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February 25, 2021

Mental health, mindfulness, and my AWS exam experience

Hello readers - if you're looking at this from the perspective of Search Engine Marketing you might wonder if an algorithm wrote this post. 

You'd be right to be confused about how the topics of mental health and mindfulness could fuse with AWS certification exam statistics. 

So how did these keywords come together?

It all came to light when I was looking at my Linux Academy Course (AWS Certified SysOps Administrator - Associate 2020) - I had only completed around 71% of it.

I was unable to sleep with worry.

You see, for AWS exams at the time of writing (SysOps Administrator - Associate Dec 2020) you needed 72% on the exam to pass.

I considered it to be a personal catastrophe that if I had learned 71% of the course and managed to perform at 100% - then the rest of the questions could be guesswork at best. 

And performing at 100% just seemed unlikely, anyway.

That's because AWS exams are hard.

Being algorithm-driven, no exam is the same, machine learning wizards apparently drive the next topics from a pool of questions based on how you answered the previous question. 

Mess up an answer about the AWS Tape Gateway service on your first question? AWS might then send you five following questions on Volume Gateways and iSCSI interfaces. 

Any Cloud Engineer dreads these possibilities.

You could have failed the exam within the first 16 of the total 65 questions. In 15 minutes you could be already screwed. 

This is the kind of brain rambling that kept me up.

Again the above scenario is unlikely but, hey, this was my second AWS exam, and, although the previous exam was a big success and therefore my personal AWS exam pass rate was 100%, one out of one. This just gave me more to lose. You can't sleep if you're about to blemish your perfect record.

But how to tie this in with therapy?

Cutover, since I have joined, has been advocating for our mental health. We've been reminded to go to the park for walks, offered support in weird times, and been constantly provided with little physical and metaphorical gifts. 

And we have free therapy!

Via a service called The Circle Line, we can book virtual sessions, one-to-one, with a professional.

I'll admit that I couldn't be bothered to take it up at first - I considered this mixing the streams - I considered talking about my inner function to someone provided by and integrated with my job to be some kind of ‘big brother style’ personal affront. 

In hindsight, I realised I was being silly. That's a typical thing I come to conclude, by the way.

Because, if you use scribbled-on-a-cigarette-packet-analysis I was up late worrying 50% of the time (that I was up worrying) about work stuff. 

Whether this was perceived workplace interpersonal issues or mind-boggling tech problems - my work life was interrupting my other life. It was to the detriment of my mental health, and I kinda needed to solve this. 

I even wrote this blog post at 2 am when I snapped awake in the middle of the night worrying about when I was going to write it. 

To be honest the statistics are not that great. but they're improving. I am sure if you're reading this you understand.

Back to the day of my AWS exam!

Cleverly, you might think, but really it was preventative, I'd booked my Circle Line therapy session on the morning of the exam. 

I thought I'd speak to my therapist about it and I did. I hoped they'd help me survive. I'd already been talking to them about it so they knew.

One very useful thing I learned from the interactions was I was 'catastrophising'. 

Basically, 'if I don't pass this my life is as good as over,' is what I was irrationally thinking.

Basically, 'if I get 70% because I didn't finish my A Cloud Guru course then I'm a massive idiot'. 

Basically, 'if I can just pass this exam I can enjoy a holiday break'. 

Basically, 'my ego relies on this, don't fail - if you fail you might as well give up'.

My therapist allowed me to gain some perspective on my pretty irrational view. I was given some vocabulary and emotional resilience tools to contemplate the idea that this was only a stupid exam, so who cares. But if you're like me and  your brain is annoying, too, it's not always easy to be rational and you need all the help you can get.

I spent the rest of the morning calmly doing another 10% (roughly) of the A Cloud Guru course and left enough time to set up my workstation in time to appease the ruthless online proctors (thanks to my colleague Nick for this intel - they can cancel your exam if you're not plugged in right or whatever) and I clicked go.

Circa 75 minutes (and two really confusing questions about AWS Storage Gateway scenarios) later, (amongst a further 50% of questions featuring multiple AWS Service solutions that could all conceivably be correct (to someone)) and 10% at least of questions where I still don't know the answer; it was time to make a commitment. 

I thought back to my therapist and some of the things we'd rationalised about.

I noticed my heart rate went up to a million (no official statistics - the exam proctor made me remove my Fitbit).

I clicked End and got a pass.

Massive sense of relief. 

Pulse still searing for 120 minutes. Fight or flight mode engaged.

A few days later and I got my results in more detail: my percentage almost exactly matched my course completion.

I feel like this justified my irrationality. But I was very glad I had help navigating through it.


Jack’s studying stats

Jack booked out 35 half-hour studying slots on Google calendar. According to Asana, he completed roughly 30% of these.

Jack watched 16.6796 hours of A Cloud Guru videos on Linux Academy (at 1.25x speed) for a score of 810 on AWS Certified SysOps Administrator - Associate 2020.

Jack still hates thinking about AWS Storage Gateway - but how cool is Snowmobile?!



Jack Fenton

Senior Engineer at Cutover

London, UK


Jack Fenton
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