So you want to get a job as a cloud engineer?
And — unlike some other high-paying professions — if you know your stuff, you can get hired without an expensive university degree. Who wouldn’t want to work in the cloud?
Of course, it’s not quite so easy as that. Cloud skills are in demand and pay well because they’re scarce in the job market. And usually the toughest cloud job to land is your first; it’s hard to demonstrate skills without professional experience.
For the past few months, I’ve been helping hundreds of cloud newbies get certified, interviewed, and hired through the #CloudGuruChallenge. And one of the most common questions I get is: how many certifications should I earn before applying for jobs?
“How many certs” is the wrong question
Let’s get real about certs for a minute. I’ve yet to meet a hiring manager who believes that IT certifications guarantee technical ability. (And let’s be honest, you wouldn’t want to work for someone who believed that.) A cert is just a piece of paper, after all — and that’s only if you print out the PDF. It doesn’t magically give you the experience you need to succeed in the real world.
And yet, cloud certification has been helpful in my engineering career, and I encourage it for everyone looking to get a foothold in the industry. Certs are powerful tools, as long as you understand what they are and are not good for.
When do cloud certs help?
Certs give you a comprehensive knowledge base. You may not have a traditional computer science degree. But if you work through the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate certification, you will get exposed to the core AWS services and architecture patterns that industry professionals use. You won’t have to worry that you missed big topic areas in your job prep. The cert puts it all in one place. Very convenient. In this sense, it almost doesn’t matter whether or not you ever sit the cert exam! Just studying the material gives you the real value.
Certs help you get interviews. When a recruiter is reading through your resume, a cloud certification does stand out. It says you’re serious about the field and that there is some external validation of that — especially if you are missing a traditional credential like a college degree in computer science. The cert’s not going to get you the job, but it might get your foot in the door for the interview.
For one very particular type of job, certifications are a big advantage. Professional services companies like consulting shops and MSPs are among the biggest employers of cloud-certified people (and some of the biggest customers of A Cloud Guru!) That’s because certs are very valuable in the consulting world:
- Certification counts help the consulting companies maintain important partnerships with cloud providers like AWS and Microsoft. More people with certs add up to higher partnership tiers and better benefits.
- Certs help communicate expertise to the consultants’ clients. If I’m hiring an outside consultant, I want to see credentials!
- They are required for certain types of consulting engagements (for example, AWS only allows certified Solutions Architect Professionals to officially conduct an AWS Well-Architected Review).
Big consultancies have a bottomless appetite for cloud-certified professionals … assuming you actually know what the cert says you know, of course! So you really open up your job options by getting certified.
But really, how many certs should I get before applying for cloud jobs?
While in one sense, more certs are always better (I’ve never *not* been impressed by someone who holds all 12 AWS certifications — that’s an impressive achievement by any definition), you do reach a point where you need to focus on building other skills. Otherwise, you run the risk of appearing like you are all head knowledge and no practical ability.
If you are brand-new to cloud, I recommend the following steps:
1. Pick a cloud
Focus your energy on getting familiar with one cloud provider, rather than going a mile wide and an inch deep on multiple clouds you don’t have professional experience with. I recommend starting with AWS or Azure, one of the two market leaders.
2. Get a foundational associate-level technical certification
I’m not talking about the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner or Azure’s AZ-900; those introductory certs are great, but they won’t communicate technical chops for an engineering role. I’d suggest getting the AWS Solutions Architect Associate or Microsoft Azure Administrator certification, then moving onto the next steps in this guide *while you continue to pursue a specialty certification in your area of cloud interest*.
3. Build a portfolio to get hands-on with the basics
Cloud is the latest in a long line of IT paradigms. But though it’s highly in demand, “cloud” isn’t exactly a skill on its own. Hiring managers are going to want to see that you have knowledge in several foundational areas.
I suggest building 2-3 portfolio projects that demonstrate your grasp of the following key skills, then publishing them on GitHub:
You must be able to write basic scripts. I recommend Python as a programming language to learn — it’s used on cloud teams the world over. You don’t need to be a rock star at algorithms and data structures, but you should know how to manipulate data objects and interact with cloud services. Try this free #CloudGuruChallenge for a Python portfolio project that demonstrates real-world skills.
You will be expected to have solid familiarity with how the internet works. DNS, TCP/IP, and certificates — these protocols will rule your life in the cloud, where everything is made up of services talking to each other over a network. A Cloud Guru has some great Hands-On Labs to help you get a feel here.
4. Apply, while continuing to learn
At this point, I would say go ahead and start applying for associate-level cloud support and engineering roles. You should continue to improve your skills and level up your resume during this process by studying for a professional- or specialty-level certification like the AWS Solutions Architect Professional cert I mentioned above. It’s okay if you haven’t taken the exam yet; hiring managers like to see that you are self-motivated and keep learning on your own.
It may feel uncomfortable to start interviewing at this stage, and you may encounter some early rejection. But the weaknesses these interviews expose will help you keep a short feedback loop to go back and polish up those key coding, Linux, and networking skills.
Plus, now that you’ve been through the foundational study process, you’ll have a better sense of where you might want to specialize, and why. You can share that information in an interview – along with the war stories you picked up from your portfolio projects.
Will the transition to your first cloud job take a lot of work? Quite possibly. You can expect to spend some late nights at the kitchen table and some time down frustrating rabbit holes on StackOverflow. But a few months of dedication here is going to pay lucrative dividends down the road.
Because if you study smart and build your skill stack the way I’m showing you, you won’t have to spam out thousands of resumes and wonder why nobody’s calling you back, no matter how many certifications you’ve lined up. The right combination of certs and hands-on builder experience will stand out among the crowd, and that’s the fastest way to get ahead in the cloud.
Forrest Brazeal is an AWS Serverless Hero and an AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional.