A year as AWS certification SME


What a year 2020 has been. My year as a AWS Certification SME started with a bang and an in person workshop in Nashville for the Solution Architect Professional Exam. This happened prior to Covid getting a grip on the world. After this all the workshops became virtual, which wasn't that bad of a change actually.
Let's take a trip down memory lane first and figure out how my journey started.

How it all started

During Re:Invent 2018 I was talking to one of the SME program managers in the Certification Lounge. The Certification SME program sounded so interesting that I just had to sign up. If you like to sign up for the program navigate to Certification SME program webpage and apply.

My first workshop

My first ever certification workshop was for the Alexa Skill Builder Specialty Exam, back in September 2019. What an experience this was, I met so many great people from all around the world. When I was traveling back home from the workshop, my goal was set, this should only be the first in a long line of workshops......

Behind the scene

What happens at a workshop then? Is that super secret?
No that is not secret, the questions, or items as they are referred to, are secret. The workshop it self is not secret.

There are actually two main parts, item writing and item reviewing.

During item writing each participant create items in a special tool using our own devices. The tool has evolved a bit over the year but is still a nightmare to use. For each item you have to come up with a scenario and a problem, I normally try to use my experience with AWS to form these problems. Each item need to have one, and only one, correct option to the item. Then the incorrect options need to be plausible. This is the hardest part, creating good incorrect options that still sound correct but is not. The correct option also need to be backed up with documentation clearly showing that this is correct.

During item reviewing the newly created items are reviewed in small groups. The program manager leading the review, doesn't reveal who wrote the question, to make sure that everyone give as un-biased feedback as possible. During this part you must keep an open mind and you can't take feedback on an item personally. Everyone just want to help to create the best possible item. I have had items being totally torn to pieces as other SMEs find problems. At the same time I have torn other SMEs item to pieces as well. You just have to be open minded to feedback, I always learn so much during this process and have been able to improve my item creation a lot over time.

After the group review, does the item end up on an exam now? No it don't, there are still several more steps and quality checks that need to pass. This really show AWS commitment to creating good and clear items on the exams. One of the last steps are an Alpha review, during this process a group of SMEs answers around 20-30 items in and exam form, almost like a real exam. This is then followed up with an group call talking about the items and if there were any problems.

After this there is still a couple of more quality checks. Then finally! The item can end up on an exam as an unscored item. A what? Unscored? Yes that is correct, not all of the questions on an exam are counted. Some of them are actually still being quality checked, but you don't know which it is when you sit the exam. Read this great blog to know more about the scoring.

When there is enough data on the unscored items they are once again quality checked with the help of SMEs.

Nashville, SA-Pro Exam

In the beginning of 2020 I got an invite to participate in an workshop for Solution Architect Professional Exam. It was going to take place in Nashville in February. With the experience from the Alexa Exam workshop there was nothing to think about, of course I accepted.
The workshop was closing in and I must say that I was pretty nervous. The SA-Pro exam is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, exam among all the AWS certifications.
The first workshop day started out great, I met one of my friends from the Alexa workshop in the lobby to the AWS office, it was so fun to meet and talk to him again, and this really made me relax, a familiar face in the room.
The certification program managers picked us up and the orientation could start, with a super nice breakfast. I felt right at home, everyone is always so nice and understanding. The program managers always make us feel welcome and always comes to your rescue when you are struggling :)

Going virtual

The workshop in Nashville was my last one before Covid hit bad, making every workshop, group review, alpha review, and more, go virtual. For me this was actually not that bad of an experience. Certification program managers did a great job trying to bring that in-person feeling to the workshops. Amazon Chime is used throughout the workshops jumping in and out of quick calls, group reviews, follow ups, etc.
Virtual events also made it possible for me to join even more workshops, since I didn't have to travel and take time of work. Over the year I have seen the Program Managers getting more and more comfortable with the concept as well. They work so hard and always does their best to make sure all SMEs feel welcome.

Summarizing the year

Over the year I have participated in over 20 different events, workshops and reviews. What a crazy and fun year! And I have also been helping out with other tasks related to AWS certifications and the process for item creation.
I will forever remember this year, not only for a major pandemic, but for the year when I started to spread my wings as AWS Certification SME.
Around April I had earned and received my SME badge, that you get after attending at least two workshops.

What was my favourite event over the year then? It would be hard to pick one I think, but one that quickly come to my mind is the review of unscored exam items. Here I got to work so close with the AWS team helping them decide the destiny for the unscored items. Go back on the exam as scored, or be passed to the grave.

The year started in Nashville and ended with a special virtual workshop right before christmas.

Is it worth it?

I admit, I have spend so much of my spare time as a SME over the year. So is it worth it then? Yes!

Joining the SME program and participating in workshops during the last year has given me super powers! Every time I participate in a workshop I learn something new. All these amazing people willingly sharing their experience, expertise, and knowledge of the AWS Cloud. So not only have I made some new tech friends, I have learned so much from them. I can only hope someone has learned something from me.
I will keep joining workshops, keep spreading my wings, to be able to fly even higher!

Final words

When you sit your next exam, think of this process and the amount of work that goes in to each question. Think of all of us SMEs that pour our heart and soul into each question! The quality of the items comes from hard work. To say that blood, sweat and tears are required may be an exaggeration, but almost.

And if you ever get a question to participate in a workshop as a SME, your answer should be YES!