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Choosing the Right AWS Certification For You

Posted on April 9, 2019 by Christophe LimpalairChristophe Limpalair

There are currently 6 AWS certification exams, and 5 specialty AWS certification exams for a total of 11 AWS Certifications, so how do you know which one to start with? Let’s start by looking at all of the 11 certification exams:

  • AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner
  • AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate Level (AWS CSA)
  • AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional Level (AWS CSAP)
  • AWS Certified Developer – Associate Level (AWS CDA)
  • AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Associate Level
  • AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional Level

There are also specialty AWS certifications:

  • AWS Certified Advanced Networking
  • AWS Certified Big Data
  • AWS Certified Security
  • AWS Certified Machine Learning
  • AWS Certified Alexa Skill Builder – Specialty Exam (launched publicly on April 16th, 2019)

Which AWS certification should you choose?

There are two answers to this question. Let’s look at both answers, but first, let’s take a look at a common certification path for AWS:

The Quick Answer

  1. AWS Cloud Practitioner (if starting with no cloud knowledge or if not in engineering)
  2. AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate (CSA) (the most popular AWS certification)
  3. AWS Certified Developer – Associate (CDA) (great starting point for many developers; but not just for devs)
  4. AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Associate (SysOps)
  5. AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional
  6. AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional (CSAP)
  7. Specialty AWS Certifications

The More Thorough Answer

The first answer is the one we often give to people who do not have a preference and are simply looking for guidance on which AWS certification to start with. This is our most common answer. The second answer is one we give when people have a clear end goal and need to pick a certification which most closely resembles what they do on a day-to-day basis.

Answer #1: If you’re simply looking to get started with AWS certifications because your boss told you to get certified, or you’ve heard that they can help you get a better job or a better salary, then we recommend the AWS Certified Solutions Architect (CSA).

AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate Level course on Linux Academy


If that certification seems daunting because you have no understanding of the cloud or you aren’t in an engineering-focused role, you could always consider the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner first. The Cloud Practitioner was primarily designed for candidates who have at least six months of experience with the AWS Cloud in technical, managerial, sales, purchasing, or financial roles.

AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner course on Linux Academy


The AWS CSA is often the starting point for many individuals (and organizations looking to have certified experts on staff) because it is supposed to prove that the individual has a strong grasp of a wide range of AWS services and best practices. As the name implies, it focuses on testing one’s ability to architect applications and infrastructures on Amazon Web Services, which is something many organizations are looking for.

The other benefit of taking this certification exam is that a lot of the concepts carry over to other AWS certifications as well. The three associate level exams, obviously, aren’t the exact same – but they do have some similarities, and so you can look at the CSA exam as laying the foundations for other exams. The same could be said of the other associate level exams since they all overlap to some degree, though, so this isn’t unique to the CSA.

Answer #2: If instead, you are looking to take an AWS certification exam to help you with a specific job function, then the answer might be different. To figure out which AWS certification exam matches your job function read through the rest of this post so you can get a better understanding of what each AWS certification exam covers.

Honestly, though, don’t overthink this part. If you’re just looking to get one AWS certification, and you don’t have a specific goal in mind, go for the AWS CSA. Otherwise, consider why you are wanting an AWS certification and look over their scopes (and read through the rest of this post) in order to make an informed decision.

Regardless of which exam you start with, it can be very tempting to look for exam dumps or to only practice memorizing practice exams you find online. We’ll discuss later why that is not the best approach and why hands-on training is still the best way to go.

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate Level exam is one of the most popular because it acts as a starting point for many professionals looking to dive into the world of AWS certifications. This certification exam focuses on testing technical expertise around:

  • Designing and deploying scalable, highly available, and fault tolerant systems on the AWS platform
  • Understanding many of the most popular AWS services and tools in order to leverage their use and understand costs
  • Understand AWS architectural best practices
  • Understand AWS security best practices
  • Knowledge of migrating existing on-premises applications to AWS

This is the associate-level certification with the widest breadth of AWS services coverage. That’s one of the reasons for its popularity – instead of being super specific to one area or domain of platform, it has a wide overview, which means that training for it will give you a fantastic introduction to what the AWS platform is capable of.

