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AWS Cloud Certifications Explained: Which Certification Is Right for You?

11 min read

This post was originally published in May 2018. It has been updated to address new certifications and changing certification requirements.

Many of the world’s biggest enterprises now run part or all of their software environments in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud, and more companies migrate to AWS every day. That’s why, if you’re looking for a new IT job, a new role in your current organization, or simply want to continue to grow in your current position, earning an AWS certification can be a very smart investment.

In fact, according to Global Knowledge’s Top-Paying IT Certifications for 2020, the average salary of a cloud-certified IT professional is now $141,863. AWS currently holds two of the fifteen highest-paying certs in North America, and the best of the two—the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate— commands an average salary of more than $149,000. Enterprises clearly recognize that employees who earn AWS certifications know their stuff, and they also recognize what it takes to retain these employees.

For this year's update to our AWS certifications guide, please understand two things. First, in 2019 you needed the Professional level certification to command $149,000, and this year the Associate level has already reached that salary level. Second, five of the 15 AWS certifications are cloud-based. Clearly, cloud certification is a sought after achievement.

In spite of this, many people still have nagging questions about an AWS certification: Is it really the right choice for your career? Which ones should you pursue, and in what order? What can you expect from each exam? And where do you start—and are there any certs you should not consider earning?

Before I expand on the answers to these questions, I wanted to take a small pause for what a lot of people have experienced in 2020. A lot of people may be experiencing more time at home, whether from work-at-home requirements, or other unfortunate circumstances. I believe this represents an opportunity to take advantage of these situations. If possible, use this time at home to expand on skill sets that improve your resume, AWS training and certifications included. If you are looking for a silver lining, AWS has expanded the number of exams you can take online vs in person. You can now take all AWS certifications online.

Understanding the AWS certification system

Let’s begin with the big picture: AWS currently offers 12 certifications, including six core certs and six specialty certs. AWS organizes its core certs into three tiers: starting with Foundational and then advancing to Associate and Professional certs. The diagram below shows how AWS views the relationships between certifications at each level.

AWS core certifications explained

AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner

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

This foundational AWS exam covers the core principles of the AWS Cloud platform. You’ll answer questions concerning essential AWS services and features, including business use cases. The exam also covers AWS security and compliance fundamentals and requires you to demonstrate a working knowledge of AWS billing, support, and pricing. You should also expect questions about deploying resources and services in the AWS Cloud.

Prerequisites and prep

This cert is perfect for anyone in a non-technical role who needs a general understanding of the AWS platform. For example, IT salespeople can learn to speak with confidence and authority when a conversation touches on a customer’s AWS investments, and it can also help people in finance, management, and business roles communicate more clearly with their IT colleagues.

Amazon recommends six months of AWS experience before taking this exam, but that experience can be in any capacity, including technical and non-technical roles (e.g., sales, management, finance). In practice, your prep time—set aside at least six hours for study and review—is far more important for passing this exam.

AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate

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

This is the certification you’ll want to prove you know how to build and deploy systems in the AWS Cloud. This exam will ask questions about cloud-based solutions for deployments that follow strict requirements and require you to demonstrate a knowledge of architectural best practices. You’ll need considerable experience deploying, configuring, and managing compute, network, storage, and database services in AWS. I also strongly suggest going into this exam with working knowledge of AWS security and compliance policies.

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

AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Professional

  • Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
  • Length: 180 minutes
  • Fee: $300

Prove your ability to build and deploy distributed systems in the AWS Cloud to spec—plus understand how to deploy them at scale with fault tolerance and high availability. This certification also requires the ability to deploy multi-tier applications to the AWS Cloud, and to build enterprise-scale cloud solutions with AWS resources—all while managing your cloud spend.

Prerequisites: AWS no longer recommends earning the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate certification before taking this exam. However, if you don’t already have years of AWS experience, we recommend working toward your Solutions Architect - Associate certification first. AWS strongly recommends more than two years of experience deploying distributed systems, at scale, using AWS cloud services based on design requirements and best practices.

AWS Certified Developer - Associate

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

This AWS exam tests your ability to develop applications native to the AWS Cloud. You’ll need to show your ability to use the AWS SDK to interact with and optimize the AWS services that you built into an application. Passing this exam also demands a functional understanding of code-level security practices, including credential creation and encryption strategies.

Prerequisites: AWS recommends 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).

AWS Certified DevOps Engineer - Professional

  • Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
  • Length: 180 minutes
  • Fee: $300

The DevOps Engineer certification is all about testing your ability to manage distributed applications in the AWS Cloud—from provisioning to full operational management. You’ll 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 pertaining to the AWS platform.

As the diagram above shows, this is the professional-tier cert for the Developer and Operations tracks.

Prerequisites: While AWS no longer requires holding an AWS Certified Developer - Associate or AWS Certified SysOps Administrator - Associate certification before taking this exam, we still recommend them. Unless you have years of AWS experience, working towards these other two certifications will help you greatly as they build the fundamental knowledge you’ll need for this professional-level certification. AWS does recommend at least two years delivering applications in or managing AWS cloud deployments; and some experience with automation best practices, including scripting or other programming.

AWS Certified SysOps Administrator - Associate

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

Certify your ability to deploy, manage, and operate system resources in the AWS Cloud, including an understanding of what it takes to migrate on-premises workloads to the AWS Cloud. You should understand how to manage cloud systems for both fault tolerance and high availability. You should also be able to match resource deployment to requirements and to 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.

