How I passed 2 AWS Solution Architect exams in a month

First, a confession: I’ve been an ardent follower of all things Cloud for a long time now. I am especially impressed by the range of AWS services although according to some, GCP is a better designed cloud platform. Even if you think the number of AWS services is a hot mess of confusing interfaces and conflicting nomenclature, you gotta admit that the sheer scale and experience of AWS is incredible.

AWS Solution Architect — Associate

I got interested in certification when one of my colleagues who passed the exam shared his Udemy course experience with me. I started watching the Udemy courses on a Friday and kept increasing the speed to 2X until I finished all the 200 videos by the time the weekend was over. Once I finished with the videos, I thought to myself, that wasn’t so bad and jumped onto the AWS certification website and registered myself for the “AWS Solution Architect Associate” exam in the next 2 days. Once I registered, I went back to 2 other courses my colleague shared with me that contained practice exams. I started taking the practice exams (total of 9 across both courses) repeatedly until I was scoring close to 100%. Every time I got a question wrong, I made notes on the “why” that helped me gather additional info on a particular topic and in my notes, I gathered the relevant AWS website link or whitepaper link and read it. This helped much more than the course videos themselves which act as an intro to the topic but the exam tests your comparative knowledge on a topic across similar AWS services. For example, here’s a question:

A company needs to store data for 5 years. The company will need to have immediate and highly available access to the data at any point in time, but will not require frequent access.

What lifecycle action should be taken to meet the requirements while reducing costs?

a. Transition objects from Amazon S3 Standard to Amazon S3 Standard-Infrequent Access (S3 Standard-IA)

b. Transition objects to expire after 5 years.

c. Transition objects from Amazon S3 Standard to Amazon S3 One Zone-Infrequent Access (S3 One Zone-IA)

d. Transition objects from Amazon S3 Standard to the GLACIER storage class.

To answer this question, you not only need to know about the various storage classes in S3 but subtle differences between them when compared to each other. (The correct answer in this case “A” if you are wondering.)

So, once I was able to master the practice tests and went over my ad-hoc notes, I was able to successfully pass the exam.

Courses:

Udemy Stephene Maarek’s Ultimate AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate

Udemy Stephane Maarek’s AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate Practice Exams

Udemy Jon Bonso’s AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate Practice Exams

You can get them a steep discount on Udemy if you shop around (up to 80% off)

Another valuable resource for practice questions: https://pegacert.com/vendor/aws/saa-c01

Lastly, if you haven’t worked with AWS before, don’t forget to follow along and get your hands dirty with the lab exercises during the course.

AWS Solution Architect — Professional

My early success with the associate exam prompted me to register for the Professional exam right away while I am in the “zone” as it were :) and I scheduled my exam to a date in the next 2 weeks. Once I started with the Professional course on Udemy, I got my first jolt. The instructor opens the course with a warning that this is not a cake walk and it’s one of the toughest exams out there. I was fazed a bit but then I picked myself up and breezed through the video series in 3 days (and nights). This time, I did more hands-on work to follow along while the videos were playing. Once I finished the courses, I took some of the practice exams which held my next jolt in reserve. I didn’t even score passing grades in any of the practice exams, keep in mind that I already registered for the exam. My confidence was shaken… I was starting to realize that I became the victim of Dunning-Kruger effect. As I went through the questions I got wrong, it challenged the very notion of what I learnt so far. In other words, I fell into the ‘valley of despair’.

But I haven’t given up on the exam because I already scheduled it, so I pressed on and kept taking the practice exams. I had access to only 10 practice exams from Udemy so I kept repeating them. But the stress was catching up to me as a physical manifestation. I had all the classic symptoms of stress: aches, ulcers, mood swings, restless foot, crazy appetites, and one day I had drinks with friends to relax and couldn’t even hold the liquor down.

Finally, the day of exam arrived and I started the day with palpable dread in my stomach that rising up my bile. I couldn’t force myself to eat any breakfast but managed to drink some coffee. As I went through first few of the exam questions, the remnants of my resolve shattered. I couldn’t remember anything so while I was scrambling to finish the exam, my mind was just shutting down to say let’s just get this over with. I didn’t have time to review all the answers but finished the exam and I … FAILED … I was devastated. My wife and daughter consoled me and for the next 2 days I was down and wanted to give up on the exam altogether. Then, something changed: I listened to a Podcast episode from 2019 called “WOOP… There It is! 4 Steps to Achieve Your Goals”. https://www.npr.org/2016/05/10/477379965/woop-there-it-is-four-steps-to-achieve-your-goals

You can practice your WOOP here: https://woopmylife.org/en/practice

I went for a long walk and did some self-examination. My obstacle was speed, I needed to slow down and consider my answers are wrong before confirming. I knew what I had to do. I went back to the Internet and searched up on people who failed/passed the Professional exam, listened to YouTube videos of people who passed the exam. I understood that the approach that worked for Associate won’t work for Professional and I set about to correct it. I started by signing up for A Cloud Guru course by Scott Pletcher that was highly recommended by everyone. Scott’s course is shorter than other courses but it had a practical appeal to it that’s geared towards real architecture and of course the exam itself. Along with the videos, Scott provides a plethora of whitepapers and video links on relevant topics. I gathered all the material and started with the practice tests given at the end of the course. This time, I started taking notes on each topic on the differences, limitations and other minutiae. Unlike the Associate, the Professional exam is very verbose sometime the questions and answers fill the entire screen. I realized I needed a new approach to take the exam:

