Looking to sit a cloud certification exam, or trying to get your team to take one? In this article, Evanna Kearins shares how she did both. Here’s how she and her team successfully took the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam – and the near disaster that almost turned her cloud aspirations into nothing but vapor.
Ever hear that old idiom, “standing in the other person’s shoes?” Recently, the CEO of Pluralsight, Aaron Skonnard, asked me if I’d do just that. It turns out he didn’t mean trying out a new pair of sneakers – though that has happened – but instead if my team and I would take the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner (CCP).
What better way to see things from our learner’s point of view?
“This is going to be a piece of cake,” I thought.
Setting the team (and myself) up
One of the first things we did was find a sponsor – someone who had taken the exam before, and could answer any questions we had. We also set up a Slack channel for the team. Once a week, our sponsor posted prep materials for us to check out – videos to watch, quizzes to take, or hands-on labs.
But the channel was more than that. It was a place to keep the team motivated as we pushed collectively for certification, and to share our wins (and struggles).
Finding the time to study the CCP
I didn’t want my team and I to be studying over a long period of time, so we could go into the exam with everything fresh in our minds. There’s nothing worse than struggling to remember a lesson from months ago!
We started at the end of June, since the summer months are a bit quieter in Europe (or so we thought). We set the goal to become certified by the end of September
Because I wanted to complete my study before the company-wide break – a bit sooner than my team – it’s fair to say I became obsessed with studying cloud tech.
Finished a meeting early? Cloud. Early morning break? Cloud. Working late? Cloud.
I found it crucial to look at my week, and think “Where can I factor in cloud learning?” Even if it’s fifteen minutes here and there, it all adds up, so I marked it as study time in my calendar.
Two to three hours of study a week was a good benchmark, and not a massive amount of time. Since Pluralsight has a “Work on it Wednesday” period that can be used to catch up on tasks, I used two hours of that for study, and found an extra hour either early in the morning or later in the evening.
I found it was important to carve out that study time for cloud training, and keep it sacred. If someone tried to schedule over it, I’d push back, and try not to make exceptions unless it was absolutely necessary. Not only did I do this myself, but I allowed my team to do the same.
How difficult is the AWS Cloud Practitioner?
Out of the eleven certificates AWS has on offer, the Certified Cloud Practitioner is the easiest to get and put on your wall. Of course, there’s a difference between easiest and easy.
When I kicked off, I was shocked by how much there was to not only learn, but memorize. No matter which way you go about it, when you’re new to AWS, there’s a lot of terms to pack in your brain.
“How does anyone remember all of these terms?”
My head was so full of everything cloud, steam was coming out of my ears. I was mixing terms up and getting frustrated. There were so many core AWS services to keep track of.
So, what did I do? I took notes. Lots of notes.
Not only did this give me something to refer back to, but the act of writing something down helped me remember it. I also used mnemonics – If I was trying to remember a term like AWS Kinesis, I’d have another word to associate it with to help me recall it.
While I was studying, I made sure to tell the team on Slack where I was at, advice like “things get a bit tougher here, but it gets easier after that, so hang in there.” At the same time, I reached out to our sponsor if I was struggling with a task.
Once I finished the prep course, I did a number of practice exams both on A Cloud Guru and Pluralsight. All of this turned out to be the easy part compared to the near disaster of the exam (which I’ll get into later). The practice exams are key to success in the real exam!
Why study the AWS Cloud Practitioner?
With all this study, you may ask yourself “Why am I doing this again?” If you’re not planning a career in cloud computing – and just want to learn the fundamentals – it can feel like it’s going into a level of detail you’re not likely to use in your everyday life.
Remember when you learned math at school? For most people, those trigonometric functions and algebraic equations are a thing of the past – something people proudly proclaim “I never wound up using any of that in the real world!”
But what these people miss is it was never about the little details, but the bigger picture. With math, it was about problem solving. With CCP, it’s opening your eyes to cloud technology and what’s out there.
And that’s pretty important, because what business doesn’t use cloud computing these days, from storage to software apps? And for those who are planning a career in cloud, the benefits of learning about AWS – the most used cloud computing service – is obvious.
As a team leader, cloud computing training was also an excellent team building exercise. I told my team we’re going to have a celebration at the end, whether you pass or fail it – to recognize the time it took, how hard it was, and how we can be proud of what we’ve done.
And then, if all that wasn’t enough, taking the CCP let us wear the shoes of our Pluralsight learners for a while and understand first hand the challenges they face. For us, that was the most invaluable part.
