So you’re thinking about getting Amazon Web Services (AWS) certified. That’s great! Cloud computing skills are in huge demand, and whether you’re looking to take your career to the next level or jump into a new field, the right Amazon Web Services certification can help you open the door to some life-changing cloud career paths.
But where do you begin? Which AWS certification learning path is right for you? As of late 2020, Amazon Web Services offers 12 individual certifications, spread across four different levels. Figuring out where to start and which is the best AWS certificate for you and your career goals can seem super intimidating at first. Fortunately, once you figure out what’s what, the path usually becomes pretty clear.
Plotting your AWS certification learning path
Ready to cut to the chase? Click the links below to jump to more info about AWS certifications, what they mean, what it takes to earn them, and what they might mean for your cloud career.
- Which certification is right for you?
- Foundational-level certifications
- Associate-level certifications
- Professional-level certifications
- Specialty certifications
What are AWS certifications and why are they important?
Before taking a look at the different certifications, it’s important to take a moment to explore what certifications are and what they are not.
- Certifications ARE a proof of knowledge – They prove that you are proficient enough to pass the exam.
- Certifications are NOT a proof of experience – There is no substitute for actually working in the cloud. However, there are many ways to get hands-on AWS cloud training outside of the workforce and to jump-start your cloud career with minimal experience.
- Certifications ARE door-openers – They can get you into the interview, or the consideration set for promotion.
- Certifications are NOT golden tickets – They do not ensure a job. They can tee you up for success, but you have to earn it from there.
- Certifications ARE rather valuable – The average salaries for AWS cert holders are well over $100,000 per year. AWS certifications are some of the top-paying cloud certifications out there.
- Certifications are NOT just about earning power – They also validate your knowledge and help ensure that teams possess a common cloud “language” — often called “cloud fluency.”
When thinking about your AWS career path, it can help to think of a certification like a stepping stone. It can be instrumental in helping you reach that next level, but the actual reaching is still up to you.
Whichever route you pick, it’s never been easier to get AWS certified. In 2020, Amazon began offering all its certification exams online, meaning you can test with just a little notice from home, the office, or wherever you are — no trip to a testing center required.
What are the different levels of AWS certification?
“What’s the best AWS certificate for me?” you might ask. Your career goals can help direct you down the right AWS certification learning path. Let’s take a look at the different certifications offered by Amazon Web Services.
There are currently 12 distinct certifications, spread across four experience levels: Foundational, Associate, Professional, and Specialty.
AWS Foundational-Level Certifications
- Scope: 10
- Depth: 2
- Prerequisites: None
- Recommended Experience: 6 months of AWS and industry knowledge
- Skills covered:
- Basic AWS architectural foundations
- Key AWS services
- AWS security and compliance
It’s probably for you if: You need to know foundational cloud concepts — like what is cloud, what is cloud migration, and how does AWS works at a high level — but won’t be getting your hands dirty with implementation.
Every journey starts somewhere. For AWS, that starting point is a Foundational certification.
AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner – Foundational
The AWS Cloud Practitioner certification gives you a high-level introduction to AWS. It doesn’t go deep on any particular services. Instead, it provides a general overview of how AWS is structured.
We recommend our AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner course as the best place to start for anyone who’s new to cloud computing. This will help you build the, er, foundation you’ll need as you delve deeper into the inner workings of AWS.
AWS Associate-Level Certifications
- Scope: 8
- Depth: 4
- Recommended Experience: One year of experience working in AWS to solve problems and implement solutions.
- Skills covered:
- How AWS-based applications work
- Build secure applications on AWS platform
- Learn how to deploy hybrid AWS systems
- Hands-on AWS application design
- Aws application development
- Secure environments in AWS environment
It’s probably for you if: You’re going to be working in AWS in any capacity and need a firm grounding for actually working in the cloud.
If you’re going to be working in AWS in any hands-on capacity, the associate-level certifications should mark the point where your journey truly begins. AWS Cloud Practitioner provides a solid conceptual footing, but the AWS Associate-level certifications are where the rubber really meets the road in terms of day-to-day implementation.
AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate
The AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate certification gives you a broad overview of AWS, and forms a valuable foundation on which you can build everything else you’ll learn moving forward. There’s a reason it’s been the #1 cloud certification for years running.
The CSA – Associate 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 how AWS approaches security, networking, data storage, and compute capability.
For anyone new to cloud computing, we recommend our AWS Solutions Architect – Associate course as the next best step after you’ve gained your AWS Cloud Practitioner certification.
And since you ideally want to not just pick up enough info to scrape by on your certification exam but to set yourself up for future cloud career success, we have a six-course AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate certification track. Going beyond passing your exam to building up real AWS skills will help you not only ace the SAA-C02 and get certified but will ensure you’re ready for a career as a solutions architect.
You developers and sysadmins might be tempted to go straight at the Developer – Associate or SysOps Admin – Associate certs, and more power to you, but we’d still recommend going through Solutions Architect – Associate first.
AWS Certified Developer – Associate
You might think the AWS Certified Developer – Associate cert is for developers. After all it says developer right there, but it’s really for anyone who uses AWS.
In terms of focus, the AWS Certified Developer – Associate certification takes you deeper into services like Dynamo DB, Elastic Beanstalk, SQS, and SNS — but not too deep. It also expects you to know a bit more about how you would use these services, as well as how they present themselves to the outside world through APIs and SDKs.
This is another certification that we recommend to everyone. In fact, we recommend that you move onto it immediately after you finish the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate exam. There’s a lot of overlap between the certs, and taking them close together makes this one much easier to finish off quickly.
AWS Certified SysOps Administrator – Associate
This certification is also somewhat misleading. It’s not only for SysOps Admins. It’s for anyone who runs things on AWS. This exam goes rather in-depth on CloudWatch, among other things. Going through this certification gives you a much stronger grasp of what’s actually going on in your AWS architecture.
A word to the wise! The SysOps Admin is widely regarded as the hardest AWS Associate certification. But it’s really valuable to finish off all of the Associates before taking on the much harder Professional exams. The Professionals expect you know everything about the Associate-level exams like the back of your hand, so skipping one – particularly the hardest one – could come back to bite you.
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AWS Professional-Level Certifications
- Scope: 10
- Depth: 8
- Recommended Experience: Two years of comprehensive experience using AWS, with comprehensive experience designing, operating, and troubleshooting solutions.
- Skills covered:
- Deploy complex AWS migration
- Learn cost-optimization strategies
- Implement CD strategies
- Monitor and log AWS systems
- Implement scalable systems on AWS
It’s probably for you if: You’re already experienced working in AWS, have mastered your AWS Associate-Level certifications, and are ready to take the next step.
If you’re not sure if you’re ready to pursue an AWS Professional-Level certification, you’re probably not! These exams are no joke. They represent the pinnacle of AWS certification and are both broad in scope and deep in focus. You have to know a whole lot about a whole lot!
AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional
AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional is the pinnacle of general AWS expertise. With a CSA – Pro cert, you should be equipped to take any AWS feature or service and make good use of it. Also, because you understand the ecosystem at a deep level, it’ll be much easier to stay up to date as AWS keeps changing.
For the Solutions Architect – Pro, every single service in the entire AWS ecosystem is in play, and quite a bit of depth is required in specific areas like security and Direct Connect. Snagging this certification is not for the faint of heart — you pretty much have to know all the things about all the things AWS has to offer.
DevOps is all about combining development, operations, and a quality mindset to shepherd systems through time. This exam reflects that, and really requires you to think about not just static systems that are deployed once, but systems that change and evolve over time.
While CSA – Pro is an all-encompassing elephant of a certification, the AWS Certified DevOps Engineer – Professional actually goes deeper into specific areas like deployments and lifecycles (and services like CloudFormation and OpsWorks). On the whole, though, it has a rather narrower scope.
Guru tip: There’s some wiggle room as to order here. DevOps – Pro is a valuable stepping stone between the associate level certs and the Solutions Architect – Professional certification, so on one hand, it’s a good idea to pass this first (we do think it makes it much easier to pass the CSA – Pro exam). On the other, there’s quite a bit of overlap between DevOps – Pro and CSA – Pro, and plenty of people find it valuable to study for them together.
