AWS Certifications: Everything You Need to Know to Start

Are AWS certifications important? How many are available, and what do they cost to obtain?

Amazon Web Services (AWS) hosts and services many of the properties you see online, from the smallest mom-and-pop websites to the largest streaming portals. If it ever suffers an outage, the impact on the broader web is catastrophic. 

If you do anything web-based, in other words, it’s important to know the services and tools available via AWS (and also familiarize yourself with Microsoft’s Azure, which is rapidly gaining market-share, as well). But do you actually need to earn a certification (or two) if you want to land a job that utilizes AWS? That’s a very good question. 

For this walkthrough of AWS certifications, we’ll tell you how to get one, how much it costs, and if the process is truly worth your time. 

Does AWS have an official certification?

The short answer is: Yes. AWS certifications break down into a handful of categories:

Foundational: This certification represents “six months of fundamental AWS Cloud and industry knowledge,” in Amazon’s words.

Associate: “One year of experience solving problems and implementing solutions using the AWS Cloud,” according to Amazon. There are three subcategories of Associate: Architect, Operations, and Developer.

Professional: “Two years of comprehensive experience designing, operating, and troubleshooting solutions using the AWS Cloud” (Amazon, again). As you’ll see in the chart below, Professional certifications break down into two categories: Architect and DevOps. In other words, get ready to know everything about databases in an AWS context.

Specialty: These AWS certifications cover specific areas such as Alexa, machine learning, and data analytics.

Here’s how certifications break down within those categories:

In short, Amazon’s certification path is exhaustive. Specialty certifications are more like mini-courses for learning the Amazon way of doing very specific things (such as the aforementioned machine learning), while Associate and Professional are a ladder that eventually leads to full knowledge of the AWS approach to DevOps. 

Fortunately, Amazon also offers quite a bit of documentation around its exams. Which brings us to…

How do I get an AWS certification?  

You have to register for an AWS certification account, first and foremost. 

The foundational Cloud Practitioner certification requires “six months of fundamental AWS Cloud and industry knowledge” and successful completion of a 90-minute multiple choice quiz. 

Each of the AWS Associate certifications (Solutions ArchitectSysOps Administrator, and Developer) require “one year of experience solving problems and implementing solutions using the AWS Cloud,” and then passing a two-hour multiple choice quiz.

On the next tier, the Professional Solutions Architect and DevOps Engineer certifications each require the aforementioned two years of “comprehensive experience designing, operating, and troubleshooting solutions using the AWS Cloud,” followed by a three-hour multiple choice quiz.

How much does it cost to get these certifications?

This largely depends on which certification you want to earn! Also keep in mind that, technically, you’re not paying Amazon for the certification; you’re paying to take the test.

The AWS Cloud Practitioner exam costs $100; you can also get practice exams for $20 each.

Solutions Architect, SysOps Administrator, and Developer certifications all cost the same: $150 for the final exam, and $20 for practice quizzes. 

Amazon’s Professional Solutions Architect and DevOps Engineer certifications cost $300 for the exam, and $40 for practice tests.

Each of the AWS specialties cost $300, and $40 for practice exams.

Can I take an AWS exam without a course?  

The short answer is “yes.” But for an AWS specialty or certification, it’s not that easy.

Amazon suggests you rack up the indicated amount of experience before moving on with its AWS certifications. For example, from the description for AWS Certified Solutions Architect

“Associate examination is intended for individuals who perform a solutions architect role and have one or more years of hands-on experience designing available, cost-efficient, fault-tolerant, and scalable distributed systems on AWS.”

Each specialty and certification has similar language. But Amazon doesn’t check your work history, either, and you can download the practice materials for every level of certification and each specialty. To take the exams, you simply have to register (and pay, of course).

Is it worth getting an AWS certification?

If you’re dedicating even part of your career to working with AWS, earning a certification doesn’t hurt. Keep in mind that, when applying for jobs, your interview (and the associated testing) will inevitably focus on how well you actually know the necessary skills—for example, if they ask you about managing AWS EC2 programmatically with Node.js, you better know what they want. 

Here’s a breakdown of top occupations that often ask for AWS skills (based on data from Burning Glass); as you can see, the number of jobs that require these skills is likely to grow over the next few years. If you’re interested in cloud architecture, software development, and networking, at least some familiarity with the basics of AWS will certainly serve you well. 

Nonetheless, possessing the right certifications can give you a proverbial leg up when competing for jobs—especially if you’re in the running for a highly specialized position, such as working with Alexa. 

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