I was asked, “Why is it so hard to Learn AWS?” Part Deux (II)


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Here we are at Part II of the ever-on-going saga of learning more and more AWS (Amazon Web Services). If you have read the predecessor article (Part I), “thank you” for taking the time to do that.

Basically, yes, you continue slogging forward until you find the right company that wants you and one that you like with the best corporate culture. Learning AWS is one thing but you also want to be able to enjoy it at the company you work for, right?  There is no joy in doing work you enjoy in a work setting you despise due to the poor:

  • surrounding environment and
  • corporate culture 

Nor is it joyful to work where the corporate leadership does not value you – the employees. And yes, the customer is important as well but who makes the customer {and the company} happy, satisfied and successful –YOU”! Let’s be exact here, the company founders are the real foundation of their brain child – the company they started. However, while you may not be the founders of the company, “you” are the bed rock of which that company rests on…

Digging In – the Difficulty of AWS

First, I want to make very clear, AWS “is not hard” to learn, this is something I should have included in the original Part I paper. The primary problem with it is, is that THERE IS SO MUCH OF IT to learn. It is the shear number of possible options to arrive at a successful solution. Some of the solutions may end up with a faster end result, while other solutions will allow for a less faster solution to arrive at a massive scaling of data in a data lake or data warehouse. (DATA LAKE = disparate ‘unstructured’ data items from video, to blobs {which in turn can be video and other items}, to documents // DATA WAREHOUSE = structured data, neatly filed away for AWS Redshift analysis or other processing). Some of the solutions may cost less and some may cost more. For example, it depends on which of the services you choose to use. Some of the larger server instances, Linux or Windows, will cost more but will arrive at the outcome much faster and this is only one of the viable NUMEROUS outcomes. If you use Linux servers (instances), you are billed by the second. On the other hand, with Windows instances, you are billed for the entire hour of use, whether you use the full hour or not. This is likely to change at some point soon – Linux used to be billed by the hour.

So, let me repeat, learning AWS is not difficult or hard. The problem is the massive amount of data you have to retain as you gain the different certification levels. Those folks working in AWS without certifications do not face that hurdle because they are only working with a small to moderate selection of AWS services.

**** Do not give up on learning AWS. And if you want a bit of solid advice/guidance to keep going, be sure to read the conclusion section of this paper. Also, in that section is a small blob (no, not Binary Large OBjects) of content on the AWS Cloud roles I was close to obtaining and a bit about the one I finally obtained.

AWS – Working at Growing

As some (or many) of you know, gaining AWS associate level certifications (i.e. Cloud Solutions Architect, DevOps, etc.) is hard. Gaining the professional level certs are even more difficult (read that as time consuming).

—- Especially if you are not working in AWS as your regular full-time job…

We are at this point because, it appears that for many firms (and many recruiters) they believe gaining AWS certs is a paper chase. What the majority of these hiring entities do not realize is, sure, individuals can work in the AWS cloud space without having a certification as a lot of them are doing. But some of those in an AWS role are working in only a limited amount of AWS areas. There are people working in AWS roles who only has a limited, or tunnel-vision skill set regarding AWS.

Let me give you a dated concrete example of what I mean. A couple of years ago when I first started this expanding journey, I paid the significant cost of attending an in-person AWS SysOps Admin class in Reston, VA (as well as using up a weeks’ worth of my vacation time from my DIA role). In that class, almost everyone there but me were already working in an AWS role. On the second day of the course, one of the students, late 20s – early 30s, raised a really basic question about IPv4 – something that that person should have known already. It blew me away that here was a prime example of someone working in AWS but some basic technical knowledge was missing (I do not recall the IPv4 question, sorry, but I do vividly remember the lack of knowledge of the person)…

To gain the certifications, it explicitly means you have to learn much more material to earn that certification. And just buying and doing exam study questions (not necessarily brain dumps), well, that is not enough. You have to study a number of different cloud (AWS) possibilities (solutions) – did I mention “a large number of possibilities“…. And as you study for the certifications, you may end up learning more additional/tangential knowledge areas (I know I do). You cannot help it, one AWS area references another area and then another – but you also will have to know when to stop going further and further out and come back to the original study topic.

So, when you (firms & recruiters) have a candidate in front of you with several cloud certifications (i.e. CSA CCSK & AWS) who does not have hands-on day-to-day work experience in a cloud environment, you may wish to re-think your viewpoints of the qualifications and viability of that candidate. In addition, it is even more of a no-brainer if the candidate has already worked in IT during their career – in my case: Managed and hands-on PC & Mainframe support, help desk, data communications, InfoSec as well admin/engineer in routers, firewalls and on and on.

Strategy for AWS Professional Level Path

For you individuals going after the professional level certifications, well, let’s just say – you have your work cut out for you. And this is particularly true if you are “not” working in an AWS cloud role on a ‘day-to-day’ basis. It is difficult because you may have to go and revisit an area you studied for in your associate level certs and go over it again at the professional level – there is additional material you will need to cover and try to retain.

