Episode 55: Get More out of the Cloud with AWS Training and Certification

Episode Summary

While a valuable investment, the value of AWS training is still not always well understood. With a library of free digital training and a variety of certifications validating baseline as well as more specific expertise, there are many reasons to look at investing the Amazon’s training program. Today, we are talking to Maureen Lonergan who works hard to bring value to the training programs for AWS and doesn’t take your time and investment in their cloud services for granted.

Episode Show Notes & Transcript

About Maureen Lonergan

Maureen Lonergan joined Amazon Web Services in March of 2012 as Director of Training and Certification. Since then, Maureen has worked to build a set of programs and offerings that offer a flexible path for learners to advance their careers and for organizations to enable their teams and get more out of the cloud. Her team is responsible for building, maintaining, and delivering both classroom and digital training courses alongside an AWS Certification program to validate cloud knowledge. Education programs, including AWS Academy, aim to build a pipeline of cloud talent for the future. Over the course of the last 7 years, the organization has delivered training in over 50 Countries and hundreds of thousands of learners. Prior to Amazon, Maureen was the Senior Director for Partner Enablement at VMware where she built training and enablement programs and delivered training to hundreds of thousands of individuals across a channel of 30,000 partners. She’s also served as the Director of Technical Training and Enablement at Symantec and the Director of Education Services at Ariba.

Some of the highlights of the show include: 
  • Where to get started learning about the cloud
  • The variety of AWS certifications offered
  • Why certifications are valuable for job prospects
  • The work that goes into designing the AWS training courses
  • Some partners where you can access training


Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Cloud economist Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize.
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Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I'm Corey Quinn. I'm joined this week by Maureen Lonergan, AWS director of training and certification. Welcome to the show.

Maureen: Thanks for having me.

Corey: No, thanks for taking the time. Let's start at the very beginning. What is it you would say it is you do here?

Maureen: I would say that my team and I build training and enablement programs for our customers on AWS technology.

Corey: One of the recurring themes on this podcast has been how to take someone who has either not touched cloud before but has experienced in a data center or traditional IT operations or someone who is a new graduate or new to the space entirely, and get them to a point of being productive, employable or otherwise competent to begin touching people's, in some cases, hideously expensive production environments without causing huge amounts of risks. When you wind up taking a look at someone brand new, where do they start?

Maureen: We've spent a lot of time thinking about this in building programs over the last couple years. We started building instructor-led courses much like any other IT provider who are doing the industry but over the last couple of years, we've really spent a time defining the personas that are out there.
And so modernizing IT skill sets is super important to us. Our general enterprises are trying to move their traditional storage administrators or database administrators and need programs to do that. So most recently, we've developed, we launched a digital platform that has 350 courses that are free and available to anybody who wants to take them but we specifically focused on how do you build the foundational level skill sets for someone in tech or a business leader.
And we launched the cloud practitioner class last year which is actually our fastest growing course out in our portfolio. We also aligned that with a certification for cloud practitioner. Anybody, a student or an individual within an organization, could go to the platform and take the course and work in the platform and take the certification exam.
From an academic perspective, we're doing the same thing. We launched the academy program a couple of years ago. We're working with hundreds of universities across the globe. And we have both foundational level training with cloud practitioner. And we also have a cloud curriculum that we're delivering alongside with certifications so that when students come out of the university, they actually have defined validated skills.

Corey: Somewhat common refrain in this space has been that either certifications are incredibly valuable or certifications have no value whatsoever. And that's a very broad spectrum that's easy to distill down into a binary which I think is absolutely the wrong approach. When does getting a certification for someone make sense?

Maureen: I think it's actually a personal decision. Certifications are geared towards the individual but what I would say is that we spend a lot of time working with our customers and there is a huge cloud skills gap. And in meeting with our customers, we're talking about how do you find a talent out in the industry.
And certifications is one of the things that we asked them to look for. Here's a series of work experiences or education that we think will help you on your cloud migrations. But certifications is the one thing that they can look to that we know that we've spent a lot of time building, validating and certifying. So I think, again, it's a personal thing but I think it's important if you're looking for a job in cloud.