The AWS specialty certifications

AWS Certified Database - Specialty

  • Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
  • Length: 180 minutes
  • Registration fee: $300

Demonstrate your ability to use various AWS database services to help accelerate and drive your organization’s business—including knowing how to design, recommend, and maintain AWS database services.

Prerequisites: AWS recommends at least five years of experience with database technologies, at least two years of hands-on AWS experience, as well as some time spent working with relational and non-relational databases.

AWS Certified Advanced Networking - Specialty

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

If you’re into complex networking projects, especially ones that span scalable AWS systems, then this cert is perfect for you. The exam requires you to know how to manage a network architecture for any service on the AWS platform and automate most networking tasks.

Prerequisites: AWS recommends earning an AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner cert or any of the associate certs before taking this exam. AWS also suggests five years of experience managing networks and a firm understanding of networking concepts and best practices related to the AWS platform.

AWS Certified Security - Specialty

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

This AWS exam is all about advanced methods for securing the AWS Cloud platform. Candidates for this cert should be seasoned IT security experts who can demonstrate expert-level knowledge of data protection and encryption techniques for AWS environments; and mastery of AWS tools for implementing and managing cloud security.

Prerequisites: AWS recommends at least two years of hands-on experience securing AWS workloads and a minimum of five years of IT security experience.

AWS Certified Machine Learning - Specialty

  • Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
  • Length: 180 minutes
  • Fee: $300

Emphasizes designing and deploying machine learning solutions to solve practical business problems. You can expect questions that ask you to choose the best machine learning solution to a problem—and why the chosen approach is better than others. You’ll also need to understand which AWS services are relevant to delivering a machine-learning solution. And you’ll need to know how to optimize your AWS services to deliver scalable, reliable, and secure solutions.

Prerequisites: AWS recommends that candidates work in development or data science roles and have one to two years of experience using machine learning or deep learning on the AWS Cloud.

AWS Certified Alexa Skill Builder - Specialty

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

Tests your ability to create, test, and deploy Amazon Alexa skills. That includes understanding and communicating the value of voice solutions; applying user experience design best practices; security imperatives; and tools and techniques for creating, testing, and validating a skill.

Prerequisites: AWS recommends this cert to anyone who has (or wants) a job role that involves building Alexa skills. AWS recommends at least six months of hands-on experience building voice applications using the Alexa Skills Kit, and proficiency with at least one programming language.

AWS Certified Data Analytics - Specialty

  • Format: Multiple choice, multiple answer
  • Length: 180 minutes
  • Fee: $300

Tests your abilities with AWS data lakes and analytics services. That includes understanding how to design, build, secure, and maintain analytics solutions on AWS. You will need to know how to define AWS data analytics services to understand how they integrate securely. You will need to show how data analytics services fit in the data life cycle of collection, storage, processing, and visualization.

Prerequisites: AWS recommends at least five years of data analytics technology experience and at least two years of hands-on experience with the AWS Cloud.

Building your AWS Certification plan

As a Solutions Strategy Director and AWS expert for New Relic, people often ask me in what order they should take these exams. I recommend the following sequence for starting and turbocharging a cloud career:

  1. AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate
  2. AWS Certified Developer - Associate
  3. AWS Certified SysOps Administrator - Associate
  4. Any specialty AWS certifications that interest you
  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, which isn’t terribly useful for anyone in a technical role. I recommend folks in technical roles begin with the AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate exam and go from there. This certification also covers topics you’ll see again in the Developer and SysOps Administrator exams, which makes it a great up-front investment for anyone planning to take all three exams.

While the knowledge gained prepping for the Database, Network, and Security specialty certs will help you with the two professional level certifications, the others don’t offer that extra edge.

Preparing for AWS exams—today and in the future

The AWS platform has always been a hotbed of innovation—and constant, often rapid-fire change. While there’s only so much AWS can do to address the impact of technology change on its exams, it does adhere to some guidelines that will keep your exam prep reasonably focused:

  • AWS requires a new feature or service to be in general availability (GA) for at least six months before allowing it to appear on an exam.
  • As noted in its exam guides, AWS will discuss in broad terms which “topic areas and objectives” you’ll find on an exam, although it won’t discuss specific features and services.
  • AWS “regularly rotates questions in and out” of its exams, but every question should remain within the exam’s stated topic areas and objectives.

As for the AWS exam prep process, you’ll want to see for yourself what’s available to get you ready for each exam. Based on my experience, however, serious and thorough preparation for an Associate-level exam requires 120 hours or more—and the Speciality or Professional level exams will be even more demanding.

Many engineers, especially younger ones, get “into the zone” during their exam prep and take two, three, or even more exams within a matter of months. I know the feeling, but I also strongly suggest resisting the urge to “binge test.” Instead, take at least three-to-six months between each exam.

Consider this: You might be “in the zone” today, but what about three, six, or even nine years down the line? When the time comes, preparing to re-certify once you have a family, and a career in mid-flight, and who knows what else happening in your life, could become an overwhelming burden if you find yourself with multiple certifications expiring within a short period. A little foresight today can pay huge benefits throughout the rest of your career.

Stay focused on your career goals, plan and prepare carefully for these exams, and move ahead with confidence that you’ve got a winning—and lucrative—career-building strategy.

Best of luck in your AWS certification journey!