Ever wondered what it takes to achieve all 13 AWS certifications?

Check out Haman Sharma’s chat with Emmanuel Koomson – 13 times AWS certified. 

Haman: First of congrats on getting all 13 AWS certifications – it’s a lot. How do you find time to do all this and what strategy do you normally follow? Tell us about your AWS Journey?

Emmanuel: Thank you, Haman. Yes, 13 is a lot. When I first decided to do it, it looked like a longshot. But as I worked towards it, it become real each day.

This year, I resolved to learn every day no matter the circumstance. I made it a point to learn something daily, even if it’s just 30 minutes. Before COVID, I used to get to the office early and studied for 2 hours before starting work. I would also stay over a couple of hours after. When I got home and wasn’t feeling too tired, I would continue for an hour or two. I switched the routine to between 5 pm and 2 am when we started working from home. This was challenging at first, there were always outstanding tasks from work even after office hours. I made a conscious effort to devote the evenings solely to personal development.

I manage my personal development as a program. I maintain a tracker of development areas, a schedule and a budget. I also have folders for each development area or certifications. I frequently update these documents when I have new information. 

I have been using AWS for less than 2 years. I had 2 brief stints with it in the first year and worked on certifications after to upskill. My first encounter with AWS was in late 2018 when I built my first Alexa skill. I didn’t even know at the time that Alexa was part of AWS. I had woken up from bed and decided to write a skill to while away time. With a little research (thanks to Google), I wrote a skill that scraped the latest news RSS feed from a media outlet and read it out. 

Two months later at work, I needed to quickly build a prototype for an app. I resorted to AWS. It was then I realized how huge the platform was. It had ‘everything’ there. I was impressed about how work went into building such a big and diverse platform. Building the prototype lasted a few weeks and I used the developer tools, S3, Elastic Beanstalk and RDS. I knew I wanted to learn more about the platform. Unfortunately, I had committed to a development plan at work (training and certification for PMP and TOGAF) and needed to complete that before I could delve deeper. 

Nine months later, I had completed the PMP and TOGAF certifications.

I decided to take some certifications, these would help me learn so much in little time and ensure I am updated with best practices. I updated my development plan to include the AWS Solutions Architect Professional and Machine Learning certifications. I was only going to take these two. I realized quickly that it was a bad plan and hence decided to start with the Solutions Architect Associate certification.

I wrote the Architect Associate passed and immediately started preparing for the Architect Professional. I passed the Architect Professional after 3 attempts. That exam is notoriously challenging, you require years of AWS experience and good time management to pass. While preparing for the Architect Professional I decide to add DevOps and Networking certifications. I decided to write the 12 certifications when I passed the DevOps exam. And that’s how I ended up writing all 13 certifications. It took me 8 months in all since I started preparing for the first exam.

I must say after 13 certifications, it is still day 1. I learn new things on the platform every day. For instance, I only started using AWS Amplify last week. I don’t use AWS at work, so all my experience on the platform are from labs, personal projects and building solutions for others.   

Haman: That’s a great story. So, when it comes to architecting solutions, have these certifications helped in shaping your perspective?

Emmanuel: Yes, it has. One of my motivations for pursuing certifications was to learn the best and effective ways of architecting solutions on the platform. Before AWS, I was used to monoliths. But now depending on the situation, I could architect microservices, serverless or n-tier apps. It is also easier to architect in the cloud because, most architectural considerations are already automated or managed for you.

The Well-Architected Framework is one of the resources that has had an impact on me. When I architect solutions now even outside AWS, I look out for some concerns raised in there. I now do production scale testing, resources can be decommissioned after testing and you only pay for what you use. I have also learnt to script or codify repeatable tasks like deploying services. While pursuing certifications, I have also learnt to use purpose-built solutions and not one size fits all solutions. This is especially true for databases where you could use an in-memory cache for fast retrievals, graph databases for relationships and data lakes or warehousing for analytics.

Lastly, I have learnt to anticipate and architect for failure. Like Dr Werner Vogels put it “Everything fails all the time”.  I can achieve this by loosely coupling components and leveraging features like horizontal scaling, health checks, monitoring and event responses. 

Haman: A lot of people are gravitating towards achieving AWS certifications regardless of if they use AWS in their job or not. I want to ask you – what’s your motivation for pursuing AWS? Why not Microsoft Azure or GCP or OCI or IBM cloud?

