This is a snippet from The AWS Certification Prep Guide.
Everything in this article is a suggestion based on our experience working with thousands of students to achieve their AWS Certification. What we've learned is there is no one right way that works for everyone, but there are some general themes that have emerged.
Part I: AWS Certifications and Levels Explained
We are going to go over the different certifications that AWS offers, compare them all with each other, and then look at which ones might be right for you.
To begin with, AWS offers four levels of certification: Foundational, Associate, Professional, and Specialty.
AWS Foundational Level Certifications:
- # of different certifications: 1
- Scope: Fairly broad
- Depth of understanding: Very shallow
- Prerequisites: None
- Key message: You need to know the high-level of how AWS works and a tiny bit about each service.
AWS Cloud Practitioner - Foundational
We recommend our AWS Cloud Practitioner course as the best place to start for everyone new to cloud computing.
This certification gives you a high-level introduction to AWS. This certification doesn't focus on any particular services. Instead, this is just about how AWS is generally structured. This will help you start building the foundation you'll need to continue learning AWS. Learn More >
AWS Associate Level Certifications:
- # of different certifications: 3
- Scope: Fairly broad
- Depth of understanding: Shallow
- Prerequisites: None
- Key message: You need to know a little bit about a lot of things.
AWS Solutions Architect - Associate
We recommend our AWS Solutions Architect Associate course as the best next step for everyone new to cloud computing (even though developers and sysadmins will be tempted to go for the Developer Associate or the SysOps Admin Associate certs, right away).
This certification gives you a simple, broad overview of AWS. It is a valuable foundation on which you can build everything else you learn about AWS, and is the #1 cloud certification for 2 years in a row.
This certification focuses on the core AWS services, like Identity and Access Management (IAM), Virtual Private Cloud (VPC), S3, and EC2. Studying these core services will give you a good understanding of AWS's approach to security, networking, data storage, and compute capability. Learn More >
AWS Certified Developer - Associate
This certification is not just for developers. Rather, it is for anyone who uses AWS. We recommend that everyone should move onto this immediately after finishing the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate exam, because there is a lot of overlap with that exam and taking them close together makes this one much easier to finish off quickly.
In terms of focus, this AWS certification requires deeper understanding of things like DynamoDB, Elastic Beanstalk, SQS, and SNS, but still does not go particularly deep into any of them. It also expects you to know a bit more about how you would use these services and how they present themselves to the outside world through APIs and SDKs. Learn More >
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AWS SysOps Administrator - Associate
While the name of this certification also misleads some people, this exam is not only for SysOps Admins. This is for anyone who runs things on AWS. This exam goes more in-depth on CloudWatch, among other things. Going through this certification gives you a much stronger grasp of what is actually going on in your AWS architecture.
The AWS SysOps Admin Associate exam is widely regarded as the hardest associate certification, but it is really valuable to finish off all of the associates before moving onto the much harder professional exams. The professional exams expect you to know everything about the associate level exams like the back of your hand, so it's important to make sure that you’ve got this stuff down pat. Learn more >
AWS Professional Level Certifications:
- # of different certifications 2
- Scope: Very broad
- Depth: Much deeper than Associate Level
- Prerequisites: At least 1 Associate Level Certification in that role
- Key message: You need to know almost everything about a lot of things.
AWS DevOps Engineer - Professional
This certification goes deeper than the Solutions Architect Professional exam into things like deployments and lifecycles — and includes services like CloudFormation and OpsWorks — but on the whole it has a rather narrower scope. Still, there is quite a bit of overlap between the two professional certifications and a lot of people find it valuable to study for them together.
This exam really requires you to think about systems--and not just static systems that are deployed once, but systems that change over time. DevOps is all about combining development, operations, and a quality mindset to shepherd systems through time. The DevOps Pro is a valuable stepping stone between the associate level certifications and the Solutions Architect Professional certification. That does not mean that you have to do this one, if you want to do the Solutions Architect Pro, but we do think it makes it much easier to pass the Solutions Architect Professional certification. Learn More >
AWS Solutions Architect - Professional
SA Pro is the pinnacle of general AWS expertise. With this certification in hand you should be able to dig into any AWS service or feature and make good use of it. Also, because you understand the ecosystem so well, it should let you stay up to date much more easily as AWS keeps changing.
For the Solutions Architect Pro, absolutely every service in the entire AWS ecosystem is in scope, and it requires quite a bit of depth in things like security and Direct Connect. To achieve this certification, you really need to know a lot about everything AWS has to offer. Learn More >
AWS Specialty Certifications:
- # of different certifications: 3
- Scope: Narrow
- Depth: Extremely deep on topics
- Prerequisites: At least 1 Associate Level Certification (any role) or Cloud Practitioner
- Key message: You need to know everything about a few topics.
Advanced Networking - Specialty
This certification gets into both hybrid and AWS-only networks and it includes aspects like multi-region setups and cost optimization. If you do this Advanced Networking Specialty before you do the Solutions Architect pro, it’d make certain aspects of the SA Pro exam much easier to you.
To pass the Advanced Networking Specialty certification exam, there are some services that you really don’t need to know anything about--and other things that you need to know absolutely everything about--such as Direct Connect, Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), and routing. Learn More >
Big Data - Specialty
This certification focuses on all data services, especially RedShift, Kinesis, DynamoDB, and Elastic MapReduce. It also includes some things that you might not have expected, such as Internet Of Things and Machine Learning. Security is always important, so this certification ropes in things such as the Key Management Service (KSM) and the Hardware Security Modules (HSM). Learn More >
Security - Specialty
This certification is the broadest specialty certification. Security is a cross-cutting concern, so this is less focused on specific services. But it does still go into depth on a number of security-specific services, such as Identity and Access Management (IAM), Virtual Private Cloud (VPC), Key Management Service (KMS), CloudTrail, AWS Config, and Web Application Firewall (WAF). Some of the most common types of questions on this exam have you figuring out how different security settings interact or conflict. Learn More >
Part II: Which AWS Certifications Should You Get?
You should start with your end goal in mind. The certifications can open doors, but you are not going to be able to make a career out of holding a piece of paper. You make a career out of being able to do things that add real value. Furthermore, it is increasingly becoming a DevOps world, out there, so you can't expect someone else to take care of all the details that you don’t really understand. You need to be able to handle running systems, yourself, and work together with others on them.
So given that, I consider having the three Associate certifications — and optionally the Certified Cloud Practitioner-- as a solid foundation for using AWS really effectively, day-to-day. With these, you'll understand how to design, build, configure, monitor, and maintain systems built on AWS.
After that, the other certifications build toward the Solutions Architect Professional, which is the broadest certification that AWS offers:
So with your end goal in mind, let’s take a look at my list of suggestions:
Suggested order to get the Core 5 AWS Certifications
Doing them in this order gets you some nice stepping stones along the way--and starting with the optional Cloud Practitioner certification, before this, makes for an even easier start:
- Certified Solutions Architect - Associate
- Certified Developer - Associate
- Certified SysOps Admin - Associate
- Certified DevOps - Professional
- Certified Solutions Architect - Professional