I have two certifications, one AWS Solutions Architect Associate, and one Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Master. I’ll let you infer from this post which one was more challenging to acquire and which one I value more.

I began studying for my AWS Solutions Architect certification on Monday of AWS Re:Invent. My employer sent me to AWS Re:Invent. Upon arrival at the conference and talking with another colleague, I learned the company expected me to speak at the event or pass a certification exam to approve my expense report. My boss maintains to this day that he told me ahead of time, but I’m not sure. I figured it was a little late to get a speaking spot (and what would I say anyhow). I was nervous, but I had planned on taking the exam once I returned from Re:Invent, and had already scheduled and paid for a boot camp session at the conference. I figured I had three years of daily hands-on experience in an enterprise environment, and I knew how to take tests. The Monday morning boot camp made it clear to me that I was unprepared for this test, and the practice exam I took that afternoon brought me to crystal clear status on my lack of readiness.

I had a subscription through work to a technology training vendor and went through their AWS Solutions Architect Associate course. I poured through the course while not in the conference or networking. I watched sections of it two or three times, especially areas outside of my traditional purview at work, Redshift, Elastic Beanstalk, and VPC components like NACLs that we didn’t use, or I didn’t touch. I took the test late on Thursday afternoon (one of the last slots) and passed without too much difficulty. I was elated at the accomplishment, and at the guarantee of not paying for the conference, trip, and hotel.

I look back on passing that certification with a sense of pride and accomplishment, but also a bit of trepidation. The AWS exams are hard, and not for the faint of heart. I’ve been reminded of this as I study for my recertification, and I hope to move up to the Solutions Architect Professional cert this year. I still have a subscription to the training vendor, and they seem to have removed the course I took and have added in new courses targeting the associate certification. I’m glad because in preparing for the Professional certification using A Cloud Guru, I recalled what I hadn’t received from the previous vendor in 2017. The course I took was all about the technology of AWS. With the course alone, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. The AWS Solutions Architect exams aren’t about memorizing a spec sheet for EC2 or memorizing what the service limit is for VPC. The Solutions Architect exam is about knowing when you would choose to use Glacier vs. S3 vs. EBS, and what the speed, redundancy, and price benefit are to each.

On top of that, you need to know how to take the test. The vendor I used had largely explained how AWS worked and how to implement it. The course was great for filling in technical knowledge gaps, and I’d been a part of migrating six different SaaS products from a premise datacenter to AWS in the last three years, so I had learned the why behind a lot of AWS services. The boot camp had filled in my “how to take the exam” knowledge, and the three practice exams helped a lot too. With my last week of using A Cloud Guru’s Solutions Architect pro course, it became evident how superior their offering is for the person seeking to leverage their existing knowledge into an AWS certification. The course covers how to use AWS, why you choose specific architectures, they have quizzes at the end of each chapter, a practice exam at the end of the course, and they cover how to be successful in the AWS exam paradigm.

The labs that they’ve added are a great prompt for what I call “learner’s block.” Sometimes I want to learn something new, but I’m not always knowledgable enough in the concept to know if my hands-on test is passing or worthwhile. With the labs, someone has created something that you can jump into and get hands-on without being an expert. Networking (as I mentioned) is a bit of a weak point for me. There’s a lab about “Creating a Basic VPC and Associated Components.” It has you create a VPC, create subnets, create NACLs, create an Internet Gateway, and create Route Tables. Now, in theory, I know what all these things are. In practice, at every company I have worked at, another team has controlled these with an iron fist. This lab gives me a chance to build something from scratch and shortcuts the two blissful hours I would have spent iterating over clicking through the console, reading StackOverflow, repeat. More importantly, I wouldn’t have thought about learning this because it’s been not my problem for so many years.

The clincher that has made me a customer for as long as I work in Cloud is their new Cloud Playground offering. I have 12 AWS personal accounts for personal projects, family photo backups, and this blog. That equates to 12 Gmail addresses I don’t need. It means 24 passwords (don’t use that root account!), and so much worse, 24 two factor accounts on my phone. Thank God for AWS Organizations, because I don’t want to deal with that many invoices and billing alerts. With A Cloud Guru’s cloud Playground, if I want to test out EKS, I don’t have to make the 13th account. If I want to learn GKE or AKS for a Google or Azure cert, I can spin up those accounts. No more dummy email addresses. No more two-factor accounts. I click a button and start testing out public clouds. I lead a team of engineers that define cloud strategy for our enterprise. This feature will make it easy for us to stay fresh on public clouds that may not be in our enterprise cloud strategy at the moment, but that we will get asked about by other teams as they seek to discover what best fits their use case across the public clouds.

In short, I’m sure that A Cloud Guru was a steal of a deal for cloud experts. With the addition of the hands-on labs and the cloud Playground to execute them in, I will let every streaming service (except Disney Plus (I have two toddlers)) and potentially the trash service lapse before I stop renewing my A Cloud Guru subscription.