internship as a Solutions Architect Intern at AWS. During my year-long internship, I managed to complete all 12 AWS certifications at the time as a key driver to pick up Cloud quickly.
Why and how did I do that? Well...here’s my story!

6th April 2020: first day of my summer internship as a Solutions Architect, I got introduced to my Manager and was quickly presented my first project: “Build and deploy a 3-tier web application on AWS, packaged with relevant design documents and architecture diagrams”.
Hold up, what’s a 3-tier web application? What are “design documents”, and how can I get started learning about “architecture diagrams”?!
My Manager assured me that there’s nothing to worry about, as things will come together in the coming weeks.
15th April 2020: after a week of getting to know my team and learning about the culture of Amazon, it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get started on my project.
But... where do I begin? Okay - let me start by looking up 3-tier architectures on AWS’ documentation.
Great! I found a whitepaper on the same topic written by experts at AWS.
It says that “the three-tier architecture is the most popular implementation of a multi-tier architecture and consists of a single presentation tier, logic tier, and data tier”. The 3-tiers are broken down into client, server and database...and can be implemented using services ranging from Amazon EC2, API Gateway and AWS Lambda. What are those names?!
Let me look up Amazon EC2 - “EC2 provides secure, resizable compute in the cloud...”. Okay but what exactly is “compute” and what does it do?
Don’t get me started on Lambda and the strange word - “serverless”!?
I found myself stuck in an unproductive rabbit hole quickly. Without a solid foundation and mental model of the Cloud, diving into individual service documentation is like piling blocks of concrete on top of a shaky foundation - it all came crumbling down. Coming off a computer science degree, I am familiar with the basics of programming and algorithms. But I couldn’t see how this knowledge could be applied to the Cloud.
Learning the Cloud is like navigating a complex jungle
Learning the Cloud is like navigating a complex jungle
Importantly, in the vast and complex jungle of the Cloud, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
17th April 2020: later that week, my Manager shared a secondary task: complete the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner (CCP) before the end of my internship. This was where I first caught wind of the existence of AWS Certifications, which are awarded after successfully passing an exam that validates your knowledge of the AWS Cloud and your skills. As AWS Solutions Architects, we are expected to complete specific certifications within a defined period of time as a mechanism to Learn and be Curious and to sharpen our saw.
Without a clear path to progress on my project, I strapped in and started preparing for my first certification. I began going through learning videos, reading up on service documentation, whitepapers and attempting practice exams. (details on my approach below).
A little after 2 weeks, I went for the exam and passed my first Cloud certification!
More importantly, the process of preparing for the certification gave me a good bird’s-eye view of the AWS service portfolio, and the business value proposition of building technology products on the Cloud.
Note how I mentioned the process of preparing for the certification gave me a better understanding, and not the actual certification. To me, the value of structured certifications lie in the preparation process, rather than its outcome. I will share more in the section below.
While the foundational certification was valuable, it didn’t provide me with sufficient technical grasp to make meaningful progress on my project. With that, I set my eye on the next milestone - the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate. Adopting a similar approach, I paced myself through the scoped curriculum. As the architecting exam required hands-on technical expertise, I worked through hands-on labs, deployed sample code and built mini prototypes to better contextualise my newfound theoretical knowledge.
This process allowed me to start appreciating core concepts such as “compute”, “databases”, “servers”, “storage” and learn how they interact with each other. This gave me a map to turn my unknown-unknowns into known-unknowns, which I can subsequently use to make tangible progress in building my first 3-tier web app. With little surprise, this gave me just what I needed to tide through project completion.
Early successes learning the Cloud
Early successes learning the Cloud
This early success drove me to turn this into a side quest. I continued to identify knowledge gaps by positioning each new certification as an anchor for what more there is to learn. From Security to Machine Learning, Data Analytics to DevOps - each certification helped me build upon my frame of understanding; each giving me a brand new map to explore different realms of the technology arena.
And in turn, with each new project at work, the cumulative understanding brought forth by these certifications served as beacons for me to know just enough to do further research to make meaningful progress.
...Before I knew it, I had completed all 12 AWS certifications right at the end of my year-long internship.
Before certifications go on to sound like a silver bullet, read on to learn more about my approach and what I have learned about the value of Cloud certifications.

Through my journey traversing these certifications, I have built and religiously followed a step-by-step prep guide that maximises for understanding, on top of passing the certification.

If you’re just starting out in your Cloud journey, you’re likely unsure (and feeling overwhelmed) about the vast number of available certifications from each provider. For example, as of 17 Dec 2023 - there are 13 available AWS certifications!
To help you get started, I’d suggest reviewing certification roadmaps to get a good overview on most appropriate options for your current situation. Are you a budding Software Engineer? Or do you dabble in Machine Learning deployments? Are you tasked to look into DevSecOps by your team?
AWS Training and Certification offers a role-based certification roadmap which I find to be invaluable here.

