How I Started My AWS Cloud Journey

The life-changing story of a Korean language coach

Before the Journey

English isn’t my first language. My mother tongue is Korean and I learned English as a second language. And learning a new language really helped me with passing the AWS Solutions Architect — Associate exam.

To tell you a little bit about myself, I am a Korean language coach. I work with working professionals and students from all around the world. I love my job because I not only get to help others by sharing the Korean language and culture but I also get to meet many different people and hear their stories.

A few years ago, I met a student named Aaron. Aaron is a cloud manager working in Seoul and wanted to prepare for job interviews in Korean. So in every lesson, we would talk about IT, especially cloud technology. He would explain to me what cloud was, what it was not, and why it was important. The more lessons we had, the more I learned about cloud that I became quite interested in it. I would look it up on YouTube and do more research about it to understand it better.

Lockdown and Opportunity

One day, Aaron suggested that I embark on a cloud journey by taking the AWS Solutions Architect — Associate exam. In this journey, building the “core” was key. Network, Compute, Data (especially the 3 V’s of Big data: Volume, Variety, Velocity), and Security are the core that I needed to build first.

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This suggestion came to me as a surprise because I had zero knowledge in tech. I was quite worried but, at the same time, I was curious. I’d heard a lot about cloud technology in the news but wasn’t exactly sure what it was. So I wanted to take this opportunity to learn more. There was nothing for me to lose. Plus I had nowhere to go anyway because of the lockdown. So I decided to go for it.

I participated in an exchange session where I had the opportunity to learn more about AWS. One resource that I found extremely useful was AWS Certified Solutions Architect — Associate 2020 by Ryan Kroonenburg on Udemy. This course is for complete beginners like me so it was quite easy to understand many cloud concepts.

With the goal of taking the exam in two months, I started studying every day, for at least three hours each day. At first, it was exciting because I actually was learning and understanding the things that I had never paid attention to like CPU, disk, IP address, etc. Along with the Udemy course, I also watched a lot of YouTube videos to learn things like how the Internet works and computer science basics. Because of that, my progress on the Udemy course was quite slow. On top of that, I would often get stuck on abstract topics that I just could not grasp. For instance, the concept of IP address and port was really confusing for me. But I learned that connecting these vague concepts to real-world examples really helped me understand the fundamentals. So mapping an IP address to an airport, and a port to a gate at the airport made things a lot clearer.

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The Hurdles

After about a month and a half, I completed the Udemy course and was ready to take a practice exam. So I took one of the practice exams that was part of the course. I set a timer, turned off all the electronics, and started the exam. I read the first question and immediately knew I was screwed. The passage in the question was long. I didn’t understand what the question was asking. I had never heard of some of the words in the question. There were so many obstacles. But I calmed myself down and moved onto the next questions but it wasn’t much better. It was the most painful exam experience. This made me quickly realize how shallow my knowledge was and how much more there was to study. There were many moments throughout the exam period that I wanted to give up. However, I kept telling myself “I’m struggling now because it’s my first time and the next time will be a little less difficult.” So I did not give up and finished the exam. The result was 65%.

After the frustrating experience, I went through all of my notes again and marked the parts I needed to study more. I also reviewed the questions I got wrong and made sure I understood every part of the question.

Language Learning vs. Cloud Learning

This experience actually reminded me of my time in high school. When I first went to the US as an exchange student in high school, I was far from fluent in English. I couldn’t understand what my teachers were saying. I had to do a fake laugh when other kids were making silly jokes that I didn’t understand. It was frustrating because I felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t have any other choice but to confront it. I practiced reading, speaking, writing, and listening every day without fail. I memorized phrases and used them with everyone around me to see if they understood me. And when they did, I gained confidence. I was super excited whenever I could hold a short conversation. After months of hard training, I started to understand more, do better in school, and make more friends. But one thing I know is that I wouldn’t have been able to do this on my own. I had my American host family helping me every day with every little thing, teachers spending one-on-one time with me after school, my friends who helped me with my school work. Without them, I probably would have given up early on. And just like what I did when I was learning English, I knew exactly what I had to do with AWS. I had to push through.

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Silver Lining

When it came time for a second practice exam, I knew what to expect. This time it was less painful. I had a better idea of what the questions were going to be. Even if there were unfamiliar terms, I learned to work around them and still understood the main idea of the question. In addition, there were certain services that AWS preferred over other services. For example, an Application Load Balancer would be preferred over a Classic Load Balancer. Understanding these preferred services helped me choose the right answer, or at least eliminate the wrong ones. This time, I scored 67%.

I took ten more practice exams over three weeks. After every exam, I reviewed the questions I got wrong and because of that, my notes only got thicker. I studied almost five to six hours every day until my practice exam scores landed in the 80s. I felt I was ready to go for the real exam.

I signed in to AWS Training site to schedule the exam. I decided to take it at home because all the nearby testing centers were closed. The earliest availability was that Friday and so I made the payment. Now I only had two days before the exam. In those two days, I reviewed, reviewed, and reviewed. I went over the questions I got wrong until I felt comfortable.

D-Day

On the day of the exam, I just couldn’t study anymore. I was nervous the whole day so I tried my best to calm down. My exam was at 4:30pm and I checked in with the online proctor at 4pm and started the exam. Some questions were doable and some questions were really hard that I just had to guess. But the hardest part during the entire exam was the testing environment. During the exam period, plenty of fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances drove by my apartment building with sirens on. I think I must have heard the sirens five times. Because I was so afraid that the proctor might cancel my exam for external noise, I could not focus. Thankfully, in the end, the proctor didn’t say anything and I managed to finish the exam. It was a nerve-racking experience. After I completed the exam, I was asked to do a survey but honestly, I don’t even remember what I said. I was just so happy to be done with the exam. When I submitted the survey, I saw the word “PASSED” written in bold letters. I could not believe it. I don’t think the word “happy” can describe what I felt. I was so grateful, excited, but most of all, relieved. I was proud of myself.

The AWS Solutions Architect — Associate certification is the first certificate that I have ever completed. For the past few months, I had to suppress my urge to travel, hang out, watch Netflix, and all the other things I wanted to do. But it was all worth it.

Come to think of it, I wouldn’t have been able to do this alone. I think I was able to achieve it because I had a mentor who was there to guide me whenever I was lost. If anyone is going through the same thing, I highly recommend finding a mentor who can help you along the way. Otherwise, it can be a long, lonely journey.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

It’s been two weeks since the exam and now I’m learning Python. I don’t know where this will take me. I don’t know my end goal, but I am paving my own path to see what the possibilities are out there.

Lessons Learned Beyond Cloud

A few days ago, I had to set up a business email address on Google Workspace using a domain name I registered on AWS. I was looking forward to actually putting my DNS and Route 53 knowledge into use in real life. I was confident that I could finish this in a few minutes and start using the new email address. I opened up Route 53 on AWS and followed the instructions from Google but I kept getting an error message saying my MX records were missing. I spent hours thinking of all kinds of reasons that could have caused this but I couldn’t figure it out. In the end, I reached out to Google Support to fix the issue which had to do with a TXT record that wasn’t covered in the AWS exam. One more lesson learned here: my knowledge is only the tip of the iceberg. Stay humble.

This isn’t the only lesson learned during my journey. Here is a list of things I learned that I’d like to share:

  • Start taking practice exams early on, even when you haven’t completed the entire course. The scenarios in the questions give you a deeper understanding of AWS services and their use cases.
  • Know the legacy AWS services. If you see any of those in your answer choices, eliminate them right away.
  • Longer questions are usually easier because there’re more hints in the question.
  • Do not study long-term. I read that it usually takes 6 to 8 weeks to prepare if you have a little bit of experience with AWS. If you’re like me, set your goal no longer than 3 months.
  • Make studying part of your daily routine. Once you build your momentum, you will be easily motivated to study.
  • Find a mentor.
  • Find a study partner.
  • If you’re easily distracted, take the exam at a testing center.

To me, learning cloud is like learning a new language. It requires grit, determination, and passion. There is a quote that I find useful when learning anything new:

“You live a new life for every new language you speak.”

I don’t think learning cloud technology is any different from learning a language. The tools you use and the time and effort you need to invest in learning something new are the same whether you are learning a new language or a new skill.

I am now living a new life — the life of an aspiring cloud professional.

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