This week I’m traveling to Seattle for a very special workshop for the AWS Certification Subject Matter Expert (SME) program. I’ve been part of this program for almost 2 years now and in this post I want to share with you what it is, why I think it’s great and why you should also consider applying.

It was at re:Invent 2018, where I first heard of the program. I walked into the Certification Lounge to get some snacks (pro tip, if you are going. to re:Invent) and noticed the Certification SME booth. Since I had some spare time before my next session, I figured why not have a chat and hear what this is all about. The friendly lady from AWS Training & Certification explained to me that they were looking for AWS professionals that could help with creating content for AWS exams. Sounds interesting, but after re:Invent, I forgot about it. About a year later, I noticed a sign-up link on the benefits page of my CertMetrics account and remembered the conversation. Now almost 2 years later, I have joined many different workshops, written items for multiple exams, met some brilliant people and earned the Certification SME Specialty and Professional badges.

So what’s this program all about?

Currently, I hold 13 AWS certifications. My first exam, the Solutions Architect Associate, I took on the 15th of January 2016. Since then, I have sat 20 AWS exams, including renewals. Every time I sat for an exam, I answered questions, hit the submit button, and hoped I’d passed. After leaving the exam center, I never really thought about what would be needed to put such an exam together. The Certification SME program gives you a unique behind-the-scenes look at this rigorous process. Below an overview of this process from start to finish.

Exam Development Process
Source: AWS Subject Matter Expert (SME) Item Writing course (c) Amazon Web Services

  • Job Task Analysis (JTA) This is where the exam creation process starts. In this workshop you’ll work together with other SMEs from various backgrounds and different roles at AWS to define the target audience for a particular exam. Collectively the group will define the minimum level of skills and knowledge the candidate should have to pass the exam. This can be for a totally new certification or a refresh of an existing exam, where the group will validate if the current blueprint is still valid. Output of this workshop you’ll eventually find in the official exam guides, for example, the AWS Certified Advanced Networking Specialty Exam Guide
  • Blueprint Survey After the JTA, AWS will send out a survey to large group of industry practitioners to validate the outcomes of the workshop. You can opt-in to these surveys on your CertMetrics profile.
  • Item Writing / Item Review In this step multiple item development workshop (IDWs) will be hosted to create items for the exam. You will work together with the certification team, AWS experts and other SMEs to come up with questions for the exam. The most fun part of these workshop for me are the group review sessions, where items you created are answered by the other participants and then reviewed and discussed as a group. As often the group has participants from different IT backgrounds, I always learn a thing or two from these discussions.
  • Beta Exam For new or updated exams AWS will first create a Beta exam to see how well candidates are scoring on the items and what items should be removed from the exam. If you ever sat a Beta exam you know it has more questions and you don’t get the results immediately after the exam, the reason for this is that all comments are reviewed and items might get removed. So if you ever do a beta exam, make sure to use that comment button to give your input.
  • Standard Setting is a workshop where all data from the beta is used to make a final decision on pass/fail score of the exam. To come to this decision, each of the items is graded by each of the participants on the likelihood that a candidate knows the correct answer.
  • Live exam The exam is now open to the public and everyone get the certification.
  • Item refresh The item bank for an exam requires constant updates, technology changes, new best-practices become available and thousands of people sit the exam. In additional Item Development Workshops new items are added, and existing items are renewed.

Over the past 2 years I’ve joined all workshop types, with the majority being IDWs. The workshops are organized both remotely and in-person and come in different formats. Sometimes they are run as Item Development Sprints, where you write some items individually over a period of a week, and sometimes they are compressed over three consecutive days. All have their pros and cons and it depends on what fits with your personal schedule and preferences.

What’s in it for me?

You might wonder why I’ve spent so much time on this. Here are some reasons that might help you convince.

  • You get to work with people from very different backgrounds, companies and levels of expertise. Internal and external to AWS. You can never have enough friends and connections in IT.
  • You learn a lot when researching, writing and reviewing exam questions. Knowledge is power, no need to say more.
  • You can earn nice shiny badges and show off your expertise on LinkedIn. Passing and exam is one thing, creating the exam makes you a Jedi master.

SME Badges

  • SWAG Need I say more? One can never have enough AWS swag. By writing questions and attending workshops you earn points which you can spend in the AWS Certification SME shop. The shop contains a wide array of items, including clothing, exam vouchers, stickers but also gear like Kindles and Amazon Echo devices. Contrary to the regular AWS certification swag, these actually ship internationally.


  • Travel You get to travel to one of the AWS offices, all expenses paid. Until now all the workshops I’ve joined were remote. This week I will join my first in-person workshop in Seattle, so I’ll share my experience about that later.

Ok cool, where do I sign up?

If you want to join the AWS certification SME family, you have to apply via your CertMetrics account. Navigate to the benefits tab and you’ll find a link to apply there. Please do, and we might end up in a picture like the one below together.


Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

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