Although there are multiple cloud providers, only two hold double-digit portions of cloud computing market share: AWS and Microsoft’s Azure. Despite Microsoft's cornerstone role in the industry, AWS has 50 percent more market share than Azure does, accounting for nearly a full third of the industry. If you’re in IT, then you’ll likely run into one or both of these cloud giants.

AWS has a robust certification program that, like it’s a cloud computing platform, has lots of choices. Studying for certifications takes time, money, and effort, so you’ll want to choose the certification that most greatly benefits your chances of career progression. With so many options, the decision can be daunting, but there are four AWS certifications that IT professionals typically earn first.

In this article, we’ll discuss how AWS certifications work and dive into the best four AWS certifications that will kick off your career.

What is the AWS Certification?

AWS certifications validate the skills and product-knowledge a cloud professional would learn in the six to 12 months, two years, and 3 to 5 years on the job. These timeframes are roughly equivalent to the time it takes to move from beginner to intermediate to expert, and align with the three ascending levels of certification:

  • Foundational
  • Associate
  • Professional

The sole certification at the Foundational level is the AWS Cloud Practitioner Cert, which is the base for all four pathways. There’s also the Specialty tier above Professional, which has five certs in Security, Machine Learning, Alexa Skill Builder, Data Analytics, and Database.

In addition to expert level, AWS certification developed multiple certifications divided into four primary pathways: Cloud Practitioner, Architect, Developer, and Operations. Amazon needed a way to quantify individual expertise in various roles. 

AWS certification is an excellent way to build a cloud resume, validate skills, and, importantly, easily transfer those validated skills among jobs and even industries. 

Read More: AWS Certification Guide

How to Earn an AWS Certification

Most AWS certifications require passing one exam. AWS recommends a certain level of experience in a role prior to taking an exam, but there are no formal prerequisites for any AWS certification exam. 

Since each cert requires varying levels of experience with AWS, it's best to prepare for the exams while working in a role that involves being actively engaged with the AWS cloud. This serves as a lab, reinforcing the lessons you’ve learned and drastically simplifying your study routines. 

AWS certifications last for three years and have varying prerequisite requirements. For the Cloud Practitioner cert, a candidate must have six months of fundamental AWS Cloud and industry knowledge. The Associate level requires a minimum of “one year of experience solving problems and implementing solutions using the AWS Cloud.” At the Professional level, Amazon wants to see at least “two years of comprehensive experience designing, operating, and troubleshooting solutions using the AWS Cloud.”

To recertify, you must either retake the same exam (at a 50 percent discount) or pass a higher-level certification exam. For example, If you are an AWS Certified SysOps Admin — Associate, you can take the AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Professional exam. If you pass, you’ll earn the Professional cert and re-qualify your Associate certification. 

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1. AWS Cloud Practitioner

AWS Cloud Practitioner is an entry-level certification ideal for professionals working in technical, sales, financial, purchasing, or managerial roles that involve the AWS cloud. Amazon intentionally made this requirement basic, yet comprehensive, so that it could be useful for virtually anyone professionally engaged with Amazon Web Services. Prerequisites are a mere six months of AWS experience.

The exam is 90 minutes long and consists exclusively of multiple-choice questions. It can be taken either at an official testing center (of which there are hundreds worldwide) or in the comfort of your own home or office, as long as you have a qualified proctor available. It costs $100, with practice exams priced at $20. 

Earning this certification essentially opens the door to the AWS world. If your work does or will involve Amazon Web Services to any degree, it’s worth taking. It is optional and not a prerequisite for higher-level certs, so the only reason not to take this is if you are already operating at a more advanced level and working toward an Associate’s level certificate. 

2. AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate

AWS Certified Solutions Architect is geared toward individuals who perform a solutions architect role involving AWS. More specifically, candidates should have at least a year’s experience in a hands-on role designing highly “available, cost-efficient, fault-tolerant, and scalable distributed systems on AWS.”

This exam is more in-depth and lasts for 130 minutes, consisting entirely of multiple-choice questions. You can choose to take it at an official testing center or somewhere else, such as your home or office, as long as you have a qualified online proctor. Practice exams from Amazon cost $20 each, and the official exam comes with a $150 price tag. 

If your current job, or any job you want to have down the line, involves a solutions architect role in a cloud-based environment, earning this cert should be high on your priority list. As more systems transition to either a hybrid model, with roots in the cloud and on-prem data centers, or an exclusively cloud-based model, your career will almost certainly touch AWS. Earning this certification now keeps you prepared for any opportunities that require AWS experience. 

3. AWS Certified SysOps Admin — Associate

AWS Certified SysOps Admin — Associate is targeted for systems administrators working in a systems operations role. Candidates should have a minimum of one year of experience deploying, managing, and running operations on the AWS platform.

It’s no surprise that this Associate exam is 130 minutes long, uses only multiple-choice questions, and can be taken at a certified testing center or online at home or work with a qualified proctor. Practice exams will run you $20, and the real deal is a scant $150. 

The SysOps Admin — Associate certification is highly recommended for any sysadmin currently working in any cloud-based or hybrid-based role or plans to encounter one of those in the future. Essentially, that means all systems administrators. Since AWS is the largest cloud provider by far, any sysadmin who works with the cloud will eventually encounter it. At the very least, it keeps a tremendous number of options open. 

4. AWS Certified Developer — Associate 

AWS Certified Developer — Associate is designed for any professional performing a developmental role within the Amazon cloud. You must have at least one year of experience developing and maintaining AWS-based applications before taking the official examination. Consider beginning your preparation at the six-month mark; this allows you to study the material at your own pace and apply it as you go, cementing the knowledge (and your confidence) before launching the exam. 

This Certified Developer test is standard for AWS Associate-level exams: it's 130 minutes long, multiple-choice questions, and can be taken at either an official testing center or elsewhere with a qualified proctor. The practice exams are $20 each, and an official AWS Certified Developer—Associate exam costs $150. 

Developers involved with cloud-based applications should heavily consider earning at least the Associate’s level of an AWS Developer certification. To pass the exam, you need to have in-depth knowledge of at least one high-level programming language, as well as mastery of the material covered in the AWS Cloud Practitioner exam. 

Are AWS Certs Worth It?

Amazon Web Services is the most common provider for cloud-based services in the world, with IAAS, PAAS, and SAAS offerings. Having even an entry-level AWS certification won’t hurt you, and it will almost certainly keep numerous career doors open. Although Professional-level AWS certifications aren’t necessary for anyone who isn’t focused primarily on Amazon Web Services, Associate-level AWS certifications are highly recommended for anyone who works with AWS in a specialty role. If you're a manager or employed in a position that requires regular contact with AWS, earning the AWS Cloud Practitioner certification is something you should pursue. It doesn't demonstrate expertise, but it does show familiarity and a certain level of proficiency—this can only help your career.

AWS certifications can also substantially boost your income. According to an independent survey, an astounding 70 percent of AWS professionals stated that their salary increased by up to 20 percent in the year following passing their respective exams. In Canada and the United States, having an Amazon Web Services cert equates to approximately $20,000 more per year.

Amazon has done an excellent job designing certifications focused on real-world knowledge, experience, and best practices. The exams are of a reasonable length, studying for them can (and should) be done concurrently with your real-world work, and are inexpensive to practice and pass. At the end of the day, there’s really no reason not to earn an AWS certification — and you can start that process with the QuickStart Cloud Computing Bootcamp.

Enroll in our Cloud Computing Bootcamp program today.