How I passed AWS Solutions Architecture SAA-C02 on the first attempt without a CS background

And in only 4 months. Read till the end to find out how I did on the test ;)

The test is stressful for sure, but it is not impossible if you pick the right strategy to study. The complete guide to help you prepare for this AWS test based on my experience.

I only needed one shot to pass AWS Solutions Architecture (SAA-C02) in May 2021 after 4 months of preparing with zero knowledge about cloud systems. Actually, I don’t feel ashamed about my beginning, I only see that it requires (a lot) more effort from me, AND, an effective plan to prepare for it. Challenge accepted! I took a deep breath, warmed myself up, and wasted no time to hit the ground running.

Photo by Rommel Davila on Unsplash

I DID IT, AND YOU CAN DO IT!

My motto: Slow but sure

Have you ever heard: “Learn to walk before you run”? In my case, it applied perfectly. I was from a Finance-Banking background and first broke into tech when taking my Data analysis master course. It means I’ve only been exposed to Python, coding and machine learning algorithms for 2.5 years. In comparison with Computer Science grads, I’m just at primary school. In comparison with cloud/enterprise infrastructure engineers, I’m probably at kindergarten and learning to talk grammarly.

Before starting the guide though, it’s good to set some pointers that inform my strategy:

  1. Set my direction

My goal is to build strong fundamentals about data center infrastructure from scratch: to learn every concept from the most basic features. Learning many tips and shortcuts to pass the exam sounds cool and even easy, but not I believe it’s not practical for an SAA exam. Passing the exam requires not only detailed memory about all AWS services but also your savvy about how they work together in a complete system. No doubt if everyone claims it as a TOUGH exam for beginners, because, it is actually TOUGH. But it becomes easier when you pass it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

With a considerable lack in my background, I don’t know much about infrastructure network when starting. Internet, WLAN, VPN, firewalls can sound familiar to me, but how about DNS, content delivery network, HA infracture, SSL/TLS certificate? *shrug* I don’t even know they exist until I learn AWS.

2. Online courses don’t work for me

I tried learning through video courses many times before, but teachers’ speech always goes in one ear and out the other. I remained a blank sheet the next day, nothing stayed. It’s not about concentration, but because I’m a Bodily-Kinesthetic learner. Books, paper and pencils always make me feel sturdy and in control of my intake during my study. Designing my own study roadmaps also also helps me figure out how many tasks I must achieve. Everything’s under control; there’s no need to panic.

3. I’m freaking broke (LOL), and (dare I say) a wise buyer.

There is a whole universe of products out there to help you pass AWS exams, in various forms: courses, flashcards, practice exams, books, e-books, apps, etc. I once got lost in that marketplace (and am sure you too) when everything was advertised as indispensable part of your study that can do miracles. But the fact is that not every resource online is verified, and result is not warranted. Two versions of SAA exams are different in some areas, and AWS system keeps changing every now and then. Spending some time choosing them carefully will save you tons of much-needed time, rather than spending a month studying a book and realize it’s not for you.

Thus, it’s important to consider…

WHY I CHOSE AWS SAA-C02 INSTEAD OF OTHERS

Well, I am aware that I am not technically trained enough to be a Dev/Ops engineer, but also know much about techniques to pursue a non-technical position. So, being a Solution Architect is perfect for my scenario. My strength is understanding data structure. I know how big data volume is, how fast data velocity turn and the tools that people need to deal with data. Also, my business sense helps me understand how much enterprises want to switch from CAPEX to OPEX in their annual financial statements and yet the business risk an enterprise wants to avoid when investing millions of dollars into an on-premise center for an uncertain result. At the moment I first knew about AWS, I saw myself standing as a bridge between both sides, working with enterprises to list out their cloud infrastructure’s requirements and delivering them to AWS teams. Being a Solution Architect became my career goal.

Thus I strongly advise you to lean on your SWOT analysis to choose the appropriate exam for your own case, and ensure AWS certificates work for your choice.

(Do I talk too much? I know. Don’t stop here now, moving to the next session, c’mon)

HERE WE GOOOO, LET’S GET STARTED!!!

Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash

MY MATERIALS

  1. AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner Study Guide: CLF-C01 Exam

Do not jump into SAA books right away if you know nothing about AWS, it can be overwhelming. I used this book to lay the very first bricks of my foundation. It explains essential concepts needed for a data center in general as well as elements of AWS system in an intelligible way. It’s like a padding layer before SAA knowledge. After this book, I covered about 30–35% of the knowledge required for SAA exam. Highly recommend this book for those who share the same (non)technical background as mine.

2. AWS Certified Solutions Architect Study Guide: Associate SAA-CO2 Exam (3rd editions)

After the first book, I do not feel overwhelmed with the second one. This book covers some basic knowledge about AWS core services contained in CLF book, and upgrades them with advanced details based on five domains:

  • Operational Excellence
  • Reliability
  • Security
  • Performance
  • Cost-efficiency

They are called “The 5 Pillars” in the AWS Well-Architected Framework. This session is the key part of SAA exam and every Solution Architect must handle these 5 pillars smoothly in any infrastructure project.