After reviewing the numerous certification options you can go for, you have finally zeroed in on one - congratulations!
Here’s where the fun begins - I would start by carefully reading through the official exam guide of your selected certification to better understand the incoming pain you have gotten yourself into. Just kidding - but really, the official exam guide provides a comprehensive view on the scope of the certification such as the core technology areas tested, knowledge expectations and relevant AWS services you need to know in the palm of your hand. It also provides sample exam questions to help you understand the depth and format of questions to expect in the exam.
You can find the official exam guide for your chosen AWS certification here.

Now that you have selected your certification of choice and properly reviewed its exam guide, it’s time to get down to learning!
We all have different optimal learning styles; some of us are visual learners with a preference on charts and diagrams through video content, while others are verbal learners who prefer diving deep into documentation and whitepapers. Despite being a visual learner, I tend to integrate different learning mediums to maximise completeness and to break up the mundanity of a singular medium.
Learning Videos
Videos are my primary go-tos when picking up a new domain. While there are many providers with learning videos covering the same certification, their depth of coverage differs widely. I would start off by first going through a series of videos with moderate coverage. This gives me a quick “lay of the land” overview of relevant concepts and services, which helps me set up a light foundation to build deeper knowledge on top of.
Learning videos with "moderate coverage"
Learning videos with “in-depth coverage”
Note: the above categorisation is based on my personal experience and interpretation. However, you can get a rough idea on the depth of coverage by comparing the length of materials for the same certification. For example, for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate certification - A Cloud Guru provides 40.9 hours of content vs. Adrian Cantrill with over 67 hours of content in their course.
Selecting the right content provider for you is largely a personal choice as you might resonate more with a particular instructor and / or style of communication over others. My advice would be to experiment with multiple and figure what works best for you.
Service Documentation, Whitepapers, FAQs and Reference Architectures
While you can go very far with learning videos alone, I have found reading through documentation, whitepapers and FAQs on relevant services to be invaluable in helping me reinforce concepts and provide that extra titbit of knowledge.
  • Using the official exam guide for your selected certification (in Step 1), write down a list AWS services mentioned and adjacent features relevant to said concepts.
  • For each service / feature, build a collection of service documentation and FAQs. You can do this using fancy read-it-later software such as Instapaper, or simply bookmark them on your web browser.
  • After learning about a new AWS service, feature or concept in a learning video, refer back to this collection to review the relevant service documentation and FAQ.
  • When preparing for advanced certifications such as the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Professional or any of the Specialty certs, I’d also suggest you review AWS whitepapers on relevant concepts (such as the whitepaper I had on my 3-tier web app 😉).
  • To further drive home relevant use-cases and learn best-practices, you can review reference architectures published by AWS to learn how different components interact, and how they come together to deliver an outcome.
Tip: if you’re an auditory learner and would much prefer listening over reading, you can use text-to-speech services (E.g. Speechify) to plow through written content instead.

A big criticism against Cloud certifications lies in their theoretical nature, where learners may not possess the ability to apply concepts in the real world even after accreditation. This, unfortunately, is a function of academic evaluation mechanisms (which I won’t and am not qualified to delve into).
That said, I believe the onus is on us - Cloud practitioners - to do everything in our capacity to apply these theoretical knowledge picked up into real-world scenarios.
How can we do that? You guessed it...build cool stuff.
Participate in all hands-on labs
Depending on the learning provider you have selected in Step 2, it’s likely that they provide lab environments to help you to acquire hands-on expertise after each section. DO NOT SKIP THEM. You’d probably still be able to pass the exam by skipping them, but you’d be missing out on a crucial opportunity to crystallise what you have learned in an AWS environment.
Setting up and configuring resources to demonstrate a particular use-case also help you better visualise how different components interact with one another, and the operational challenges that come with that. Trust me when I say - learning how to properly set up a VPC theoretically does not illustrate the pain of actually setting up subnets and route tables via the console or CLI. You can also access additional self-paced labs built by AWS experts through AWS Builder Labs. With how important this point is, I’m going to repeat once more - DO NOT SKIP THE LABS!
Deploy sample codes
While hands-on labs are invaluable, they are often limited to a specific scope in a sandbox environment. You can further your learning by deploying sample code published by AWS to understand solutions deployed in real-world systems. For example, the AWS Solutions Library provides a huge collection of vetted solutions and guidance on specific business and technical use-cases. Each solution come with detailed design documents and deployable templates (often through CloudFormation) to help you provision them into your own environment. This is a fantastic resource to allow you to appreciate how organizations are leveraging AWS to build production-grade systems.
Build pet projects
Finally, there’s no better way to learn about the Cloud than to actually build projects on the Cloud. As you start to accumulate theoretical expertise through various sources, start applying them by building out relevant pet projects. Deploy your portfolio website entirely on serverless services, or provision a predictive model for your favourite football team using Amazon SageMaker. Start small and let your imagination run wild. Who knows? you might just stumble upon your next startup opportunity during this process 😉
Important note: some of the above may come with associated costs if you provision AWS resources in your own environment. Be very careful when provisioning resources and be diligent in taking them down when not in use. I’d suggest setting up a defined budget and billing alarm on your AWS environment to prevent any billing shocks.

