Amazon Web Services (AWS) Solutions Architect Associate: SAA-CO2

I have been a bit quiet around these parts recently – not writing much or finding the space to do much cooking / baking beyond run of the mill activities. In part this is due to a demanding engagement at work requiring me to put in long hours.  Recently, I have also been preoccupied with studying and revising for my Amazon Web Services Solutions Architect Associate exam, which I sat earlier this month at the start of January.

In this post, I would like to share some insights into a different aspect of my life: my career as a Woman in Tech.

Let’s start with the basics: what is Amazon Web Services (AWS)?

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a major global computing platform. Millions of companies, government departments and services that you interact with every day are powered by AWS. Amazon Web Services underpins a vast number of sectors, including healthcare, banking, retail, telecommunications, automobile, media and broadcasting, education services, grocery retailers, and electronics, to mention a few. It underpins the governance and administration of entire cities and even supports NASA – yes, you heard me correctly, NASA! Chances are, you have directly or indirectly used a service that operates using Amazon Web Services technology behind the scenes.

What is Solutions Architecture and what do Solutions Architects do?

In the tech world, Solutions Architects design applications or services. Let’s take the example of banking. Think about the last time you managed your money: what route did you take? Did you:

  1. Visit a bank branch in person?
    • Did you manage your money using self-service, for example via a hole in the wall?
    • Did a member of staff assist you?
  2. Choose to manage your finances online?
    • Did you use the internet to navigate to the bank’s website and log into your account?
    • Did you log into an app on your smartphone?
  3. Call the bank’s helpline and use their phone services?

Whatever route you took, a technology system will have played a role in validating your identity and enabling you to manage your financial affairs. That system will have been conceived and designed by a Solutions Architect.

Architects need to be able to be technical, making decisions regarding the solution and how they impact business outcomes, however people and process skills are also equally important. Architects need to be able to explain complex concepts in different ways, including simplifying information for non-technical audiences, and conveying information to development teams who will build the solution according to the architect’s designs. Most importantly, Solutions Architects need to really understand customers’ needs so that they can create a usable product.

What is the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Solutions Architect Associate exam?

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate exam is aimed at people who perform a solutions architect role or similar and have one or more years hands-on experience designing systems using AWS technologies.

The exam format comprises of 65 questions, which are multiple-choice. You can choose to sit the exam in a delivery centre or as an online proctored exam, and there is a time constraint of 130 minutes.

Topics covered include:

  • AWS global infrastructure
  • Compute, networking, storage and database AWS services
  • Identity access management
  • Security features and tools
  • Resilient, high-performing, secure and cost-optimised architectures.

More information is available online here, if you are interested.

What approach did I take to learning the content and taking the exam?

First I studied the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner course and sat the exam in May 2020. Immediately after passing it, I decided to carry on my studies and go for the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Solutions Architect Associate level (SAA-CO2), because of the similarity in content – the Solutions Architect Associate covers many of the same areas as Cloud Practitioner, only in a lot more depth. I have since read recommendations that if you’re going to study for both and sit the two exams, you should reverse the order; prepare for and sit the SAA first and then sit the Cloud Practitioner second, because the Solutions Architect Associate content will teach you everything you need to know to pass both exams. I took the long route, but it’s definitely something to bear in mind if you’re starting out and going to prepare for and sit both!

I completed two online courses for the Solutions Architect Associate: the first from A Cloud Guru and the second was Stephane Maarek’s ‘Ultimate AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate 2021’ course on Udemy.

In my opinion, the A Cloud Guru course is very well structured and provides a great framework on which to hang knowledge, and its covers a lot of the foundational and contextual knowledge that you need to know. However, it doesn’t prepare you adequately for the exam on its own, as it isn’t detailed enough and it relies on you doing a lot of additional reading of AWS documentation to gather the information that is required to pass the exam (for example reading the FAQs for each service).

Stephane Maarek’s course is excellent; it is technical and thorough, it includes useful diagrams and visuals to explain concepts, and it is much more closely targeted towards answering the exam questions than the A Cloud Guru course. However the structure is more difficult to navigate, and it is less accessible than the A Cloud Guru course if you are encountering the content for the first time.

Finally, I took several practice exams using whizlabs.com, to familiarize myself with the exam format, identify strengths and weaknesses, and take a targetted approach to revising the topics I was less confident on. This final step of adequately preparing for the exam is important; the exam questions are scenario based and not in the same format as the training content / course. It is essential to be familiar with the format of the questions before booking and taking the exam and have a personal strategy in place for working through the questions in the allotted time, as you are required to apply the theoretical knowledge covered in the courses and select the best solution for the situation described.

Overall, how did I find it?

The AWS Solutions Architect Associate programme is definitely a very useful and informative course to study. However I’ll also be honest with you; it was also a real slog and I found it tough. As someone from a non-technical background (I was an Arts student and took French, History and English at University – as opposed to Computer Science, Engineering or a similar technical discipline), I was encountering many of the concepts for the first time. There is an enormous amount of content to cover (my notes spanned over 350 pages!) – for months, I had to force myself to get up early so that I could fit in some study every morning before starting the work day, and I found the content challenging to understand.

I finally booked the exam on Monday 11th January. I had convinced myself beforehand that I would fail, and was already planning that I would book my resit in February after a few more weeks study. With that in mind, I am so happy – not to mention relieved – to report that I passed it!

Why I recommend studying for it – or a similar qualification

From a personal perspective, Mr Salford Kitchen is a technical architect by trade – studying for this qualification has definitely given me a better appreciation of his work life. I wouldn’t have passed the qualification without his support, tutelage and patience in helping me work through some of the concepts I struggled with.

I would strongly recommend that anyone already working in the tech space with a few years’ experience considers studying for and taking a professional technical exam even if you don’t aspire to be a Solutions Architect – if not from Amazon Web Services, then consider the courses offered by Microsoft Azure or Google. The concepts covered will give you additional skills and capabilities that you can bring to your role, an ability to understand decisions, designs and follow discussions independently without relying on others to translate for you, and an additional level of credibility in the workplace.

As I mentioned earlier, a significant proportion of global business and government operations runs on cloud technologies. Understanding the foundations gives you an understanding of how much of the modern world works behind the scenes. As AWS’s own training course aptly puts it, knowledge is power – and the more you learn, the more powerful you become.

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