Now, while I fervently hope age (or race or gender) is not a determining factor at any company looking to bring in people for a cloud role, you (candidates) have to be aware of this situation.  You candidates who may be “older” than many of the other candidates applying for these cloud roles (as was the very first person who asked me for advice was an older guy), you:

  • Have to be actively working on and showing definitive progress in gaining AWS certs
  • Must gain as many of the Associate level certs as you can
  • Must do as many AWS labs and quizzes (in courses that have them) as you can
  • Must work on and gain as many of the Professional level certs as you can
  • Read as many White Papers and Case Studies AND Use Cases as you can find time (drink a lot of coffee or tea or that go-to drink for some, Red Bull (or Mountain Dew)

Now, after all the above, it is imperative that you remain cognizant of what AWS is doing. AWS constantly introduces new versions, upgrades and modifications to various services as well as introduce new services all the time, in multiple areas (security, container services, billing for Linux EC2 instances, data storage, etc.).

More Strategic Thinking Needed from You

And if you think that is enough, it is not. You have to continue trying to retain the knowledge of the older services, EC2 instances, etc., that were deprecated.  Here’s the thing, some companies and federal agencies still continue to use some of those deprecated services/products because the companies using the services have not rejiggered and shifted the necessary code to work on the newer services/products. They may have no intention to shift up or they are planning to phase out their corporate business efforts using those older AWS services.

—- Are ya getting the picture a bit now of how much you, as you go after AWS certifications, will have to study for and retain…

You should also be subscribing to the AWS Announcements and AWS Online Tech Talks that AWS provides. While you may not be able to watch these webinars in real-time (remember – your regular daytime job is in the way…), AWS will, once you register, send you a reservation to watch the Tech Talk webinar in question. Additionally, after the talk is over AWS will send out a link to watch the archived version later at your convenience (as you find time) primarily via YouTube or a partner’s session such as WebEx or Adobe Connect.

Using your desktop or laptop at home is one thing. It is when you are not at home and you want to take advantage of idle time if you want to maximize your learning. If you have a tablet, laptop (smartbook) or smart phone, you’re all set to watch a lot of this AWS content when you are not at home on that super-fast Wi-Fi plan of yours. That is, as long as you are prepared:

  • With a decent monthly data plan… or
  • With 4G connectivity AND hotspot capability for your tablet/laptop (5G is coming, so jump on that soon as you are able – faster and more solid connectivity due to Beam Forming and Millimeter wave bandwidth utilization but I won’t bore you with the mundaneness of the 5G game changer coming – and I’m not referring to 5G lite or near 5G) – you do not want to attempt learning over 3G, go to a library for their Wi-Fi if you need to but use a “decent” Wi-Fi connection… or
  • For watching some of the videos in 720p or lower mode (which is unsatisfactory for many of us) that chews up less of your data plan…

As well, there is likely a PowerPoint version of that talk posted on SlideShare.net.

AWS Services & Products – the Beat Goes On

Don’ lemme scare you out there but there is a lot of AWS content to absorb.  After experiencing the multiple certifications I have gained in my career, AWS certification exams have risen to the top of my list as some of the hardest to pass. From my perspective, this is due to those innumerable permutations of cloud solutions I mentioned in the predecessor paper and above in this paper. Think of:

  • EBS
  • EC2
  • EMR
  • S3
  • RDS (SQL)
  • DynamoDB (NoSQL)
  • Kinesis Streams
  • Cross Account Resource Sharing
  • CloudFront
  • CloudFormation
  • Macie
  • GuardDuty
  • Shield
  • AWS Regions
  • IAM
  • DataPipeline
  • Rekognition
  • Serverless
  • We can keep going here because there is more – much, much more….

It is not just the services and products but all the available and numerous parameter options for each of them. It also depends on what AWS region of the world you select to use the service/product you want – i.e. some metrics can only be used via the US-East-1 (Virginia) region.

On top of that, last year, I came across a rather illuminating article in Medium (the web site) where a number of folks who code came out and said “they copy and paste a large amount of their code”. I believe the title was, “Against the Whiteboard”. And here I was, sweating bullets because I believed folks had to learn a large amount of code and all the coders (or most of them) knew their code and were experts. I was not aware of so many people copying code – not sure if they edited it or just blatantly did a pure copy and paste. But, there you have it, if you see AWS JSON or YAML, especially in AWS documentation, copy it and edit it to suit your purposes – that is why AWS has it there.Keep in mind that all the cloud companies, Microsoft Azure, Google, AWS and the others out there, are all angling to be the go-to cloud provider for public, private and government usage. All of these cloud providers are now trying to commoditize their products and the race is on to the least expensive products for customer consumption. Soon (think 2 – 3 years from now), cloud services/products will be even more similar to each other than they are now.

