AWS SysOps Administrator Certified!

This week I passed the AWS SysOps Administrator (Associate) Exam. Here’s some notes on what I did to prepare, and observations of the process.

Overall Impression

In 2018 I earned the AWS Solutions Architect (Associate) certification but now that I am at AWS I needed to earn another. I chose the SysOps Administrator because it was the hardest (they say) and because I definitely am an “Operations First” kind of Engineering leader. I need to be really strong on these things to help my customers.

The exam covers the following areas:

  • Monitoring and Reporting
  • High Availability
  • Deployment and Provisioning
  • Storage and Data Management
  • Security and Compliance
  • Networking
  • Automation and Optimization

I was strong in networking, VPC, EC2, High Availability from experience and the SA Exam. I had been much more of a terraform guy so I had a lot to learn about CloudFormation. You can expect a lot more blogging from me on that, since I think I’ve come to the conclusion that I like CloudFormation better (and not just because I work at AWS now). More on that later. I also had a lot to learn about CloudWatch, and especially around cost management. The last time I obsessed over my AWS spend was at Cognitive Networks back in the 2013-2014 era, and I used a third party tool to watch my spend. AWS Budgets can now alarm and notify you. And AWS Cost Explorer is what I always wanted when I was signing invoices. I had to remind myself I was preparing for a test. I wanted to just play with all these tools!

If you are still wondering what the focus of the test is on let me simplify it for you: where Solution Architecture is about designing the overall solution, SysOps Administrator is more about how you actually operate it. Monitoring, troubleshooting, security, permissions, encryption, and super importantly: managing costs. I think I enjoyed studying for SysOps more than I did for SA, but in truth I love all this stuff so it was all fun.

The SysOps Administrator exam covers a very large scope. I definitely recommend a structured study program leveraging guides and videos.

Study Guides/Courses

Let me explain some of my preferences so you can judge if my choices might be of value to you. My learning style is mostly tactile (learn by doing) but for breadth I like to read a book. I’m in the minority here, I know. Everyone wants video lectures. I prefer to speed read chapters to get an overview and dive deep where I need to. I need to do the same with video so I prefer platforms that support playback at 1.5x or 2x speed. I don’t have the patience for 1.0x to be honest. Books are also tactile for me. I “remember” where in the book I read something, and can go back for review. It’s harder for me to do that with videos.

Sadly, I don’t like any of the books I found. I may actually have to write one. It’s completely stupid that there’s no good book on Cloud Operations for AWS. Anyway, I digress. My strategy was to take a number of practice tests early and map out the areas where I was the weakest. I opted for this one:

AWS Certified SysOps Administrator Practice Tests 2021

I don’t recommend this book for learning though. The answers/explanations are too short. But as a tool to map where I was weakest it was great.

For video classes I will sometimes watch on the computer, but my strong preference is to be able to listen to lectures when I work out, especially on the treadmill. After all, if I’m at the keyboard why not just go use the service, read the docs, and learn by doing? I prefer to use my workout time more efficiently and cover breadth material. This means that I don’t want to be fiddling with an interface, clicking to advance to the next topic, or worse, navigating a menu to get to the next topic. I do appreciate it when the topics are 3-5 minutes long, usually not more than 10. But if I have to take action to go to the next video that’s a deal breaker for me. “Auto-start” is my most important feature.

Video Classes

My favorite vide class was CloudGuru On the web: easy interface, supports 2x (and remembered my setting), and in hindsight had good depth compared to the actual test. No auto-advance. BUT, get their app. Much easier, and supports auto-advance. Their practice exam was not enough. I took it several times and most of the questions repeated, so the question pool was not really big enough. Plan on using another source for practice tests. Adrian Cantrill’s SysOps course was well presented and aimed at the new test that’s in beta in February. I found it to be a high quality education and supported 2x, but had no auto-advance and if you set “auto-play” and “auto-complete” in settings it does support auto-play (thanks Daniel Comnea for the info on that!). It’s also still in development since that newer exam is not yet available. I also tried the WhizLabs SysOps Course and simply cannot recommend it. The videos auto-advance and support 2x but you have to select the new speed for every video. I also found the instruction to be weaker. The practice test questions too obscure and poorly written - and used a lot more “trick” questions than the real test uses. It’s cheap, but not worth it. My time is my most precious asset.

Review Material

I thought that the TutorialsDojo SysOps Study Guide ($7 USD) was excellent. For $7 this is a steal - very useful review, the why behind a lot of details - highly recommended.

I really found that the TutorialsDogo SysOps Cheat Sheet (free) was an excellent section. Very concise and thorough and easy to recall.

Practice Tests

TutorialsDojo Practice Tests were the best practice tests I took. The difficulty mapped well to what the actual test asked, and the detailed explanations of the answers were well written, concise and easy to recall.

Conclusion

Your results may vary, but these are the resources that worked for me. Overall I probably spent about 80 hours reviewing (guessing, I did not actually track my time investment). I did this over about six weeks. I scored 8301000 and passing was 720 so I don’t think I was over or under-prepared.

I’ve talked to a lot of people these past weeks about these certifications. I think they are very valuable for what they are meant to do: measure if someone has the MINIMUM level of knowledge for that role. But it’s like the driving test at the DMV. It’s not actually DOING it. The new tests have some practical factors where you have “lab-like” tasks and I support that a lot. These certifications are no replacement for actually doing it for real. Remember there’s no compression algorithm for experience!

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