Corey: Once upon a time when I started with cloud, I logged into AWS and its consul for the first time, and I was taken aback that there were so many services that I was never going to be able to wrap my head around. There were 12. There is now over 150 the last time I counted. And the challenge that I had then was there were really no resources for getting started other than the documentation, which in that era was not what it is today.
Now when I log on to the training page and look at how to get started, one of the challenges I see is almost an echo of that previous problem. It's not that there aren't any training options now. It's that there are so many. There are a bunch of native offerings that AWS provides. You have a number of partnership agreements with a number of training schools, and there are multiple different paths to get there.
And the documentation is, of course, still there but now if printed out, it would be three times a size of any encyclopedia, which for the younger listeners out there used to be a series of books that was a facsimile of Wikipedia but smaller. Where does someone start? It can be an overwhelming experience when you just now learned that Amazon is more than a store where you can buy things. It also does this weird thing in the world of computers. How do you start?

Maureen: I would recommend that you go out to the AWS.training site and take a look, sign up for the free tier of digital offerings that we have. One of the first pages that you'll land on is cloud practitioner, the foundational level learning. It's six hours of content broken up in 10-minute chunks and it really gives you base level foundation for what cloud is.
I think after you've taken that training, we've purposely designed because of the evolution of our services and the rapid updates to them. We have designed 10 to 15-minute modules across all of our services from foundational level all the way up to 300 or 400 level.
I think we have this leadership principle at Amazon, learn and be curious. And we live and breathe it every day and we're constantly thinking like how do people need to find training, what is this training that they need. If there's a new service launch on Lambda, let's make sure that we get that training out there as soon as we can after the announcement and make it available on the most consumable way.

Corey: In the interest of full disclosure, you at last count, had nine different certification options? I have one of them, the cloud practitioner. And the reason I did that was probably the worst reason in the world, which is at re:Invent, I wanted to get access to the certification lounge which frankly, I would recommend doing if you're curious.
But going through that process was interesting in that it assumed of relative baseline level of about six months of experience, I think it was asking for, of AWS concepts. I am very much not the target market given that I have roughly 20 times that. So I'm not here to say that, "Oh, that cert was easy." It's not easy for everyone, and it was relatively straightforward just based upon my experience level.
But what was fascinating to me about that was the way that it focused on how the pieces fit together, what each service did, what it was envisioned to be able to do. It was perfectly aimed at business leaders. In other words, folks who are never going to make API call themselves. They're never going to build anything from scratch but they need to be able to take what their engineering groups tell them about AWS and contextualize that in the context of what these services do.
I think that was a terrific direction to go in, and of all the services you offer, it's probably the one that I'm the most excited about in a professional sense. One of the things that I find strange about that though is cloud practitioner is more or less presented in sort of its own thing. It's not generally listed on the path to getting further certification either associate, professional or specialty levels.
It sort of is in its own little island, until recently there was a requirement of associate certs before you could challenge professional and specialty certs. But even then, cloud practitioner was not included. Is it just me or is the cloud practitioner certification aimed at a different audience than the rest of the certifications?

Maureen: I think we specifically looked in the industry and talked to our customers and talked to universities. And there is a tremendous gap in information on what cloud is and how it can solve business problems. We took a step back and said the associate level certifications are very specifically geared toward the technical audiences whether you take the developer or architecture or operations. But there was a huge desire for anyone from a line of business leader to a C level executive to really understand cloud and be able to clearly and effectively articulate what the business value was and how they would leverage it to solve business problems.
We spent a lot of time with our customers. We defined the personas and built the exam. And this has actually been a really good certification for technical individuals that are trying to modernize their skill sets too. There's a lot of fear out there in the industry about moving to cloud, how are my skills going to be relevant. I've been a database administrator you know what, 30 years, how do I know get comfortable? And I think that this has been a great ... It's actually been one of our fastest growing certifications ever.
We're also leveraging it in the academic market. We see more and more people starting to do certifications at the university level and we want to make sure that we're building the workforce for the future and we believe that that's a great onboarding mechanism to other technical paths.

