The Stack Overflow Podcast

A chat with the folks who lead training and certification at AWS

Episode Summary

On this episode we chat with Maureen Lonergan, VP of AWS Certification and Training, and Scott Barneson, Director of Learning Products at AWS. They share some fascinating stats about the global expansion of AWS education and the new models they are building for diverse learners, including those who prefer to learn through video games.

Episode Notes

You can find Maureen here

You can find Scott here.

There is a wealth of free courses available through the AWS training website, including Operations, Advanced Networking, Machine Learning, and Data Science. 



Episode Transcription

Scott Barneson There are also things that you just ignore the math. In the past year, we increased our investment in localization by an order of magnitude. And if you just did the math, should be going up to 16, or about to launch or 17th language, it's not obvious that the math is going to tell you that this is the right thing to do. But if your mission is to have an impact on millions of individuals who can gain access to high quality technical training, then, of course, you're going to do it.

[intro music]

Ben Popper Hello everybody, welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast. I am Ben Popper, director of content here at Stack Overflow. And I am joined as I often am, by my wonderful crew of co-hosts, Cassidy, Ceora, and Ryan. How's it going, y'all? 

Ceora Ford Hi!

Cassidy Williams Hello!

Ryan Donovan Hey! What's happening?

BP So today, we're gonna be talking about something which we've chatted about a bunch over the last year, it's coming up more and more. And that is AWS training and certifications, learning how to build on that platform. Ryan and I recently did a interview with some folks from SkillSoft, and they were talking quite a bit about this, how there are these on ramps now to some of the big cloud providers and other large software platforms, where in three to six to nine months of training, you can have a certification that lets employers know you're up to the job and walk onto a job that pays anywhere between 110 to 170,000, I think was like the starting salary for some of those AWS certs. And that this is amazing new sort of on ramp in some ways to the tech industry that's available to a lot of people and a lot of people are thinking about in this new world where they may have stepped back from their previous role or now they want to go fully remote or don't want to go back to an office. Cassidy, Ceora, curious how often does this come up? I know both of you are involved in sort of developer evangelism and education. Interested in that, how often do you think these kinds of cloud certs come up and you're chatting with folks about how they can get started in the industry?

CF It's really interesting that we're talking about this because part of my start, and the reason why I was able to like kind of get my foot in the door, was because I was super involved in the AWS community at large. It's definitely something I think a lot of people who are trying to especially if you're like coming from a non traditional background, whether you're like coming from a boot camp, or self taught or transitioning from another career, having an AWS cert is something that can like set you apart from everyone else. I think that's one of the things that did it for me. I got my start with a Udacity program for cloud DevOps engineering in the cloud part was through AWS. I decided like, okay, I'm gonna take this and run with it, I saw a need a huge need for like beginner content for AWS and cloud computing in general. And I decided to do some of that content. I wrote a little bit on my blog about AWS stuff. So then I eventually got involved with the AWS community builders program. And through that, I was able to get my cloud practitioner cert. So all that to say, I am like an example of how having a cloud certification can like help you level up in your career. Did that answer your question? [Ceora laugh]

BP Absolutely. Yeah, you've lived it. You've done it. 

CF Yeah! Absolutely.

CW Yeah it's something that I think it definitely depends on your background and stuff. And I think what Ceroa is saying, folks with non traditional backgrounds, it's an amazing way to show that you have more credentials behind you, in the end that you can do certain jobs. Because as more and more people learn how to code and stuff, you have to figure out how to stand out in the industry to get roles. And so it is a really great option. Now, it's not the only option. I will say, you don't need to have it to get a job, but it can't hurt either.

BP Ryan, how about you? Does this come up a lot in pitches and blogs that you're working on?

RD Occasional. I mean, we definitely get a fair amount of pitches that want to talk about, you know, specific AWS services. And, you know, I think there is a fair amount of, you know, secret behind the scenes AWS stuff and in those pitches, like that's where a lot of people are hosting their demo projects and such.

BP Alright, well then without further ado, I'd like to bring on our guest for today, Maureen Lonergan is the Director of Training and Certification for Amazon Web Services. And Scott Barneson leads Curriculum Development and Certification Programs for the AWS training and certification. So Maureen, Scott, welcome to the show. 

