Friday, May 7, 2021

Professional Certifications, Reboot!


After two months and a few hundred dollars later, my most recent personal project is completed. 10 years after my TOGAF9 certification, I decided to play the test taker again and obtain a new batch of professional certifications: AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner, AWS Certified Security Specialty and Microsoft Certified: Azure Fundamentals.


I didn't need these certifications for my current job, and I'm not looking for a new one either, so this is not about job requirements or job hunting. So why did I do it?


I did it because I could do it :-) Well, ok, let me elaborate a bit. My career has been slowly moving away from more technical roles, and that's reducing my direct, hands on contact with technology. I don't think this is a bad thing, but as someone with the technical background, I miss that deeper understanding of the things I need to talk and write about.


At the same time, I do not have the same drive to learn things that I do not have an immediate need for, learning just for the sake of learning. I still love learning new things, but that youth drive of building labs and labs for learning things we may never touch as part of our job is just not there anymore. Putting a target like a certification in front of me (and paying for it) seems to be an effective way to trigger my brain into "I need to learn this" mode. I learned many things in the past while preparing for getting certs, so I thought I could use the same method again. It was nice, it worked well for this intent.


Cloud adoption keeps growing and cloud is directly affecting the work of anyone in security these days. It's not different for me: I work for a Cloud SIEM vendor, and we are bringing many innovations to the SIEM space that are directly related to cloud. Securonix recently announced "Bring Your Own Cloud", for example, and it is deeply rooted in AWS offerings, so it seemed natural to me that I should put a couple of AWS certs in my project. AWS Cloud Practitioner helped me learn more about the very broad range of offerings from AWS, and the security specialty was useful to provide more depth to my understanding of cloud threats and cloud security controls.


In addition to the AWS certs, I wanted to add the (ISC)2 CCSP to the mix as well. I checked the domain of knowledge of the cert, ran through a few practice exams and noticed I already had most of the skills and knowledge required to pass it. So why didn't I do it? Because it's freaking expensive! USD600 is beyond any reasonable justification for a simple multiple-choice exam. Maybe I would take it if I was looking for a job like cloud security architect, or even as a CISO for a company with a strong cloud presence, but just for the fun of doing it? No, I'm sorry, it doesn't make any sense. 


An Azure cert was a natural choice to complete my project. AWS and Azure are by far the most visible cloud providers (sorry Google!), so going through the process for both looked like the best choice.


There are a few things I noticed during this exercise that I think it's worth sharing. First, it confirmed to me that test taking talent is really a thing. I'm a helluva test taker. I'm not bragging; apart from helping me pass tests and exams easily, it doesn't provide me with any real competitive advantage "on the job". I've always been like that and was happy to see I haven't lost it after so many years without sitting for a test. I didn’t spend more than a handful of hours reading for the full project. I don’t feel nervous and even have fun while taking the tests, so everything was a fun experience.


But when you are a hiring manager and you see those certs in a resume, it's always important to find out if those certs came from real experience or just from good test taking skills (or worse, memorizing those awful brain dumps).


Don't get me wrong, it doesn't mean that certs on a resume means nothing. Remember, the main reason for me to do it was to force me into learning something about those technologies. Even if I don't have the hands-on experience the test developers were trying to verify with these exams, I still had to at least read a bit and get solid understanding of the basic concepts. 


Talking about basic concepts...if you want to get certs, LEARN THE F* BASICS! You can't believe the number of questions I was able to answer because of basic stuff, not necessarily tied to those specific cloud providers. If you know how crypto works, for example, a lot of the AWS security specialty questions will be very easy to answer. Same thing for networking and network security. AWS security groups, network ACLs, Azure network security groups...those are straightforward to learn when you know those things well. I didn't take the real CCSP, but the practice questions I've done indicate that CISSP level concepts would put more than half of way behind you on that one.


Finally, some interesting bits about AWS and Azure I was able to notice:


·      Knowing the basics of one of those means you have almost all the basics of the other. Key concepts are virtually identical. 

·      The naming convention of Azure is AWESOME. It's very easy to know what products and services do just from their names. They may not sound as sexy as "Athena", "Glacier", or high tech as “S3”, “EC2”, but they tell you in a very simple manner what they are about.

·      Both services are evolving so fast it's hard to keep study material, documentation and questions aligned and up to date on the latest offerings. Don't be surprised to see questions about things you didn't see in your study material. Check some of the announcements and blog posts from the past year as part of your study work.

·      AWS Security Specialty is the one I see closest to being "hard". There's really a lot of stuff to cover, in a relatively deep level of detail: Networking, Crypto, IAM, logging, policies syntax and small idiosyncrasies. I can see how it really tries to assess real experience on AWS security.



Am I done with the certs now? Maybe, not sure. It may become an expensive hobby :-). Well...those Azure security certs do not look that hard, I still have that 50% off voucher for AWS exams and I really need to spend some time learning about Google cloud ;-)


P.S. As I’m doing this during the COVID-19 pandemic, I took these tests in the “online proctored” mode. THEY SUCK! I was expecting those VUE, PSI guys would have learned by now how to do it right. No, they tech and processes are horrible. I had problems during the 3 exams, one with PSI (AWS Practitioner), the worst one, and two with VUE. If you are a person that gets anxious or nervous during the exam, this is definitely not for you. Some of the issues I had to go through would take many candidates out of their minds and strongly impair their ability to answer the questions.

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