By Nicola Wright
Considering a career in AWS?
Good choice. The IT sector is chronically under-staffed, with strides in technological development and adoption meaning jobs in the cloud sector are being created far faster than businesses can fill them.
That’s putting businesses in a challenging position, pitting them against one another in a fierce competition to attract the talent they need in a skills-scarce ecosystem.
It’s great news for job seekers, however. Rapid job creation means those with the right skills often have their pick of the roles, and are seeing salaries rise as employers attempt to outbid their competitors.
AWS is the clear market leader when it comes to cloud tech of all kinds, trouncing its rivals in the race for market share. It’s the fastest-growing cloud vendor too.
The demand for AWS professionals is skyrocketing and shows no signs of slowing down as spending on cloud tech grows at a breakneck pace.
Given all of these factors, there’s never been a better time to cash in on the cloud, and take the first steps toward a rewarding career in AWS.
Whether you’re cross-training, switching lanes, or entering the job market for the first time, AWS’s hugely varied product stable means there’s truly a cloud job for everyone.
But what’s the best path to an AWS career? Do you really need a degree to build a career working with AWS products? That’s the big question facing many budding AWS professionals, and the conundrum we’re going to try and answer today.
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As part of our most recent AWS Salary Survey, we asked AWS professionals about their education history.
We found that 44% of respondents hold at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, while just under a third (32%) hold a master’s degree or equivalent. A further 9% hold the equivalent of an associate’s degree, and 2% hold a doctorate or professional degree. The remaining 12% haven’t studied beyond high school level.
That means a massive 88% of AWS professionals who responded to the survey had achieved a degree of some description. Despite this, 63% did not believe a degree was important when working with AWS.
Just under a quarter of respondents believed that a degree gave AWS professionals a significant advantage in their cloud career. Much of the reasoning they gave for why they felt a degree was valuable to those working with AWS centered around building a foundation of basic computing knowledge before moving into AWS as a specialty.
“[A degree] teaches you the basics of the fundamental computer and IT terms. It also prepares you for communication, programming, data structure, and logic development,” one respondent said.
“A degree gives you the basic engineering principles,” suggested another. “AWS isn’t a platform to click and play; rather it needs to be seen as a platform to build things.”
Instilling a constant learning mentality, honing problem-solving skills, and teaching critical thinking were a few of the other benefits of a degree for AWS enthusiasts, according to our survey respondents.
This analytical approach to working in the cloud was a factor that many of the professionals we surveyed touted as especially significant. One AWS professional said: “A degree allows you to gain wider perspective and knowledge and question the existing status quo in the application architectures, which is so important in migrations to the Cloud Computing environments. It also allows you to define new, more efficient and more secure designs, solutions and environments.”
The beauty of the modern tech ecosystem is that there are so many opportunities to learn, both inside and outside of traditional education institutions.
Blogs, online courses, YouTube videos, user groups, message boards; there are a whole host of resources out there for cloud enthusiasts to learn new skills in their own time. Plus, AWS has a substantial free tier, so you can get hands-on with many tools and services at no cost.
When ranking the factors that were most important to a successful career in AWS, the cloud professionals who took our survey touted experience in the IT industry (85%) and years of experience with AWS itself (84%) as far more important than a degree.
According to Rebecca Schmidt, a software engineer at Capital One, these new avenues of learning have opened up a world of opportunities to budding techies from a range of academic backgrounds:
“One of my favorite parts about working in technology is that the majority of this community places value on knowledge, experience, and capability, rather than on qualifications,” said Rebecca. “Thankfully, advancements in tech have also advanced learning options, allowing folks to pursue a career in AWS without a technical degree.”
The consensus seems to be that a degree can open doors and equip you with foundational skills, but becomes less important as you gain experience and first-hand knowledge working with AWS in a working environment.
It may well be the case that once you have a few years’ experience under your belt, employers won’t be as interested in your degree anymore. And by the same token, if you’re just starting out in the industry and don’t have a lot of real-world practice, a degree can help bridge that skills gap until you can build up your experience.
It’s important to keep in mind, advises Rebecca, that though all of these things can help put you on the right track, the end goal should always be gaining practical experience: “While AWS certifications, bootcamps, and nanodegrees can be helpful on a resume, they are not a substitute for hands-on experience,” she stresses.
“Working with the free tier of AWS and developing tangible solutions supported by AWS services has improved my own skillset, and supported my architectural and technical opinions with my employer.”
Often, the criticism that gets levelled at degrees is that traditional education providers aren’t agile enough to respond to changes in the skills needed to start a career in tech.
Things change fast in the IT sector; products and platforms are developing at an unprecedented speed, and the skills in demand by employers are continually shifting. Colleges and universities often struggle to adapt their curriculums fast enough to keep their courses aligned with real-world needs.
That said, there are a lot of benefits to obtaining a degree ahead of launching a career in AWS.
If you do decide to go down the higher education route, you can’t go far wrong with a computer science or information technology degree to cover the foundations of computing, which you can build on with cloud-specific studies or work experience later.
Many institutions now offer degrees dedicated to cloud computing too.
If there’s an area you’ve decided to specialize in, there are now a range of more niche tech degrees that focus on specific aspects of cloud computing: cybersecurity, AI and machine learning, software development and networking, for example.
