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From student to engineer: How to study smarter for cloud certs

Getting started learning and finding a job in cloud is tough. See how Azure MVP Gwyn Peña-Siguenza climbed the cloud ladder by studying smarter.

Jun 08, 2023 • 9 Minute Read

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  • Cloud
  • Learning & Development

Getting started developing cloud skills and finding your first cloud job can feel overwhelming. I recently saw the cartoon below in a post about how many certifications are needed to get a cloud job. It got me reflecting on my own experience in landing a role in cloud, and how studying for a certification helped me get there.

drawing of The Cert Spectrum

How long do you have to study to get certified?

Whether it's an AWS, Google Cloud, or Azure certification you're preparing for, one common question is "How long do I need to study for?"

Your mileage will vary here. It will depend on how familiar you are with that slice of cloud. The key to preparing for almost all certifications is understanding — memorization won't cut it.

I took my sweet time studying for my first certification, the AWS Certified Developer - Associate. I prepped for five months, studying almost every day for at least two hours.

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Landing your first cloud job

A few months after passing my AWS certification exam, I started looking for roles that would give me some exposure to cloud. I eventually landed a sysadmin job at a place that used Microsoft Azure. 

As time went on in that role, I’d find ways to poke around with some of the cloud-tasks engineers with more experience would handle. I would also frequently speak to my manager about cloud-related things I had read or learned about that week. Thanks to my persistence and, of course, the knowledge gained from studying, my manager was open to letting me take on bigger and more substantial Azure tasks, which down the road, led to a promotion to Cloud Engineer!

I haven't felt the need to get another certification until recently when I passed my LPI Linux Essentials Certification. Studying for that taught me several new commands, got me hands-on with Bash and scripting, and gave me exposure to the wonderful world of Linux and open source. (Interested in learning more about the basics of Linux and the open-source movement? Check out this month's free course line-up, which includes our Linux Fundamentals course.)

With all this being said, I've gathered some tips for you to help make the best out of your study time (and ensure that the efforts you're putting in pay off double on the other side in your cloud career).

1. Take your study material and schedule out for a test drive

Will all learn in different ways. Some prefer video, some audio, some text, and some (myself) need a mix of all.

The only person who can figure out what you need is you. This is something hard to do — but embrace it. Once you figure out the perfect concoction, learning becomes simpler. 

This is also important for figuring out your ideal study schedule. We all know cramming doesn’t work and just makes us miserable the night before our exam. So what’s a solid alternative? 

First off, test-drive your study material. Grab a course, book, or whatever it is, and skim through its contents. This also helps you get a big picture of what you’ll be learning. Watch a module or read a chapter so you can get a sense of the teaching style. Ask yourself how it felt and if you think you’d benefit from the whole thing.

Now that you’ve found some material you enjoy, when’s the best time to actually sit down and study? There are many variables here, but some guidelines:

  • When can you have uninterrupted time to yourself? (You might have to cut down on another activity for this.)
  • If this is something that will benefit your current role, consider negotiating some time with your manager to study on the clock. 
  • Maybe you don’t have a large chunk of time, but you might be able to break it into Pomodoro sessions. This is what I’ve been implementing lately. I do two sessions in the morning where I mainly read and watch material, and two in the evening after work where I get hands-on and write notes about what I read in the morning. There’s also an added benefit of spacing out your learning this way. Check out this talk by Barbara Oakley for more.

Don’t be discouraged or afraid if something that worked for your friend or colleague, doesn’t work for you. Ultimately, it’s trial and error, but well worth the effort.

Tips for Learning Online

If you want more cloud certification exam study tips, we've got them:

2. Don't consume your study material like a Netflix show

Alrighty, so we’ve found study material that works for us and we’ve got time to study. How to make the best use of it? Easy. Don't use your study material in the same way you'd watch something on Netflix. No binging. No half paying attention. Put your phone away. We’re all about mindful and active learning here. 