The CCP exam (and a cautionary tale)
With tons of study under my belt, I was full of confidence going into the CCP exam.
“After all this prep, taking the test will be the easy part!”
Boy, was I wrong.
When you sit the exam, you have the option to go to an exam center, or take it at home. I opted for the latter, since there was nowhere close for me to go.
But there was one snag: to take the test, you need to have a fast internet. On the day of the exam, you’ve got to download your stuff and test your environment – and you’re not allowed to start until 30 minutes before the exam starts.
So, right on the 30 minute dot, I kicked things off. That’s when the computer told me to close two functions.
Little problem, though: those functions were closed.
My state of calm evaporated like a block of ice in the desert
“What’s going on?!”
At this point, I called my husband, who is quite technical.
“You’re right, those functions aren’t open. You’re going to have to shut down and restart.”
All the while, the exam start time was creeping up. By the time the issue was resolved, I then needed to pick up my laptop and walk around the room to show the proctors that I wasn’t hiding anything or anyone under my desk, and there were no answers scrawled on my arms.
It was ten minutes into the exam time before I actually got to start it.
This is the worst-case scenario of going into an exam. I managed to calm myself down by telling myself that I had loads of time – I had done practice exams before, and I’d finished them with 30 minutes to spare. Doing those trial exams really helped.
After that trial by fire, I moved through the questions, marking down anything I wasn’t unsure of and coming back to it. Finally, I got through all the questions, and submitted my work. Unlike many exams, within two minutes, I would know if I passed.
In that moment, I felt a massive sense of accomplishment – and I knew those four weeks of hard work were worth it. Now, it was just a question of making sure my team made it through as well.
But if you’re going to sit the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner, here’s my advice: If you can, save yourself a lot of stress and just go to an exam center.
How to get your team to take the CCP exam
Here are some of the ways I guided my team to take the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner, but these tips will work for other similar certifications.
1. Watch and encourage
In the Pluralsight portal, you can see where the team is at and how they are progressing through the study materials. Some people might have finished all their study materials, but not taken the exam, so the question becomes what the barrier is. Others might be only a third of the way through. How can you motivate them to move forward?
The most important thing I found is not to push too hard, because this will turn people off the team training and get them stressed. You need to gently encourage them: “We set out on the road together, so let’s all finish this together.”
2. Take the certification yourself
This is a classic case of practicing what you preach. If people see how you took the exam, it shows that it’s possible, and that you wouldn’t ask anything less of them than you’d ask of yourself.
It’s also another example of “standing in their shoes” – I found by knowing what the experience is like, you can help guide your team through the tricky spots.
3. Set the OKR to taking the exam, not passing it
I let my team know from the start that it really doesn’t matter if they fail or pass the exam, it’s about studying and learning. You can always take the CCP again. The OKR I set was not to pass the exam, it was to complete the content and take the exam.
This helps remove the pressure of “I must pass the exam,” and the idea there will be negative consequences if they don’t.
4. Set a line in the sand
I found you need to set a deadline for when your team needs to have taken the exam, even if they take it on different days. This way, the whole thing doesn’t roll on forever.
This can be tricky, because there can always be reasons not to take the exam, like “This is a busy month.” I asked about the exam date in the team meetings to help keep it as a topic of discussion, not another thing to be put on the backburner.
5. Help them set study time (and respect it)
When studying for the AWS Cloud Practitioner exam, I told my team to use the two “no meeting” hours I have set each week for every employee on our team, then find another spot in their calendar to schedule an additional hour for study.
I encouraged them to push back on anyone who wanted them to schedule a meeting in that additional hour, and to “keep it sacred”. Of course, I also needed to respect it myself. Even if there’s exceptions to the rule, you’ve got to try and make sure they stay that – exceptions!
Don’t just leave your staff to update their LinkedIn profiles and quietly go back to work. Celebrate your accomplishments as a team – just sitting the exam is a win. If you’ve got a shared office, go in and take them out to lunch (or dinner). If they’re remote, set up a virtual meeting where they can order food in and share a drink.
In Pluralsight’s Melbourne office, they’ve got a dedicated space on the wall where they hang up a photo of anyone who passes a cloud exam. They take a snapshot with a polaroid camera of the staff member, put a little AWS or Azure trophy sticker down the bottom, and hang it up!
Not only is that great for recognizing employee accomplishments, it lets everyone in the company know you celebrate and value learning. By adding different trophy stickers to the bottom for various certifications, it reinforces this part of your culture.