Admittedly, a not very amusing play on CI/CD – my CE/CE acronym stands for Continuous Education/Continual Certification, which is my way of viewing the pursuit (and hopefully achievement) of ongoing IT based certifications. This post is, kind of, a follow up to my previous post about the spaghetti soup that is IT certifications.
At work, I am very fortunate to be able to book and sit the exams of my employer for free, and generally at convenient locations and times. Personally, I’m very fortunate in that we have an exam ‘kiosk’ set up in the Hong Kong office (whether you like the exam delivery format is a personal choice I guess). However, for this blog post I’m not going to discuss any of these exams – non-disclosure agreements notwithstanding, it would be a bit introspective. Instead, I’m going to write about other IT based certifications that I have studied for and (hooray!) achieved in the last 12 months. These are; Amazon Web Services Certified Solution Architect – Associate (AWS CSA from here on), Microsoft Certified Solution Associate: Linux on Azure (MCSA), and the Google Cloud Certified Associate Cloud Engineer (GCP ACE I think I’ll go for). I might even mention the Certified Kubernetes Administrator (CKA) as well.
The caveat I wish to make clear here is that the AWS ASA and MCSA were achieved at the end of 2017, and the GCP ACE was achieved very recently, and these exams all go through a fairly rapid turnover/upgrade process.
Commonalities across the exams
All of these certifications have a fairly short expiration time – 2 years after passing you’ll be required to re-certify in to maintain your current certified status. From the vendor’s point of view, this will end up providing an ongoing revenue stream. From a candidate’s point of view, this does mean you’ll be incurring ongoing costs (or your employer will) for maintaining your certifications – both in terms of time and financially. None of the exams can be considered ‘cheap’, and they all come in at over US$100 per sitting.
It is therefore very much worthwhile to look for discounts when booking exams, or to check for offers which will provide a free re-sit of the exam. Let’s be honest, no-one likes failing at anything, but if the exams are offering ‘free’ re-sits on special offers, it is worth having this insurance policy. Black Friday deals are usually the best time to look for offers, especially if they have long (or no) redemption times.
Reasons for taking the exams in the first place
A common question is ‘why would you take these exams in the first place?’. And ‘are you looking for a job outside of your current employer?’. For me, the answers take multiple parts and are as follows:
- Some of my customers are already moving services to public cloud providers and have a plan to move more services to public clouds.
- It is part of my job to be knowledgeable about the industry, and it is sometimes too easy to become very narrowly focused on the products that my employer provides. As a TAM it is our responsibility to maintain our breadth of knowledge as well as our depth of knowledge.
- A large number of products are certified to run on the public clouds – however they are also competitive to some of my employer’s solutions. It makes sense to be able to understand their strengths in order to also understand where there are weaknesses (if any).
- Finally, no, I’m not actively looking for a job outside of my current employer. However I am realistic to know, that the day may well come that I am looking for a job outside, or a perfect opportunity may come up. In my view, it is only sensible to be prepared for that day in advance.
There are many public cloud providers available – not all of whom offer certification, and some are fairly bespoke solutions. Given I have only so much time available to me, and only so much knowledge to absorb … I decided to limit myself to AWS, Azure, and GCP. Particularly in the APAC region, AliCloud is growing rapidly and will undoubtedly be a significant public cloud provider in the future. At the time of writing though, I have chosen the 3 market leaders (depending upon which publication you choose to read and believe). I would also emphasise, as with all exams and certifications, that just holding a certification in no way makes me an expert of voice of authority on any of these platforms. This will merely be my thoughts on the process that I followed. AWS is very much the market leader – and the sheer breadth of the services they offer is phenomenal (and yes, Azure and GCP do seem to be keeping pace and maybe even closing that gap). Microsoft Azure feels like they are making rapid progress due to their huge installed base in the enterprise market, making migration to Azure feel less risky. GCP, to me, feels like the third place runner right now – however, Google’s leadership of Kubernetes could well change this in the future.
The ‘associate’ level exams from AWS are their entry level exams, and
from memory cost US$200 cost US$150 (although as noted above, special offers are frequently to be found which should reduce this cost). The Solution Architect curriculum would best be described as very broad but quite shallow. The scope of AWS services covered by the curriculum, and by extension in the exam, is very wide. It’s therefore very important to have a broad knowledge of these services, beyond the obvious (and traditional) EC2 compute and S3 stroage services. These are important to know, but it is also worthwhile knowing what the other services such as CloudFront, RedShift, Route53, Kinesis, Lambda, EKS, and quite a few more.