Academic research has shown the effectiveness of active against traditional passive learning. At the risk of going on a huge tangent, active learning involves active participation in the source material, with a popular technique named active recall taught to students to improve information recollection. Active recall is where instead of passively repeating information, you stimulate your brain to actively retrieve the information you’ve learned.
And the best way to perform active recall in certification prep is with mock exams!
Most, if not all learning providers listed provide their own practice exams at the end of the course. Besides giving you a feel for the exam, they are incredible resources to solidify your learnings and function as proxies to exam readiness. In my exam prep, I would use mock exams as a mechanism for me to identify knowledge gaps - and use these gaps to further deepen my understanding in specific domains or concepts.
Additional Mock Exam Providers
AWS Official Practice Exams, being built by AWS, are great to help you simulate exam conditions to improve understanding and exam readiness. I also strongly recommend mock exam sets from Jon Bonso, as each question come with detailed explanation to give you a deeper understanding of relevant services and concepts. The explanation provides an overview of the topic, reference links to AWS documentation, and a rationale on why the option is correct or incorrect - how helpful is that!?

As with many things in life, preparing for a certification is an iterative process. Cycle through Step 2 to 4 as many times as you’d need to identify knowledge gaps, before filling them as you strive for mastery.

Finally, this step shouldn’t come as a surprise. With all the prep work you have done, it’s time to finally put that knowledge to the test! Commit yourself to a timeline by registering for the exam and let your newfound expertise takes its course.

Certifications can be a powerful tool for practitioners to pick up Cloud knowledge. However, they are not and should not be treated as a silver bullet. I wanted to close the article by addressing some common misconceptions and myths centered around Cloud certifications.
Myth 1: we can be an expert across all domains simply by certifying ourselves.
Absolutely not. While cloud certifications (especially pro-level ones) expect candidates to have non-trivial understanding of relevant concepts and services, it’s still largely a theoretical exercise. At Amazon, we have a saying “there is no compression algorithm for experience”. Knowledge picked up from the certification process should serve as a springboard for further exploration and application before their value can be capitalised in the real-world. Completing a certification should signal the start of a journey towards mastery in this ever-changing world of technology, rather than a be-all end-all.
Myth 2: Cloud certifications are the only way to validate technical competency.
Absolutely not. During my time working with customers at AWS, some of the greatest experts building complex systems on AWS have - you guessed it - 0 certifications. Some of them have acquired their skills through years delivering projects in organizations, while others have translated their expertise in traditional networking / databases / compute into the Cloud. Certifications signal a drive for continuous improvement, knowledge accumulation and an appreciation of technology - but is no way the best or only way to validate technical competency.
Myth 3: you can only reap the benefits of a certification upon passing it.
If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess my perspective on this - ABSOLUTELY NOT.
Mentioned above, I believe the value of structured certifications come from knowledge gathered during the preparation process, rather than the flashy accolade at the end. While certification badges can be a great motivation booster and a visual representation of our hard work, they should not be the only driving force behind the endeavour.
Certification exams can be pricy (upwards of 100-300 USD each) and might not be accessible to all depending on our financial situation and specific circumstances (E.g. employer sponsorship). However, we can still leverage the certification preparation mechanism as a structured pathway to gain Cloud proficiency, even if we don’t end up sitting the exam.
So... what’s the true value of certifications then?
With all that said, here’s how I truly feel about the value of Cloud certifications.
  • Cloud certifications provide a structured curriculum for learners to get started on a guided path across different crucial technology areas for Cloud proficiency.
AWS Certifications - your map in the proverbial jungle
AWS Certifications - your map in the proverbial jungle
When you’re just starting out, learning about the Cloud is like navigating a proverbial jungle overwhelmed with unknown obstacles. Cloud certifications give you a map of this complex jungle, where you get a 10,000 foot view of its geographical contours and landmarks as your compass, to aid you in your journey. Importantly, a map can be helpful but it can’t fully prepare you for the treacherous terrain - with which you can only do so by hitting the ground running through hands-on applications.
With that, I wish you all the best in your Cloud journey!
GT

Any opinions in this post are those of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of AWS.