It is going to be even more difficult for cloud providers to have that stand-out differentiator product that customers must have. Maybe a quantum computer using 500 qubits or more (currently we’re at something like 72 qubit computer chip – IBM, Intel and Google are the biggest qubit makers…. See Timeline of quantum computing @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_quantum_computing or if you need more than one resource (which I ALWAYS encourage) and Researchers Just Smashed a Quantum Computing Record With 10 Entangled Qubits @ https://www.sciencealert.com/10-qubits-chip-new-quantum-computing-superposition-record. The company D-Wave reported in 2017 they have a 2,000 qubit computer (not a chip).

And, the sciencealert article talks about the Quantum Computing Record With 10 Entangled Qubits – so if you are not up to par on qubits, you do not want to try to dig in on Entangled qubits….

Not a Conclusion but a Tale of Continual Success

This all boils down to the same process as going after a college education. Even if you were not an A student in high school, it does not mean you cannot do well in college – you MIGHT VERY WELL excel in college. High school could have been boring for you because it was not challenging you and both hemispheres of that great brain of yours. You will not know until you try, besides gaining a college education will help round you out as a decent person – you will encounter and hopefully learn different aspects of life and work that you may not have encountered on your own. So-Get-Your-Undergrad-Degree.

Then work on a grad degree if that is your route. Then work on the next grad degree if you desire that to make yourself ever more marketable.

The gist of this is, you just have to keep going until you achieve your AWS goal, regardless of roadblocks and other impediments… Just make sure you get some sleep and exercise as you pursue this route…

Now, do I need to state that you have to remain laser focused as you pursue this route…?  It will mean learning more than you bargained for, things such as Python, Chef, Containers, Linux and more. It will be worth it for you. Most especially as you get into the professional level and start earning more money… Think about it, this is the strategy you will have to consider long and hard in your forward leaning progress.

Lastly, you have to keep growing, DO NOT let others dissuade you from a successful path of progress. Do not EVER entertain the thoughts of others who ‘might’ tell you that you are not cut out for something different. They do not know your potential and you will not it either, until you try.  And I do not mean taking a short-term stab at something but going all in and working at it for a while.  Be tenacious…

Being Tenacious and Doggedly Determined

While talking about continuing to work at learning AWS and the time-consuming task of gaining an AWS Cloud role, don’t get me wrong, I have been close to getting an AWS Cloud role. For example, here are two AWS Cloud Solutions Architect roles I was close in winning at:

  1. An Intelligence agency – after several hours of interviewing with the company over a few weeks, I was one of the last two candidates being considered at the company’s executive level – I had everything (dual graduate degrees, prior IT background, Cyber security & InfoSec background, Intelligence Analyst/Officer training and work and AWS certifications) but I did not have that ‘day-to-day’ ‘hands-on’ AWS work experience, while the other candidate, well, he only had that ‘day-to-day’ ‘hands-on’ AWS work experience and very little of everything else – but that was what the company based their final decision on. Such is life.
  2. A research institution / Intelligence agency – again, after several hours of interviewing with the agency and another company over several weeks, I was the actual one selected at the agency’s director level – I had everything (same as above) – I was getting an offer letter. But, this time, there was some kind of very high-level issue between my current agency and the agency I was going to and the project was canceled. Again, life.

Recently (Apr ‘18), I did receive an offer for a AWS Cloud Developer role which I accepted. It is a spring board to doing more AWS later, as a Cloud Solutions Architect/Developer. But, in a couple of years, the cloud will be different, you will have to learn to roll with the flow and adapt to whatever cloud role opportunities pop up at that point – I will.

This is what I meant by stating, “you keep going”. Keep putting one foot in front of the other – you continue learning more, even as you are disappointed by repeat turn downs, especially when it is beyond your control.

Do not give up in your path to success. Use your enthusiasm for enjoying the work you do to keep going. Enthusiasm is infectious, it spreads and folks around you will take a renewed look at you and may end up catching some of that enthusiasm infection. But, as you use that enthusiasm for your work, use it with excellence. Yes, try to be great at your job, even if you fail – work at being EXCELLENT. Learn from that failure to become better. (If you believe this is a motivational pitch, yeah – yer spot on mate, ‘cause it is.)

Great company leaders and great co-workers know that everyone fails and that the best workers learn from their failure and grow from it.  

And as you fully comprehend my ‘motivational pitch’ in your learning AWS, you will (or should, hopefully) figure out that you can apply the enthusiasm and excellence in any other aspect of your life to become successful. It does not matter if you are going for an MBA to become a CEO – or you want to be a Chef coding superstar – or if you want to be the first female senior pilot at a major airline – or to be the most popular performance artist in the world. What matters the most is that you use and convert that excellence and enthusiasm to be good at what you do, while being happy doing it.