You may already know that Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the largest, oldest, and most popular cloud service provider. But did you know they offer professional certifications, too?
These AWS cloud certifications come straight from Amazon itself. The exams to earn them are quite challenging, but they will make an impact on your résumé and CV. They can help you steer your career in a variety of emerging cloud roles such as DevOps or Site Reliability Engineering.
One big advantage of using the cloud (which is basically just a collection of other people’s computers) is that you no longer need to purchase your own servers and plug them into the internet.
Instead you can rent virtual servers in the cloud and run your applications on them. And as of 2020, most companies do this.
By the time you finish this challenge, you’ll be an AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner. You’ll also have at least one Associate-tier AWS certification. And if you’re up for it, you may have one of the much-coveted Professional-tier certifications or a specialty certification as well.
That’s at least 3 certifications – each with its own rigorous examination process.
First things first, you should know that AWS does charge examination fees to take these exams and get certified. (It’s USD $100 to $300 per test. More details below.)
But aside from those exam fees, you won’t have to spend a single dollar preparing for the exams. How is that possible? Because freeCodeCamp has dozens of hours of free AWS certification prep courses on our YouTube channel. That’s how.
My friend and fellow Star Trek fan Andrew Brown has designed full-length courses for each of these certifications. And his company, ExamPro, has graciously made these freely available to developers around the world.
I’ll link to the videos below. But first, here are the rules of the challenge, should you choose to accept it.
The Rules of the #AWSCertified Challenge
That’s it. Unlike #100DaysOfCode, there is no set end date to this challenge. It’s over when it’s over, which should only be a few months if you’re working each day toward your certifications.
Note that AWS has recommended work experience for each certification. Don’t fret when you see AWS mention things like: “2 years of comprehensive experience designing, operating, and troubleshooting solutions using the AWS cloud.” These are just recommendations.
If you know enough to pass the test, you can get certified – even if you haven’t yet done professional projects that use AWS.
What certifications does AWS offer?
In total, AWS offers 12 certifications. Here’s a breakdown of the tests, how much they cost, and how long the certifications are valid for.
Cloud Computing Has Created Lots of Opportunities for New Developers
The rise of cloud services over the past decade has changed the way developers build and run web apps.
And since almost every app in 2020 is a web app or has a significant web app component, you could argue that cloud computing has changed the nature of software development itself.
Most new companies are “cloud-native” – meaning they forgo data centers entirely and just use cloud services like AWS.
Some large companies and governments still run their own data-centers. But most of these are also adopting a hybrid model where they connect their data centers to the cloud.
The rise of cloud computing has created a variety of new technical roles called “cloud roles.” These roles may depend less on traditional computer science fundamentals. Instead, they focus more on configuring, combining, and maintaining cloud services to create cohesive products and services.
These new roles have created a several new entry points into software development and system administration careers.
In this article, I’ll dive deep into the various cloud-focused developer roles out there, so you can choose the one that is the best fit for your background and your interests.
I’ll also recommend a certification path for each of these roles. And I’ll explain the fees for each certification exam.
Also since this is freeCodeCamp – where your cup of free learning resources runneth over – I’ll link you to a ton of free in-depth courses for each of these exams.
The AWS Certified Solutions Architect Role Explained
As of 2020, AWS has more than 150 different cloud services – so many that even veteran developers don’t know them all.
The job of a Solutions Architect is to have a broad knowledge of these core AWS services, and to constantly understand new services as they come out, and how they can be used for business ends.
A Solutions Architect isn’t always responsible for implementing their own solutions. But they do gather research and propose ideas to their team.
Of all the roles I’ll discuss here, the Solutions Architect role is the one that requires the least amount of programming knowledge.
If you like strategy, planning, and solving problems, you’ll love the Solutions Architect role.
And if you don’t know where to start your career, the Solutions Architect certification gives you the broadest exposure to cloud concepts so that you can then further specialize from there.
The Recommended Certification Path for Becoming an AWS Certified Solutions Architect
The AWS Certified Cloud Engineer Role Explained
A Cloud Engineer is a more general role. It involves the same responsibilities as being a web developer, but places a greater emphasis on making use of cloud services.
Cloud Engineers focus more on the implementation details of developer solutions rather than infrastructure solutions. Cloud Engineers aren’t normally tasked with setting up servers or networking. (Those are handled by SysOps – a role I’ll explain below in a minute).
