Wednesday, April 27, 2016

How I studied for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional exam

I recently took (and passed) the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional exam and figured I would share how I studied for this test. When I took the associate level of this exam I only had 3 days to study and very little existing experience with AWS before hand and that is definitely not how I would recommend taking these exams. For the professional level exam I had around 3 months of time from the time I started studying to when I had to pass the exam or my associate level exam would have expired.

If you are studying for the associate exam I think the study guide below would probably still work (Although it might be a bit of overkill), just skip the professional level white papers and courses on Linux Academy and Cloud Academy.

Full disclosure, I work for Amazon Web Services as of a couple of months, but the opinions expressed in here are my own.


Here are the things you should already have done and know before you start thinking about this exam.

  • You will need a broad general knowledge in IT. If you don't have it you can probably pass the associate level exam which is more focused on only AWS specific technology. For the professional level one you will need to have a broad general IT knowledge because they will assume you have a general understanding of how WAN routing, non AWS enterprise software (For instance do you know that Oracle RAC requires multicast and EC2 does not support that).
  • You need to have passed the associate level exam within 2 years.
  • I would highly recommend that you have been using AWS for a while. This will help you wrapping your head around some of the AWS specific concepts that other services are based on easier.

Study Outline

In short here are the things I did to study this.

  1. Start by reading all the recommended white papers listed at the official certification guide site. I would recommend reading both the professional and associate level ones, because everything you knew when you took the associate level exam you will still need for the pro level one.
  2. Sign up for Linux Academy and start taking the classes for first the associate level course and then the professional level course. Don't forget to take the labs as well. Don't take the final quizzes yet (The ones per section are fine though).
  3. Sign up for Cloud Academy and take their classes for associate level and professional level courses. Same thing here, wait with the final quizzes.
  4. Once I finished all the courses I read recommended the white papers again.
  5. Do all the final quizzes from both Cloud and Linux Academy and make sure you get a passing grade. If there are sections that you are weak in then go back and study deeper in those areas, both Linux Academy and Cloud Academy have a lot of content aside from the lectures they recommend for the CSA certification so you don't have to just listen to the same lectures over and over.
  6. Try the sample questions from Amazon, you should be able to answer these by now. If you feel like shelling out some money for trying the sample exam go ahead. I skipped this step myself.
  7. Sign up for the exam.
  8. Read all the recommended white papers again the day before the exam.
  9. Take the exam.

Additional things you might want to consider.

  • Amazon recommends you taking the Advanced Architecting on AWS class. I took this class about 8 months before I took the exam and even though it is a good class I don't think it is that useful for passing the exam.
  • Amazon sometimes have AWS CSA Professional Readiness Workshops and if you have the ability to go to one of these I would highly recommend it. I am not sure if these are held outside of AWS re:Invent conferences though. For the associate level exam I know these workshops are held quite often and they are great too.
  • Qwiklabs is a great resource for practicing your AWS skills. That said if you have your Linux Academy and or Cloud Academy accounts they have labs too that are included in your subscription. These labs are better though if you can afford them.

If you can I would also recommend to start a study group and get together once a week or so and do sample questions and discuss the answers from one of the sources listed above. I did this with some of my work colleagues and I found that very helpful.


I would recommend that you plan that studying for this will take at least 2 months. I did it in roughly 3 months, but I only studied actively for about 4 to 6 of those weeks. When I studied I spent roughly two to four hours every evening. Unless you are already a whizz at AWS I doubt you can crank this into a few days, which is very doable for the associate level exam. Roughly I divided my time like this.

10%Initial studying of the white papers.
50%Watching the training videos on Linux Academy and Cloud Academy.
15%Taking labs.
10%Doing quizzes.
10%Additional revisions based on discovered deficiencies from the quizzes.
5%Re-reading the white papers (The second and third time I skimmed through them a lot faster than the initial deep read).

Taking the exam

Don't go until you feel you are ready, so don't schedule the exam until you feel done. At least where I live I could schedule the exam just one day out so you don't need to plan ahead for this.

I am usually a very fast test taker (I took the associate level exam in less than half the time. However time management is going to be important when you take this exam. When I took the test I finished all the questions with around 25 minutes to spare and at that point I had roughly 30% of them marked to be revisited. After going through them all again I had less than two minutes left of my time. It says that the test is 80 questions on the description, but I only had 77 questions in mine. I'm guessing number of questions vary slightly depending on how they are selected randomly.

Cloud Academy vs Linux Academy

Cloud Academy and Linux Academy have a lot of overlap and I recommend that you would subscribe to both of them for this. That said here are the advantages to each of them as far as I experienced it.

  • Linux Academy have more questions in the final quiz and vastly longer study material for the professional exam than Cloud Academy. The entire course in Linux Academy is around 30 hours long and the corresponding course in Cloud Academy is only around 3 hours. And this is not something that can be covered in 3 hours. Their associate level courses are much more on par.
  • Cloud Academy has a much better interface for doing quizzes and revisioning where after each question it tells you the answer and short extract of information about the answer with links to the AWS documentation.
  • Cloud Academy allows you to set the playback speed of the training videos which I like (I feel I can still assimilate information when playing these at around 1.5x speed and it saves time). Linux Academy also had occasional streaming issues in general for me requiring me to sometimes have to restart videos.
  • If you are a student or have an edu address Cloud Academy is a lot cheaper than Linux Academy with $9 per month. If you don't on the other side Linux Academy is cheaper than Cloud Academy with a factor of 2.
  • Both services are very easy to cancel once you are done with your studying in case you don't feel you need them anymore.

When all is said and done though I could probably have passed this with only Linux Academy, but Cloud Academy would not have been sufficient for me (Especially since the training material for the professional level CSA is so short). That said, I still think that the Cloud Academy course provides a valuable alternative to Linux Academy and especially if you can sign up as a student it is so cheap that there is pretty much no reason not to.