So Craig, can you tell me a little about your background? How did you get to where you are now?

Yeah, sure. Before I got into AWS, my career could pretty much be broken down into three segments. I started out in healthcare IT, it was a great first job. I was kind of a jack-of-all-trades, doing some network engineering, systems engineering, and some software development. It was a really cool first job out of college. Then I moved on to defense contracting, mostly software development. I kind of progressed to a technical lead and got my feet wet with project management. Then, after that, I moved on to project management—anywhere to Fortune 500 companies to banking, and even a startup. So before AWS, that was pretty much the length of my career. I liked most of my jobs, but I found that I loved cloud computing.

So you’ve been in tech for most of your career, and that’s not always the case with everyone. What is it about technology that drew you to this field? Not just AWS, but tech in general. 

In college, I went into electrical engineering and that can be a pretty diverse field. That’s where I got into some C development, some Fortran, and I just gravitated toward the computer engineering aspects of it. That’s what really lit the spark for me.

You mentioned that you got into healthcare IT when you graduated. What sorts of projects did you work on?

Man, I had some really cool projects—things like interfacing the patient admissions system with the dietary system. A project like that alone ranged from some UNIX, some shell scripting, a little bit of Visual BASIC, I had to do some screen scraping. This was kind of back in the day where you had to piece things together. That was my first project and I doubt it’s still there, but I know they used it for a good eight or nine years.

From there, you got into defense contracting and you continued to do software development. But you also got into project management. How did that come about?

As a software developer, I was becoming more senior and starting to lead teams. I became a technical lead and a lot of our project managers were responsible for business development as well. So while they were out on the road trying to drum up business, often the project management duties would fall to the tech lead. That’s how I fell into that. I certainly enjoyed the challenge of it, especially when I was just starting out and had very little experience.

I’ve heard that making the transition into a management role can be a real challenge – you go from managing computers that do exactly what you say to managing people, where there’s a totally different way of giving instructions and interacting. What were some of the lessons you learned in that time?

One of the big things is that your buddies on the team are now being managed by you. It’s a different dynamic – you’re the project manager, you have to drive the project, you have to motivate your team. And sure, you can have friendships on your team, but ultimately, you’re responsible for that project and its successful completion. You have to have everybody driving in the right direction. It’s a bit of a transition but I did enjoy the challenge of it.

From there, you moved into a few different roles with some variety, and you ended up at Linux Academy and Cloud Assessments. As a course author, you’re not exactly doing project management anymore – at least not in the way that you’re probably used to – so how did you end up here? 

What I found was I never lost that technical drive, that curiosity. I didn’t want to be a project manager who didn’t know the technical aspects of their project. I considered myself a technical project manager, and in most cases I was, by title. Basically, I kept my foot in the water on the technical side, managing servers and things like that. Often, you’ll be shorthanded on teams and I always jump at the opportunity to get into the technical side a little bit.

While that was going on, I found a couple opportunities to work with AWS – spinning up a couple EC2 instances to bang out a quick project and things like that. I’d accomplish a major task and only spend like, $80 or something like that, and it just amazed me. It’s amazing how quick you could ramp up and get things rolling with AWS. I’d always had a bit of an interest in it and then I found the certifications. Rather than looking at it piecemeal, I had to look at the whole breadth of AWS and I just loved it. I got all three of the associate certifications. I just loved looking at it and working with it.

Prior to coming here, I was doing some contracting work putting together sample tests for AWS training. I heard about an opportunity with Linux Academy and thought, yeah that sounds pretty cool.

So you touched on something that I don’t hear very often – using the certifications as a curriculum. As a project manager or a team lead, you might only touch five or six services on a project. It depends on the project, of course, sometimes there will be more than that. But when you take the exam, you have to learn everything at once. What do you see as being the value of an AWS certification?

I think it’s twofold. Let me jump back real quick – I used to do some Java development and I had some buddies who were absolutely brilliant with Java development. But when you go for a Java certification, it’s not always realistic and job-related. I find that the AWS certifications are very relatable to jobs.

