Airbnb. Dole. Netflix. McDonald’s. If you had to name one thing these megacompanies have in common, you could start with the cloud. They all run some portion of their business on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud platform.

As global businesses like Airbnb and McDonald’s migrate to the AWS cloud or simply build new cloud-native applications there, it’s more and more important for their system architects, developers, and operators (among plenty of other teams) to become proficient in deploying and managing their operating systems, services, resources, and applications in the cloud.

That’s why, if you’re looking for a new IT job or a new role in your current organization, or simply want to continue to grow in your current position, holding an AWS certification can be an important asset for your career. Becoming an AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner or an AWS Certified DevOps Engineer makes it clear to everyone that you know your cloud stuff. In fact, according to a recent report sponsored by Global Knowledge, the “average salary of an AWS-certified IT professional is about $114,000 – the 5th highest paying certification in the United States and Canada.”

So, not sure which exam to take? No worries, this overview of all nine exams and includes my recommendations for a route through the certification maze.

AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner

This is the foundational exam that covers the core principles of the AWS cloud platform. It exam addresses the essential services, features, and use cases of AWS. You’ll need to answer questions about AWS’ security and compliance model, and you’ll also need to demonstrate a working knowledge of how billing, support, and pricing works. You can probably also expect questions about deploying resources and services in the AWS cloud.

Prerequisites: Amazon recommends you bring six months of AWS experience to this exam, but that experience can be in any capacity, including technical and non-technical roles (e.g., sales, management, finance). The AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam is perfect for folks who want a certification that covers a general knowledge of the AWS platform.

Format: multiple choice
Length: 90 minutes
Fee: $100

man riding paper airplane into the cloudAWS Certified Solutions Architect—associate

If you want to prove you know how to build and deploy systems in the AWS cloud, this is the exam to start with. In the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam, you’ll be asked about cloud-based solutions for deployments that follow strict requirements and called on to demonstrate a knowledge of architectural best practices. To pass, you will want to have had plenty of experience deploying, configuring, and managing compute, network, storage, and database services in AWS. A working knowledge of security and compliance policies is also critical.

Prerequisites: AWS recommends you have spent at least one year deploying distributed systems, at scale, using AWS cloud services.

Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
Length: 130 minutes
Fee: $150

AWS Certified Solutions Architect—professional

In this exam, you’ll need to show that you not only know how to build and deploy distributed systems in the AWS cloud to spec, but also that you understand how to deploy them at scale with fault tolerance and high availability. To gain the professional cert, you’ll also need to demonstrate understanding of how to migrate multi-tier applications to the AWS cloud and build enterprise-scale cloud solutions with AWS resources, all while managing your cloud spend.

Prerequisites: You must hold an AWS Certified Solutions Architect—associate certification to take this exam. AWS also strongly recommends more than two years experience deploying distributed systems, at scale, using AWS cloud services based on design requirements and best practices.

Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
Length: 170 minutes
Fee: $300

AWS Certified Developer—associate

This is the exam for developers looking to demonstrate their ability to develop applications native to the AWS cloud. In this exam, you’ll need to show that you understand the AWS SDK and how you can use it to interact with and optimize AWS services you’ve built into an application. Passing this exam also demonstrates that you have a functional understanding of code-level security, including credential creation and encryption strategies.

Prerequisites: AWS requires that you have at least a year of experience maintaining applications in the AWS cloud to take this exam. You should also understand the core services, principles, and best practices associated with services on the AWS platform, and have some experience creating applications for tools like Amazon DynamoDB, AWS Elastic Beanstalk, and AWS CloudFormation (among others).

Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
Length: 80 minutes
Fee: $150

AWS Certified DevOps Engineer—professional

The DevOps Engineer certification is all about testing what you know about managing distributed applications in the AWS cloud, from provisioning the application to full operational management. As in any good DevOps exam, you can expect to face questions about continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) methodologies and automation best practices, including best practices for automating security and compliance checks. You’ll also need to show a working knowledge of monitoring and logging practices as they pertain to the AWS platform.

