Certifications: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Episode Summary

Join Pete and Jesse as they continue their stint as co-hosts of the AWS Morning Brief podcast with a conversation about the pros and cons of certifications. They touch upon the sheer number of AWS certifications that exist, how the certification landscape has changed over the years, instances when certifications can be particularly helpful, how certifications can help organizations achieve compliance, who might be a good candidate for going for a certification, how certifications are table stakes for certain opportunities, and more.

Episode Show Notes & Transcript


Corey: This episode is sponsored in part by Catchpoint. Look, 80 percent of performance and availability issues don’t occur within your application code in your data center itself. It occurs well outside those boundaries, so it’s difficult to understand what’s actually happening. What Catchpoint does is makes it easier for enterprises to detect, identify, and of course, validate how reachable their application is, and of course, how happy their users are. It helps you get visibility into reachability, availability, performance, reliability, and of course, absorbency, because we’ll throw that one in, too. And it’s used by a bunch of interesting companies you may have heard of, like, you know, Google, Verizon, Oracle—but don’t hold that against them—and many more. To learn more, visit www.catchpoint.com, and tell them Corey sent you; wait for the wince.

Pete: Hello, and welcome to the AWS Morning Brief. I am Pete Cheslock. Corey is not here. He's never coming back. No, I'm just kidding, he's just not joining us for the Friday Morning Brief for a little while. Maybe we'll invite him back as a guest, but until then, I'm again joined by Jesse DeRose. Welcome back yet again, Jesse.

Jesse: Thank you so much for having me, I am so happy that Corey has not figured out that we just reset all of his passwords to ‘1234’ and locked him out of everything.

Pete: We did add an exclamation point to the end, and we made it very secure, but I do think it’s the—

Jesse: Very secure.

Pete: —it’s the ultimate troll to essentially take over Corey’s podcast for a period of time—while of course, he's taking care of his children—and essentially just inviting him back as a guest on it. So, I think that'll be fun. Maybe we'll have to do that: invite him back as a guest on his own podcast.

Jesse: I love it.

Pete: Well, we're here today to talk about, maybe, potentially contentious topic certifications. Are they good, or are they a bag of crap?

Jesse: This is a spicy one. I'm excited for this conversation.

Pete: So, certifications, this is a business that's more profitable for AWS than SimpleDB is.

Jesse: Nailed it.

Pete: Their whole certification ecosystem has really just blown up. I mean, I've been a part of the Amazon ecosystem since nearly the beginning, working for a startup back in 2009 timeframe; we were very early, and there was no certification, there was no re:Invent. I mean, all that stuff came after. And just looking now at the amount of certifications that exist, you've got, kind of, your default Cloud Practitioner level, you've got Solutions Architect Associate Level, Developer Level, you've got Professional Level, you can be a DevOps Engineer Professional. 

But then, more importantly, they even have these specific specialties in addition, so you can have an advanced networking specialty, or an ML or data analytics. It's really interesting how this has just exploded across the ecosystem, and having been to many re:Invents, they put a good amount of effort into certifying a lot of engineers at those events. But Amazon certifications are actually not the only thing we're talking about today. It's a big part of what we're talking about, but there's a lot of certifications out there. And for a lot of people, that's how they got into the industry. So, there's potentially a lot of good, but that's not always the case.

Jesse: Yeah. I honestly have a lot of mixed feelings on certifications. And honestly, there's strongly mixed feelings on certifications. So, what I really want to talk about today is, are they good? Or are they crap? Are they things that are ultimately beneficial for you to sit for and to take, or are they a waste of your time? And honestly, I think it all really boils down to which certification you're looking at and what do you want to do with it? What's the ultimate end goal for getting this certification? Because that can ultimately really influence whether or not this certification is going to be worth your time and money.

Pete: Exactly. I mean, what is the point of these to begin with? I mean, other than being just a great cash cow for some businesses?

Jesse: Yeah, I like to think about it like—I compare it to a college degree. I know it's not but I think about it in the same sense of like—

Pete: See, that's a very spicy comparison for some people who have paid lots of money for a college degree—much like myself—to compare it to a certification, but I like where you're going with this, so give it to me.

Jesse: I'm sorry for all the listeners who just dropped off and returned back to the latest episode of the Adventure Zone or Serial. I appreciate for those of you who are still with us to continue on. For me, a certification can provide a lot of similar opportunities for a college degree in terms of, it's a way to validate your knowledge. It's a way for you to prove, “Hey, I understand these ideas, these concepts,” that maybe you wouldn't be able to validate otherwise. And it validates your knowledge externally, and it gives you the opportunity to show a potential employer, “Hey, I have proven that I am familiar with these topics related to your business, and that is why you should hire me, or that is why you should consider giving me this promotion or giving me this opportunity.” It really gives a candidate an opportunity to derisk yourself. And I have proof. I have third-party-validated proof that I am familiar with these things.

