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AWS Certification Guide: Overview and Career Paths

AWS Certification Guide: Overview and Career Paths
Credit: Shutterstock/casimiraPT

Amazon Web Services, or AWS, is a subsidiary of Amazon. AWS offers several services for cloud-based compute, storage and networking, with 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 make their businesses hum. 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- along with three associate- and two professional-level certifications falling into 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 the Professional certification.
  • 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). 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 prereq to the AWS specialty certifications or as preparation to 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 and multiple-answer questions. The Foundation-level exam costs $100 and takes up to 90 minutes to complete while associate-level exams take up to 80 minutes to complete and cost $150; professional-level and specialty exams are 170 minutes and cost $300. And each professional-level certification takes its related associate certification as a prerequisite.

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. Recertification exams at both the associate and professional levels take up to 80 minutes to complete and cost $75.

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

AWS released a new AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate exam in February 2018. Candidates who have already begun preparing for the Associate exam have until Aug. 12, 2018 to test on the previous version. The new 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: Design Resilient Architectures, Define Performant Architectures, Specify Secure Application and Architectures, Design Cost-Optimized Architectures, and Define Operationally Excellent Architectures. AWS expects an Architect Associate to have at least one year of hands-on experience (including AWS services such as compute, networking, storage, database and deployment and management services), and be highly familiar with best practices on the AWS platform.

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional covers many of the same topics at a more advanced level. For example, an Architect Professional needs to understand how to migrate more complex, multi-tiered applications to AWS, and deal with deployment of large, enterprise operations. AWS recommends at least two years’ experience at this level, with the ability to act as a lead or advisor on architectural design aspects.

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

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. At a minimum, AWS recommends that candidates have one year of experience developing applications for Amazon Simple Storage Service, Amazon DynamoDB 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, as well as maintenance of operations tools. To pursue the DevOps Engineer certification, candidates must have the AWS Certified Developer – Associate or AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Associate certification. In addition, AWS recommends at least two years’ relevant experience with associated technologies and programming languages, automation, scripting and Agile processes.

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 in and around 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.

Like other AWS associate-level certifications, candidates should have at least one year of experience. 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 the 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 info here.

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 principals, security and platforms. The credential serves as an optional starting point for the 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, AWS security services and be able to manage security controls for workloads on AWS. In addition, candidates should possess 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, a company that uses the AWS platform or as a consultant to those companies. And 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 SimplyHired), as well as the 2017 IT Skills and Salary Survey by Global Knowledge, report six-figure salaries for all AWS technical positions. 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 list of 15 Top-Paying IT Certifications for 2018. The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate took the number two slot of top-paying certifications at more than $121,000 per year while the AWS Certified Developer – Associate credential came in number four at almost $115,000 annually.

Each certification's web page 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 white paper studies. In addition to the certification web page, you can also find a list of resources on the certification prep page. Pricing for practice exams are $20 at the associate-level exams and $40 for professional-level exams. AWS also offers Exam Preparation Self-Paced Labs for each cert, which give candidates a chance to get the necessary hands-on experience needed to pick up skills and pass exams.

Check out the recommended training for each certification, which is delivered across the globe as instructor-led on-ground workshops (one day), 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 (if not "the") easiest certification sites to navigate. 

Additional reporting by Kim Lindros and Mary Kyle.


Ed Tittel

Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written for numerous publications, including Tom's IT Pro, and is the author of more than 140 computing books on information security, web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.