What are the recommended pre-requisites?

Amazon Web Services describes the ideal candidate as having:

  • Hands-on experience using compute, networking, storage, and database AWS services
  • Hands-on experience with AWS deployment and management services
  • Ability to identify and define technical requirements for an AWS-based application
  • Ability to identify which AWS services meet a given technical requirement
  • Knowledge of recommended best practices for building secure and reliable applications on the AWS platform
  • An understanding of the basic architectural principles of building on the AWS Cloud
  • An understanding of the AWS global infrastructure
  • An understanding of network technologies as they relate to AWS
  • An understanding of security features and tools that AWS provides and how they relate to traditional services

This isn’t really required, though.

We’ve seen a countless number of people take and pass this certification with only a few months of training and no prior experience. There is also no way for Amazon Web Services to check whether you have one or more years of hands-on experience. However, having all of those skills would certainly not hurt your chances of passing the exam.

Just like all other associate level exams, this exam is formatted as a multiple choice, multiple answer test. You have 130 minutes to complete the exam and it costs $150 to take it – this is non-refundable, regardless of whether you pass the exam or not.

What is the format of the exams?

Here is a sample of questions and answers that give you an idea of what you could expect from the real exam, and here is the exam blueprint which gives you more information about the exam such as domains covered, a break down of grading, and other helpful information.

AWS Certifications are currently only multiple choice, where the questions can vary in length and difficulty, and the number of correct answers can also vary. You could get a question with 4 potential answers where you have to pick 1 – 3 answers or you could get more than 4 potential answers with 1 or more correct answers you need to choose from.

Which is the hardest of the exams?

This answer depends on who you ask, but the Specialty AWS certifications are typically regarded as the hardest of the bunch. But apart from the Specialty AWS certifications, most people would say that the AWS CSA Professional Level exam is the hardest, with the Certified DevOps Engineer second in line.

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional Level (AWS CSAP) steps it up quite a bit compared to the Associate level exam. Professional level exams are much more challenging than Associate level exams. Not only are you expected to know a lot more about the platform and what its services are capable of, but you also have far more questions to answer with 170 minutes (almost 3 hours) to complete the exam. Even if you know the material covered pretty well, you are fighting against your own mental distractions and fatigue, because you are going to need all of that time to complete the exam with no break.

AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional course on Linux Academy

This exam focuses on these concepts:

  • Design and deploy dynamically scalable, highly available, fault-tolerant, and reliable applications on AWS
  • Select appropriate AWS services to design and deploy an application based on given requirements
  • Migrate complex, multi-tier applications on AWS
  • Design and deploy enterprise-wide scalable operations on AWS
  • Implement cost-control strategies

The recommended knowledge is also more advanced:

  1. Two or more years of hands-on experience designing and deploying cloud architecture on AWS
  2. Ability to evaluate cloud application requirements and make architectural recommendations for implementation, deployment, and provisioning applications on AWS
  3. Familiarity with AWS CLI, AWS APIs, AWS CloudFormation templates, the AWS Billing Console, and the AWS Management Console
  4. Explain and apply the five pillars of the AWS Well-Architected Framework
  5. Design a hybrid architecture using key AWS technologies (e.g., VPN, AWS Direct Connect)
  6. Ability to provide best practice guidance on the architectural design across multiple applications and projects of the enterprise
  7. Familiarity with a scripting language
  8. Familiarity with Windows and Linux environments
  9. Map business objectives to application/architecture requirements
  10. Architect a continuous integration and deployment process

Up until October 11, 2018, AWS required you to pass an Associate level exam in their category before you could take a Professional exam. So to take the AWS CSA Professional exam, you would have had to take (and pass) the AWS CSA Associate exam. This is no longer the case because they dropped that requirement – read more about what the community thinks, here! 