The exam also expects certain areas of knowledge in these subjects, more than just what they can be used for. As an example, it’s important to know the default message queue times, as well as data transfer rates that can be expected by the different connectivity options to your VPC. Similarly, it’s also important to know the differences (and implemented differences) between using a Gateway and, for example, a VPN connection to your VPC. An understanding of networking is expected – you need to understand how a VPC is put together with the various subnets – both public and private. The questions on the exam are fair, but do expect a wide range of knowledge with some level of detail in specific areas.
I took this exam almost a year ago, and from memory it comprised more than 50 questions of multiple choice and multiple answer varieties. As is usual with these type of exams, some of the questions were very easy and straightforward to answer (obvious), whereas others were not. Unfortunately, some of the answers provided seem as though they would be correct only to be incorrect due to slight changes of wordings. It is important to read and understand the question being asked and the answers being offered. It does feel like a worthwhile exam to take, and certification to achieve – primarily because AWS is the market leader and if your customers are talking about the public cloud, then AWS should be in that conversation, and to be able to turn round and say that you’re AWS certified does lend you a bit of credibility, building your reputation as that ‘trusted advisor’ that we all strive for.
As far as I’m aware, my employer doesn’t offer internal training resources for AWS (or Azure or GCP for that matter), so I looked externally for good training resources and used the following for passing my AWS CSA certification.
- AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate on Udemy
The above course was provided by A Cloud Guru, and I redeemed the course on acloud.guru directly as it had been updated.
- Subscription to Linux Academy and their AWS CSA course
This particular course is now out of date and has been replaced with the 2018 variant
- Whizlabs AWS exams
- Hands on using the free services at AWS
All of these resources were helpful – and given this was my first foray into external 3rd party content producers, I did probably play it a bit safe by getting the content from multiple locations. All of the above frequently offer reductions on their course content, and it is well worth looking out for these offers. The instructors at acloud.guru are very heavily geared towards AWS, and their courses are frequently referenced elsewhere as being kept up to date well, well presented, and relevant. The Linux Academy course was also very thorough and covered much of the same material. Linux Academy works as a subscription service and covers off many more subjects – originally with a focus on Linux topics, but now covering a lot of cloud material too. Both ‘A Cloud Guru’ and Linux Academy offered tests as part of their course, however I also invested in the tests at whizlabs to provide some further questions. I probably didn’t need to buy these though.
Moving on to my MCSA (Linux on Azure) qualification. This actually comprises two exams, one of which is not a Microsoft exam. In order to achieve the MCSA certification, you need to pass the ‘Implementing Microsoft Azure Infrastructure Solutions‘ exam (070-533) and the Linux Foundation Certified System Administrator exam. Passing the 070-533 on it’s own is enough to earn an MCP certification. Adding the LF CSA exam is an easy step to upgrading to an MCSA though – the LF CSA exam is equivalent to the RHCSA exam, and should be straightforward for any Linux TAM to pass.
Moving from AWS to studying on Azure was definitely a bit of a shock to the system. This is very much down to personal preference, but the interface for AWS felt much more user friendly than that for Azure. This probably wasn’t helped by the fact that some services on Azure still used their legacy interface (Azure Resource Manager I think), so it would sometimes feel jarring to be moved from one interface to another. That’s not to say that the AWS interface is perfect, but it definitely felt more intuitive than the Microsoft interface. I’m also acutely aware that this could be my personal bias as a non-Microsoft administrator, and that I haven’t used Windows administration tools for a long time. It could well be the case that the Azure interface is very intuitive to a Windows administrator and that they find the AWS interface equally alien.
Once over the change of UI though, you begin to realise that the public clouds all broadly offer the same range of services, albeit under different names, and understandably Microsoft have a leaning towards their own technology. For example, their hosted SQL option also includes the option to use Microsoft SQL server. The exam also includes a significant section on Identity and Authentication Management (IAM). All the cloud providers have an IAM section and all the exams do cover this, however Azure arguably has the most robust/featureful (if that’s even a word) implementation as they can incorporate Active Directory. Undoubtedly, this familiarity with what the vast majority of enterprises are running is a big plus point for Azure. However, the Azure AD implementation is very different from on-premise AD. It is important to understand the different deployment types for IAM on Azure for the exam. The actual scope of knowledge isn’t quite the same breadth as the AWS CSA exam though.