Pete: Look, Jeff Bezos personally signed—actually I don't know if that's the case. It's probably Andy Jassy—personally signed my certification. So, it's like Andy Jassy is giving me this job recommendation, and Andy Jassy’s stamp of approval.

Jesse: “Do you want us to get Andy Jesse on the phone? Because we can get him on the phone right now, and he can confirm that he personally approved me for this role.”

Pete: Exactly. I mean—and I, of course, say that he stamped mine. So, interestingly enough, I do not have any Amazon certifications, but you do Jessie.

Jesse: I do. I have the Solutions Architect Associate certification.

Pete: So, I have at various points in the last couple of companies I've worked at have looked at getting an Amazon certification, and honestly, I have had the same kind of thought processes you just mentioned, which was, what will this give me? And will it give me for my time, and let's not say the money aspect because, for all these scenarios that I'm dealing with, the company was going to pay for it.

Jesse: Sure.

Pete: So, that was less of a risk, but it is my time. I don't want to take it and fail it, and have to take it again; that's just wasteful. So, I’d want to spend some time preparing and reviewing. But if I were to get—at this stage of my career, having been working with Amazon for a long time, if I were to get a Cloud Practitioner or Solutions Architect Associate, does this open up any doors for me? And to be honest, at my stage of my career, it doesn't really help me that much. Now, it does help someone—and this is actually something that I wanted to talk about because when you work for a company that is an Amazon Partner, to be at a certain level, you have to have a certain number of people certified; it's the whole point of it. If you're kind of working on behalf of Amazon, they want to make sure that you have a certain number of people certified at a certain level, internally. And again, it's that validation. It's proving that you have enough people who understand Amazon to deliver, maybe, a software or a service on top of their platform. Again, it's that external validation. And at the same way that maybe having that certification derisks yourself as a candidate, all of those certified engineers within your organization essentially derisks the organization from both the, maybe, consumer of your service as well as from the Amazon side. For anyone who's been to re:Invent, you'll walk around the booths and you'll see Amazon Partner Network Select or Platinum or Mega Ultra Platinum, or whatever is on the Datadog booth, that they got Emerald level. Those types of messages makes a consumer of those services maybe feel a little more comfortable dedicating some part of their business to them.

Jesse: Yeah, it really makes the consumer comfortable knowing that these people know what they're doing. I am more comfortable giving this vendor my money because I know that they are certified in some capacity. It's the same way if you think about it outside of the tech world, if you look at a company that is certified by the Better Business Bureau, or certified with—any restaurant will throw a, “Our customers love us on Yelp,” sticker up in their window to show, we get a 4-star rating or higher, or a 4.5-star rating or higher, or whatever, on Yelp. It really markets the company better to show, “Hey, you should invest your money with us,” whether it's a restaurant, whether it's a business, whether it’s—whatever the company is.

Pete: Exactly. And so let's talk about the flip side because there's definitely a lot of—me getting a certification just to help my business, it's not, again, providing me anything. Maybe it's providing my business something, but for a lot of people and myself included, certifications are actually how I got into this industry. I quote, “Knew computers,” in the early aughts when I was in college, and I started working for an internet service provider, which is, like, the OG SaaS company, I mean, before SaaS companies existed—we were an internet service provider and we were a hosting company. And I literally went to a bookstore, you know, like a physical place that sells books—I know it's hard to imagine in this world, but you could walk in, and you could walk out with a physical book—and I bought the A Plus certification book, and it was just—

Jesse: That book is a brick.

Pete: Three inches thick at least, this thing is. And I also bought the Network Plus book, and I took them home, and I read through them, and I took the certifications. And those certifications essentially got me into this company. They let me elevate from being a support engineer taking calls and fixing people's internet to going and installing T1 lines and installing DSL, and then moving to the data center side, and becoming a network engineer. And those certifications, I think, really gave me a great knowledge when I was coming from zero. 

So, this is one of those things that I feel like is always so frustrating to me, and I get a little annoyed when people are like, “All certifications are garbage.” And I was like, “Many certifications are, but many really lift a whole group of people up and out of this funk that they might be in where they just don't have this expertise.”

