AWS Solutions Architect - Professional Exam Tips

I passed the AWS Solutions Architect Professional exam on February 13, 2017. At that time, I'd been working with AWS for almost a year and had spent the previous 6 months working in AWS day in and day out. Prior to diving into AWS, I've been a software developer, system integrator, systems engineer, software architect, web designer, and Raspberry Pi home automation enthusiast. I've been asked by a number of my colleagues about my exam prep. The internet is filled with blog posts and social media posts about how folks passed the exam; consider this yet another post to add to the pile.

The Associate exam is all about single services within AWS -- do you know and understand what each service does, doesn't do, and its use cases. The Professional exam is more about how you combine these services to address a client's needs: how do you mix and match and trade the various services to solve specific requirements.

How did I Prepare?

  • Spend time with AWS

    Experience really is the best asset to have in either exam. I've spent a lot of time building stacks with CloudFormation, leveraging DynamoDB, constructing EC2 Instances, transferring data to S3, creating CloudFront distributions, creating a Route53 hosted zone, and, even more importantly, failing spectacularly on all of these endeavors! Making mistakes teaches you how things work and don't work and those memories (and scars) helped a lot during the exam itself. These are the specific things I did in AWS which helped:

    • VPC, Subnets, Network ACLs, and Security Groups
    • EC2 Instance Types
    • CloudFormation templates and stacks
    • Website hosting
      • Static hosting on S3
      • Apache on EC2
      • CloudFront distributions
      • Route53 Hosted Zones
    • Create an Elastic Beanstalk stack
    • Create an OpsWorks stack
  • Read the AWS exam blueprint

  • Use A Cloud Guru

    I started with the ACloud.Guru course for both the Associate and Professional Solutions Architect exams. I found both courses to be incredibly helpful and insightful. The Associate level course had a lot more material in it where the Professional course was more high level and theoretical.

    After each course, I'd spend some time with the AWS Frequently Asked Questions and relevant white papers.

  • Watch a bunch of AWS re:Invent videos on YouTube - I just searched for AWS Solutions Architect Professional and found numerous playlists of videos to watch
  • Read all the white papers (multiple times). I preferred downloading the Kindle versions to read on my Android tablet
  • Read the FAQs of services I didn’t know well
  • Read this post: http://cantrill.io/certification/aws/2015/10/04/passing-the-aws-solutions-architect-professional-exam.html
  • Take the practice test - it's tougher than the real exam but it's a good prep for the real test.

Key Topics to Understand

  • CloudFront Distribution Protocols
  • RDS Backup and Replication Types
  • Storage Gateway
  • Instance Types and their Uses
  • Spot vs Reserved vs On Demand EC2 Instance types, where to use them and why
  • EMR
  • Elastic Beanstalk
  • OpsWorks
  • CloudFormation
  • Kinesis
  • Data pipeline
  • VPCs
  • Direct Connect
  • S3 Storage types and lifecycles policies
  • Disaster Recovery Strategies for Databases
  • Basic RAID concepts
  • Federated Authentication including SAML tokens and STS Workflows
  • What services are interested vs intra region

My Exam Strategy

  • For each question, start by reading the last sentence first (as recommended by acloud.guru). Focus on what it was asking like “what architecture meets these requirements while still being cost effective”. Then read the entire question from the start with the last sentence in mind. Always focus on THOSE final words when choosing your answers.
  • Focus on the details in the question: look for Chekhov's gun: if they include it in the question it probably shapes the answer (although I encountered a few that seemed to be red herrings).
    • Durable: probably means S3
    • An RPO less than 3 hours means it's not Glacier
    • Rapid scaling is a clue for Dynamo
    • Cost effective: clue to use reserved or spot instances and possibly avoid Multi-AZ
  • Remember that Multi-AZ databases are not backups; if you need to restore from a corrupt state or a human mistake, a multi AZ database will have duplicated that mistake. Understand what DB backup options exist.
  • Start by excluding the answers that are wrong: typically two answers can be excluded off the bat -- look for architectural details that you know are wrong like using SNS to distribute work or backing up a database to S3; I wrote down these on my sheet of paper and widdled down my answers to the remaining two or three that were valid. Typically those answers differed by only one detail and that helped to select the right one.
  • When in doubt, pick the answer that's based on AWS; a few questions talked about creating RAID solutions or configuring routes on the instance itself -- this is not the AWS way so I avoided those answers.

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