The AWS Solutions Architect Professional Exam
I’m pleased to say that in the last couple of months I have passed both the AWS Solutions Architect Professional and the AWS DevOps Engineer Professional exams meaning that (at this point in time) I hold all five of the AWS exams.
To help others achieve what I have I’ve decided to put together a couple of blog posts which will cover the methods I’ve used to pass each of these exams. This post will cover the AWS Solutions Architect Professional Exam and part 2 will cover the AWS DevOps Engineer Professional exam.
I think it’s important to understand a little bit about my background in AWS before reading on as I think prior experience with this and IT in general helps with these exams a lot. My prior experience really dictated the methods and materials I used to pass these exams.
I have been working with AWS since around 2011. In those days it was more of a hobby which I envisaged would grow. In 2012 I performed my first customer roll-out based on EC2 with a fair amount of autoscaling and s3 synchronisation. Since then I’ve performed many more customer rollouts utilising most of the “core” AWS components (Ec2/VPC/S3/IAM/RDS/SNS/SES/Cloudfront/Cloudwatch/Cloudformation) and in most cases these systems have been fully automated using Cloudformation.
In addition to the above I try to read all of the whitepapers and blogs that AWS releases and I endeavour to attend any of the learning events that Amazon puts on. I’ve regularly attended the London loft, been to the last three London Summits, attended the last Re:Invent (and watched videos from most of the others) and I also co-run the AWS Cambridge User Group in the UK. So I guess I’d class myself as an AWS geek.
I believe having this level of knowledge can really help with your preparation for the professional exams as you will struggle with book knowledge alone (unlike the associate exams). I’d say you’d have needed to have worked with AWS for at least a year or so on most of the core services and have a working knowledge of the others to stand a chance with this exam. It really isn’t for beginners unless you’ve got a great memory for detail.
At the time of writing the exam is 77-80 questions to be answered over 170 minutes. Your best bet is to allow only 2mins per question with the remaining 10mins for checking over your answers and/or a small contingency. The questions are 90% scenario based with often several paragraphs of writing to read. More often than not several of the answers could be correct with one being “more” correct than the others.
Based on the above I found this exam to largely be about exam strategy as trying to read a scenario based question, comprehend it and read the (quite often) long answers can take half your time. Meaning that you only have a very short time to answer the actual question. So time is going to be your main enemy. Therefore I’d recommend the following which I found worked for me;
- Skip to the actual sentence that asks the question first. What I mean by this is that often the long scenario has lots of pointless background when the actual pertinent question is the last one. If you read the actual question sentence first you may be able to answer the question without reading the whole scenario (or skim reading it).
- Following on from the above ensure you understand what the question is asking (i.e. is it a cost/performance/speed/etc question). This is important because quite often it’s easier to answer a question based on your own experiences (or even a best practice) and not what the question is actually asking. IE when asked about cost & storage immediately think S3/Glacier etc
- If you don’t understand or are taking too long for a question, mark it as one to come back to and move on. Don’t hang about. Remember you have 80 questions so it’s going to be a numbers game. If you get hung up on one question you’ll lose time and potentially panic on later questions.
- I only mark questions if I really have no clue of the answer. In the cases where I thought I’d picked correct but wasn’t 100% I don’t mark. Reason being is that I always assume that If I didn’t know it then I won’t at the end of the exam and the likelihood is I’ll change it to the incorrect answer simply because I have the time to. This is a personal thing but I think your first instinct is usually the best
- If you struggle with comprehension or English isn’t your native language then practice using the practice exams or the sample questions as much as possible until you can read/understand/answer quickly (NB: I found the real exam to be much better worded than the practice one).