Jesse: This is the one big selling point for certifications for me. If you are looking to get into a new field, or if you're looking to explore deeper within an existing field, that you already had maybe a little bit of surface knowledge, a certification will absolutely give you some academic learning to go out and apply in the world.

Pete: Yeah, now granted the A Plus certification, I couldn't speak for how it is today. Again, it's a great cash cow for the company that, probably, operates it, and the test preps and the book-selling and things like that, but it did have a lot of useful information that I absolutely still remember. The other certification I remember taking—this one was a little bit later in my career—was the CCNA certification. This is when I was working for a company doing consulting, a lot of Cisco Networking PIXes and ASAs, for the Cisco folks out there that remember those; maybe they're still around, I don't know. 

And I remember taking that CCNA and, sure, there was a lot of things Cisco specific, like certain commands and things like that, but a big part of the CCNA was how to subnet, like, how to subnet by hand. And wildly helpful. I used it all the time for years as a network engineer, and then everyone went to the Cloud, and it's like, “Sweet, I don't have to deal with subnetting anymore.” And then VPCs came out, and suddenly it's like, “You got to start subnetting again.” I feel like there's a whole generation of people that didn't need to learn subnetting. [laugh].

Jesse: It's like the computer science students who went to college and learned how to code the list function themselves before they actually learned that the list function existed, to give you that underlying building blocks, to give you those underlying principles that you can then apply to other parts of the world, other parts of the work that you're doing. So, maybe you don't end up needing to create a function from scratch or create something from scratch, but you have that underlying knowledge that allows you to then apply other newer data about the Cloud, about AWS, about technology, on top of.

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Pete: I think it's really good to point out, too, is that company I worked at where they really—not forced me but, you know, strongly encouraged me to get the CCNA was also—needed a certain number of CCNA, CCNP, I want to say. Obviously, there's the CCIE, which none of us at that company had. But they needed a certain number of those engineers to reach certain partner tiers within Cisco as a Cisco reseller.

Jesse: Yeah, I think one of the other things to note here is that I worked for a company a number of years ago who specifically incentivized employees to get their AWS certifications, and part of it was an opportunity to get everybody up to a certain speed, everybody on the same page, but part of it was also security. When compliance time rolled around, we wanted be able to say we have this many people who understand what they’re doing with our cloud services.

Pete: Yeah, again, it's derisking. It's making everyone feel a little bit better that they have engineers, they have employees within the business that have taken this test and have validated that they have this knowledge. Now, here's a question for you, Jesse, which is, should I go get a cert? I mean, I've looked at the practice tests for Cloud Practitioner—that's the first level of the AWS certs—it says six months of fundamental AWS Cloud. I looked at the preview questions; seems pretty easy, so let's assume I go and take that and pass it. 

But then do I go down the path for a Solutions Architect? Do you think that that certification gave you value? Was there something that you fundamentally learned? Like, in the CCNA I learned subnetting that I still use today. Do you feel like there was something similar within the Amazon certifications that you've taken? Or do you think there might be, at even the higher level of the Professional level?

Jesse: I think that there is probably much greater knowledge at the higher Professional level than at the entry-level Associate’s certification level. For me, I already had a number of years of experience with AWS going into this exam. So, I felt relatively comfortable with all of the basic building blocks that the certification covered. The hard part for me was the way that the certification discussed the various topics. So, specifically for me, AWS wants you to do things the AWS way, so they always want you to use AWS services as a solution rather than building a solution yourself, or bringing a third-party solution into the mix through something like third-party vendor, like if you need an observability tool or something. 

I feel like there is a massive disconnect between the theory and the actual practice of some of the content and these certifications. So, specifically in my case, the theory for the AWS Solutions Architect Associate certification said, “For everything you want to do, do it with an AWS service.” But in the real world, that's not how any company runs, even the companies who are cloud-native, even the companies who want to use as much of AWS, or their cloud provider, as possible. That is not what they're going to do; they're not going to use all of AWS services for every solution. There's a cost-benefit trade-off to consider, and I think that's something that at least this particular AWS certification—and I would assume more certifications—don't think about.

Pete: Yeah, I think that's a really good point, too. And obviously it makes sense: they're going to optimize, and they're going to build their tests for a business that consumes the full suite of Amazon services. And to your point, not everyone's going to do that. They're going to have different architectural reasons to not do that. They might fear the great wrath of vendor lock-in and not want to use EMR or something, or not want to use Amazon Elasticsearch, they want to run it themselves. Lot of different scenarios like that. 

