A long time ago in a company not too far away, developers actually wanted to code in Java.
This was before Java built a reputation as being “too slow,” or “memory hungry,” or “a black hole that sucks away all the joy in a 100-mile radius” (as Bruce Tate described it in Seven Languages in Seven Weeks). People said that Java was for “people who couldn’t code.” It was around this time that developers started doing Java certifications. Aspiring Java devs could get certified and be guaranteed jobs and money for their trouble.
That was my first exposure to seeing certifications being used in software, and since those early days the number of certifications has ballooned. You can still get a certification for Java, but you also can receive ones for AWS, Azure, Google Cloud Platform, Kubernetes, Scrum, SAFe … and apparently, you can even get a Beer Judge Certification, which sounds particularly appealing!
There are many opinions on the internet of whether or not certifications are worth it. Some of the discourse has been about whether they’re rigorous enough, or if, e.g., “You just have to turn up.” Like most things, I suspect the answer is somewhere in the middle and a little different for everyone.
In this article, I’ll share my experience of going through the certification process so that you can gain a better understanding of what all is involved, and whether you’ll be able to take full advantage of the learning that goes into the certification.
Preparing For the Test
One great thing about working at 8th Light is the generous Learning & Development annual budget included in our benefits. We are allowed 100+ hours and $1,500/£1,500 a year to use as we see fit. Although some of my colleagues used this allotment to partially fund a conference to Vegas, I went for the slightly more mundane AWS Solutions Architect. The cost of the exam is $150, and you gain quite a big discount if you’ve completed an AWS exam before.
This is an obvious thing to say, but you will need to follow their curriculum and have access to good up-to-date resources. The AWS site has a lot of information, which can be overwhelming, but good documentation also lives there. They also have some practice exam questions, which ensure you have the best chance of passing the exam.
I also purchased an online training course, acloudguru.com, which contained videos on all the subjects in the curriculum for both AWS Solutions Architect and Kubernetes Administrator certifications. (Other training material providers do exist, and I’ve used Whizlabs for a previous AWS certification.)
The Cloud Guru course also contains “lab exercises” where you can try some of the things you learned in the videos. These labs are restricted accounts in AWS and Kubernetes that are spun up as part of the training course. The labs are very beneficial, as getting hands-on exposure to AWS and Kubernetes is going to help you cement the theory in the videos. In the particular course I picked, there are about 45 hours of content, which is a lot! This consisted mainly of videos, labs, and a quiz at the end of each section.
I paid about £290 for all of this, thanks to 8th Light. To ensure success, I went and purchased some further practice exam questions for the princely sum of £10. From start to finish, I took about four months to complete the certification, which was completed in dribs and drabs. Others have completed it in less, but it depends which course you go for and how much dedicated time you spend on it. That 120 hours of L&D time sure was helpful.
Taking the Exam
When you think you’ve prepared enough, it is time to book that exam. For the AWS exams, you can take the exam at a test center or do it online in what is called a “proctored” exam. The Kubernetes exam is also proctored. When I went to book the AWS exam, places at a test center of my choice were few and far between, and instead I chose an online option where availability was not an issue.
As you might expect, doing an exam online is very strict. Before you join the exam, they ask you to take photos to the left, right, in front, and behind your sitting position. When you join the exam, you will briefly talk to the proctor, who will ask you to do a sweep of your room with your webcam. During the exam, they monitor you through the webcam and microphone. Some of the other (nonexhaustive) rules are:
You’re not allowed to leave your desk, even to go to the toilet.
You’re not allowed to talk to anyone (apart from the proctor).
You’re not allowed to eat or smoke.
Your desk must be clean and tidy.
You must not be interrupted.
You can only use one monitor, i.e. the inbuilt laptop screen. You cannot have a second display.
You must have a stable internet connection.
You have to use a locked down browser provided by the company providing the exam.
Mobile devices should not be in reach.
After about two to three hours, you’ll have finished your exam, and shortly after (a day in my case), you’ll be told the good news that you’ve passed. Congratulations!
Pros and Cons of Certifications
Each certification will come with its own tradeoffs, which will matter more or less depending on what your goals are. Some of my takeaways from going through the certification process are:
It pays to have T-shaped skills. You have a depth of knowledge in one area and a breadth of less deep knowledge in other areas. AWS is so vast these days, you can have a depth of knowledge in a particular area of AWS and breadth in other areas of AWS, i.e., you will have a broader knowledge of AWS from going through the certification process.
Do the labs and practical exercises. Just make sure you get hands-on experience.
It’s satisfying to get a certification. You even get a digital certificate that you can post and boast about on LinkedIn.
You will need to read around the subject a bit. Some of the exam questions were not in the videos that I watched.
Some of the downsides I found included:
Tech is evolving very quickly. In the several months since I passed my exam, AWS has changed the curriculum and there is new stuff in the exam. Which means that …
… you have to get recertified every three years (for AWS).
There is a lot of material to get through . It takes some time to review the videos, practice exams, and labs, and as a result I missed out on working on some personal projects that might have been more interesting.
Some of the material can be quite dry. Be sure to have a strong coffee on hand for some of the videos. And while there can be a lot of videos to watch, the practical exercises can be a lot more interesting.
Is a Certification Worthwhile?
Of course, “it depends.”
Skeptics may have a point that a certification in itself is of limited use. However, certifications present profound learning opportunities if you’ve the time, interest, and resources to invest in them. Simply doing the courses will not make you an expert. You need to practice the material and work with the concepts. It is a case of “use it or lose it.” — hands-on experience cannot be beaten. So for me, the answer is a cautious “yes, it was worth it," but with the aforementioned caveats. No matter what, you’ll get a sense of satisfaction when you complete and pass the exam.
Right, I’m now off to prepare for that Beer Judge Certification (outside of work hours, of course)!