Maureen Lonergan Thanks for having us. 

BP So why don't each of you take a little bit of time and just tell us about your sort of background in the world of software, how you got to the role you're in today, and you know, what that involves, now that you're there day to day?

ML For me, I've been in it for probably 27 years always in training, some form of technical training, whether it was customer or internal tech support through a variety of software companies. I landed at AWS almost 10 years ago and saw an amazing opportunity to work in, in a really fast paced environment, and you know, grew that organization from just a couple of people to a couple thousand. But it's more than just training our customers, it's really thinking about, you know, where are the skills gaps that we have today? How are we gonna solve for those as we move forward?

SB Yeah. And for me, I'll spare you my life story, I have a bit of a non traditional background.

BP No wait, we want to hear about that. [Maureen laughs]

SB Well, I'll just tell you my first job, I was basically Jim Halpert from The Office, selling paper, that turned out not to be my lifelong dream. But I learned a lot in the process and my journey with AWS, I was actually doing mergers and acquisitions at EMC and I started hearing from customers about some of the use cases, they're running on AWS, and they were really kind of advanced, interesting, high risk use cases, considering kind of the state of the cloud, this is 2009, 2010. I got really, really interested in the power of this new set of services that gave developers the option to build what they want, and to go faster. And so long story longer, I joined AWS January 3rd, 2011. So I've just about 11 years, and I've had a handful of roles across the company. And I started working with partners and software companies who were trying to build on AWS and moved into AWS support for three years, working on product and lots of interesting conversations with customers around Stack Overflow back then. Moved to the UK for a few years and now joined training and certification. And again, I think there's some some interesting, you know, complementary stories between AWS and in the Stack Overflow team, in the sense that, you know, Stack Overflow is a place where people go when they get stuck, and they need to get unstuck, and we recognize as part of the trading world, people want to learn in different ways. And there's a type of learning, which is in the moment, there's another type of learning, which is I want a whole new career. And so how do I go from where I am today, you know, Jim Halpert at The Office to getting a job in tech. And so we want to help anyone from any walk of life and background to have an opportunity.

BP Yes, I've looked this up before I remember what the context was. But if you just check the tags on Stack Overflow, there's at least 100,000 questions that have been asked and hundreds more every day that are tagged AWS or AWS something, so frequently, people are trying to figure out how to build things on your platform. And they come to us for a little bit of help. But yeah, let me throw it back to you Ceora, since I know you actually took one of these courses. What would you like to hear from Maureen and Scott, you know, about like, how maybe these evolved? Or I don't know, Ceora, what do you think?

CF Yeah, I was really interested in what you mentioned earlier about, you know, the Stack Overflow offers, you know, content, or basically educational content in a different way than most other platforms. You get to engage with the community and ask them questions to get answers. And someone mentioned that there are people coming from different walks of life, who have different learning styles and different backgrounds and all that kind of great stuff. So I'm wondering how your team at AWS, how you try to accommodate this, like your whole thing is certifications. So what are some of the ways you think about or you have tried or plans do you have to get people to get certifications, and sometimes in non-traditional ways, like we typically think of taking a course and then getting the certification. But I wonder if you have any other ideas around how people can go about reaching that accomplishment?

ML We have a great program called Restart, AWS Restart, which actually is is designed to do just that take people from non-IT roles. So we've had physical fitness trainers, or people working in restaurants, go through a 12 week program structured and designed to unwrap them into tech. And then the end result is a certification. And we work with partnering organizations around the world to then match those people with customers for interview opportunities. It's been I think we have added 95 cities this year. It's grown really rapidly. And we've seen great success.

SB You know, it's an interesting question, Ceora, because the answers too long to tell you. There's a reason it we tend to build stuff when customers ask for it. And because we have such a broad, diverse set of customers are asking for very different things. I actually think that's the most fun part of this job. You know, I'll tell a short story. You know, a couple years ago, we were trying to understand how we could help large enterprise companies move faster, because that's what they're asking us to do. How do I go from where I am today to where I need to be knowing that the world is going more digital? I went and met with a bunch of these customers, talk to whether it was it are developers, architects, and all of them said we want to do it. We don't know how. Can you help? And I'll just admit, I'm someone who doesn't like to ask for help. But so it's very strange to be in a situation where everyone's begging to be told what to do. And, and I think that's, you know, the starting point is the willingness to listen and accept help, to go through training in whatever form is impactful for you. And then we look at that across kind of education, through, you know, rescale, or upskill, or changing career paths, as well as the most advanced technical developers who are just looking to go really deep in a topic that's interesting to them. And so it ends up being quite a few different training experiences that we bring to market.