Other areas covered in the exam are compute, storage, ARM templates, networking, backup/recovery, and deploying service apps to Azure (specifically making use ‘slots’). The format of the exam is different to AWS as well. The exam is broken into two sections. The first section comprises 10 questions and is heavily ‘scenario’ based. We should all know what this means, but as a recap, you’re described an example environment, and then asked to choose the best option to meet a specific requirement. It was always one of my criticisms of past Microsoft exams that they would try and catch you out with ‘clever wording’ to misdirect the candidate and that does still seem to be the case. As ever, my advice is to read the questions carefully and to read the answers even more carefully. Some of the questions were also not covered in my training material (a specific question about an Ubuntu VM booting springs to mind). Once you have completed this scenario led section of 10 questions, you can proceed to the second part of the exam, however, the first part will then be ‘locked’ and you cannot return and alter answers.
The second part of the exam follows a more traditional question and answer format – however some of the questions require dragging and dropping of answers into the correct locations, and orders. This is definitely tricky, and requires some in depth knowledge of the topic being asked. Frequently, there are more answers available than slots to drop into, and the fear is that you could get 4 out 5 drops correct, only to lose all marks because you selected one wrong answer. I’m not certain this is how it would be marked, but my fear is that you need to be 100% correct in these questions to get the credit. These questions typically carried more credit than single answer questions. Quite scary really.
As it turned out, when I clicked submit exam, I honestly had no idea if I would have passed or failed. In the event I squeaked a pass – I could have sat the same exam the next day and failed. The Microsoft site frequently has special offers on their tests, and I purchased a package that included one free retake and access to MeasureUp exams prior to the actual exam. The regular cost of the exam is U$125 which is very reasonable.
The real bugbear (for me) for this exam is the requirement to have a working knowledge of PowerShell. This is a tool I had not used prior to studying for this exam, and it’s not a tool I have touched since. It’s my understanding that Windows administrators find it incredibly powerful and flexible allowing them to script and control many functions of a Windows server (and more). Not being a Windows administrator probably worked to my disadvantage here, and I had to basically memorise (rather than learn) the specific syntax used and expected by PowerShell. Even then, certain questions would provide multiple answers that ‘looked’ correct, and it needed either a working knowledge of PowerShell with Azure, or having committed command options to short term memory for the purposes of passing the exam.
In order to upgrade to the MCSA certification, I also passed the LF CSA exam. As noted above, this should be a straightforward exam for Red Hat TAMs. It is more expensive though, coming in at US$300 per exam. You do get a free retake should you fail … and you really shouldn’t fail! I think I’ve emphasised that enough now. Fortunately, Linux Foundation frequently offer special offers as well, and particularly around Black Friday you can pick the exam up for US$200 or so, usually with some goodies thrown in as well. If you’re lucky you might occasionally see me sporting my very ‘cool’ Linux Foundation t-shirt or drinking coffee from my equally cool Linux Foundation mug. The LF CSA exam is very similar to the Red Hat CSA exam – it’s practical based, and you use a very system as Red Hat uses for browser based remote console. The list of tasks is of a similar required level of administration as well – although the Linux Foundation exams are offered for both CentOS and Ubuntu. I chose CentOS (hardly a surprise there).
My third and (kind of) final cloud certification that I hold. This is the newest certification and also the one I have most recently achieved, so I am aware that my opinions will be coloured by recency. Like the AWS certification this requires only one exam, and it follows a very similar format, being multiple choice and some multiple answer format questions. Also similar to the AWS exam is that you are being tested more on your breadth of knowledge rather than your depth of knowledge. The knowledge tested is less recall of specific facts though – you don’t have to remember what is the default period of time a message will reside in a Pub/Sub queue for example (or at least, I didn’t need to know this on my exam). The cost of this exam is also US$125 (I couldn’t find any special offers at the time).
This puts the AWS certification at the top end of the cost of exam (outside of the practical based LF CSA exam), with the Microsoft and Google exams coming in at US$125. This would line up with the relative market shares of AWS, Azure, and GCP – AWS being the market leader has the contenders undercutting their prices.