Here's a checklist to get the most out of a lesson:

  1. Watch it fully, and make note of terms or concepts you don't understand.
  2. Look up the terms/concepts you didn't understand. I highly recommend making the official documentation the first place you go for this. Why? Learning to read the documentation is a cloud career superpower. It's a crucial skill for any person in tech.
  3. Watch the video again, now with a new understanding of terms you didn't know. At this point, things will start to click better. It’s a magical feeling!
  4. If the video has some sort of demo, get hands-on! Do it for yourself. If it's some sort of code, type it out (don't just copy and paste) and run it. If it's some sort of cloud service, deploy it in your own environment. Just don't accidentally leave resources running when you're done. (Setting up some billing and budget alerts can help here. Or, avoid any chance of racking up a surprise bill, by — shameless plug — using ACG's cool cloud sandbox service.)
  5. Write notes on what you just reviewed. This helps you commit things to memory and will give you something to reference later written in your own language.
  6. Bonus step: synthesize your learning online: You don't have to do this step, but I highly recommend it. I mean you’re already taking notes. Turn them into a blog post or YouTube video. Explain what you've learned. You might even be able to take the hands-on part, build it out, and put it on GitHub. You'll get the added benefit of sharing your knowledge, and building your portfolio.

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3. Ignore those LinkedIn posts!

By now you might be thinking, "Oh geez. If I have to do all that for each lesson, it's going to take forever to get done!" Well, I said I’d give you tips on how to make the most out of your learning, not how to get through it faster. As cliche as it sounds, slow and steady wins the race, right? 

It's hard to avoid feeling like you're falling behind when every LinkedIn post is someone showing their most recently passed exam. But think about it: would you rather spend time learning one thing well, or get through it fast — not retaining much — simply so you can move on to the next? The game is long term here. 

Also, we’re not just studying here. After each lesson we go through, we also have:

  1. Read documentation.
  2. Got hands on.
  3. Created notes.
  4. Possibly even created a blog post, video, and/or GitHub project. (Share these with us in the #i-made-this channel on Discord)

That’s a lot of added benefit, well worth the extra time.

Once you feel prepared to take your certification exam, you have a few options for how you take the exam. Basically all cloud certification exams are now available online.

How many cloud certifications do I need?

Another point I’d like to make here, you really don’t need that many certifications! I speak from experience here. I only had one prior to becoming a Cloud Engineer, and now I only seek them out when I’m completely new to something.

The question then becomes: How many certifications do I need to get a cloud job? Glad you asked! Read more here.

I'm certified! Now what?

Well, first take a break. I’m serious. Chill out, catch up on some of those shows you had to push out of the way in order to study, take the weekend, spend time with the family — whatever you need.

In tech, we have this habit (not sure if it’s bad or good, but that’s beyond the scope of this post) of non-stop learning. If you don’t allow yourself some time to relax, you’ll burn out. And that’s no good for anyone.

"What next" is a hard question to answer, but I’ll give you some guidelines that have helped me:

  • Is there something you will be working on at work that you need to learn about? 
  • Is there some requirement for work you have to fulfill?
  • Was there something that stood out to you from your previous learning?
  • Is there something that just interests you? 

What I’m trying to say here is the answer isn’t necessarily “another certification.” Be smart and respectful of your own time and brain. Don’t get stuck in the certification race or tutorial hell.

Let us celebrate and help you!

Alongside taking a break comes celebrating your accomplishments. If you’ve just passed an exam, many congrats to you! Please hop into the #yay channel on Discord to let us know. We love celebrating with you and promise to shower you with emojis and GIFs.  

Much luck to you in your learning journey. Embrace making it your own because the benefit is only for, you guessed it, you.

Might I also add, we have quite a few courses available on A Cloud Guru. From certifications to one-off courses, news shows, super-short tutorials and more! (I’ve got my eye on this Python for Sysadmins course!)