AWS certifications are a polarizing topic. Some say a certification is an essential qualification for any cloud engineer; others say it’s a waste of time and money. The reality is more nuanced — certifications are useful for some people, less so for others.

There are a few considerations to weigh when deciding whether pursuing an AWS certification is right for you. Although there are several tiers of certification, they all involve similar factors.

Why do you want to be certified?

This is the key question. What do you want to do with your certification? What will it help you achieve? For most people, the certification itself isn’t the goal — it’s a stepping stone toward a greater goal. Knowing what your goal is and whether certification will help you get there is key to deciding whether a certification is worth your time and money.

If a certification helps your overall goal — great, go for it!

If you’re not sure how a certification fits in or what your greater goal is, you may want to work that out before hitting the textbooks.

Common reasons to get AWS certified

Let’s look at a few ways a certification might help you achieve your goal. What does a certification get you?

Validating your knowledge

A certification proves that you understand a set of ideas and concepts, something you might not be able to show otherwise. It’s externally validated proof. AWS certifications aren’t a walk in the park — if you’ve got one, that means something. When might that proof be useful?

Making yourself a more attractive candidate to a potential employer 

If you’re applying to work at organizations that use AWS, they probably want to know you’re familiar with the technologies and services they use. The certification is proof that you are, which makes you a less risky bet as a candidate. For hiring managers, it’s a quick and easy way to see that you have the skills they need.

You’re unlikely to get a job based solely on a certification, but it can improve your chances. If it’s between you and an uncertified candidate, your certification might give you the edge.

Making yourself a more attractive candidate to AWS Partners

If you’re applying to work at an AWS Partner, a certification can make you even more attractive. Just as a certification proves that you’re personally familiar with AWS, so having certified staff proves that an AWS Partner is familiar with AWS. That’s important to both their customers and AWS. In fact, AWS requires that Partners have a certain number of certified employees on staff. If you’re already certified, that makes you a more enticing candidate.

Trying to land your first job using AWS 

When you’re trying to break into the tech sector, a certification can help you land interviews — and hopefully your next gig. When you’re starting from zero, a certification can be a great way to get foundational knowledge.

Landing a role in tech can be a chicken-and-egg problem. You need relevant expertise to get roles, but you need a role to get the relevant expertise. Certifications can break the cycle and lift people out of a rut when they don’t have expertise yet. This is a very common story — and for those people, certification is absolutely worth it.

When getting an AWS certification might not be worth it

A certification may be less useful if you already have some AWS experience. Your resumé and past projects serve as proof that you’re familiar with AWS, and that opens a lot of the same doors as a certificate. At a certain stage in your career, a certification becomes less useful. That doesn’t mean it’s pointless — but you might want to think more carefully about whether it’s the best use of your time. If you’re confident you can get interviews based on your work history, a certification may not be for you.

If this is you, don’t dismiss all certifications as worthless. They may not be useful to you, but other people are at different points in their career — and a certification may be just what they need to reach the next step. Don’t be the seasoned professional pooh-poohing the value of certifications — you’ve made it, so don’t stop other people from doing the same.

Misconceptions about AWS certifications

Let’s talk about a few possible misconceptions. These aren’t reasons not to get an AWS certification, but be wary if they’re the main reason you’re considering it.

A certification is not a guaranteed salary or pay raise

Getting certified can definitely be an advantage to help you find a job, but there’s no exact amount of money you can expect to get. There are surveys and studies that purport to show it improves your salary — but check who ran or paid the survey. In any case, those numbers are an average and by no means guaranteed.

A certification is not in perpetuity

Stuff in AWS changes frequently, so you have to renew your certification every three years. That means more study, more exams, and more test fees. This helps preserve the value of a current certification — but it means that if you don’t have a definite use case for one right now, it may be best to wait.

A certification is not the same as practical experience

The certifications often assume you’ll use AWS services for everything, but practically no organization runs purely on AWS. There are trade-offs when choosing between different AWS services as well as when choosing between an AWS service or a third-party service. Navigating those trade-offs are a key part of system architecture but not something that a certification will teach you.

A certification isn’t the only way to learn

We all want to keep our skills fresh and stay up-to-date with new technology, and there are plenty of approaches. Read books, watch talks, build projects … there are lots of ways to learn that don’t involve a certificate.

The cost of AWS certification

Let’s suppose you have a goal in mind, and certification will help you get there. What’s it going to cost you? You need to figure in more than just the price of the certification.

Sitting the exam: $100–$300 

There are different tiers of certification — from the foundational “Certified Cloud Practitioner” up to more specialist certifications like Machine Learning and Security. Higher tiers cost more: The exam itself varies between $100 and $300, and you have to pay for each retake.

Getting study materials: Free to thousands 

Unless you’re already an AWS expert, you probably won’t sit the exam straight away — you’ll need to do some studying first. There are a variety of resources, at a variety of prices.

If you want to pay as little as possible, there are free resources and white papers, but it takes time to find the best ones. If you’re willing to pay a bit, you can buy video courses, textbooks, and practice exams that typically cost up to a few hundred dollars. If you’re willing to spend a lot, you can pay for full classroom tuition — more like thousands of dollars.

However you learn, make sure you consider the time and money to find good study materials.

If your employer is paying for your exam (say, if you work for an AWS Partner), then the monetary costs may not be your issue — but the study time still is.

Studying for an AWS certification: Weeks or months of your time 

Depending on the level of certification and how much experience you already have, preparing for the exam can take many hours — some say 100 hours or more.

Whether you do that studying on personal time or work time, it’s a non-trivial investment. Consider the monetary value of your time. Spending 100 hours studying for an AWS certification means 100 hours not spent on something else. Only you can decide if it’s the best use of your time.

Is AWS certification worth it?

So, is certification worth it? That depends on you.

It can definitely be useful if it can help you get the next great job or if you need to prove that you know what’s what in AWS. If it helps with a greater goal, it can be a great investment. Every year, thousands of people get their first job in tech, and a certification helps open that door.

If you’re not sure how an AWS certification would help, maybe think about it a bit longer. Not everybody needs to be certified, and that’s OK — just don’t hate on the people who choose to go the certification route.

Like everything in AWS, certification isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.