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Passing and Failing Google Cloud Certification Exams

Within my (rather large) company, I have somehow become known as the cloud certification guy. Over the past few years, I have taken over 20 cloud certification exams and currently hold the professional (or expert) certification from AWS, GCP, and Azure. Now, there is a healthy debate on the value of cloud certification, and I will share my opinion in another article. Needless to say, that I am in total agreement that certifications are no substitute for practical experience.

For me, cloud certifications have become somewhat of a hobby. I am very goal-oriented person, and I see them as a personal challenge. Furthermore, I like learning, and in all my studying I learn something new.

Having just taken my ninth Google Cloud exam, I was asked to share my experience within my company, and I thought I would share it with a wider audience.

GCP was a late entry to the certification “game.” I took the SA Pro exam in April 2017 and was the 180the person to get certified. I remember that the only available learning course was not very good (to put it diplomatically) and quite expensive. Since then GCP has been steadily rolling out new certifications, with the Machine Learning Engineer certification as the ninth certification coming out shortly.

GCP calls the cloud engineers an associate certification while all the others are professional. However, in my experience the associate and professional nomenclature is not a reflection of the degree of difficulty as opposed to the AWS certifications which have a huge difference in associate and professional exams. I found the cloud engineer on par with some of the professional though it is more hands-on than the others. I found the DevOps exam to be easiest, to be honest too easy to be good test of knowledge. For me, personally the networking exam the hardest and I failed it the first time around. One positive aspect of the solutions architect is that it contained a fair number of conceptual cloud questions not tied to any specific GCP service. I found this to be a good test of knowledge as compared to the other cloud service providers exams where every question is tied to a service within their cloud.

As the GCP exams are maturing, so is the eco system. Several 3rd party partners are now offering courses. As with all course providers some are better than others. I personally found the ACloudGuru and Linux Academy course of good quality and much better than the official Google courses on Coursera. (LinuxAcademy was recently acquired by aCloudGuru, and they are in the process of integrating the courses). In my experience, the Coursera courses do not adequately prepare you for the exams. In particular, the Coursera courses do not cover all the topics in the exams, nor do they go into the required depth.

As others have pointed out, you must (and should) have practical experience to pass the exam. The whole purpose of certifications is to apply the theoretical knowledge to actual deployments. Qwiklabs and the labs in LinuxAcademy do a good job in providing guided labs, and I highly recommend them.

Now, I am lucky in my job that I not only design architectures but also implement them which gives me plenty practical experience. There are numerous questions across all exams that directly asked to solve problems that I had encountered in real life. This does speak to the relevancy of the questions.

Now, knowing the material and passing the exam can be two different things. There are several well documented exam techniques that will come in handy particular for non-English native speakers. Some of the question require good English comprehension skills. I do wish that the Google and other cloud providers would move away from the straight multiple-choice format. I found the Azure Solutions Architect Exam (AZ 300) to be the most relevant. It included two practical hands-on labs as well as a question format where guessing or eliminating answers won’t help. An excellent question that truly tests the knowledge yet is still easy to grade is: here are 10 steps to implement a VPC, pick five of them, and put them in the right order.

This brings me to the practice exams. There is a distinction between the official practice exam, and practice exams offered by reputable vendors such as aCloudGuru and Udemy, and “exam dumps” which are of questionable quality and origin. We, as industry players, should not encourage the practice of exam dumps which is blatant cheating.

I do utilize the practice exams and find them very useful. For people taking a GCP exam for the first time, they help to become familiar with the format. I found the biggest value in the practice exam identifying holes in my knowledge. Thus, by seeing questions, I usually know immediately where I need to deepen my knowledge.

Lastly, discussion groups whether F2F or virtual can be of immense value. Really analyzing a question or scenario and discussing why a certain answer is incorrect can be more valuable than knowing the correct answer. There have been several occasions in my work where I found myself referring to the documentation as I remember an aspect in some discussion I had seen previously.

I have failed four exams altogether. In two cases, I decided that I learned enough but getting the certifications was a not critical in my career path, and I decided not re-sit for the exams. In the other two cases, failing the exam showed me where I had holes in my knowledge, I plugged those holes, and passed them in the second round. Thus, I say there is no shame in failing an exam if you prepare sufficiently and take the exam seriously. As I started in the beginning, learning should be the ultimate goal, the certification is just a proof point.

So, to those of you considering taking up a GCP or any another cloud certification, I hope you find some of my sharing insightful, and enjoy the learning and even taking the exam.

Addendum (28 January 2021)

This week I sat for the Google Cloud Professional Cloud Developer exam. This time I went in cold, meaning I didn’t prepare at all. I did so for two reasons. First, I couldn’t find any on-line course that prepare for this exam. I assume this is because it was revamped and relaunched just recently. A Cloud Guru had an older course that covered the previous cloud developer certification (which I understand was withdrawn). Qwiklabs also had some on-line training, but I found that neither was very appropriate. The second reason I went in cold, I wanted to see whether my GCP knowledge was deep enough to be able to pass the exam without preparation.

I am happy to report that I was able to pass it. In terms of difficulty, I found this exam was slightly above average. It wasn’t as difficult as the networking certification, but it was nevertheless challenging. It covered a very wide spectrum including VM’s, microservices, GKE (of course), deployment strategies, authentication particular of service accounts, monitoring and performance evaluation. There was no coding or programming question.

It is the Google cloud developer exam, but the emphasis is on cloud much less than on developer. Thus, I do not recommend it as a first GCP certification even for developers. You need very good broad and fairly deep understanding of GCP before attempting this exam. So, for any aspiring GCP cloud developer, I would recommend going with the GCP Cloud Engineer or Cloud Architect before attempting this one.

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