- Spot check your time periodically. I did this every 10 questions to ensure I was running to time. Don’t do it after every question because quite often, if you do lose time, you can pull it back at a later point. So simply go into the exam knowing that after 10 questions you should still have 2hours 30mins left, after 20 questions 2hours 10mins etc
- Practice on staying focused. Keeping attentive for 3 hours solid can be hard. I used ear plugs (my exams were taken in London and there was a lot of outside noise going on), had a strong coffee beforehand and ensured I went to the bathroom immediately before the exam (I really struggle to hold for three hours so this was an essential for me!). Bear in mind if you do a practice exam the real is double what you’ve just been through. I remember being really bored after about 50 questions so really had to focus for the last 30! I also always book my exams for mid-morning, when I feel most alert and not in the afternoon, if I can help it, as I concentrate less towards the end of the day.
I won’t actually dwell on the content too much because I believe that the content will change over time and this blog will quickly go out of date. However both Adrian Cantrill’s and Nick Triantafillou’s blog posts at the time of writing were pretty accurate for me. In addition the Solutions Architect Professional course at acloud.guru was great at summarising the course content (see below) and is kept up to date by the team so is always relatively current.
However in summary I’d say that in addition to the raw book knowledge you need to understand how the services fit together into different architectural models. So read as many AWS case studies as you can, study the blogs and play around yourself by opening a free AWS account.
In terms of my study methods and the materials I used to help me pass this exam I always like to test my pre-study knowledge so I tried the sample questions and the practice exam. I always do this because I use it as a means of identifying where I’m weak and where I need to study. Given that I use AWS a lot I was hopeful I wasn’t weak in too many areas!
I failed the practice exam with 40% and wasn’t confident with the practice questions either. Given this I took the following actions:
- Downloaded the exam blueprint, took note of everything I should know and read all of the white papers. I found the “Storage Options in the Cloud” the best of the white papers, particularly in terms of content that featured in my exam. Having a full understanding of the content in this paper really helped
- Purchased the acloud.guru AWS Solutions Architect Professional course. This course alone will not get you through the exam, however Ryan, the author, does a superb job at condensing all of the material you need to know down into the salient points for you to then revise. If you watch this course a couple of times and go and read all of the points he raises this will put you in a great position. What’s more the course is regularly updated based on exam feedback from students and questions added so it really is a good source of information
- Read the FAQ’s and user guides on the AWS website for all those areas I thought I was weak in. In terms of the user guides I focussed on those subjects where I was weak and focussed on the items highlighted in the acloud.guru course
- Used the AWS console and CLI to perform a few of the walkthroughs from the user guides to cement my understanding
In addition to the above you could use the AWS Youtube Channel 300/400 series videos (go to the link>select the last re:invent video playlist>choose a topic>choose a video with a 300 or 400 number). I watch these videos a lot as part of my everyday job so didn’t use them in the course of my revision for this exam but if you haven’t used them they are sometimes better than reading!
After completing my revision I re-took the practice exam and……failed again with 60%. This was a big improvement and from what I’d read on forums and discussed with other people who’d took the exam l’d likely get at least 10% higher than the practice exam (mainly I think due to its poor wording and spelling errors). With this in mind I booked the real exam for the next week, went through a couple of the acloud.guru course chapters and passed with 75% with 15 minutes to spare.
I was really happy to have passed this exam given that I’d failed the practice exams. Looking back I certainly found this the hardest of the five purely due to the large amount of content in it and it really is a large step up from the associate exams. For those attempting this exam here are my final tips:
- Practice your timing and exam strategy. Use the practice exam and ensure you can get through it without time constraints.
- Ensure you have a working knowledge of all of the services provided in the blueprint. Its not enough just to know how the services work and what they do but understand how they fit together. This exam is about application of knowledge rather than raw facts.
- Take the acloud.guru course. It really does help condense what you need to know down into the salient points. Then go and revise them
- Allow enough time for revision. If cloud isn’t your main job give yourself time to get a working knowledge of the components and then more to revise and understand them. My prep time was 2 weeks but I work with AWS a lot.
- Read, read, practice, practice, practice
Good luck! I’d love to hear how you get on.
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