Emmanuel: Everyone has their motivations and they vary. For me, it was the first platform I came across, and I loved it. I pursued the certifications because I was curious to learn more. Even though the exams are theoretical, they are scenario based. The distractors seem plausible and you can easily fail if you do not have the knowledge or experience. 

Although AWS is not the easiest platform to use especially as a beginner, it has so many services and hence can be used for more use cases as compared to the others. There is also demand for people with cloud skills in general and as the market leader, people would naturally want to learn that first. They are marketable and it’s easy to get a job when you have AWS skills and certifications. Domain experts can easily upskill on AWS since most of the products are based on open source applications. It is also easier for them to take the specialty certifications. 

Little praise is given to AWS on their investments to develop people to use their services. They recognize that getting people skilled in technology plays a huge role in their adoption. They provide learning materials in different forms. To name a few: documentations, whitepapers, blogs, online courses and architecture discussions. Resources to learn AWS are readily available, some free, others paid. AWS organizes sessions all the time on certifications and building on the platform. Looking back, I think the 50% discount on certifications after passing an exam played a role in taking all of them.

Haman: Let’s say I’m just fresh out of college or just about to start my cloud journey – How do I start? What advice would you give?

Emmanuel: If you want to embark on a cloud journey and any journey for that matter, it’s imperative you set a goal and plan to realize it. Planning sets you up for success. Its also important to have a motivation, that’s what will keep you going when you feel like giving up. In my case, it was believing that I could do more.

There are some AWS services that are used in almost every deployment or other services are based on. These include EC2, S3, DynamoDB, IAM and CloudWatch. Know what these services are used and build on from there. You can then continue to services that cover areas you are familiar with. For example, if you are into application development, you can start with the developer tools. For instance, if you are database administrator you check out services like RDS and Athena. You should also consider certification to provide some structure to your learning, it is the quickest way to learn. 

The best way to learn is by doing. Setup an AWS account for practice. The core services have free tier offerings, and this can be used for experimentation. If you cannot write code or scripts, a lot are available on GitHub. AWS and several organizations and individuals maintain repositories for AWS projects. You can fork any to deploy workloads in AWS. 

One effective way of learning AWS is by reading whitepapers and blog posts. Experts provide information on how they use various services to solve problems. By reading them you learn the practices of architecting and ideal use cases for services. I have also read some good posts on deploying solutions on AWS from Medium and FreeCodeCamp.

If you prefer videos, there are so many AWS how-to videos on YouTube. You can also subscribe to courses from companies like A Cloud Guru, Cloud Academy and Udemy. Their offerings range between $10 and $50. You should sign up for an AWS certification and training account. They have quick introduction videos for almost every service. For certifications, they provide certification readiness courses and solve sample questions for each certification. If you are considering certification, Whizlabs and Tutorials Dojo provide very good practice tests.

Communities are also ways to learn about AWS. Most big cities across the globe have at least one AWS community, you can search online and join one. You have people with experience using AWS sharing knowledge in various forms including meetups and one on ones. They are also a way to stay informed on AWS. I have witnessed first hand that people are willing to share knowledge and experience. Reach out when you need help, most would respond.

It is easier to learn cloud when you have an IT background. If you do not come from an IT background, I’d advise you learn basic IT first, especially networking and a small pinch of programming(scripting).

AWS has so many services and it can be confusing navigating them. To add to this, they are always adding new features and services. This also presents a unique opportunity, in that, you can pick just one service or group of related services and master them. All I have said is daunting. Start small, be curious and consistent, you would be amazed with the progress you have made. 

Haman: Is there something that you wish someone would have told you before the onset of your career? Imagine going back to start of your professional career – is there something you would have done differently?

EmmanuelOne thing I wished I started doing early in my career is networking. I used to focus only on work and customers. Since last year, I have joined several professional bodies and communities. I have listened to people share their experiences and how they have navigated their journeys. I have also learned about trends, new technologies and received guidance from people in these communities. These interactions have made me a better person overall and I believe I have impacted others as well. It goes without saying that LinkedIn is a great platform to network.

Emmanuel Koomson is a Product Owner, Solution Architect, 13X AWS Certified and a life long learner. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

Check out Emmanuel’s blogs:

  1. How to Prepare for AWS Certified Database Specialty
  2. How to Prepare for AWS Certified Data Analytics Specialty
  3. How to Prepare for AWS Machine Learning Specialty

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