It’s certainly a hot certification to have. If you decide you want to go get it – like we say at Linux Academy – you can change your life and change your career. That opportunity is there. Getting an AWS certification is worthwhile because it’s based on the skills you’ll actually use when you get that new job.

What drew you to Linux Academy? Why did you choose to come here?

It’s just a great platform for leaning. I could tell everyone is very student-focused, and when I got the call to be interviewed here, I definitely wanted to be a part of that. The bottom line is that I love Amazon Web Services. I’m by no means finished with my AWS learning, but something I love about Linux Academy is that I can dabble in Google Cloud, Azure, Linux. The curriculum is so broad.

What is it about Amazon that not only drew you to their platform, but kept you there? Now we have Google Cloud and Azure doing similar things, and they’re growing in popularity as well. What is it that you like about Amazon Web Services?

I have the three associate level certs and I just got my first professional level (Solutions Architect) and it’s just a very solid platform. I don’t consider any of the time I’ve spent learning to be wasted – there’s practical uses for everything. Amazon is the leader in that field, by far, although I do think that gap will close eventually. But there’s an aspect of wanting to be with the top dog in this race.

The other thing is how quickly things change. They’re always working on AWS and improving it. I get a weekly email and it’s just unbelievable the number of changes they make week by week. I keep a list of things I want to catch up on, and that list is ever-changing and ever-growing.

That’s something else I wanted to ask about – you just got your Professional Solutions Architect certification recently.

Yes. I obviously do have a day job, but the Professional DevOps Engineer is next on my list and I’m hoping to find time to do that one next. I can’t get enough of this stuff, I enjoy learning it. There’s a drive to reach a certain level, so that’s next on my agenda.

How would you compare the professional level to the associate? A lot of students might be just starting out and going for one of the associate certs, but we also have a good number who are already thinking about that next step and getting the professional certification. What advice would you give to them, or what comparisons would you make between the levels?

It’s interesting. Diving in at the associate level is a tough challenge in itself, and kicking it up to the professional level is almost exponentially harder. I don’t say that to discourage anyone from going for it, but the advice I would give is to not rush it. It’s great to have that certification and it’s certainly good for your career, but there’s a kind of apprenticeship that goes with it.

If you rush it, passing the test will be almost impossible. Enjoy the trip – it doesn’t take forever to get there, but my overall take is that there’s an aspect of apprenticeship to reaching that next level.

That’s something you’ve included in at least one of your blog posts – “Enjoy the trip.” Can you talk about your own trip? How did you prepare for the professional level cert?

At the Solutions Architect professional level, you’re dealing with complex, hybrid cloud scenarios and you’re moving a lot of data around. When you take the test, you might get a question that’s two paragraphs long. It can be quite intimidating. The angle I took was this: I detailed every service that could be in the professional level exam, and from that, I wanted to know use cases for each service. Not only use cases, but how they interact with other services.

For example, think about real-time data. And actually, let me add that I’m big on keywords. So when you think about “real-time data,” to me, that screams Kinesis. You make that connection – Kinesis deals with real-time data, maybe it needs to get it to S3, if it gets analyzed in between, what do you need there? It could be Elastic MapReduce.

Just looking at these massive scenario questions, you need to know how to pick out keywords and use cases out of these questions. What I’m getting at is decoding these questions without having to read every word. They’re a bit over the top, and in the real world, a client might tell me what I need more concisely. The questions are meant to be difficult and you have to find a way to decode them.

It sounds like you did a lot of preparation for this, leading up to the exam. What else did you do once you made that decision to go for your professional level certification? How did you get ready to take that exam?

I listed every service that I could anticipate being on the exam. Obviously I’m not walking into this cold – I had a pretty good idea and I went to the product page. I also used the Linux Academy course for the professional certification, but the course even mentions there are some extra things you can do. Reading whitepapers, for example. There are a handful of whitepapers that are crucial to the exam – security, data storage, and so forth.