Out of all the roles I’m going to cover here today, Cloud Engineer is the role that requires the most programming knowledge.
The Recommended Certification Path for becoming an AWS Certified Cloud Engineer
The AWS Certified SysOps Administrator Role Explained
The SysOps (System Operations) role involves maintaining existing cloud infrastructure. SysOps Administrators patch, monitor, and stress-test servers.
SysOps Administrators are also responsible for reacting to incidents that occur. So if a web server goes down in the middle of the night and you’re the on-duty SysOps person, you’ll be the one waking up to fix it. 🙂
The SysOps role is usually seen as a first step to becoming a full-blown DevOps engineer (Developer Operations – I’ll explain it below).
The SysOps role requires you to have deep infrastructure knowledge. You need to know how servers and networks work. And you need to be good with operating systems like Linux (and maybe Unix or Windows).
The Recommended Certification Path for becoming an AWS Certified SysOps Administrator
The AWS Certified DevOps Administrator Role Explained
The DevOps (Developer Operations) role involves automating infrastructure using code. DevOps Administrators help their organizations minimize infrastructure costs.
For example, a DevOps Administrator might write a script that spins up extra servers during peak time, then spins those servers down when business is slow to save money.
DevOps is a proactive role. They are actively trying to reduce the amount of work a SysOps Administrator needs to do to maintain infrastructure.
The DevOps role requires both extensive infrastructure knowledge and extensive scripting knowledge.
The Recommended Certification Path for becoming an AWS Certified DevOps:
The AWS Certified Site Reliability Engineer Role Explained
The Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) role focuses on implementing strategies for disaster recovery, fault tolerance, and high availability. SRE’s also work to boost performance of both developers on their team, and of the infrastructure itself.
SRE’s play a proactive role to ensure everything runs smoothly. It requires a broad range of knowledge.
The Recommended Certification Path for Becoming a Site Reliability Engineer
The AWS Certified Data Scientist Role Explained
Data Scientists use statistics, machine learning, and other academic knowledge to help create automated data-driven business solutions. This is a more reactive role.
It is true that Data Scientists roles traditionally require an academic background, and many Data Scientists have Ph.D.’s and extensive mathematics training.
This said, the demand for Data Scientists is so great among many employers that just being able to use simple Machine Learning solutions is enough to help you get the job.
You can also find Data Science roles that use managed Machine Learning services.
If you are not afraid of math, and want to work with big data, this role may be a good fit for you.
The Recommended Certification Path for Becoming a Data Scientist
The AWS Certified Data Engineer Role Explained
When a Data Scientist creates a data solution, they are building a prototype that doesn’t necessarily scale. That’s where a Data Engineer comes in.
The Data Engineer’s role is to wrap that solution around infrastructure that does work at scale.
A Data Engineer has to think about how to move and store data. They need deep knowledge of how to configure and scale databases and messaging systems. They also need to understand how to seamlessly integrate different APIs.
The Data Engineer role is ideal if you want to work with big data and large scale infrastructure, but you don’t want to learn so much math and domain expertise.
The Recommended Certification Path for Becoming a Data Engineer
The AWS Certified Data Analyst Role Explained
The Data Analyst role involves analyzing data and creating data visualizations.
If you don’t have a strong foundation in math, but do know a bit about web development and want to work with big data – the Data Analyst role may be a good fit for you.
The Recommended Certification Path for Becoming a Data Analyst
The AWS Certified Security Engineer Role Explained
With the rise of truly big data over the past decade, security breaches can have massive repercussions. It seems like every month we hear about some company getting hacked and exposing millions of user records to hackers.
Even smaller companies and local nonprofits have to worry about security. Cloud computing introduces even more security considerations, so there are ton of new career opportunities in this field.
There’s also a wide variety of specializations within the field of Cyber Security. I could write an entire article about just these specializations, and it would be at least as long as this one is.
But here’s a sane starting point if you want to become a Security Engineer who works with cloud services.
The Recommended Certification Path for Becoming a Security Engineer
The Rise of Cloud Certifications
10 years ago, most certifications in the tech industry weren’t taken very seriously. Some of this was because of confusion around what constituted a “certification” versus merely a “certificate.” (The difference – an instructor may hand you a certificate at the end of a weekend workshop, but you have to work hard and pass some sort of evaluation to earn a certification.)