Although GCP doesn’t feel like it has quite the same breadth of services, it does match up in the major areas, and arguably leads in others (Kubernetes being a prime example). The UI for GCP also felt intuitive benefiting from the Google Material Design that has been pushed through Android and Chrome in recent years. This look and feel makes using GCP feel more natural. I am a long time Android user and use Chrome as my main browser, so this could just be a case of feeling more familiar with this environment in the same way a Windows administrator will feel at home with Azure. As with the other exams there is an element of memorising command line options. The GCP SDK felt more natural to me than Azure PowerShell, even if some functions, e.g. BigQuery use a separate command (bq instead of gcloud …). Oddly, I found this made answering some questions easier, as it served as a reminder: ‘BigQuery’ in the question, means the answer will involve ‘bq’.
It didn’t feel as though the exam was trying to catch me out with wording of answers – although it also didn’t feel like the exam was probing for very much depth of knowledge. It’s difficult to know how exams in the multiple choice format can probe for knowledge depth. I’m a much bigger fan of the practical based exams (although they too have limitations). There is an evident promotion of Kubernetes in the GCP exam though, and several questions involved the use of kubectl. I can understand this might seem intimidating from the outset, however as I had previously passed the OpenShift exam and the CKA exam, the kubernetes based questions in this exam were (understandably) simple and straightforward in comparison.
The exam clocks in at two hours, and comprises 50 questions. I completed this exam in less than 30 minutes. I usually finish all question/answer style exams in short time … sometimes this works against me as I have a tendency to skim read. I never said I was perfect, or that this was the best way to pass exams … I also usually believe that ‘your first answer is usually the right/best answer’ for multiple choice (something I remember back from school). After you submit the exam, you are told your ‘provisional’ result. Pass or fail. A follow up email will confirm the result. You do not get a breakdown of your score with the GCP exam, whereas for the Microsoft and AWS exams you do get a breakdown. If you fail the GCP exam there isn’t much in the way of feedback, which could definitely be improved.
- A Cloud Guru Google Certified Associate Cloud Engineer (preview)
- Linux Academy Google Cloud Certified Associate Cloud Engineer
- Google Cloud practice test – this is a Google created Google form of exam type questions
- Qwiklabs – quite expensive to sign up, I was able to get a free trial through a BrightTalk presentation
Separately, as I had earlier passed the Certified Kubernetes Administrator exam this gave me a strong working knowledge of all things Kubernetes that came up on the GCP exam, and also having worked through Kelsey Hightower’s Kubernetes: The Hard Way labs, this also gave me a good introduction to using the GCP SDK command line. GCP also offers US$300 of free credit over one year to allow for plenty of practice time.
Having the AWS CSA certification is undoubtedly of benefit as AWS is the market leader, and holding this certification is a demonstration of knowledge outside of my traditional (and expected) Red Hat base. If customers are talking about public clouds, AWS will be in that conversation. I will probably look to renew this certification next year when it expires. The MCSA certification I am less certain about – the interface felt alien to me – it even goes so far to break down VMs components to the network cards, whereas in GCP and AWS it is seen as one object (yes, you can add more NICs in GCP and AWS, but it felt less complicated than Azure to me). Azure fans would undoubtedly comment that this is a benefit of Azure as it allows for much greater configuration. Having to have a working knowledge of PowerShell also does not appeal to me. At the moment, I don’t think I’d be renewing this certification, however, if I were to pass one more (qualifying) Microsoft exam I’d be certified as an MCSE, which holds some appeal for nostalgic reasons, given I certified as an MCSE (on NT4) back in 1997 or 1998. I am, of course, aware that MCSE has changed from being Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer to Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert in the interim … I also quite enjoyed taking and passing the GCP exam, and as an added bonus they reward a pass with some certification ‘swag’. This used to be quite common, and I welcome Google bringing this tradition back. I am therefore looking forward to getting my GCP branded laptop sleeve and thermal mug!
As mentioned above, I also hold the CKA certification. This is a Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) certification which actually falls under the same scope as a Linux Foundation exam. The booking and taking process is the same, and it also costs US$300 per sitting. Again, if you’re interested in this exam, check for discounts and the cost does include a free retake. It’s another practical based exam, and is a great way to learn more about Kubernetes. In case you may not have noticed, I’m a bit of a fan of kubernetes.