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AWS Certification Guide: Overview and Career Paths

Ed Tittel, Kim Lindros and Mary Kyle

Amazon Web Services, or AWS, is a subsidiary of Amazon. AWS offers several services for cloud-based computing, storage and networking, the two most prominent being Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3). The company also provides database and analytics services, applications, developer tools, and much more.

Just as Amazon is the go-to company for consumer goods, AWS is by far the dominant player in the on-demand cloud computing market space. Comcast, Dow Jones, Expedia, Kellogg's and Netflix are just a few companies that rely on AWS to keep their businesses humming. With the public cloud market expected to reach $236 billion by 2020, AWS is positioned to retain a significant lead over its closest competitors – namely, Google, Microsoft and IBM.

Considering that AWS practically owns the cloud space, the company's portfolio of certifications is surprisingly simple. AWS currently offers one foundation, three associate, two professional and three specialty certifications. Altogether, there are five categories:

  • Architecting: These certifications recognize professionals who design and deploy distributed systems on the AWS platform. Candidates can start with the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate and move up to Professional.
  • Developing: These certifications identify people who develop and maintain applications on AWS. The entry-level certification is the AWS Certified Developer – Associate, followed by the AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional.
  • Operations: To support architecture and development, the AWS platform must be managed and optimized. The associate-level operations certification aims at system operators (SysOps) administrators. Because SysOps and DevOps are so tightly bound, this category includes the AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional as the upper-level certification.
  • Cloud: An AWS foundation-level credential, the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner Cloud focuses on AWS Cloud technologies, concepts and security. The Certified Cloud Practitioner serves as a prerequisite to the AWS specialty certifications or as preparation for associate-level credentials.
  • Specialties: AWS specialty credentials focus on skills related to specific technologies, including networking, big data and security.

Each certification requires candidates to pass a single exam with multiple-choice questions. The foundation-level exam costs $100 and takes up to 90 minutes to complete, while associate-level exams take up to 130 minutes to complete and cost $150 ($20 for practice exams). Professional-level and specialty exams are 170 minutes and cost $300. To ensure that professionals keep their skills sharp and up to date, AWS requires credential holders to recertify every two years. That means taking the recertification exam for the certification you currently hold. Credential holders are eligible for a 50 percent discount voucher for recertification exams.

AWS Architecting certifications

The Architecting category has two certifications: AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate and AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional. Both certifications focus on the necessary skills to design distributed applications and systems on the AWS platform.

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate exam validates a candidate's ability to design and deploy solutions that meet customer solutions, recommend best practices, and manage solutions throughout the lifecycle. The exam focuses on five domains: designing resilient architectures, defining performant architectures, specifying secure application and architectures, designing cost-optimized architectures, and defining operationally excellent architectures. AWS expects an architect associate to have at least one year of hands-on experience (including AWS services such as computing, networking, storage, database, and deployment and management services) and high familiarity with best practices on the AWS platform.

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional exam covers many of the same topics as the associate collection at a more advanced level. For example, an architect professional needs to understand how to migrate more complex, multitiered applications to AWS and deal with deployment of large enterprise operations. AWS recently updated its exam, and candidates will see an increased emphasis on distributed application and system design on AWS. The exam covers five domains: design for organization complexity, design for new solutions, migration planning, cost control and continuous improvement for existing solutions. AWS recommends at least two years' experience designing and deploying cloud architecture on AWS, along with the ability to act as a lead or advisor on architectural design aspects. The associate-level credential is recommended but not required.

AWS Developing certifications

The AWS Developing category includes the AWS Certified Developer – Associate and AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional certifications, which aim at professionals who develop and maintain applications that run on the AWS platform.

An AWS Certified Developer – Associate must be able to select appropriate AWS services for the application at hand, use AWS software development kits (SDKs) and write code, and incorporate code-level security such as identity and access management, encryption, and so on. Candidates should also be proficient with AWS services, AWS architecture, and working with cloud-based applications using AWS. There are five exam domains: deployment, security, development with AWS services, refactoring, and monitoring and troubleshooting. At a minimum, AWS recommends that candidates have one year of experience developing applications for Amazon Simple Storage Service and other AWS services. They must also know a programming language and understand core AWS services and best practices.

The AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional dives into provisioning and management of distributed application systems that run on AWS. This may involve continuous delivery methods, automation of security controls and compliance validation, monitoring and logging, and maintenance of operations tools. AWS recently updated the exam: The current domains are SDLC automation, configuration management and infrastructure as code, monitoring and logging, policies and standards automation, incident and event response, and high availability, fault tolerance, and disaster recovery. To pursue the DevOps Engineer certification, AWS recommends that candidates have the AWS Certified Developer – Associate credential and take the DevOps Engineering on AWS course. In addition, AWS recommends at least two years of relevant experience with associated technologies and programming languages, automation, scripting and agile processes.

AWS Operations certifications

The AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Associate is all about deploying and managing operations on the AWS platform throughout a project's lifecycle. Candidates must understand the processes related to supporting scalability, high availability and fault tolerance for those systems, including data flow and migration of on-premises applications to AWS. This certification also covers best practices and operational costs.

As with other AWS associate-level certifications, candidates should have at least one year of experience working with AWS and one or two years as a system administrator in a systems operations role. They should also understand needs requirements, solution identification and selection, and best practices as they relate to AWS deployment and operations management.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the Operations category also includes the AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional. We described that certification in the last section, so we won't repeat that here.

AWS foundational and specialty certifications

AWS currently offers a single foundation-level credential, the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner. The Cloud Practitioner certification validates a candidate's knowledge of deploying and implementing in the AWS cloud, along with AWS cloud infrastructures, architectural principles, security and platforms. The credential offers an optional starting point for associate-level credentials and the specialty certifications.

AWS currently offers three specialty certifications:

  • AWS Certified Big Data – Specialty: The AWS Certified Big Data – Specialty credential targets professionals who implement AWS Big Data services, automate data analysis, recommend best practices, design big data solutions and perform maintenance. Candidates should possess at least five years' experience in data analytics, plus the ability to define, architect and explain AWS big data services.
  • AWS Certified Advanced Networking – Specialty: The Advanced Networking credential targets professionals who design, implement, and maintain hybrid and AWS networks and services. At least five years of networking experience (implementing and architecting) is recommended.
  • AWS Certified Security – Specialty: Candidates for the Security credential should possess an understanding of AWS data protection mechanisms, internet security protocols, and AWS security services and be able to manage security controls for workloads on AWS. They should also have at least five years' experience working with security solution design and implementation, plus two years of direct experience securing AWS workloads.

All specialty credentials take the Certified Cloud Practitioner or any one of the associate-level credentials as a prerequisite.

Because AWS certifications are vendor-specific, credential holders should expect to find employment with AWS, at a company that uses the AWS platform or as a consultant to those companies. Job roles align closely with the certifications, which means employers offer positions such as architect, developer system operator and engineer, as well as IT specialist and evangelist. With the AWS light expected to shine brightly for years to come, a career that focuses on AWS tools and technologies looks both highly stable and extremely promising.

Plus, the job sites we reviewed (Glassdoor, Indeed and Simply Hired), as well as the 2018 IT Skills and Salary Report by Global Knowledge, report six-figure salaries for all AWS technical positions. This means individuals who earn AWS certifications make some of the highest IT salaries in North America. For example, Global Knowledge's survey states that the average salary of an AWS-certified IT professional is about $114,000, which places it "in the top five highest-paying certifications in the United States and Canada."

Two AWS certifications also made Global Knowledge's "15 Top-Paying IT Certifications for 2019." The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate took the No. 4 slot in the top-paying certifications at almost $133,000, while the AWS Certified Developer – Associate credential came in at No. 5 with earnings of just over $130,000 annually.

Each certification's webpage provides links to relevant training, an exam guide, sample questions and a practice exam. Recommended training typically includes a combination of formal training (classroom or digital), plus exam guides, practice tests and whitepaper studies. You can also find a list of resources on the certification prep page. Practice exams cost $20 at the associate level and $40 at the professional level. AWS also offers Exam Preparation Self-Paced Labs for each cert, which give candidates a chance to get the necessary hands-on experience to pick up skills and pass exams.

Check out the recommended training for each certification, which is delivered across the globe at instructor-led on-ground workshops (one day), in three-day classes or online.

AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate
Architecting on AWS

AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional
Advanced Architecting on AWS  

AWS Certified Developer – Associate
Developing on AWS

AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional
DevOps Engineering on AWS

AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Associate
System Operations on AWS

AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Professional
DevOps Engineering on AWS

Amazon has been tackling customer service issues and refining the online user experience for years, which has apparently trickled down to AWS. Candidates for AWS certifications can find certification and exam details on the site without any fuss. Having written a lot of certification-related articles, our hats are off to Amazon for having one of the easiest certification sites to navigate.

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