CF How do you balance that? Because that's a lot to take in, I think.

ML I think it's a challenge. I think Scott Scott and his team have done an amazing job of really trying to identify the personas out in the industry. You know, everybody likes to learn differently, I think, you know, whether it's you want to watch a YouTube video, go to Stack Overflow, read something, you know, I think what we've tried to do, or what Scott's organization has done a great job is really kind of looking at who are the personas and what type of content needs to be built? How do we modularize it? How do we make it engaging for the end user, when you have so many different types of ways people like to learn? And then where do you put that content, because not everybody is going to come directly to AWS for that training. So we want to make sure we have the right partnerships out there. We have the right localization really be super thoughtful, and intentional about how we're trying to scale people up around the globe.

BP So just out of curiosity, you know, that 12 week Restart course you mentioned where people could come in from a totally non-IT industry. What kind of skills would you say they're learning like, Cassidy has a traditional CS degree, Ceora went through cloud certification, I myself have completed almost half of Twilio quests. So you know, we all have our varying levels of education. But like, if you were to compare that to, you know, some kind of CS education, what do people learn? What do you need to learn like, skills, languages, ideas, frameworks, in order to be, you know, AWS Certified to get on the platform and start being employable?

SB The Restart program is really focused on an entry level role in tech. So this isn't an equivalent to, you know, a four year CS degree, if we could do that in 12 weeks would be amazing. But But to get right, but what you can do and what's interesting about this is imagine we have some real life stories of folks who have jobs that were impacted by the pandemic, and you still have rent to pay bills to play, and you're figuring out how do I get a new source of income and a career that hopefully will help me grow over time. But everything is different and unusual, the language is different. And so we actually start with the basics, we're going to actually help folks with resume interviewing skills, kind of what life is like working with technical teams, which isn't anything to do with AWS for certifications, but it's important for them if they're going to land and be successful can integrating into this new community and new teams. And so now more specifically on on the skills related, it's really the fundamentals of cloud and distributed systems and administration, they're not going to, you know, show up as a hardcore developer on day one, but they will be able to know troubleshoot and diagnose sometimes in a support role or an administrative role. So it's a foot in the door, if you will, that gives them that baseline that they can then build on over time.


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RD Question about the sort of content you guys put out. One of the things that's interesting to me about AWS is that it's no longer just the cloud itself. It's this huge ecosystem of products like redshift, lambda, do you all focus entirely on the core AWS? Or do you branch out to the other products?

SB So we tried our best to cover everything, which is a challenge, because there's so much and the question Ceora asked earlier, how do we balance the needs of all of our customers, but we also have to balance the needs of all of these services and solutions? And so the specific answer is we have a really focused approach to having product teams that work backwards from customer needs, whether those are customer segments, like enterprise or startup or from the services themselves. And it turns out that more and more customers want a couple things. One is, they actually don't get that excited about, you know, a services based course, but they want to understand how to make something real, you know, and sometimes people use the word solution, but, you know, how do I do a thing that's going to help me meet my objective or help my team succeed? And they also oftentimes want it in the context of a role you know, I am this type of role. I'm trying to get stronger in fill in the blank type of roads. So we try to present the courses the material from those lenses, so that it makes it more obvious to the individuals, you know, which courses take and which will make them successful. Now, you know, the other part of this question is, but then what? You know, I'm on the internet and I'm just kind of clicking through a digital training or I'm at a classroom or, you know, what are the different ways in which I can get access to this information. And I think that's really a super fun problem to solve. And we're running lots of experiments and trying to be as responsive to customer needs as we can.

