I've seen a lot of questions about how to best approach the various AWS certifications while hanging out on r/aws. Since I recently got my SysOps Administrator - Associate certification after working with AWS for six months, I'm in a good position to share what worked for me.
The exam blueprint
Start by getting familiar with the certification's blueprint (there are blueprints for all the certifications, this is just the SysOps one).
This covers all the material that you'll be tested on, and I was surprised how many people don't seem to have read it before asking for advice on how to pass the exams.
In the blueprint they give a list of the relevant AWS whitepapers you should know for the exam. In the case of the SysOps certification they are:
- Overview of Security Processes
- Storage Options in the Cloud
- Defining Fault Tolerant Applications in the AWS Cloud
- Overview of Amazon Web Services
- Compliance Whitepaper
- Architecting for the AWS Cloud
If there was anything in the papers that I didn't understand - or I was simply interested in - I would look it up specifically on the AWS Documentation site for that service.
The only paper I didn't read completely was the compliance paper - it is super long and extra boring (it's all legal-speak, with no technical "meat" to it).
All the rest I read multiple times on the bus to and from work. This was one of the most helpful things I did when preparing. Yes, there's a lot of repetition in and between the various papers, but that actually helped me get more confident on all the various AWS services.
A Cloud Guru
The course was useful (totally worth the price) because the author (Ryan) has a lot of good specific recommendations and exam tips. He's done most (all?) of the exams, and has seen many of the cases where they try to trick you up e.g. what are the 4 default EC2 metrics in CloudWatch (here's a hint: memory usage is not one of them!). He also highlights some of the questions that are completely out-of-date, but still in the exam (mainly regarding instance size and network throughput).
Their forums were also good to see what other people thought of sample questions. While I didn't ask any questions, it seems like a good place to ask for explanations/help from other students.
I didn't do any of the other courses or certifications (because I didn't think they would be necessary - see the next section), but throughout the SysOps course Ryan recommends first doing the Developer or Architect (Associate) courses if you haven't done them. From his experience the the SysOps is the hardest of the Associate-level certifications AWS offers.
The Cloud Guru course comes with a number of topic-specific quizzes and practice exams. These were good value because you are highly likely to get a couple of the same questions in your actual exams.
I also took one of the practice exams shortly after I started studying to gauge where I was at (I got 75%, which is technically a pass).
In addition to the course practice exams, AWS gives you a (small) sample exam for each of the certifications.
I scored higher on the practice exams I did than I did on the real thing, so keep that in mind - you should be crushing the practice exams, because the real thing will be harder.
Work work work
My main motivation for getting my AWS certification was because I had recently switched to an AWS-focused consulting role.
I was fortunate enough to be using AWS daily, and have access to a great group of colleagues to ask questions of (many of whom already had their AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Professional certification).
This meant I had a lot of first-hand experience in a lot (but not all) of the AWS services before I sat my exam e.g. CloudFormation, EC2, CloudTrail, CloudWatch, Direct Connect, IAM, S3 etc.
In particular I think this helped me with a lot of the VPC, IAM, S3, and EC2 (ELBs, ASGs, etc) material that makes up a large portion of the test.
Doing it on your own
Hands-on experience is definitely the best way to learn AWS. Nothing will give you confidence in picking the right answer like having done it yourself.
Unfortunately this also highlights one of the drawbacks of this kind of certification - sometimes the exams lag behind the real-world. There are some things that the AWS services now do things that aren't reflected in the certification exam.
If you don't have the benefit of using AWS at work, create a new AWS account (i.e. using a new email address) and make the most of the free usage tier.
Just set up a billing alarm to send you an email when you are in danger of being charged too much, and you can't go to wrong.
The Cloud Guru course (mentioned above) has labs to get you to practice things like creating VPCs, connecting to EC2 servers, etc. that are well worth doing.
Here are a few things that I didn't personally do but might be a good option, especially if you don't currently work with AWS.
There is a System Operations on AWS course that seems to be designed specifically for preparing for the SysOps exam.
Other AWS Certifications
I've seen a few different sources recommend taking at least one of the other Associate-level certifications (i.e. Developer or Architect) before taking the SysOps exam.
The exam is 55 multiple choice questions with an 80 minute time limit. Most questions are single-answer responses, but some are multiple-answer responses. The exact pass mark can and does change without notice, according to statistical analysis (see the FAQ).
I got 83% on my exam, and took me about 45 minutes.
This wasn't as high as I thought I was going to get (based on the questions where I was confident of my answer vs those I wasn't so sure of) - I think the multiple-answer responses cost me a few marks.
Topic Level Scoring:
1.0 Monitoring and Metrics: 62%
2.0 High Availability: 100%
3.0 Analysis: 88%
4.0 Deployment and Provisioning: 62%
5.0 Data Management: 100%
6.0 Security: 75%
7.0 Networking: 100%
Get in touch with me if you want to know anything else about the process.