AWS has raised the reputation of developer certifications. They’ve done this this by certifying everyone directly, and providing verified certifications on their own servers.
These AWS certifications are already notoriously challenging, and AWS updates their exams each quarter with new questions to keep developers on their toes. AWS also strictly monitors test-takers through proctored test centers. (That’s right – you have to physically report to a test center to take these exams.)
I Have Zero Cloud Experience. How Do I Get Started?
If you’re learning about cloud services for the first time, you’ll definitely want to start with the Certified Cloud Practitioner course. It teaches you all the foundational knowledge you need, and it gives you hands on experience with the AWS platform.
It’s also a great confidence booster. You can pass the exam after only around 10 hours of study. So you could realistically become AWS Certified within a week.
Here’s the full course – free and with no ads – from freeCodeCamp’s YouTube channel:
Also be sure to join freeCodeCamp’s #AWSCertified Discord channel to ask questions and get help along the way.
Why Should I Learn AWS Over Other Cloud Service Providers?
The “Big 3” cloud service providers all have similar offerings. You can easily transfer the concepts you learn for AWS over to other platforms. (In case you’re wondering, aside from AWS, there’s Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform.)
There are advantages to choosing AWS as your primary cloud service provider when learning the cloud.
AWS Advantage #1: The Widest Variety of Tools
AWS has been around the longest – since the early 2000s. They have the largest library of cloud service offerings, with over 150 services. So learning AWS first will give you exposure to the widest variety of cloud tools.
AWS Advantage #2: Good Student Support
Like Amazon, AWS puts a strong emphasis on customer support. You can pay AWS $30 per month to gain access to their support plan, where you can email them questions and they will help you get unstuck. This can help you accelerate your learning and keep you from getting stuck for too long.
AWS also has extensive technical documentation – arguably more comprehensive than Google or Microsoft’s. It’s actually possible to pass many AWS Certification exams just by reading AWS’s official documentation and technical whitepapers. (And again, we offer free in-depth courses for these exams, so you may not have to rely on this documentation as much.)
AWS Advantage #3: More Employers Use AWS So There’s a Bigger Job Market
Perhaps the most important advantage of earning AWS certifications first is that more than 50% of the Fortune 500 companies – and many governments – use AWS. So until Microsoft and Google capture more of the market, AWS certifications offer the most potential job opportunities.
Other Cloud Service Providers Beyond the Big 3
There are a few newcomers to the cloud provider space that you may encounter on the job. I wouldn’t recommend studying specifically to get certified on these quite yet, but it’s good to be aware of them.
IBM launched its own broad range of cloud offerings services a few years ago, but it may have stagnated. They seem to be investing more into Machine Learning these days with Watson and other AI projects.
Alibaba Cloud is the AWS of Asia. It has broad service offerings just like AWS. In theory, if you knew how to use AWS, you could also use Alibaba Cloud. If you are reading this from China, I encourage you to look into Alibaba Cloud’s tools and certifications. Otherwise, I recommend focusing on the Big 3, as they’re more widely used internationally.
Netlify is a layer of abstraction on top of the Big 3 cloud providers. It’s not exactly a cloud service provider. But it does have an easy-to-use interface that makes it easy to go cross-cloud for hosting, deployment, and serverless.
Digital Ocean and Linode started out as hosting providers, and have each added a few extra services, such as load balancing and automatic backups. If you learn how to use one of the Big 3, you can easily pick up and run with both Linode and Digital Ocean. They are much simpler to use.
Heroku is not a cloud service provider but a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). Heroku abstracts away your cloud infrastructure so you can more easily deploy your web app. If your goal is to become a full-stack developer, Heroku lets you focus on just the coding part. Most companies outgrow Heroku very quickly because it becomes quite expensive at scale.
A Breakdown of all 11 AWS Certifications
Each of the 11 certifications falls into one of four categories, with some being much harder than others.
There is only 1 AWS Certification on the foundational tier which is the AWS Certification Cloud Practitioner (CCP).
This will give you a solid foundation in the main tools available on AWS. It will also teach you important concepts about security, using AWS’s interface, and how its billing works.
Regardless of how you want to specialize, your cloud journey should always start with earning the CCP.