There are also some exciting new options created in partnership with AWS itself. The need for innovative education options in the fight against the burgeoning cloud skills gap is something that AWS is taking steps to address.
In 2018, AWS launched its AWS Educate Cloud Degree initiative to tackle the cloud skills gap in the tech sector. It kicked off with the California Cloud Workforce Project, which rolled out a Cloud Computing Certificate across 19 schools in LA County.
The program also worked with Northern Virginia Community College, to develop an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) certificate in cloud computing. The curriculum for the course was created by AWS Educate in partnership with faculty at Santa Monica College, and aims to equip students with cloud skills needed for careers in the tech industry.
The initiative proved so successful that the AWS Educate Cloud Degree program has joined forces with other leading educational institutions to offer more cloud computing degrees and courses.
Its work has seen George Mason University and NOVA launch a Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) pathway in cloud computing, offering students a “seamless transfer pathway from a two-year associate degree to a four-year bachelor degree in the cloud”.
The Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS) has also got on board with AWS Educate, working with the program to implement an Associate Degree in Cloud Computing across its 12 campuses.
In 2020, AWS Educate will launch its first collaborations overseas, developing a new two-year course in cloud computing with The Career Colleges Trust in the UK.
Whatever route you take into the AWS ecosystem, there are a number of highly sought-after factors and skills that employers look for in their cloud professionals. Here are some crucial aptitudes that can make you super valuable in the AWS space, degree or no degree.
AWS certifications are badges that you can earn to prove your skills in a particular area or with a specific product. They’re issued by AWS directly, so they’re highly regarded by employers.
Right now, there are 11 certifications you can earn, many of which have no prerequisites. You can study in your own time, at your own pace, and sit the exam when you’re ready.
Technically, AWS certifications are pretty in-depth; most are designed for professionals who already have experience working with the technology, but the AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner accreditation is a constructive first step, requiring roughly six months of fundamental AWS Cloud and industry knowledge to achieve.
Certifications are not a silver bullet for getting a job in AWS by any means, but they can really complement your resume. They also make it easier for hiring managers to qualify the skills on your resume.
Cloud technology is a relatively new concept, and is evolving fast. AWS is relentlessly breaking new ground, releasing new products and developing new features.
In today’s IT landscape, it’s all too easy to rest on your laurels when it comes to keeping pace with the platforms and proficiencies that businesses need; if you don’t maintain a life-long approach to upskilling, you could soon find your skillset obsolete.
Because of the rapidly shifting demands of the market, most tech leaders understand that they can’t expect a candidate to have bleeding-edge skills across all areas. They also know that while they can hire the candidate they need today, they can’t always predict what the candidate they’ll need tomorrow looks like.
With that in mind, one of the best things you can do to position yourself as a valuable IT professional is to demonstrate your commitment to keeping your skills up-to-date, and to staying in the loop on the latest developments in your sector.
As one survey respondent noted: “AWS (and cloud platforms in general) change rapidly and people need to be ready to learn a lot, and keep learning.”
Again, given the growing tech skills gap and the ever-changing nature of the ecosystem, being flexible when it comes to your responsibilities can also make you very appealing to employers.
The skills they need can change on a dime, so having a can-do attitude and being open to learning new things and adapting your talents to new developments in the scope of your role will get you bonus points.
Being able to adapt and apply your transferable skills will make you more valuable too, according to founder of Graduate Coach Chris Davies.
“Regardless of whether you have a degree or not, gaining hands-on experience is vital,” says Chris.
“In fact, according to the 70:20:10 model, learning by doing accounts for 70% of your learning and development. Experience in the IT industry or with AWS as illustrated above will really boost your applications. However, do not dismiss other work experiences that you have as you will have gained transferable skills that potential employers will value.”
Do you absolutely need a degree to work with AWS? No. Hands-on practice with the tech and experience working on AWS projects is just as, if not more, valuable. But does a degree help you get your foot in the door and offer critical foundational knowledge and soft skills? Sure.
In short, the experience will almost always trump theoretical knowledge, and the tech sector is increasingly shifting the goalposts in response to the growing number of self-taught IT professionals. But if you don’t have a degree to your name, you’ll need to put in extra effort to prove your abilities and demonstrate that you’ve developed the skills you need to do the job.
Speaking from her own experience as an Economics undergraduate who was encouraged to pursue a path as a software engineer, Rebecca has seen both the leg-up having a degree can give to professionals, and the wide choice of roads that can lead someone to a career in AWS.
“I absolutely believe that a lack of any degree, and particularly a technical degree, can be a deterrent in starting a career in tech working with AWS,” she said. “I also believe that the industry is changing and adapting to the influx of self-taught engineers and fostering a culture of continuous learning.
“There is demand for, and heavy investment in acquiring, top tier tech talent, with opportunities like contract-to-hire that allow companies to take on less risk when providing an opportunity to someone who may lack a degree.
“My experiences working on AWS projects alongside engineers from varied, and often non-technical backgrounds makes me confident that the industry is heading in a more inclusive direction.”
Whichever way you’ve arrived on the shores of an AWS career, there’s so much opportunity in the cloud ecosystem to take advantage of.
Now is the time to get on the cloud train, so keep reading, keep working, keep learning, and see how far a cloud career can take you.
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