This is the professional cert for the Developer and Operations tracks.

Prerequisites: You must hold an AWS Certified Developer—associate or AWS Certified SysOps Administrator—associate cert to take this exam. You’ll need at least two years delivering applications in or managing AWS cloud deployments, and some experience with automation best practices, including scripting or other programming.

Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
Length: 170 minutes
Fee: $300

AWS Certified SysOps Administrator—associate

This exam is designed to certify your ability to deploy, manage, and operate system resources in the AWS cloud. You should have a firm understanding of what it takes to manage said systems for both fault tolerance and high availability. You should also be able to match resource deployment to requirements and account for operational needs, such as security and cost control.

Prerequisites: You’ll want at least a year of experience managing AWS-native applications. You’ll also want some experience gathering requirements and following AWS best practices for deployments and project lifecycle management.

Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
Length: 80 minutes
Fee: $150

AWS Certified Big Data—speciality

This exam is all about showing that you know how to use various AWS services to get the most of your data analysis. You’ll need to be able to show that you can use tools to automate data analysis.

Prerequisites: You must hold either an AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner cert or any of the associate certs. AWS also recommends five years of experience in data analytics, and a functional knowledge of AWS Big Data, including how to ingest, store, process, and visualize data.

Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
Length: 170 minutes
Registration fee: $300

AWS Certified Advanced Networking—specialty

If you’re into complex networking, especially networking that spans scalable AWS systems, this exam is probably for you. This exam will ask you to show that you can manage a network architecture for any service on the AWS platform and that you can automate your networking tasks.

Prerequisites: You must hold either a AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner cert or any of the associate certs. AWS also recommends five years of experience managing networks and a firm understanding of networking concepts and best practices as they relate to the AWS platform.

Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
Length: 170 minutes
Fee: $300

AWS Certified Security—specialty

This exam is all about advanced methods for securing the AWS platform. Candidates for this cert should be seasoned IT security experts who can demonstrate an understanding of data protection and encryption for AWS and the AWS tools to help you achieve these ends. Basically, you should be able to secure an AWS production environment.

Prerequisites: You must hold either an AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner cert or any of the associate certs. AWS also recommends five years of experience in securing AWS environments.

Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
Length: 170 minutes
Fee: $300

Building your AWS Certification Plan

As an AWS technical partner manager for New Relic, I often get asked in what order people should take these exams. I have found the following sequence to be the most impactful route for entry into the AWS certs and turbocharging a cloud career:

  1. AWS Certified Solutions Architect—associate
  2. AWS Certified Developer—associate
  3. AWS Certified SysOps Administrator—associate
  4. The speciality certs
  5. AWS Certified DevOps Engineer—professional
  6. AWS Certified Solutions Architect—professional

Note that this route does not include the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam, as it’s not a terribly technical exam and essentially just covers a basic understanding of the AWS platform. I recommend folks in technical roles to start with the AWS Certified Solutions Architect—associate exam and move on from there.

I also encourage giving yourself at least a few months between tests. It takes a lot of time and effort to prep for the exams. You’ll want plenty of time to rest and recover from the stress before focusing on the next one.

The harder they come …

AWS is in a stage of exceptional growth, and its certifications are continuously evolving to keep up with the changes and additions in the company’s services. The certification questions will likely become more challenging over time, but that will help keep them valuable and relevant.

Check out the AWS Certification site for more details about the exams, including study tips and costs.

Best of luck in your AWS certification journey!

As a principal cloud strategist at New Relic, Kevin has deep knowledge of the cloud industry and works with customers and partners to assist in their cloud adoption journeys. He’s been in the enterprise software industry for over 21 years, and has spent 12 years as a customer facing solutions architect, selling enterprise software solutions to all verticals. View posts by .

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