There are 3 AWS Certifications at the associates tier which are:
If you like working with operating systems, infrastructure, and networking, then you’ll want to earn the SysOps Administrator Associate.
If you are more focused on product management, business, and problem solving, you’ll want to earn the Solutions Architect Associate.
And if enjoy programming and have a background as a full-stack developer, you’ll want to earn the Developer Associate.
If you’re a developer who’s ready to embark on one of the hardest certification challenges of your life, then earn the Solutions Architect Professional.
If you’re less interested in software development, and more interested in building infrastructure, then earn the DevOps Engineer Professional.
All these exams are quite difficult, with the exception of the Alexa Skill Builder.
The hardest of these specialty certifications is the Machine Learning Specialty because it requires you to have a sound theoretical foundation in Machine Learning.
Will Becoming AWS Certified Get Me Hired?
Rather than think of AWS certifications as a “guaranteed job”, think in terms of them increasing your odds. Here’s two cases where they increase your chances of getting a job (and increase your potential earning power):
Case 1: The Certification Requirements Show Up on Job Postings
In bigger tech hubs like San Francisco and Toronto, the “preferred requirements” sections of job postings increasingly mention cloud certifications. So one or more AWS Certifications can really help you stand out from the crowd.
Case 2: The APN Incentives Hiring AWS Certified Holders
The Amazon Partner Network (APN) is a global partnership program run by AWS. Employers join the APN so they can:
For a company to remain part of the APN, they must employ a certain number of employees who are AWS Certified at different tiers.
There are hundreds of companies that are part of the APN, such as: Deloitte, Onica, DataDog, Citrix, Autodesk, TrendMicro, Atlassian, Github, Intel, VMWare, New Relic, Cisco, DataBricks, Akamai, and Redhat.
You can increase your odds of being short-listed for jobs at these employers if you hold a combination of AWS Certifications tiers (foundational, associates, professional, specialty).
Certification Is Not Required To Get A Cloud Role
Don’t disqualify yourself for a cloud role just because you don’t have AWS certification. For example, AWS itself often hires people who don’t hold any AWS certifications. Getting AWS Certified and being able to do the job are two different matters.
It can be hard to pass the Professional or Specialty-tier AWS Certifications without hands-on experience. But if you can earn those certifications, they’re a strong indication to employers that you can succeed in that job.
Also, even if you don’t care about becoming AWS-certified, you will still benefit from going through the free courses. It’s not like the cloud is going to go away. The genie is out of the bottle, and every developer in 2020 should understand how it works – even at an abstract level.
Will Becoming AWS Certified Get Me A Job In the US or Canada?
This depends on a number of factors concerning geopolitics, visa laws, and local economies. But I can say this – earning AWS certifications can increase your odds of getting hired abroad.
There are recruitment companies which specialize in filling cloud computing roles.
For example, Vanhack identifies talented developers globally – such as from India or Brazil – and helps them relocate to the US or Canada. For cloud roles, they specialize in placing DevOps Engineers and Site Reliability Engineers.
Jefferson Frank is a global expert in AWS recruitment. If you hold an AWS Professional-tier certification – or a Specialty certification – and have around 10 years of existing experience – then you have a high chance of getting recruited by them.
DevOps Engineer and Site Reliability Engineer roles are the most commonly outsourced cloud roles. So if you want to be able to work from your home country, you may want to focus on one of these roles.
Since the Solutions Architect role requires a great deal of in-person communication, it’s generally an in-office or traveling role.
How Long Do I Have Study To Become AWS Certified?
For each certification, AWS has a recommended amount of experience listed in their Exam Study Guides. These will say things like: “2 years of comprehensive experience designing, operating, and troubleshooting solutions using the AWS cloud.”
This is just a recommendation. In practice, many people pass these certification exams within a few months and without any professional experience.
Here’s a breakdown of what we usually hear from people who just passed:
How Long Does it Take to Earn the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner?
Some people pass after only 4-10 hours of study. Most people pass in 1 week, but some take as long as 3 weeks. Much of this depends on how much prior technology experience you have.
How Long Does it Take to Earn the AWS Associate Certifications?
These Associate-tier certifications generally require 1 to 3 months of study.
The Solutions Architect Associate is the easiest to study for because it requires the least amount of hands-on knowledge. Most of the test is theory, which you can learn from these free ExamPro courses on freeCodeCamp’s YouTube channel.