After this book, I covered about 60–65% of the knowledge required for SAA exam (the required score of passing SAA-C02 is 72%, so it’s close).

3. AWS Certified Solutions Architect Practice Tests: Associate SAA-C01 Exam

Personally, I really like this book. It contains approximately 1000 questions categorized into these 5 domains. This book gives you an overview about how deeply you remember the various services’ features and how well you can distinguish them. Divided into different pillars, this book points out which domain is your weakest and needs to be reviewed again.

(Hint: I downloaded these books from websites for free books that every student worldwide uses to look for pdf books. I attached hyperlinks to each book so that you will find the right one. Sorry, no promotion or discount codes of these new hard-covers or Kindle books on Amazon I can give you in this case LOL)

4. AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate 2021 — Udemy course

After learning by heart all the services in CLF and SAA books, I skimmed online course videos in order to loop once again all content in my brain. I gained some additional tips and highlights for SAA exams besides my base understanding, which is about 10% -12% extra knowledge. Although these courses are practical and provide various examples of best-practice architectures, personally I find it’s hard to systemize its content and have a detailed memory to rely on these alone. I consider them additional material instead of the main course for building a complete fundamental knowledge base for SAA exam.

(I downloaded free online courses on FreeCourseSite.com and simply went for any available options on it. But luckily it has many best-seller courses of Udemy or Coursera, so actually it’s a good alternative for a broke like me. However, do note these free courses don’t come with practice exams, but it doesn’t bother me because I have another practice book)

5. SAA-C02 Practice Questions (520 questions)

Practice makes perfect! I finished 8 tests of this book before taking my exam. This is the only free book related to SAA-C02 version that I could find. In my opinion, this book shares the same difficulty level as actual exams; however, the way this book presents the problem is slightly more explicit than those in the real tests. Thus, if you can find another option for practice tests, I suggest you go for it.

Pros for using this practice book instead of practice tests online: you learn a lot from all answers’ explanation, including elimination strategy and how the questions trick you.

Cons: there’s no machine to help you calculate how much you need to pass the tests, and you have to count your answers manually.

6. AWS whitepapers

There is no better place to search for extra information about AWS services than AWS whitepapers. Sometimes I read discussions on Quora or Reddit as well, but always head to AWS official website for verified, most up-to-date information.

7. Additional resources

Some friends of mine also suggested other resources to prepare for AWS test; they’re quite popular among AWS community, but disclaimer: I haven’t used them yet. However, the more options you know, the higher chance you can pick something suitable for yourself.

  • PassLeader: This website is to purchase practice tests for multiple certificates with a strong statement 100% Pass Guarantee . Quite pricey, and there are rumors that some questions in actual tests did appear in these PassLeader packages.
  • ExamTopics: Open forum to discuss AWS exam questions. You can challenge yourself to answer these questions or get some hints from other members’ comments.
  • Udemy — Coursera — Khan Academy — Backspace Academy — A Cloud Guru: any online course that you feel reliable. These courses go with 4 or 6 practice tests, and you can see your test score after taking.
  • AWS practice test: A demo test that similar to actual tests provided by AWS via Pearson VUE or PSI. $20 for each trial. It will be a 30-minute test with 15 questions. Some said official AWS practice exams are quite limited. You will receive an email telling the overall score and which areas you need to improve. There is no detailed feedback or explanation on which items you have gotten wrong.

MY TIMELINE

My schedule will respectively match my listed material above

  1. I spent most of my time on this CLF book for about 1.5 months. I learned and remember terms about cloud and AWS operation, familiarized myself with AWS services and how its subdivisions contribute to the whole AWS system. I also took chapters’ assessment test to check how well I’ve covered after each chapter. Also, I executed all hand-on exercises on AWS console to apply what I was learning to practical scenarios.

2 + 3. It took around 1.5 months on SAA books. In this period, I collected extra advanced information about services appearing in exams and the 5 pillars of AWS Well-Architected Framework. I learned each domain and finished its practice test at the same time. Understanding explanations of wrong items. Executing hand-on exercises.

5. I spent 1 week reviewing the video course and taking notes.

4. In last 3 weeks, I did 8 practice tests, spent most of the time on understanding explanations of wrong items and reading AWS whitepapers to fill any gap in my understanding.