CF I feel like I could talk to you both for hours, because I'm so interested in this idea of developer education essentially, like Cassidy, you might be able to really relate to this too. In developer advocacy, these are all like things that we think about a lot, especially my role, I primarily work with Graph QL, which is a pretty broad technology, but AWS, I feel like it's as broad as it gets, as far as the actual technology and your customers and audience. So I'm so interested in hearing, like how you factor in customer feedback and like, strike that balance between listening to what's valuable, and also not like listening so much that you don't get anything done, you don't try things out. Like I think they're so interesting. And that's one thing I'm trying to like learn now, since I'm new to developer advocacy. Yeah, I want to hear what you both had to say about that. About like, how do you balance that like, between answering customer needs and like community needs with also like not getting too distracted with it?

ML I mean, I think it's like anything, you have a limited amount of resources. So we, you know, Scott said, we do a lot, listen to our customers for everything. But then you have to sit down and prioritize how we develop and think about that.

SB There's a math problem in here. Turns out that sometimes you decide to throw away the calculator, you know, and so there's the traditional approach, which we listen, lots of customers, and you kind of start to see patterns in their needs. And then when you combine sort of the opportunity to have impact with frequency of those patterns, it becomes more obvious, you know, which things to prioritize. There are also things that you just ignore the math, I'll give you a couple examples. So in the past year, we increased our investment and localization by an order of magnitude. And if you just did the math on you know, should be go up to 16, or about to launch your 17th language, it's not obvious that the math is going to tell you this is the right thing to do. But if your mission is to have an impact on millions of individuals who can get gain access to high quality technical training, then, of course you're going to do it, we made that investment and, and similarly, we're making investments in accessibility. Again, the math is hard. But if you're wanting to reach the broadest audience, and you know, it's funny, I listen, I cheated and listen to the an earlier podcast, after the Prosus acquisition. And there's this thesis of, hey, the demand for technical training and education is going to increase, you know, exponentially over the next decade. And we're very much of the same mind. And so then you have to think, Well, if that's true, how should we respond? And how should we act? And we really want to make training available to as many people as possible and keep the access democratized over time.

CW Have you found that certain audiences or certain folks learning different types of NUS certifications? Do they want more video content or written content or audio content or anything? Or do they kind of all fall under similar trails, I guess?

ML I think in light of the pandemic, that's what we've been able to offer the last two years, right. I think it changed everything. We had to pivot our business virtually, and, and we definitely we were already on the path to do more virtual instructor led training and, and certainly digitized content. But I think, from my perspective, it's like anything, you know, I want to fix my dishwasher, I go to YouTube and watch a 10 minute video, right? Gone are the days when you need to sit down for five days and take a bunch of training, I actually think people retain things a lot quicker if they can go out and search for what they want, and get it in small chunks. So Scott thinks about this every single day.

SC I was slightly different answer, all answers are good. So what we've observed is there's different motivations for learning. And we talked earlier about the I'm stuck, I want to get unstuck. And that's one use case, right? It's a cover break fix. And what you want then is just the information you need in that moment. Others are looking for I want to scratch that curiosity itch or I want to learn a new solution type that's adjacent to what I do now. And that's a slightly different, maybe longer form, but but not too intensive. And then the third we've talked about quite a bit already, which is I want to complete career change. And turns out if you want to complete career change, if you're just searching Stack Overflow or YouTube or whatever, it's going to be a lot of labor. So We have to find different experiences to meet the needs across those three buckets. And we felt some new, I should say, we announced a preview of a new way to learn recently, at our show in Las Vegas at Reinvent, where we're providing a game based learning experience, which is really for those who are looking for a more immersive, intensive approach to learning a new role. So role based learning game, which is something totally new and different. And we're super excited to experiment with that.

BP So I guess one question that comes to my mind thinking about like, yeah, how this compares to a CS degree or a boot camp or something like that would be how universally applicable do you think the skills you get in these AWS trainings and certifications are like, if I came on from a different role in the restaurant industry, I learned this over 12 weeks or over six months. And then I did a job, but then I decided I wanted to go try something else. web development, a different cloud platform back in engineering, data science, what kind of skills would I have picked up during my AWS training that could be more broadly applied in any computer science or software development role? 