I think the other thing, too, that I would be super curious about if anyone has taken the specialty level Amazon certifications, how valuable that people think those are. They're obviously, maybe more generic. I’d be curious what the advanced networking looked like, or the security one. Are those generic enough where you'll learn about cloud security by taking the security one; you'll learn about some advanced networking. Obviously, there'll be an Amazon spin, but networking in Amazon is not easy, especially if you have a hybrid-cloud scenario, and you want to bring Direct Connect and various peering locations that you're connecting to, the complexity starts getting off the charts really fast.

Jesse: Yeah. If you are looking for some fundamental knowledge for one of those areas, for one of these specialty certifications, or even one of the non-specialty certifications within AWS, it's worth going through some of the practice material. Try a couple of the practice exams, try a couple of the questions, maybe go through some of the free content on one of the test prep websites. See how you do. See if you get all the questions, see if you get none of the questions, and then gauge how much you might learn from there and see, is this ultimately worth your time?

Pete: Yeah. And that's the question you really have to ask yourself. I would definitely say that if you're early in your career—and when I say early, I mean, more so, do you think that you're going to be working with Amazon Services for the next three to five years? And do you like—or maybe you're not yet into working with Amazon Services and you're trying to break into that. Maybe you're working in traditional data center modes. Both of those types of individuals I think should absolutely go down the path of getting a certification. 

I think it's a no-brainer if your employer will pay for it. And you should definitely ask them if they'll pay for it because then you're not having to obviously spend your own money, it's just really your own time. And they should pay for it. They'll get value of it, they might be an Amazon Partner, they might be trying to elevate their level. But it's just your own personal growth, and it can provide value to many people out there.

Jesse: Absolutely. I think that any company that wants their employee to get one of these certifications should pay for it because they're ultimately showing the employee that they value them as a person, and value them as an individual, and want them to grow, they want to invest in their further career development by giving them access to these resources to study and to take this exam.

Pete: And finally, if you actually want to list your services, your own personal consulting services on the AWS IQ service, you need to be certified. All of those consultants that can list on AWS IQ are certified, so that's just kind of table stakes from there.

Jesse: Yeah, having a certification can be table stakes to a lot of opportunities in the same way that a college degree is table stakes for a lot of opportunities. Showing that you have spent the time to validate your learning and validate your knowledge is absolutely worthwhile if you are looking for an opportunity that requires a degree or requires some kind of certification, requires some level of, you know, three years of experience or degrees. Something that says we want you to prove to us that you have some kind of experience with this topic, with this information.

Pete: Yeah, it's third-party validation, largely, that this third party has said, “Yeah, this person knows what they need to know to meet this level.” And for a lot of businesses, sadly, a lot of businesses still do that checkbox hiring. If there are two candidates, and they both have a couple years experience, my guess is the candidate who has those relevant certifications will, sadly, be looked at a lot higher than someone who doesn't. Yeah, that's just the sad state of the checkbox hiring world we live in. But to be honest, a lot of that happens, too, with college degrees to candidates similar background, one with a college degree and one not, my guess is most companies are probably going to go for the one with a college degree. So, given that, again, that third party validation could be the difference between a new role and not.

Awesome. Well, Jesse, thank you again, for joining me, I think certifications are always a really interesting topic. It's great to kind of talk about both sides of it. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the profitable for AWS.

Jesse: [laugh]. Absolutely. I think this is a really important topic that everybody should be mindful of and really ask themselves if they're looking at getting a certification, is it worth your time?

Pete: And one certification that is absent from here, I'm noticing, they have Alexa Skill Builder: great. Certification course, you definitely need that one. But what they don't have is any certification specific to cost optimization, cost analysis—

Jesse: Ooh.

Pete: —nothing related to that. So, I'm just calling that out to any of the Amazon folks that listen in, and haven't sent us hate mail yet, I am very curious why there is not a certification for essentially cloud economics, so let us know. I would personally love to see if that one is in progress. I would love to look at anything related to it because that is actually the one certification that I think Amazon needs to have. I think more people need to understand their economics of Cloud and a certification might actually help people finally go learn that.

Jesse: It's one of the pillars of excellence for AWS, so I definitely would love to see a certification on this.

Pete: All right. Well, we're putting it out there, Amazon. Show us what you got. So, awesome. Thanks again, Jesse. Really appreciate it. 

If you enjoyed this podcast, please go to lastweekinaws.com/review and give us a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you hated this podcast, please go to lastweekinaws.com/review and give it a five-star rating on your podcast platform of choice, and tell us how many certs that you have, but more importantly, how many of those are still valid. Thanks again.

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