MY RECOMMEND LEARNING METHOD

  1. Making comparing tables

After a while, there is a mutual feeling: AWS services seem same-same but turn out to be different. Your confusion about any services can be your Achilles’ heel when taking the tests. Comparing similar services in as many perspectives as you can find and putting them into a table is the most systemized and effective way to distinguish and remember them in detail. Following are my suggestions about some services you need to explicitly distinguish for the test (not exhaustive):

  • EC2 instances and RDS instances: instance types, storage type, storage capacity, scaling type, back-up types, encryption, OS.
  • S3 tiers: durability, availability, numbers of replicates, number of AZs, first-byte latency, minimum billable objects size, minimum storage duration, encryption, latency speed, versioning, using scenarios.
  • RDS operating systems (MySQL, PostgeSQL, Maria DB,Oracle, Aurora, SQL Server): synchronous/asynchronous, read replica (scaling out), High Availability — Multi AZ, number of regions/AZs, ACID compliment, additional fees, back-up, maintenance.
  • VPC networks (route table, security group, NACL): which level’s firewall, destination, target, inbound/outbound rules, stateless/stateful, order/orderless, number of items’ association.
  • Storage gateway (File gateway, Stored Volume, Cached Volume): connectivity protocol, data store location, data cache location, size, used scenario
  • Load Balancer (ELB, ALB, NLB, Classic LB): 3/4/7, protocol types, stickie options, cross-AZ option and fee, performance, used scenarios.
  • NAT devices: NAT instance, NAT gateway.
  • Summary of encryption (in transit, at rest) of many services (both data and back-up): instance AMI, S3, DynamoDB, EBS, RDS, Neptune, EFS, CloudWatch, CludTrail, etc.
  • Summary of back-up types of many services : S3, EFS, EBS, RDS, own server, Aurora, Dynamo DB.

2. Learn by heart and review everything frequently

After creating these tables, our next step is to learn them by heart. The more information you save into your brain, the less energy you will exert to retrieve this information during the exam; instead, save your time to solve tougher issues.

DURING THE EXAM

AWS actual exams include 2 types of question: multiple choices (85%) and multiple answers (15%). Although the answers are given and your task is only to pick the right one, it requires some advanced skills to correctly finish the test in a limited time. Below are some tips and strategy that I gradually gained after tons of practice test to pass the SAA-C02:

  1. Seek out the traps, instead of waiting for them to come to you

The special feature of multiple-choice tests is that sometimes it entices you to the corner that you’re easily being trapped. The purpose of this is to check how sharp and comprehensive you can handle complicated situations. This edge can come from some elements: unrelated storyline to catch your attention by surrounding you with noises, an easy question following a complex scenario, made-up terms that make you associate with some other AWS services, absolute words (such as: all, none, must, except, every, not, always, just, only, and never), etc. Our task is to stay aware of those signals and avoid falling into traps. Reading questions twice or more to gain information, but not be misled by the questions.

2. Determinate what’s the main character of the show
Sometimes in AWS, there are rock challenges when all answers will seem correct for the described scenario, but only one answer is the best for the particular asked object. Concentrating on the key question: “What is the best option for cost-saving?” or “What is the option for the best performance?” will help you navigate the direction to the only correct answer.

3. Use the process of elimination
Using the process of elimination, cross out all the answers you know are incorrect, then focus on the remaining answers. Not only does this strategy save time, it greatly increases your likelihood of selecting the correct answer.

4. Read every answer option + Double check on wrong answers.
It is a common mistake to skip reading every option before choosing a final answer. If you quickly assume you know the correct answer, without first reading every answer option, you may end up not selecting the best answer. My method is although I certainly know A is the correct answer, I spent some time figuring out which elements on remaining B, C, D make them incorrect. This can also be applied to decisively eliminate wrong answers if you only have modest clues on the given questions.

5. Attach Flag on hard questions, move to the questions you know first.
If you’re having difficulty answering a question, move on and come back to tackle it once you’ve answered all the questions you know. Sometimes answering easier questions first can offer you insight into answering more challenging questions later on.

6. The more information… the better
More often than not, the correct answer usually contains more information than the other options. This is good to know if you must guess.

7. Place your bet on the positive option.
In most cases, a positive option is probably true if there is also a negative one.

MY EXAM EXPERIENCE

I took the proctored exam via PSI. My experience with this provider was not quite smooth. 45 minutes before the exam to log into the system, meet your proctor, identity check and room scanning. I was kicked out of the system twice while taking my exam due to system disruption, even when it was midnight, I used Ethernet cable to directly connect my laptop to the Internet and the internet speed of my house is considerably stable.

When facing the disruption, I used my phone to call Customer support of PSI and it took around 10 minutes each time for them to fix the issues and reconnect me to the proctor. I was also asked to restart my laptop, reboot the application to figure out the technical problems. After disruption, proctor would require a quick scanning your examination area, make sure there is no paper or notes on/under the table and on the wall. The answers for questions so far and remaining time were saved in the system, but I wasted some time to re-focus on my test.

There is a comparison between PSI and Pearson VUE and it comes with a pull to Pearson VUE. Probably I’ll try Pearson VUE service for the next AWS exam.

CONCLUSION

I passed SAA-C02 with a score of 82%. Absolutely not a super-high score, but a boost from 0 to 82% savvy on AWS solution architect within 4 months persuasively proves the effectiveness of my learning method. Sharing is caring, I’ve learned a lot of tips from other candidates’ posts too and I appreciate that, so I hope my share will contribute a small part to the AWS community.

AWS Certified Solutions Architecture | Data Analytics | Data Enthusiast