AWS Certification Roadmap 2019

Image source

Here is a sample of the type of questions you could see on the real exam.

If you compare it to the previous certification sample, you’ll notice a few things…

  1. The questions are more “involved” – they give you a lot more information in an attempt to overload you with knowledge (some of which may not even be relevant to the answer(s)!)
  2. The answers are also more involved
  3. Some of the answers may not be the best way of solving the given issue in AWS, and so you have to pick the best solution out of what they give you, not what’s necessarily the best solution on the platform (though this can also happen with associate level exams, especially since they sometimes contain outdated information — cert exams don’t get updated as frequently as the platform!)
  4. The scenarios to solve are more complex than in the associate level

So not only do you have to combat your own mental fatigue and distractions, but the questions and answers are more complex. They really want you to know your stuff in order for you to pass the exam, and you can expect this for all professional level certification exams, as well as for the specialty level exams.

Which is the easiest AWS certification to pass?

The AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner is the easiest of the exams because it’s the least technical and most high-level AWS certification exam of the bunch. Next, most would say that the AWS Certified Developer – Associate Level (AWS CDA) is arguably the easiest of all AWS exams. The reason for this is because it doesn’t require that you have as deep of knowledge around AWS services, and the scope of services covered is also smaller than with the AWS CSA exam. Update: more recent versions of this exam have stepped up the difficulty a bit.

AWS Certified Developer Associate Level course on Linux Academy

This exam, instead, focuses on how applications and code interact with the AWS platform, and how to deploy & debug apps on AWS. It does not test you on your ability to program, but instead on your ability to understand how code would interact with an AWS service.

For example, what are limitations faced when interacting with the AWS APIs? How can you use AWS SDKs? What are the imitations around that? How can you write code that optimizes the performance of services?

Another important part of the certification exam is security. How can you make secure calls between your application and AWS? How can you transfer data in a secure and reliable manner?

Here is what AWS lists as the exam concepts you should understand for the exam:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of core AWS services, uses, and basic AWS architecture best practices.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in developing, deploying, and debugging cloud-based applications using AWS.

Recommended knowledge to take this exam is as follows:

  • In-depth knowledge of at least one high-level programming language
  • Understanding of core AWS services, uses, and basic AWS architecture best practices
  • Proficiency in developing, deploying, and debugging cloud-based applications using AWS
  • Ability to use the AWS service APIs, AWS CLI, and SDKs to write applications
  • Ability to identify key features of AWS services
  • Understanding of the AWS shared responsibility model
  • Understanding of application lifecycle management
  • Ability to use a CI/CD pipeline to deploy applications on AWS
  • Ability to use or interact with AWS services
  • Ability to apply a basic understanding of cloud-native applications to write code
  • Ability to write code using AWS security best practices (e.g., not using secret and access keys in the code, instead using IAM roles)
  • Ability to author, maintain, and debug code modules on AWS
  • Proficiency writing code for serverless applications
  • Understanding of the use of containers in the development process

Here is the exam blueprint for this certification exam.

The SysOps Administrator exam

The AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Associate Level exam is the last of the associate level exams to cover. This exam is a bit more specific to deploying and managing infrastructure.

AWS SysOps Administrator - Associate Level course on Linux Academy

We’re talking about understanding how to make infrastructure elastic (can scale up and down depending on demand) with a heavy focus on high availability, fault tolerance, and cost-effectiveness. Not only do you need to understand monitoring at a deeper level, but you need to be able to implement the most effective and secure solutions possible given a scenario and following best practices.

It’s not enough to just deploy an application on AWS – as a SysOps Administrator, that’s where the fun begins. How can you ensure the infrastructure and application(s) are secure, fast, reliable, and optimized for cost? Ensuring fault tolerance requires a strong understanding of key AWS services, as well as how to implement backup and disaster recovery processes.

