Why would a data scientist want to bag an AWS cloud certification?
Chasing a cloud-based architecture certification might not seem like a high priority for many data scientists. With so many other things to focus on, why would you add this to your to do list? My view is that with the growing number of companies recruiting in data science, there’s an increasing awareness of not one but two elephants in the data science room:
Elephant number 1: Use cases
These aren’t always obvious. Contrary to a common expectation in business, data science is not “all things data”. Data science can achieve amazing things, but the majority of problems that involve data are not data science problems.
Elephant number 2: Deployment
My formal machine learning education (at Masters level) was a million miles away from any sense of deployment. The same holds true of the majority of online courses for data science and machine learning. I get a strong sense that many companies now opening up posts for data scientists are unaware of the gap between building a solid machine learning model in Jupyter notebooks and deploying a real world (impactful) data science product.
Data scientists can help to tackle elephant number 1 with reading, practice, through peer groups and meetups, and also by communicating with, and educating, wider audiences about where data science can (and does) create impact… and also where it can’t.
Elephant number 2 can be tackled by learning about and being immersed in the wider tech industry. However, given the nature of your job, this may be easier said than done. In which case, the work involved in prepping for an AWS (or Azure) Solutions Architect exam is a great way to get a strong overview of modern tech infrastructure and also get hands-on experience working with tech environments. My background is originally big pharma. I’m now a data scientist that sits within a large tech company, and when I first started in this role I was swamped by an ocean of terminology that made my head swim. The AWS CSA exam seemed an obvious way for me to tackle this head on.
I should also point out that my current employer BJSS very generously supports and incentivises those employees who wish to pursue cloud-based (and other) certifications.
How to prepare for the AWS Solutions Architect Associate?
I used the following to prepare for my exam (YMMV):
1) Linux Academy — AWS Concepts (available for free on Udemy)
— Very quick clear overview of AWS cloud computing.
2) Linux Academy — AWS Essentials (available for free on Udemy)
— Really well thought out run through of the basics of AWS cloud infrastructure
3) A Cloud Guru — AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate 2018 (Available to buy on Udemy for typically £10–20)
— There are lots of labs in this course that are invaluable for getting hands-on experience working with AWS infrastructure. It also helps consolidate your overview of how things general fit together within AWS. However it’s not particularly well-structured and there doesn’t appear to be any sense of a pedagogical approach. The test questions bore little resemblance to the actual exam, in both style and content, and it’s very out of date in places (some of the sections dating back to 2016 — an aeon in AWS terms!). Don’t rely on this alone to get through your exam.
4) Whizlabs — AWS Certified Solutions Architect practice tests (£20–30)
— Invaluable resource to give you lots of practice answering AWS-style exam questions, prepping you for the exam experience, and identifying areas where you need to do further prep. The topic-specific questions are very challenging and practising these will help prevent you from getting “exam-freeze” when you see something similarly tough in the real exam.
What’s the exam like?
The exam itself was harder than I was expecting, with most questions written in a more technical manner than test questions I had seen and many requiring general tech background knowledge. There were also things on it that I hadn’t expected based on my prep.
I opted for booking an invigilated room exam rather than a kiosk (I’ve heard several people report bad experiences with these) and it’s simply a case then of spending 2 hrs 10 minutes staring at a screen on a fairly small desk, elbow distance from someone else taking their exam. It’s not a particularly joyous experience: you’re not really in a situation where you can stretch your legs or relax your eyes by looking out of the window for a minute. I strongly recommend diligently doing the whizlabs practice exams to prep you for this experience. Things felt a lot better, after 130 minutes, when I finally got the message that I’d passed!
Anything I would have done differently?
With the benefit of hindsight, I would have spent more time trawling through (free) resources on the AWS site and reading AWS blog posts (the ones I did read were usually very useful).
I would have spent a bit more time on the AWS console page building a general awareness of all listed services and identifying any new/hot ones that might crop up in Solutions Architect exams.
I might have taken the Linux Academy course rather than the ACloudGuru one. It’s the more expensive option but, from what I’ve seen of its introductory courses, more effort seems to be spent on presenting a well-structured learning approach for the student.