AWS Specialty Certifications
- Scope: 3
- Depth: 10
- Recommended Experience: Two to five years of hands-on experience and advanced knowledge of AWS in the specific specialty area — with one exception: the AWS Certified Alexa Skill Builder – Specialty certification, which only calls for a recommended six months experience.
- Skills covered:
- Design and maintain Big Data
- Use AWS to automate data analysis
- Automate AWS systems for network deployments
- Kinesis, Athena, Quicksight, and Rekognition
- AWS for ML solutions
- Design secure ML solutions
- Design and publish Alexa Skills
It’s probably for you if: You’re already highly experienced in a specific area of AWS, and are ready to validate that experience and take the next step in your career.
AWS Specialty certifications dive extremely deep on narrow focus areas — specifically networking, data analytics, databases, security, machine learning, and Alexa skills. Like the pro-level certs, they are not to be approached lightly, and multiple years of hands-on professional experience in each specialty domain is highly recommended for all but the Alexa Skills cert.
AWS Certified Advanced Networking – Specialty
The AWS Certified Advanced Networking – Specialty certification digs into both hybrid and AWS-only networks and includes aspects such as multi-region setups and cost optimization. It’s not an all-encompassing cert — there are some services that you don’t need to know anything about — but where it does focus, it goes very deep. You need to know absolutely everything about certain services like Direct Connect, Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), and routing.
Guru tip: If you do Advanced Networking – Specialty before taking on Solutions Architect – Professional, it’ll make certain aspects of the CSA – Pro exam much easier for you.
AWS Certified Data Analytics – Specialty
The AWS Certified Data Analytics – Specialty certification was previously the AWS Certified Big Data – Specialty certification, which was retired in mid 2020. There are some carryover topics, but other areas are brand new and more in-depth. It focuses on all the data services, especially S3, RedShift, Kinesis, and Elastic MapReduce. Data security is also covered. Earning this cert shows you have a handle on the services and tools that you can use in AWS to build data analytics applications, as well as build and manage the lifecycle of collecting, storing, processing, and visualizing your data.
AWS Certified Security – Specialty
Of the specialty certifications, the AWS Certified Security – Specialty is the broadest. It only makes sense — security cuts across a ton of other domains, so this cert is less focused on specific services. Still, it does 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 questions on this exam have you figuring out how different security settings interact or conflict.
AWS Certified Machine Learning – Specialty
The AWS Certified Machine Learning – Speciality is the one of the newer AWS certifications and focuses on, well, machine learning. Imagine that! You will be expected to demonstrate an understanding of the underlying concepts of machine learning, such as data collection and analysis, modeling, and machine learning algorithms, as well as proficiency with Kinesis for streaming data collection and SageMaker for building, training, tuning, and deploying machine learning models.
AWS Certified Alexa Skill Builder – Specialty
(Note: The last day to take the AXS-C01, the exam for the Alexa Skill Builder – Specialty certification, is March 23, 2021. If you test before then, the cert remains valid for three years from the day issued.)
What’s the AWS Certified Alexa Skill Builder – Specialty certification? You could ask Alexa. Or just continue on. This newer AWS certification shows you’re capable of building, testing, certifying, and publishing Amazon Alexa Skills while following AWS and Alexa Security best practices. This cert is the only in the bunch of AWS Specialty certifications that you might be able to attempt without too much experience. Amazon recommends six months hands-on experience and at least one published Alexa skill beforehand.
AWS Certified Database – Specialty
One of the newest AWS certifications, this certification shows you’re capable of recommending, designing, and maintaining AWS database solutions for organizations’ unique database needs. You’ll be expected to understand deploying, migrating, managing, monitoring, and troubleshooting databases; workload-specific database design; and database security. You’ll ideally want five years experience with common database technologies, a couple years hands-on experience with AWS, and expertise working with on-prem and AWS cloud-based relational and NoSQL databases.
Which AWS certification is right for you?
Okay! So we’ve got a dozen total certifications (for now), spread across multiple levels and discipline areas. If you’re the sort who just has to collect them all, more power to you. But what if you’re following a more focused track, or pondering a career change into cloud computing? What certifications should you go after?