Here are concepts you should understand for this exam:

  • Deploy, manage, and operate scalable, highly available, and fault-tolerant systems on AWS
  • Implement and control the flow of data to and from AWS
  • Select the appropriate AWS service based on compute, data, or security requirements
  • Identify appropriate use of AWS operational best practices
  • Estimate AWS usage costs and identify operational cost control mechanisms
  • Migrate on-premises workloads to AWS

The following experience is recommended for taking this exam:

  • Minimum of 1 year hands-on experience with AWS
  • Experience managing/operating systems on AWS
  • Understanding of the AWS tenets – architecting for the cloud
  • Hands-on experience with the AWS CLI and SDKs/API tools
  • Understanding of network technologies as they relate to AWS
  • Understanding of security concepts with hands-on experience in implementing security controls and compliance requirements

Here is a sample of questions you could expect, and here is the exam blueprint.

The DevOps Engineer

The AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional Level exam is the second professional level certification exam, and its focus is radically different from the AWS CSA Professional exam.

AWS Certified DevOps Professional course on Linux Academy

The topic of DevOps is a big one which we won’t go into detail here, but if you’re not familiar with what DevOps stands for, take a look at these posts:

When it comes to this certification exam, though, here’s what you need to know if you are interested in taking it:

This exam focuses heavily on deployments, monitoring & logging, and managing processes around distributed applications. This means you should be very knowledgeable in the areas of:

  • Implement and manage continuous delivery systems and methodologies on AWS
  • Implement and automate security controls, governance processes, and compliance validation
  • Define and deploy monitoring, metrics, and logging systems on AWS
  • Implement systems that are highly available, scalable, and self-healing on the AWS platform
  • Design, manage, and maintain tools to automate operational processes

The following experience is recommended for taking this exam:

  • Implement and manage continuous delivery systems and methodologies on AWS
  • Implement and automate security controls, governance processes, and compliance validation
  • Define and deploy monitoring, metrics, and logging systems on AWS
  • Implement systems that are highly available, scalable, and self-healing on the AWS platform
  • Design, manage, and maintain tools to automate operational processesaExperience developing code in at least one high-level programming language
  • Experience building highly automated infrastructures
  • Experience administering operating systems
  • Understanding of modern development and operations processes and methodologies

Here is the exam blueprint and a list of example questions.

This is my personal favorite. I found the content and scope very interesting and quite challenging.

What are the specialty certs?

AWS announced the following new specialty certifications in 2016:

These exams are generally available to take for $300. But what are these certification exams, and how are they different from the other AWS certification exams?

The Specialty AWS certification exams act very much like the Professional exams, in that they are 3 hours long and much more advanced than Associate level exams. In fact, the candidate eligibility “requirement” is 5 years with the Specialty certification exams, whereas even the Professional level only mentions 2 or more years of experience.

For the Networking Specialty exam, you must be very knowledgeable in the area of designing and implementing large-scale AWS and hybrid network architectures, which means you need to be very familiar with networking tools and services in AWS, as well as how to automate networking tasks for both security and functionality.

The Big Data Specialty exam focuses on testing the ability to analyze complex Big Data using AWS services and architectures. This also includes setting up automation around data analysis, finding the most cost-effective and scalable architecture, and a strong understanding of the data lifecycle.

The Security Specialty exam tests your technical expertise in securing the AWS platform.

The AWS Certified Machine Learning exam is different from the Big Data exam and it validates technical expertise in building, training, optimizing and deploying machine learning models using AWS. This exam is primarily for data science roles.

The AWS Certified Alexa Skill Builder exam launched in April 2019, and it aims to validate that you can build and publish Amazon Alexa skills. Now that there are over 100-million Alexa-enabled devices across the globe, more and more businesses are going to try and take advantage of this fairly new platform. Amazon can use this new certification to continue expanding its Alexa ecosystem, while developers can use this AWS certification in order to make their skill set even more competitive.

So which AWS certification will it be? Comment with your choice below!

After reading through this list of Amazon Web Services certifications, you should have a much clearer idea of which certification to start with. If you still don’t know, then go with the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate Level. It is the most popular starting point, so it’s hard to go wrong with that.

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