I wanted to eliminate any doubt. I wanted to go above and beyond. I went to the product pages of all these services, and for the key parts, I clipped them into OneNote. For each of these, I went into the frequently asked questions. It’s not enough to just know, “Okay, this is S3, I can store objects in here.” You have to really know every use case that you can encounter, and when to use S3 as opposed to RDS or Elastic Block Storage.

To summarize, the emphasis I would put on my studies was first of all the Linux Academy course. Second on that list would be the FAQs. And third, probably the whitepapers.

That’s great advice for preparing and taking the exams. But like you mentioned earlier, it’s more of an overall picture of the AWS ecosystem. We have some really neat courses coming out that focus on very specific parts of the platform, and I think you have something to announce in that area…

I’m excited about my new course The CloudFormation Deep Dive. After a few months and some long hours, it’s finally coming out – it’s always a team effort here and I had a lot of help along the way. The Deep Dive will of course cover the real heart and soul of CloudFormation, Templates and Stacks, very thoroughly. It will cover concepts on Bootstrapping within templates, using helper scripts, wait conditions, update policies and a lot more. I’ll present various techniques on updating stacks, such as Stack Sets to deploy stacks across regions, Rollback Triggers to roll back stacks based on CloudWatch events, and using AWS Config to monitor stacks. AWS Lambda is an exciting service and a pretty thorough coverage of Lambda via CloudFormation Custom Resources is also included.

I didn’t want to neglect the hardcore command line folks, so I also did a section on the CloudFormation CLI. And CloudFormation facilitates interaction between AWS and other great technologies, such as Chef, Puppet, Docker, and Kubernetes. So I included a section giving an overview of these technologies, as well as a walkthrough on using CloudFormation to configure them. Finally, I included a section on CloudFormation best practices, troubleshooting, and disaster recovery (with a Lambda walkthrough to automate DR!). And the course comes with a number of hands-on labs, quizzes, and flashcards, which I hope will be helpful for students who want to really make sure the material sticks.

CloudFormation is such a cool service and I’m sure people are going to get excited about this new course. When will it be available?

You can sign up on the course page and get started right now if you’re interested in learning the ins and outs of CloudFormation in detail. Or if you have a Linux Academy membership, you’ll already have access to this along with the rest of our courses.

I don’t want to keep you too long, but before we wrap up I have to ask – if someone is a new student, just looking to get into AWS, do you have any words of advice?

There are some great opportunities in AWS. The nice thing about it is that it’s a really fast paced. You will not get bored with AWS, but there’s a lot there. You have to give yourself time, don’t be too hard on yourself, and get some proper training. There’s a tendency to want to dive in and be certified within a couple months. I’m not saying that’s impossible, but it’s important to enjoy the ride and keep moving forward. You’ll be surprised in six months how far you’ve gone, and in a year. Things that once seemed impossible, you’ll look back and you’ve done them.

That sounds like great advice. Anything else you’d like to tell our students?

Yeah, I do have a story I’d like to share. At Cloud Assessments, we talk about Quests and Challenges, and I have my own quest and it’s certainly been a challenge to make it happen. Since 2010, I’ve been planning a trip – not really planning since then, but thinking about it and wanting to go. This upcoming summer, I’m finally going to the French and Italian Alps to ride my bicycle up some of these famous mountains – up in the cloud, so to speak. It’s a quest of mine, and it’s something that is a lot like getting into AWS. It’s intimidating, but it can be done. Hopefully.

Congrats on finally making that happen. I think your quest is a great metaphor for people who not only want to change their careers, but also want to take the next step if they’re already working in tech. AWS is such a good way to push yourself to learn that new technology.

Absolutely. It can be done.


Check out Craig’s newest course, the CloudFormation Deep Dive, and be sure to subscribe to our blog for more blog posts from the man himself!

CloudFormation Deep Dive

About This Author

Phil Zona is an assessment architect for Cloud Assessments. When he's not writing, he enjoys web development, cooking (and eating), and watching videos of animals behaving like humans.

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