AWS Certifications: What to Know and Where to Start

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is an incredibly complex topic, especially when it comes to certifications. If you’re new to AWS (and working with the cloud in general), where’s the best place to start? And what do you need to know to succeed?

There are currently 11 AWS certifications on offer, from foundational certs to specialty topics such as security, data analytics, and machine learning:

Keep in mind that these certifications break into distinct categories that ladder according to your experience with AWS, cloud, and the broader tech industry:

  • 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.

Depending on your interests, obtaining these certifications can provide lasting benefits to technologists, especially if they want to work for organizations that partially or totally rely on AWS. 

Where to Focus First

Mattias Andersson, senior community training architect at Pluralsight, admits the breadth of AWS certifications can be quite overwhelming at first, but starting with AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner helps beginners cover a lot of valuable material. 

From his perspective, AWS Solutions Architect (associate level) and Certified Cloud Practitioner provide a knowledge foundation for all the decisions technologists might need to make in any career involving AWS. “People don't need to necessarily pick a full track right at the very beginning,” he said. “They can start with Cloud Practitioner, or if they feel more ambitious, the Solutions Architect associate and then move forward from there. It's a super-valuable start, and they're not wasting any effort by doing that.”

Mike Saccotelli, director of solution development at SPR Consulting, said if you’re looking into AWS certification, first consider your existing experience with cloud platforms: “Many of the exams recommend one or two years of experience in the certification space, so if there is any experience that can be leveraged, you’ll already have a head start.”  

If you don’t have a baseline to leverage, consider if you have other areas of technical expertise that could possibly help. For instance, if typical web development and software engineering are your core skill-set, then the AWS Developer certification path is likely a good starting place. 

“If your background is more data-oriented, then one of the database, data analytics or machine learning paths may be your better options,” Saccotelli added. “If you have more of a background in operational aspects of your organization, then theSysOps Administrator or DevOps Engineer is probably a good place to start.”

From Saccotelli’s perspective, the Machine Learning, Data Analytics and Security tracks likely have the greatest growth looking forward: “Inside and outside the AWS ecosystem, those skills are growing in demand and in need, so aligning a certification track toward those high-demand areas would be a good bet for 2022 and beyond.”

Competitive Advantage

Andersson also pointed to certifications in Database or Data Analytics, as well as the AWS certification for Machine Learning, as offering a competitive advantage as businesses rapidly build up IT teams devoted to these specialties. 

“Every organization needs data analysts to offer business intelligence, and there are also others that will build on AI and ML research to punch through all that data to use it in ways that we humans couldn't actually do manually,” he said. “Honestly, there there's so much opportunity in cloud, but data is at the core of many of the very promising careers that people might be looking toward.”

Saccotelli said the goal in achieving any certification is to validate and prove competency in what you know: “A good organizing principle is to get certificated in what you already know,” he said. “Once you can establish a foundation in what you do know, that will give you the opportunity to expand into other areas of the platform.” 

One piece of advice: Treat these certifications as building blocks, with the long-term goal of getting to a higher certification level based around cloud architecture. “Building toward a well-rounded understanding of the platform’s offerings will elevate you to a level where you can envision, architect and build holistic solutions within the platform,” he said.

Also, keep in mind that these tests can prove difficult at times; it’s important to study and train, but don’t get discouraged if progress takes time. “While you can get certified without having real-world experience with these tools, it will be much easier if you do because you will have better context as to how the different products work and flow together,” Saccotelli said. “All in all, don’t be discouraged—pick a path and work hard, and find others with similar goals. We have many folks who work as study groups and they have much more success than folks trying to get certified on their own."

Andersson agreed, pointing out there are a lot of opportunities where people can take advantage of their own background when it comes to learning new technology. “I think the most important way to start is to actually start,” he said. “Don't keep putting it off to try to figure out everything in advance, because it'll just delay the value you could be achieving. Once you've started, keep making progress, even if you're not 100 percent sure that it's in the right direction. Whenever you're learning new things, that's always valuable.”

Documentation and Costs

As you might expect, Amazon offers quite a bit of documentation around its exams. There are also some costs involved: The AWS pricing for Cloud Practitioner exam costs $100, and you can also get practice exams for $20 each.

Solutions Architect, SysOps Administrator, and Developer certifications all cost $150 for the final exam, as well as $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.