Corey: Do you think that there's room for further growth in the certification offerings?

Maureen: We analyze and assess it a lot you'll see at re:Invent this year, we launched the ML certification. We've seen tremendous uptake in that. We also launched some training paths along with that and we're starting to explore other offerings. We've been very specific to design around role-based learning paths and specialty areas that we thought that our customers needed and needed to identify people.
Most recently, we just launched at CES, the Alexa beta certifications so we're super excited. A little different than what we've done before. So we're constantly evaluating what we think is needed for our customers.

Corey: Right now in a number of different places, there's a bit of pride about people who have been able to take and maintain all nine of the certifications you currently offer. First, is that something that is generally a good idea from your perspective?

Maureen: It's funny. I think it's a competitive thing. I see it at the events that I go to and in the lounge. And I love it because I think it creates a community, but I actually think that that's a very personal decision. We see enterprises going in and starting to embed certification requirements and the kind of the roles as they defined them but I've yet to see one that says, "Do all nine."
Again, I think it's a little bit of a competitive thing but I think, as you grow your career and you may start out with one certification and want to grow up the stack and then specialize, so that's why we designed it that way.

Corey: I can see a future 5 or 10 years out where someone shows up for a job interview, and the interviewer looks of their resume and says, "Oh, I see you have all 28 AWS certifications. While you're obviously very skilled at taking tests and understanding how AWS works, we're hiring someone to do a job not take tests all day. Thanks, bye."
And you see that in some cases in previous generations with different certifications as companies continue to expand their certification practices. At some point, it almost becomes counterproductive to spend all of your time chasing various certs because you look at what these people do, there's no specialization there. They are taking a giant pile of certifications that they can pass even if they're all in one arena, and it doesn't seem to wind up leading to anything and building any narrative.
I don't think that that's currently the case with AWS, but I can see a not too distant future where it becomes that.

Maureen: Yeah, I guess ... Again, I think it's a competitive thing in an individual, and I think it's up to the company to determine where they want their employees to spend their time. I would agree with you. I think it's super important to go deep and really understand a specific area and then expand your knowledge.

Corey: One of the interesting things that I've noticed in years past or previous generations, whatever you want to call it, is once upon a time the CCIE, it was the top-tier Cisco certification. It was widely viewed as the doctorate of networking. If you had that certification, it was understood that you could walk on and take a six-figure job in a whole bunch of companies.
And people clued into this relatively quickly and then a bunch of boot camps and brain dump sites sprung up overnight and started teaching to the test with the natural result that that certification went from something that was widely revered to just another cert on a resume.
And this is a problem that I don't think is specific to any one vendor. It becomes a systemic problem once a certification becomes the victim of its own success. There are brain dump sites that will send people in to take a certification. As soon as they come out, they will effectively short-term memory dump everything that was on the test.
And now instead of learning the concepts, you wind up with a teaching-to-the-test style of training, if you can even call it that, where you have all the right trivia answers but no real understanding. How do you view that and how do you combat that assuming, as I can probably safely assume, that that's not the intended goal of the certification program?

Maureen: Yeah, I agree with you. I think it is a problem in the industry and it's not unique to any one vendor out there. What I can say is we, at AWS, value certification. We spend a tremendous amount of time building the exams and going through the psychometric analysis process and building question banks that are large so that we can start to evaluate. You can tell we watch trends and you can tell when items have been compromised. And we make sure that we rotate the questions in order to stop that. We also have a lot of rigor in the way that we build exams and we update them frequently and announce that to our customers.
I think the other thing too is that we're very specific. We want our customers or any individual taken certification to be well-trained. That's the important thing, so we build training programs. You'll see from our test prep, we don't teach the test. We teach how to prepare for the exam. And so it's something that we look at all the time and we're in constantly evolved in how we build our exams and what we test on and how we take that forward. But it is definitely something that we have a lot of rigor on as an organization.