SB Yeah, the principles are transferable, for sure. And so I think people who learn the foundations of again, how distributed systems work, and how to design for fault tolerance, and resilience, and the principles of DevOps and CI/CD, these are all things that translate across different environments, different technologies, and in fact, some of our customers say, hey, we're using TerraForm, but we still send our employees to the cloud formation training, because the mental model is quite similar. And it's still the best training we can give them on how to think about infrastructure as code. And so, of course, we're AWS and so we're going to teach the services we have, but I think the principles you know, will provide a lasting, durable education and experience. And we're trying to push more hands on as well. And I shouldn't say push, really, it's coming from customer saying, Listen, I, I understand now, intellectually, what you're telling me, but I want to make it real. And I want to make it real with my team. You know, I want to do hands on stuff in an environment that more closely simulates what happens at work, not just me in my office, or my basement or whatever.

CF I feel like I have some real world experience with your question, Ben, like that will answer your question, I should say. Because I found that cloud concepts and like the fundamentals transferred to almost every domain of the tech industry, especially since AWS, like the services that are offered are so broad. I gave a talk before that was about how typically people think of AWS is like something for cloud engineers, or maybe even like back end people or, and front end developers tend to think like, oh, yeah, I'm not going to touch that. But I actually gave a talk before, that was basically talking about how AWS can be valuable for front end developers as well, and can even help her end developers like level up and maybe become full stack with some of the things that you can learn through AWS. So I think that AWS is a cool thing to learn because it's so broadly applicable to like everything, like you can't go wrong, right? If you learn AWS and you get a even if you get like one of the lower tier certifications, if you eventually decide, oh, I don't really want to do cloud engineering, I would rather do DevOps, it's still gonna be useful no matter what you do. So yeah.

RD I have a question on mental models and concepts. Is there a particular concept that you all find, that is difficult, particularly difficult for customers to get, or particularly difficult for you to teach?

SB I'd say the trickiest that I've observed in talking to customers is moving to serverless. And simply because there are quite a few metamodel changes, right, in terms of both where you do the development, you know, most developers use doing development on a local machine. And, and you can do that when designing development for serverless. But there are advantages to doing it in the cloud. And then this idea that, hey, I'm, you know, not able to look and touch a machine that's running the code, you have to wait till the function actually executes. And so it's just different. But they're also, you know, once the customers understand the flexibility that provides and the operational cost savings, they tend to get really excited. And so it's just a learning curve, they have to get through it. And I think actually, this is a scenario where, you know, an instructor led style of training is really helpful, because it's not just trying to work through this on your own. You have someone who can provide, you know, stories, analogies, experiences, that bring it to life and make it more approachable, if you will. So I think that's the most common one for me.

BP So how does the AWS training and education as a game work. I mentioned I played Twilio Quest, I've done 9 Billion Humans, Mario Teaches Typing was obviously a lot of value to me back in the day. If I'm learning this kind of stuff through a gaming lens, how does it work?

SB So we have just effectively provided a preview. It's not available for folks to use quite yet, but will be very soon. But but the structure of the game, it's a kind of open world style game, and you start your first day on the job. And you pick effectively a role path, do you want to be a solutions architect, you want to be a serverless developer, we're going to add more of these roll paths over time. And then you can explore the city those challenges, kind of sprinkled through this virtual city. And as you complete those challenges, you effectively unlocked and learning areas you transform parts of the city, there's lots of kind of interactive community elements that are built in. And we've been using this internally, actually, for quite a while. We have our own training program to take technical folks and prepare them for roles across Amazon. The feedback's been really positive in terms of the engagement. And I know that word doesn't always mean something to everybody. But really, what it means is they're spending more time learning, and they're spending more time hands on, so you'll do effectively the similar curriculum, if you will, but in the context of playing a game. So you're still completing labs, as an example, to demonstrate that you have those hands on practical skills. So hopefully, we'll be able to announce a formal launch date very soon. And love to get your feedback, Ben, since you're an accomplished gaming, learning gamer, I don't know what's the--

BP Accomplished is not the word for it. [Scott & Maureen laugh]

RD I was a technical writer for 15 years, and was always trying to find the documentation equivalent of the tutorial level in games. And this seems like it's, you know, almost a next level of that.