Start with your goal in mind
Author Napoleon Hill wrote that “knowledge is only potential power.” In a similar vein, certifications are only potential career boosts. They can open doors, but it’s up to you to make good on the opportunities. To that end, it’s important to think of a certification as a means to an end. And what that end is ultimately determines which certifications are right for you.
So…what do you want to do?
It’s not really possible to dive into every possible combination of motivations and ambitions, so let’s divide it up into a few general categories:
- I want to learn enough to keep up — If you’re going to be working among the cloud, rather than specifically in the cloud, say in an executive or a marketing capacity, you should consider an AWS Cloud Practitioner certification. Upon gaining this certification, you’ll be able to keep up with your IT teams and understand cloud concepts sufficiently enough to think about how they can apply to your company or industry.
- I want to pursue a career in cloud computing — If you’re looking to make a career of cloud computing, you should definitely be going after the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate certification. The CSA – Associate is the jumping-off point for all the other AWS certifications and is not only the most popular AWS certification, but ACG’s most popular course, as well. The CSA – Associate certification is widely regarded as one of the most valuable certifications in all of IT, and can not only help you get started in a cloud career, but also provide you a stepping off point toward additional AWS certifications.
- I already work in the cloud every day, and want to move to the next level — Okay, so you’re already working in the cloud. Maybe you’ve already got your AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate certification (if not, you should). You’re ready to step it up to the next level, broaden your horizons, secure a promotion. A good place to start is with the remaining Associate-level certifications: the AWS Certified Developer and AWS Certified SysOps Administrator. From there, you can pursue the two Professional-level certifications or consider nabbing some of the specialty certifications.
- I already work in the cloud every day in a specialized role, and want to become master of my domain — If you work in a specific area of the cloud, such as security or networking, the AWS Specialty certifications are a natural path to take. You have to have at least one Associate-level certification (or AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner) before you can snag a Specialty cert, but once you meet the prerequisites, you can level up your knowledge in your specific area of expertise.
Cover your bases
Even one certification has the potential to be life-changing. It can open the door to new opportunities. But it’s up to you to take those opportunities and run with them. And in this increasingly DevOps world, you can’t really expect that someone else will be there to take care of all the details you don’t understand. Specialization can be important and teamwork can be critical, but you still need to be able to handle running systems yourself.
Given that, it’s a good idea to go for the three AWS Associate certifications to gain a really solid foundation for using AWS effectively, day-to-day. With these, you’ll understand how to design, build, configure, monitor, and maintain systems built on AWS.
After securing the three Associate certifications, the next logical path is to go after the two Professional certs, and the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional, in particular. CSA – Pro is the absolute pinnacle of AWS knowledge, and obtaining this certification is the AWS equivalent of defeating a video game’s final boss.
Suggested order to get the “Core 5” certifications
There are many paths to getting the “core 5” AWS certifications, but we find that doing them in this order provides you some nice stepping stones along the way. And if you start with the optional Certified Cloud Practitioner before this, you can enjoy an easier learning curve as you get comfortable with key AWS services.
- Certified Solutions Architect – Associate
- Certified Developer – Associate
- Certified SysOps Admin – Associate
- Certified DevOps – Professional
- Certified Solutions Architect – Professional
TL;DR? Which AWS Certification and Learning Path Is Right For You?
So, which AWS certification is right for you? If you’re just getting started in the cloud, the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner and the Certified Solutions Architect – Associate are definitely where you want to start. From there, it’s possible to pass along information and make some general recommendations, but determining the right certification (or collection of certifications) and AWS learning path ultimately comes down to your circumstances and career goals.
- Remember that AWS certifications are like a stepping stone. They can help you reach that next level, but taking the leap is still up to you.
- Just getting started or need to know the basics? Start with the the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner.
- If you’re going any farther in the cloud, you pretty much can’t go wrong going for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate.
- Beyond that, the AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional is basically the pinnacle of AWS expertise.
- AWS certifications include several Specialty-level certifications, including security, Alexa Skills, and advanced networking.
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