Corey: It always felt like a bit of a silly thing from my perspective where you're cheating yourself. There's the opportunity to learn something right and take a foundational piece of knowledgeable that will likely serve you well throughout your career, or you can grab it onto short-term memory, go in, vomit it back on a test, maybe pass, maybe not, keep trying until you do just by random chance.
But that doesn't build toward anything. It's more or less getting the credential for the sake of the credential rather than the sake of learning. And there's an entire argument you could have around that approach but it always seemed to me that if you're going to learn something, learn it. Don't just fake it.

Maureen: Yeah, I don't think it does you any good and it certainly doesn't do organizations well either. They're looking for well-skilled people and they're trying to solve business problems, and cloud allows them to innovate in a rapid way. And I think from a career perspective, having five certifications for the sake of having five certifications probably isn't the right approach.
Companies are looking for well-skilled individuals, so it's a personal choice but from my perspective, I agree with you. I think people really need to understand and learn the technology and that will only help them in their careers long term.

Corey: I want to say four levels of certification now. You have cloud practitioner. You have the associate. You have the professional and then you have the specialty. Can you break those down for me?

Maureen: Yeah. We don't really think of them in terms of levels other than, I guess, the role based ones, the associate and the professional. What we've tried to do is say, "Here are some certifications. And you can choose to go up a path from a role perspective. You can choose just get foundational level knowledge or you can specialize."
We've actually just, in the last couple of months, released the requirement that you have to go from one certification to another. And that was largely based on the industry. There's a lot more talent out in the industry and people can learn in a lot of ways. You don't have to go to training to be well-versed and take certification. There's many ways to get there.
And we wanted to make sure that we weren't putting an artificial barrier, like forcing people to take an exam that they're already skilled in. That doesn't help anyone. And so I think that big change to our program, we've actually started to see a lot more people invest in other areas and taking their certification. So, I think it was the right decision for us to do.

Corey: It used to be that I could look at the certifications that you offered and say, "Oh, yeah, I could walk in and take all of those in an afternoon." And it turned out first almost certainly that is untrue. And then you added a bunch more and there are specialties that I have absolutely no exposure to. Machine learning or big data, those from my perspective are the best kinds of problems namely someone else's because I have no idea what I'm doing in those spaces.
At this point, learning enough to be able to intelligently speak to all of the different specialties feels like, at that point, you are capable of doing three different jobs all at the same time. I can't fathom what that looks like. I have nothing but respect for people who can walk in and take all nine but I can't imagine the amount of work that has to go into being able to do that.

Maureen: The program wasn't designed to do that. And so I know that there's probably people that will go out and try and attempt it. What I would say is that what we've tried to do is design courseware and certifications for people that are specializing in those areas. Let me give you an example. For ML, we announced the ML learning paths on ... At re:Invent this year, we have five of them. And they are based on Amazon's Machine Learning University internally and all the best practices for building out machine learning.
And we've taken all that knowledge and built free online courses that are aligned to that certification. Someone who specifically and I will tell you right now that content is very challenging and it was designed specifically to build the skills that they need in order to do that along with project work and best practices to prepare you for the exam. But like in order to get all the specialties, I think it's going to be a challenge.

Corey: And it feels like that's one of those challenges that can only get harder with time. Here's a near and dear to my heart challenge. In case people hadn't noticed, AWS doesn't generally tend to leave services alone. They become more capable over time. They get better. Things that required massive workarounds last week now are a click of a button away or a single cloud formation stanza.
How do you find that interacts with someone taking a certification where they're keeping up-to-date with what AWS is doing and now they're faced with a question that where months ago had a workaround challenge that would have made a solution impractical and now is a native feature offering?

Maureen: We try and address that changes to the technology as rapidly as we can. What I would encourage people to do is really look at the blueprint that's designed in the prep workshops that are associated with the certification exam. We try and update things as quickly as possible. We actually review our content on a monthly cadence to see and to make sure that things aren't too out of date and make decisions on updated exams based on them.