If after earning the Solutions Architect Associate you move on to the Developer Associate or the SysOps Associate, around 50% of the exams will be things you previously learned, saving you further study time.
The Developer Associate is currently the hardest to pass because it deals with a lot more programming and hands-on knowledge.
It’s not uncommon for people to pass all three Associate-tier exams just weeks apart from one other.
Sometimes people will want to pass all the associates to prepare for a specialty.
If you can jump straight to the Professional tier and pass them, there’s not much point in earning all the Associate certifications. But keep in mind: the professional-tier examinations are at least 10x harder than the Associates-tier ones.
Earning the Associate-tier certifications can instead serve as a jumping off point for starting your job search. You can always come back and earn the Professional-tier Certifications once you have some work experience.
The Professional-tier Certifications
The Professional-tier certifications are quite hard. Most people run out of time before completing all the questions.
There are many correct answers on these exams, but for each question you have to choose the most optimal answer.
If you don’t already work at a company where you can get hands-on experience using AWS, you’re probably looking at around 6 months of study before you’ll be ready for these Professional-tier exams.
The Specialty Certifications
The Specialty Certifications are not as hard as the Professional-tier certifications.
The Alexa Skill Builder is quite easy, but it’s a bit overpriced compared to the other certifications when you consider it. So many people don’t obtain that certification.
The other specialty certifications can require 2 to 4 months of study.
How Much Does It Cost to Get AWS Certified?
AWS creates the exam questions. Two partnered test center networks (PSI and Pearson Vue) administer the exam itself at one of their offices.
Is There a Way to Save Money on Certifications Exam Fees?
Yes. If you pass an exam, you get half off your next exam. So if you pass the CCP, and then you take the Solutions Architect Associate, it only costs $75 instead of the usual $150.
How Long Are Certifications Valid?
When you pass an AWS Certification exam, it only lasts for 3 years before it becomes invalid.
When people get their Professional-tier certifications, they rarely bother renewing their Associate-tier certifications. This is because once you hold a Professional-tier certification, you no longer need to prove that you can pass the easier exams.
Do I Need A Credit Card To Use AWS?
Yes, you do. You need a credit card to create an account. This is the case for all cloud service providers.
You also need a credit card to register for certification exams.
It may be possible to use pre-paid credits or a virtual credit card app to create your AWS account and to pay for exams.
Note that if you’re from a country which is under sanctions from the US, you may not be able to create an AWS account or sit for exams. If this situation applies to you, you may consider looking into Alibaba Cloud or other international providers.
Will AWS Charge My Credit Card if I’m on Their Free Tier?
AWS may validate your card by making a small one-time charge of less than a dollar, so be careful about international transaction costs.
AWS comes with a free-tier for a few months. As long as you don’t exceed its limits or continue using it after your free period is over, you shouldn’t see any charges to your credit card from AWS.
How Much Money Do People in Cloud Roles Make?
It depends on which country you’re in, and how you’ve specialized. Remote opportunities often pay less. DevOps Engineer and Site Reliability Engineer roles are among the highest paying remote jobs.
Daniel Vassallo worked at AWS for 5 years and is now making an annual salary of US $500,000.
Note though that he was working for AWS in their Seattle headquarters, and he already had years of experience prior to AWS. So his salary is certainly on the high side of what you could expect.
If you are just starting your technology career, you could make anywhere between $50,000 and $150,000. This comes down to many factors, including your willingness to aggressively apply for jobs and successfully negotiate for higher compensation.
freeCodeCamp Resources for Studying for the AWS Certifications
freeCodeCamp’s YouTube channel has complete multi-hour free courses to help you prepare for these AWS certifications.
And I’ll add more courses here as we publish these in the coming days.
OK – Are You Ready to Commit to the Challenge?
I will keep this article up-to-date. It will serve as the central document that the #AWSCertified challenge centralizes around.
In addition to the community around the #AWSCertified hashtag on Twitter, we also have a Discord chat room where you can hang out with other people preparing for these certifications and ask questions. You can join the Discord chat room here.
If you’re up for the challenge, we’ll see you on Twitter and Discord.
As always, thanks for being a part of the freeCodeCamp global developer community. Happy coding.
Appendix: Some Additional Free AWS Learning Resources
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