How to pass the AWS Solutions Architect Exam (the new/updated one!)

During the Coronavirus Pandemic I worked for a National USA based Airline as a Security Analyst. The effects on the aviation/travel business and the leverage that Cloud gave us to transition to remote work really left an impression on me. This gave me the goal to go all in on Cloud. I choose AWS Solutions Architect as my Certification Goal. This article has strategies of how to pass the AWS Solutions Architect Exam SAA-C02 (the new one they updated mid 2020)

My Background

For context I have been working in IT for 5 years as a Network Engineer and have worked with some Azure, AWS and GCP, as well as your typical Enterprise F500 tech landscape. This is my baseline knowledge that I had going into the Exam.

Step 1 : AWS Cloud Practitioner?

AWS’s entry level cloud cert is the Cloud Practitioner. If you have no background in IT I recommend taking this test as a pre-requisite. This is crucial to learn the terminology, technology, and theory of how the Cloud works and its components in respect to traditional IT and Business use-cases.

However, if you have at least 3 years of work experience in IT Infrastructure and have touched Databases, Networking, Servers and Development Cycles then you can/should skip the AWS Cloud Practitioner and just aim for Solutions Architect to save time and effort.

Step 2 : Know the Core & Ancillary Services and new SAA-C02 Topics

It is critical to know the function, features, limits, and costs of all the core AWS Services to pass the Solutions Architect. This builds the foundation for you how the ancillary services (like Lambda) operate around those core AWS services. In layman’s terms, this test is all about how to fix problems or requests presented by choosing the correct combinations of services to address them.

When learning about the services memorize the specifics and major features. For example when reading about EC2, think “Where would this be used? What makes each storage option different? What placement group would I use for which requirement ? and dont forget cost. Pay attention to AWS’s buzzwords for each service, as later on the questions will have these or synonyms to guide you to the answer. For example “frequent schema changes = DynamoDB” “accesses from millisecond to microseconds = DAX” Write them out on paper service name on the left and draw some lines to some of the specifics or descriptive words on the right. Then have a friend or spouse say the words on the right and after practice hopefully you can invoke the service name from those. This will help memorize and improve your recall as you read those words in the exam.

FreeCodeCamp does a great job of providing cheatsheets for how to pass the AWS Solutions Architect. I have notated these from every chapter into a slideshow you can download here.

There are new topics in SAA-C02 which need to be added to your memory notes these include :

[email protected], DAX, DynamoDB Streams, S3 Pricing Tiers, S3 Performance, S3 Select and Glacier Select, AWS Org and Consolidated Billing, Sharing S3 across accounts, AWS DataSync, CloudFront Signed URLs and Cookies, Athena vs Macie, ENI vs ENA vs EFA within EC2, EC2 hibernate, AWS CLI, EFS, FSx for Lustre and Windows, HPC , EMR, AWS RAM, AWS SSO, VPC Endpoints, AWS Privatelink, AWS Transit Gateway, VPN CloudHub, Kinesis, Event Processing, CloudHSM, WAF, SysManger and Parameter Store, ECS.

These may seem like alot, but on the actual test I only saw the ones in bold. So it seems like a smaller portion of these topics are intermixed with the main core service questions. Your exam will vary but the proportion of topics should stay the same.

Step 3 : Use Youtube and Videos

Reading papers can be tedious and dull. Thankfully there are many good videos on how to pass the aws solutions architect exam which describe the services with diagrams if you are a visual learner. I spent hours searching for some that would give the information succinctly and found the FreeCodeCamp Video , this is a great overview of many services.

I also recommend making a 7 day trial with A Cloud Guru , although 7 days would cut it close if your new to cloud. Perhaps a 1-3 month membership.

Step 4 : Memorize + Lab

Once you have a good understanding of the services and use cases. I recommend memorizing as many specifics as you can per service (have a friend use flashcards on you) , then and sign up for an AWS account and do some of their labs on the free tier. There are many free lab designs on youtube from people studying. Don’t be afraid to add redundancy, explore service options and limits and check costs when you build. This will reinforce your understanding and is essential. In fact, this domain www.roamingviews.com is hosted on AWS and was my personal project to learn how to use Cloudfront, EC2, WAF, VPC, EBS, DynamoDB, IAM, Autoscaling and LoadBalancers and Billing. Because of this I was able to answer those questions and I have a project I can show if someone asks in an interview. I suggest doing a portfolio site or resume site in a similar way.

Step 5 : Understand the Exam Question Format

I recommend practicing using Jon Bonsos CodeDojo exams and A Cloud Guru , this will get you familiar with the types of questions this exam has. However DO NOT MEMORIZE the questions as they will be different on the exam. On all of the practice exams NOT ONE QUESTION I saw there showed up on the actual exam.

Almost all questions describe a scenario or problem and ask for guidance or a solution using the services. Keep this in mind when reading this, you are providing the best solution to the requirements and business or financial constraint put forward in the question. Take great care to read each line slowly and focus in on the ask, here are some things to watch out for :

-Any mention of Time (example : this lamba has been running for 15 mins, you have 30 days to move X amount of data, batch jobs need to be run nightly etc)

-Any mention of the Service Buzzwords or Specifics (ex : “low latency group” = HPC Cluster , “fault tolerant, interruptable” = Spot Instance , “move 80 TB fastest and cheapest” = Snowball

-Any mention of Cost (ex : in the cheapest way possible, the customer has a low budget, MOST cost effective way)

Make sure to pay attention if it asking for a match or an opposite, for example if you read too fast it may say “which service shouldn’t you use” and you could think it is asking “which should”

80% of the Questions were describing a use case or problem around a situation for example “client needs a DB with frequent schema changes that is distributed on a scalable app globally by country” this implies noSQL, Autoscaling/server less, and CDN with Cloudfront with a Geolocation policy routing in effect. The answer choices then had 3 service combinations per answer with one or the other but one answer had CloudFront, Geolocation, and Dynamo.

Step 6 : Group Study

You will get burnt out, you will not want to continue reading whitepapers and staring at the console waiting for you services to come up. For this reason I recommending creating or joining a study group with your colleagues or peers.

I have 2 friends I studied with, I paid for ACG, she paid for TutorialsDojo, and the 3rd paid for Udemy practice exams. (Saves $!) We then logged into each others accounts via an incognito browser we kept open. Then we met 2-3x a week and did mock exams via Google Meet from each format, we discussed each question answer and why its right and why the others are wrong before answering until we averaged 80-90 as a group and by ourselves.

Just make sure you trust your friends before logging in on their PC 🙂

Final Tips

I recommending reading as slow as you can and figuring out the needs and requirements completely before looking at the answers, then as you read each answer refer to the question to see if it fits the ask, if not eliminate it. I’ll be honest i guessed for at least 7 questions however I only had to choose between 2 instead of 4 as I disqualified 2 answers as invalid. 50% is better odds than 25%

Also go back after you answer all, I had flagged a question about HPC, and later on I saw a second question which actually answered the first question by confirming the service I was considering exists. I went back and changed it.

All in all, if you study, memorize, practice, and prepare this test is doable and passable, good luck 🙂 for more tech articles see https://www.roamingviews.com/tech/

Please share this article if you found it useful and feel free to comment below if you have specific questions. I’m happy to answer and email you.