How I passed the AWS SysOps Administrator Associate exam

I have recently passed the AWS SysOps Administrator Associate exam. In this post I'll write about my preparation and exam experiences.

A few days ago I sat and passed the AWS Certified SysOps Administrator - Associate exam.

This was the my third AWS exam after I took both the Solutions Architect Associate and the Developer Associate exams.

Please note that everything you read below is my opinion only. Your experience and background might be different from mine and it’s possible that some points of this post won’t be applicable to your situation.

1. The hardest of all associate exams

After having some experience with all associate exams, I can say that the SysOps Administrator is the hardest of all.

My impression was that this is the Solutions Architect exam with some (many) services covered in much more and subtle detail.

If you don’t work in a sysops or devops position (I don’t), you might find this exam challenging.

I felt that this exam wouldn’t be an easy ride when I was preparing for it. The exam goes in detail with many services and unless you work with these services on a daily basis or you have an excellent memory and remember everything after reading the documentation once or twice, you’ll likely be to think of this exam in the same way as I do.

2. Practice, practice, practice

You’ll definitely need a lot of practice and hands-on experience with the core services (see them below). It’s not enough to set up a Hello World-like VPC and watch the EC2 instances to go from Pending to Running.

While you can prepare for and pass the Solutions Architect exam by taking some courses and reading the FAQs and documentation, this exam will require solid practical knowledge. It’s not uncommon that people only pass this exam for the second or third attempt because of the depth at which concepts are asked.

Needless to say that you’ll need to know the basics very well, but this won’t be enough to succeed in this exam. (Having a sound knowledge of the services is a requirement to pass the other two exams as well.)

I remember reading the documentation and use cases for Storage Gateway at least 5-6 times and still got a question in the exam I couldn’t answer. I know all types of Storage Gateway, what they do and what they are for and while this was enough for the Solutions Architect Associate exam, it has proved to be less than sufficient here.

You’ll need to set up, tear down and break the services to see what happens it each scenario and you’ll need to do it more than once (unless you have an excellent memory).

If you are lucky, you won’t get many questions that go into subtle detail. There are tens, maybe hundreds of such little things that can come up in the exam. For example, you’ll get an error screenshot. An error, you have never seen in your life because the root cause of the issue has never happened to you. The only way to know it is to sit down, log in to your account and start getting your feet wet.

3. The exam

The exam consists of 65 questions and you have 130 minutes to answer them.

Most questions are long and scenario based. The choices for the questions are usually long sentences, sometimes the difference between them is just one word. The distractors (incorrect answers) are not always obvious.

There’s usually one or two completely wrong answer and they leave in two very similar choices with one of them being the correct one.

There’s not many short, one liner questions. Now I’m trying to think about them but I can’t recall getting any in the exam.

Of course, this will make the exam harder. Analyzing the questions will take more time and this will mean that you’ll have less left for revision.

I followed the same strategy I used in the Developer Associate exam. I read the question once and then again, then I read the answers. When I wasn’t sure about the correct answer, I marked the one I thought to be the correct choice and flagged the question.

I went through the 65 questions in about 70 minutes, so I could keep my originally planned 1 minute/question pace. This way I had an hour to go over the flagged questions again.

The remote supervisors were polite this time (maybe they read my previous post, haha) and I only had a minor computer issue at the end when I was unable to log out and couldn’t reach the supervisor either.

4. Preparation

A few words on my preparation.

I spent a month in total to prepare for this one after I sat the Developer Associate exam.

I did lots of hands on exercises with CloudWatch, CloudTrail and the services I was less familiar with.

I completed five sets of practice exams but (and this is completely normal) none of them came up in the real exam.

I still recommend taking practice exams though, because they will give you a feel of the real paper in terms of level of difficulty and topics. But learning the questions and expecting them to appear in the exam is a terrible strategy and a sure way to failure.

A good strategy is to take a practice exam, then focus on the weaknesses. Then take another practice paper (or the same one in a week or two) and repeat the process.

If you have passed an exam before, you will get an official AWS practice exam for free. I took it, of course, but the real exam was harder than the official mock.

I didn’t do any dedicated course for this exam, except the AWS Exam Readiness Course. I used my existing knowledge and experience with AWS and focused on the missing parts. Many concepts in the questions were familiar from the Solutions Architect exam and there was basically nothing from the Developer exam.

That’s why I’d do the Solutions Architect exam first, then the SysOps Administrator and finally the Developer Associate if I could start it over.

5. What to study

Everyone wants to know what to study.

I can’t write down the questions partly because I had to sign the NDA before the exam and it doesn’t make sense to prepare for specific questions anyway.

It’s unlikely that they will come up in your exam, or, if you are lucky, you might get one, which won’t help you anyway if you don’t study hard.

The best way to successfully pass this exam is to have a thorough knowledge and practical experience.

I know that this might not help but this is the truth. The SysOps Administrator exam is definitely the one where there are no shortcuts. (There are no shortcuts for the other two either.)

But I can tell what to focus on. You have to know the following services in depth, which means deployment, security, high availability, errors and cost:

  • VPC, EC2, Auto Scaling and Elastic Load Balancing
  • S3: features, versioning, policies, ACLs and management.
  • Security is a featured domain. Learn how IAM policies work and you must know how to read them. It will be asked in detail. Read the documentation very thoroughly multiple times. Know how KMS, Inspector, Trusted Advisor, WAF and CloudHSM work and when to use what.
  • Billing and cost management services are heavily featured in the exam. Familiarize yourself with the different services: Cost Explorer, Cost and Usage Report, AWS Budgets and know the difference between them. This might be harder than it seems when you are in exam circumstances.
  • Monitoring, automation and service management make up a big chunk of the exam. You must know CloudWatch, CloudTrail, Organizations, Config and the different parts of Systems Manager in depth.
  • You can expect quite a few questions about CloudFormation, successful and failed deployments, template creation, and again, you'll need to know them in detail.

Of course, general concepts like high availability, cost effectiveness, durability and fault tolerance will come up, similarly to the Solutions Architect Associate exam.

Please note that this is my experience about the exam and it doesn’t mean that services not listed above will not appear in your exam.

6. Summary

If you want to challenge yourself with the hardest associate level exam, go for the SysOps Administrator Associate certification. You’ll need to be very well prepared and have completed lots of hands-on practice.

Everyone is responsible for their own preparation and results. The methods, strategies and services listed in this post provide no guarantee to anyone that they will be successful in the exam.

I hope though that this post was useful and could help you in your preparation with one or two ideas.

Thanks for reading and see you next time.