A fake certification badge that says 'I Did a Thing'

I’ve been acquiring certifications in tech for over 10 years, and more recently I’ve been training a lot of people to get their own certifications as well. I can recall being sat in an actual physical classroom (remember those?) with a handful of other people furiously tapping away at PCs running RedHat Linux, hoping that they’d boot back up into the desired state when the adjudicator would switch them all off at the end of the exam. I’ve also sat in exam centres multiple times with That One Guy Who Won’t Stop Coughing. So why do we put ourselves through all this? Do certs really matter?

Clearly they matter to a lot of people, myself included. Passing a certification is a way of displaying that you have learned the skills to pass the exam at the very least, and depending on the exam this might be a very close approximation of the skills required to do a specific job. Certification badges are a kind of reputational capital. We acquire them to show that we have accumulated skills, and they demonstrate that we have taken an interest in our own continuing professional development. Often they are a requirement, or at least an easy filtering mechanism for recruiters.

But are there other forms of reputational capital? Absolutely there are! Let’s not forget, not everyone copes well under exam conditions - and more importantly, most exam conditions are completely detached from what is required to actually do a job (with some exceptions, more on that in a moment!). Open-source contributions are another great way to be demonstrable about your skills and interests, as are blog posts and other forms of content creation. Conversely, you may be a highly skilled software developer but your job prevents you from sharing this with the world, so certs might be your only choice.

So, if certs are right for you, where do you start? My background and experience are mostly in the clouds, so here’s a quick overview of where to get started with the most relevant cloud certifications (in my humble opinion). In alphabetical order:

Amazon Web Services (AWS)

The AWS entry level certification is Certified Cloud Practitioner (CCP). This exam proves you have a foundational knowledge of cloud concepts, as well as AWS services and technologies. In theory, you don’t need to have technical skills to pass this exam, although you will need to memorise lots of different AWS services which tend to have obscure names! For technical certifications, AWS offers Associate level certifications, which you must have before you progress onto Professional level certifications. These are all offered in the roles of Solutions Architect, Data Engineer, Developer and SysOps Administrator. Most cloud generalists take the Solutions Architect route, starting with the Solutions Architect: Associate exam. These are all multiple choice “closed book” exams.


Similar to AWS, Microsoft offers different levels of certifications, from Fundamentals to Associate, then Expert level with some Speciality exams too, and these are also generally based on roles such as Data Engineer and Administrator. If you don’t know where to specialise yet, you can start with Microsoft Certified: Azure Fundamentals, before moving onto one of the associate level certs like Microsoft Certified: Azure Administrator Associate. Depending on the level and topic of your exam, you may have a combination of multiple choice and other question types. Microsoft is also introducing some hands-on elements to their exams to test your practical skills. Make sure to check the exam guide in depth for your chosen certification!

Google Cloud

Almost all of Google Cloud’s certification exams are aimed at the Professional practitioner level, and based on various job roles including Cloud Architect, Data Engineer, Machine Learning Engineer and Developer. The exception to this rule is the Associate-level Cloud Engineer exam (ACE) and the Cloud Digital Leader exam. Either of these might be a good place to start for you. The Cloud Digital Leader certification is pitched as a non-technical exam for business leaders and other “tech-adjacent” stakeholders, however you will still need a good understanding of Google Cloud concepts and products, similar to how AWS sets up its CCP exam. If you’re looking to take your first technical step into Google Cloud certification, the ACE may be more appropriate for you, but it will require a good working knowledge of operating various Google Cloud solutions. Currently, all of these exams are multiple choice.

That’s enough vendor certs, what about cloud-native, cloud-adjacent, or just good old plain open source?

The Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) offers several exams in the realms of Kubernetes and other open source technologies. For example, the famous Certified Kubernetes Administrator (CKA) exam is a completely hands-on exam, testing your ability to operate, manage and fix Kubernetes clusters and their workloads (with not a single multiple-choice question in sight). This style of exam may seem more daunting than a simple question paper, but in reality it is a much better representation of what doing an actual job is like, which is why these credentials are held in such high regard. The CKA exam environment has you working with real problems on real clusters, with access to the Kubernetes project website and documentation. If you’re just getting started with Kubernetes, you may want to look at the Kubernetes and Cloud Native Associate (KNCA) exam first, which is not hands-on; it’s a multiple choice exam aimed at a more foundational level.

You might have a variety of motivations for getting certified. Maybe it’s to increase your reputational capital, maybe it’s to brush up your CV, or maybe it’s just because you love learning, and each new cert is another milestone. If you’ve never thought of trying for a certification before, don’t be afraid to give one a try. There’s no harm in patting yourself on the back once in a while!