Corey: It's a hard problem to solve for. And I don't want anyone to think that I am, I guess, casting aspersions on AWS. Getting those service to a launch to general availability where people can start using it, invariably, those initial launches are almost parities or prototypes of what they will eventually grow into. There have been a number of services that launched that were, to be very direct, clown-shoes awful originally. I'm thinking of the very early days of EC2, for example, where entire businesses were started that made working with an EC2 instance comprehensible.
Today, that is not a viable business. It turns out the service has matured to the point where almost anyone can get up and running with very little background information. So, I wouldn't think that it would make sense to delay a release until all of the certifications have been updated and staged. It sounds like one of those trailing functions and I don't see a way for it ever not to be.

Maureen: What I would say as it relates to services, the rapid development of it, one of the things that we did after re:Invent is after ... First of all, it's the first time that when Andy announced all the services available, we actually pushed all the training 15 minutes later. Those are first time we've ever been able to do that and that's our tight integration with the engineering teams now is a big win for us.
We follow that up with a hackathon with our entire curriculum development organization for two days after that event where everybody sat and updated all of the courseware and the services. We're putting mechanisms in place to try and address the information people. Announcements are made and they want to have the training as soon as they can and we're making our best efforts but it's a rapid process. I think we'll continue to build rigor in that area both curriculum and certification.

Corey: We've talked an awful lot about the AWS native training options, but you partner with a ... I don't think large is even a strong enough word ... with a stupendous number of companies that have a giant smorgasbord of training options, in person, automated systems, video courses, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. How does AWS view partnerships in the training space?

Maureen: We value our partners in a big way. Early on, we looked at more traditional instructor-led training partners. We have a network of more than 65 companies across the globe that we've trained their trainers who would train hundreds of their trainers to be able to deliver our curriculum. So, that was our first out of the gate. We want to make sure we could scale, provide training in local language in countries where we weren't operating. It's super, super important. And that authorized training network has been very successful and super important to our growth and to our customers.
Most recently, you've probably seen some announcements around. We're looking at partnerships with certain organizations. There are companies like edX and Coursera that have a very different audience demographic but tens of millions of users. And so we've started to partner with them. We put courses out on edX. We put courses out on Coursera and we continue to always look for the right way to reach our customers, new customers, people interested in learning in cloud.
And so it's super important part of our strategy and I would say too, the things with Coursera and with edX, that's again, it's all free training and available to anybody who wants to take it. To the extent that we can get as much information out there in the industry as possible, we're doing that as aggressively as we can.

Corey: I guess in conclusion, if you're able to talk to someone who is just starting out, they're just realizing Amazon might be more than a bookstore, where would they start? Where would you recommend that people dive in?

Maureen: I would say to start with the free tier of our digital platform, of our digital courseware. I think, it's a great way to kind of explore and learn and learn about AWS, obviously leveraging the AWS free tier in combination of those two things.
I think, again back to the learn and be curious, get out there and explore what we have. And if you happen to be a user of edX or Coursera is great programs out there that we put out there as well. I'd encourage anybody who is curious about cloud to do that.

Corey: Last question, Maureen, then I'll stop taking up your time, how do you tend to view community engagement as far as the training and certification program goes?

Maureen: I think community engagement is important. You see that at our events, whether you go into the Lounge or you're just in the self-paced labs or rooms that people are getting together and they're talking about cloud technology, AWS cloud technology. And I think that's super important. We have a lot of people participating in meet-ups. I think anything that you can do to get involved in those communities is important.

Corey: Maureen, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I appreciate it.

Maureen: Thanks for the opportunity. I was really happy to talk about the programs.

Corey: You're certainly building an amazing thing here. I'm curious to see where it goes next. Maureen Lonergan, director of training and certification at AWS. I'm Corey Quinn and this is Screaming in the Cloud.

Announcer: This has been this week's episode of Screaming in the Cloud. You can also find more of Corey at ScreamingintheCloud.com or wherever fine snark is sold.

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