BP I guess what you mentioned before, which is that, yeah, I hadn't really had that frame of mind prior to the Prosus acquisition. But now that we have talking to folks at Skillsoft, I think Cassidy udimi was the one you had mentioned, you started with, you know, these folks are all part of the process, sort of edtech family. And so yeah, I'm starting to understand a lot more, the different sort of on ramps and points of connection between these worlds is really interesting. I guess one thing I was curious about was to sort of get a sense of scale, like, how many people a year, over the last couple of years are onboarding to AWS in this way, getting a certification? And do you have some sort of projection, you know, in five years, how many people every year will be sort of joining the ranks of the AWS Certified and having that as like an entry point to a career in technology?

ML Yeah, today, we have over 575,000 certified individuals. And we do expect that to grow, we don't really talk about the projections, but it has increased significantly after the last several years. And, you know, we've been focused on also providing free skills training in the marketplace, you know, we made a commitment to train 29 million cloud professionals for free, we're making good on that. We've trained already 6 million people. So we're seeing and that's just the free training that doesn't have anything to do with all the other services that we provide. So I think we're seeing a huge increase. And, you know, in the pandemic hit, we saw a huge spike, probably early 2020, with people really looking to transform their skills and see what opportunities are out there and available.

CF I'm one of those people.

BP Yeah, it brought Ceora to the podcast, and the more people are AWS Certified, the more people have questions, they'll need to look up on Stack Overflow. So yeah, appreciate you sending us the business. No, I'm just kidding.

CF For people listening probably are thinking, Yeah, I want to get started with AWS. Any recommendations for where they should go, Maureen and Scott, for getting started whether they have some experience in development or not?

ML I mean, I would say start with Cloud Practitioner, it's our most popular class, it definitely whether your business or tech, I mean, we've been talking about tech roles today. But really, when we talk to customers, we talk in terms of building cloud fluency throughout the organization. So if you're in finance or marketing, but to me, that's, I think, the best best place to start and gives you really good foundational cloud level knowledge.

SB Yeah, I agree. And the cool thing about the Cloud Practitioner Essentials course, I think it was a question earlier on, hey, is this video is a text? What is it? And this course, it's all of the above, which means the individuals can kind of choose? Do I want to watch this kind of animated coffee shop version of how do I learn the basics of cloud? Or don't want to read the transcript? Or do I want to skip ahead. And so it gives people flexibility to learn in the way that resonates with them. And so it's a great foundation. And that course is available lots of places as well. You can get it from us. You can find it through some of our partners. We've also launched 100 free courses on So you have that familiar kind of retail shopping experience, but with free cloud training So there's lots of places people can find the course. We're happy for them to find it where wherever is most convenient.

CF The way I got my certification was that I scheduled it and forgot about it. And then I got the email like six hours before I was supposed to take my certification. Like you're scheduled to take your certification, you can't cancel now. And I was totally unprepared. So within like three hours, I watched, I had some sort of cloud practitioner course, I don't know if it was through Amazon or through one of your partners. But I watched every single video on like, two times speed to like get everything in and I passed!

BP Not how everyone should do it. But it's possible.

CF Yeah, they are effective. 

BP Yes, exactly. 


BP Well, usually this time of the show, I give a shout out to the winner of a lifeboat badge. But today, I jumped over to the AWS tags. I'll read you some of the questions we've got here. Asked within the last 45 minutes. 'Is there a way to check if AWS lambda is running from Java code?' Well, there's one answer and 20 views. So it's pretty new on the network. But by the time we get to the show notes, maybe this one will have an accepted answer on it. I am Ben Popper. I am the director of content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @Ben Popper, email us podcast@StackOverflow. And if you liked the show, leave us a rating and review, it really helps.

RD I'm Ryan Donovan, I edit the blog here at Stack Overflow. You can find me on Twitter at @RThorDonovan. And if you have a great idea for a blog post, please email me at

CW I'm Cassidy Williams, you can find me at @cassidoo on most things.

CF And I'm Ceora Ford. I'm a developer advocate at Apollo GraphQL. You can find me on Twitter my username there is @ceeoreo_ and you can also check out my blog I do have some AWS content there. So if you're interested in like knowing where to get started, you should check that out as well.

ML Maureen Lonergan, Vice President of Training and Certification, I lead the organization.

SB I'm Scott Barneson, the Director of Learning Products for AWS Training and Certification. I'm barely on the internet, but if you can find me, congratulations.

BP Alright, well, thanks for coming on. We appreciate it. And if you've been listening, we'll talk to you soon.

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