  1. If the question is too verbose, skip it so you can address it later
  2. Try to see if this question is similar to something you encountered in a practice test
  3. Read the question, highlight the keywords that hint at the requirements
  4. Select your answer
  5. Before submitting, play the devil’s advocate on why your answer might be wrong using the highlight keywords in the question
  6. Revise your selection
  7. If you are still not 100% sure, mark it for review
  8. Submit

The difference between the Associate and Professional exam is that in the Associate exam, the test is checking your ‘what is…’ knowledge, but the professional exam goes beyond that, sometimes the answers are counter-intuitive. This image below succinctly captures the different intentions of Associate Vs Professional exams:

Here’s a sample question:

A company currently uses Amazon EBS and Amazon RDS for storage purposes. The company intends to use a pilot light approach for disaster recovery in a different AWS Region. The company has an RTO of 6 hours and an RPO of 24 hours.

Which solution would achieve the requirements with MINIMAL cost?

a. Use AWS Lambda to create daily EBS and RDS snapshots, and copy them to the disaster recovery region. Use Amazon Route 53 with active-passive failover configuration. Use Amazon EC2 in an Auto Scaling group with the capacity set to 0 in the disaster recovery region.

b. Use AWS Lambda to create daily EBS and RDS snapshots, and copy them to the disaster recovery region. Use Amazon Route 53 with active-active failover configuration. Use Amazon EC2 in an Auto Scaling group configured in the same way as in the primary region.

c.Use Amazon ECS to handle long-running tasks to create daily EBS and RDS snapshots, and copy to the disaster recovery region. Use Amazon Route 53 with active-passive failover configuration. Use Amazon EC2 in an Auto Scaling group with the capacity set to 0 in the disaster recovery region.

d. Use EBS and RDS cross-region snapshot copy capability to create snapshots in the disaster recovery region. Use Amazon Route 53 with active-active failover configuration. Use Amazon EC2 in an Auto Scaling group with the capacity set to 0 in the disaster recovery region.

The correct answer is ‘D’

I gathered all the practice exams that I took so far (around 12 of them across Udemy and aCloudGuru and Internet) that totals to around 1200 questions (with some repetitions obviously). I encountered a great website called pegacert that offers around 560 practice questions and the best part is, unlike a practice exam which doesn’t give you feedback on your answer right away, Pegacert tells you Yes/No instantly. I liked that approach so much I set about writing a small program to load my practice questions into a database to be my instant advisor. My daughter walked in to my office and asked me what I was doing I explained to her what I was working on, she said “you don’t have to do that, I can help you.” She played my proctor on chat where she would paste a question into the chat and I would answer and she would give me yes/no, if I got a question wrong, she would pin the question and give me explanation.

AWS doesn’t let you reschedule an exam after you fail for 14 days. So, when the rescheduling date rolled in, I booked myself for another exam set in about 10 days. This time, I opted for the extra 30 minutes allowance (this is for people with ESL) Now, I redoubled all my efforts, I went through the videos, read the whitepapers, watched some AWS re:Invent videos. More than all this, practice exam questions with explanations were my salvation, however, I hit another snag. Across the practice exams, some questions were repeated but the answers/explanations were not matching. Now, I had to look at each of the verbose questions and tried to find the right answer: I found examtopics.com that lets you discuss real questions from AWS exams and discuss answers. This opened up another Pandora’s box because not one person there agrees with another on any answer and they all have valid whitepapers/arguments as to why. This sowed seeds of doubt in my mind and I started questioning my readiness again. In the end, I wanted to trust Pegacert’s answers and hang on to my sanity. With the help of my daughter and Pegacert, I rinsed and repeated the question/answer sessions for the next 2 weeks.

On the day of the exam, I woke up, forced myself to eat breakfast, do some meditation and did some practice exams. Before the exam, spent my time watching some comedy sit-coms (Brooklyn Nine Nine is a family favorite) to relax. I didn’t tell anyone that I am taking the exam for real, I told my wife that I am doing a simulated exam (;)) because I told myself whats the worst? (Recall WOOP) I will be exactly where I am right now albeit $300 poorer. So, the exam rolled on, and as I addressed the first few questions, I was much more relaxed and was able to keep the physical dread that’s rising in me in check. I took my time, marked the questions I wasn’t sure of and had time to revise all the questions before the clock ran out and as I clicked on ‘End Exam’ I told myself, nothing matters, and I …. PASSED!!! … The funny thing is, though there are similarities to practice questions, I couldn’t exactly match 90% of the actual questions to practice questions, nonetheless, without those practice exams, I wouldn’t be here.

Courses:

Udemy Stephene Maarek’s Ultimate AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional

Udemy Whizlabs AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional

Udemy Jon Bonso AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional Practice Tests

Udemy AWS Certified Solutions Architect-Professional Real Tests

ACloudGuru Scott Pletcher’s AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Professional 2020

PegaCert https://pegacert.com/vendor/aws/sop-c01

Examtopics.com [The search function on this site is useless, you can actually reach the exact question/discussion page by searching with question text on Google and clicking on results from Examtopics)

So, it took me 1 month from no AWS certification to 2 AWS certifications. Not sure what you can learn from this, but I would be more than willing to discuss any exam topic with anyone if they need pointers on why an answer is right/wrong. Instead of asking me to share my notes or questions, I encourage you to copy/paste from the practice exams you self that will let you focus on areas you need to focus on rather than my topics.

PS: After 2 weeks of writing this, I passed another AWS certification: “AWS Certified Machine Learning Specialty” using the same methodology.

I love building software.

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