First-hand experience from AWS online exams

First-hand experience from AWS online exams
May 27, 2021
As I passed two AWS exams online recently (one out of COVID-necessity, the second out of simple convenience) and have personal reports from two other exams, I feel entitled to share some insights about this experience. This will not be a "what to read and see to pass the exam" article - enough such blogs are out there already. This will be a "what can happen in the online exam" article.

My 15-minutes of Google-fu didn't find anything much besides Acloudguru, which is politically correct but I would like to thank them for my Associate preparation, and Pete Wilcock, who gives a more realistic picture but witnessed only one event. And I have to correct him - an online exam is not limited to the lowest cert level anymore.

To be honest, I have found the experience with the AWS online exam to be convenient. With a little luck (the availability of time slots varies a lot from day to day), you can literally make up your mind in the morning to take the exam and be certified by the afternoon. A personal test center cannot beat that, even if you happen to live in a city big enough to host a center, so you do not have to arrange travel and accommodation. In case of lockdown, it is a priceless and irreplaceable option. 

Pearson VUE was founded in 1994 and names itself "a global leader in computer-based-testing". There must be something to this title, because Microsoft uses it as well for its certification. The technology was not developed in-house but acquired from a company called ProctorCam in 2015. The ProctorCam product was rebranded as "OnVUE" and honestly it looks a bit outdated these days. The quality and usability of the exam program is questionable, so be prepared. A Google search is not very helpful, so I will share my experience and tips below. Enjoy and read on.

A list of things you must have in mind before you start:

  • Remove anything suspicious from the table and surroundings (photos, books, posters, papers, even monitors).
  • Have an ID card or a passport. I wanted to be helpful and took a better photo in landscape orientation, but it was rejected multiple times. Without any further explanation, the proctor asked me to retake the photo once more.
  • No wristbands and no watches allowed - but one of the proctors skipped the check completely.
  • No eyeglasses - which is quite challenging if you need them to see properly and your proctor is not talking, just writing.
  • Do not put your phone away completely and definitely don't turn it off. Just stash it away from the immediate computer camera view. You may need it in the following situations:
  • When the proctor asks you to retake some pictures- most likely the ID or passport. He will give you a new session code.
  • When a serious exam malfunction occurs, including an interrupted network connection.

Once you are set up and ready, the test can begin:

  • The start of a "System Test" is a webpage with 9-digit access code and a download link. It may look like the two are tied together, but no, it is a temporary session. So, if you just start the download (it is sizable!) and go do something else for the rest of the day, the code will not work the next day. You will have to open the webpage again and get a new code.
  • The software essentially takes over your computer later in the process. Therefore, it requires many system permissions, which is understandable but not explained well. A single short sentence starting with "Alert!" is not sufficient explanation, especially on Windows where the camera and microphone may not work without some extra hacking. The reason may be that the software is not installed but runs right away as downloaded. This is promoted as "simple, not tedious", but it apparently is not what Windows considers to be safe software.
  • The microphone test does not distinguish between "broken" and "possibly working but no measurable sound". It is a single state signaled by a red cross and a link to "Troubleshoot". Imagine yourself doing it ahead of a fixed time less than 30 minutes in the future, for an event that you have spent days to learn for. And oh, the test is re-run by clicking on that red cross. 
  • A selfie. As simple as it may sound, I got my selfie rejected multiple times without any explanation. Be aware that uploads are slow, so every retake takes time.
  • When your exam time approaches and you get the one valid 9-digit access code, you will have to go through the System Test once more. The software does not allow you to continue otherwise. So, it is a good idea to start the exam onboarding even earlier than the recommended 30 minutes, in case something goes wrong unexpectedly - but not too soon on the other hand!
  • It is recommended to start the onboarding with some headroom, like 30 minutes. If all the fun above sounds like 30 minutes may not be enough, I wholeheartedly agree, but you cannot begin earlier. I kept reloading the exam entry page, and the link appears exactly at 30 minutes. So, it is not a friendly ballpark figure, but a hard limit. The only explanation for such orbital-launch-grade timing is that Pearson wants to limit chances for sniffing and poking around the running, authenticated application.
  • So, you are all set up, system test passed, photos taken and accepted, and still have some time left to try lowering your heart rate and blood pressure before the real exam even starts. The last thing you will remember to do at that moment is to walk through your OS and close all apps except OnVUE, especially all the browser tabs you needed earlier to find clues about the system permissions. Remember to close them now. The proctor will know that you have them opened but cannot close them, so he will give the control back to you temporarily. And I suspect this functionality is not very stable. My very first exam was completely lost due to this control switch. I saw just a black screen instead of the test and the proctor was trying to fix it for 45 minutes. Then the software deadlocked so badly that he had to call me on my mobile number, and I spent the next 3 days waiting for OnVUE to "resolve" the issue, all the while receiving scary emails that I failed the exam.
  • SMS may get delivered slowly or not at all.

A list of things and activities considered suspicious:

  • A large canvas with lots of curly handwriting and doodling on it
  • A shower corner in the room (don't ask)
  • Generally anything that you may have at home, but probably wouldn't have in an office
  • Excessive gazing away from the screen "in the void"; more so if there is a window in that direction
  • Placing your hands on your head, especially near the ears
  • Excessive wriggling, e.g. when fighting off a call of nature toward the end of the exam

In 2020, Pearson allowed itself 5 working days to confirm the results of an exam. So, don’t expect to get the results immediately after the exam.

Despite the complexity of taking an online test, it is a welcome development and COVID has accelerated the acceptance of online exams. So don’t be afraid and go ahead - we did it and made it as you will for sure. 

Pavel is a software architect and Senior iOS developer with professional engineering experience since 1995. He combines an architectural overview and hardware insights with the fast adoption of new languages, environments, and challenges. He is also a front-end team leader, perfectionist, grammar nerd, and biker.

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Jaroslav Urban
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