When cloud transformation creates personal transformation
AWS currently offers 12 certification exams validating cloud skills and expertise across a variety of roles, specialties, and skill levels, ranging from Foundational to Associate, Professional, and Specialty certifications. Achieving AWS Certification requires a wide array of both technical knowledge and hands-on skills, and it’s a significant feat even for those professionals who have worked in the cloud field for years. This level of achievement doesn’t happen by accident.
In 2018 the idea of earning all 12 AWS Certifications probably wouldn’t have crossed Ian Butler’s mind. But after a combination of his company’s accelerating cloud journey, the COVID-19 lockdown, his own ambition, and a newfound passion for training others, Butler, a Cloud Capability Lead for ANZ, now finds himself an enthusiastic AWS developer, having passed all 12 AWS Certifications over a two-year period.
Big bank, big transformation
Based in Melbourne, Australia, ANZ is the largest banking group in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, operating in more than 30 markets. The bank began its company-wide cloud transformation at the end of 2019, but several teams across the organization were already using AWS to accomplish their goals. “Initially we thought of cloud as just another platform,” says Michelle Dobson, Head of ANZ’s Cloud Center of Excellence. “But as we got deeper into it we realized it represents an entirely new way of thinking about our technology backbone. We realized we needed to centralize things and make a strong investment in training from the beginning.”
Transforming the company’s infrastructure and changing the way people use technology was a significant task. ANZ began by putting together a team to standardize and streamline the company’s cloud operations, and, even more importantly, to start to strategize ways to upskill existing employees who did not yet work with AWS Cloud. “It’s one thing for us to move to the cloud,” says Dobson. “But we need to make sure we are bringing our employees with us. When we upskill people on the job, we find they’re very motivated. And it neutralizes any fear they may have that a new technological paradigm might not have a place for them in it.”
As one of the company’s foremost advocates for cloud adoption, Butler and Dobson were both members of ANZ’s cloud education group, tasked with finding the fastest and most effective ways to spread cloud knowledge across the company of more than 39,000 employees.
Timing is everything
Butler began by upskilling himself. He took his AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner exam in July of 2019 and later that year attended AWS re:Invent 2019 in Las Vegas. “There’s nothing like being around 60,000 like-minded people to show you how widespread cloud adoption has become,” he says. “You get a broader sense of what’s possible, and context for the constant innovation that’s going on.”
Butler returned to Australia fired up about the possibilities of helping to train his colleagues in all things cloud, and began strategizing on the best ways to run an upskilling program within the company. “It was really just 10 people standing around a whiteboard at that point,” he says. “We were just figuring out the best ways to get these concepts across to people so that we could bring as many people as we could up to AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner.”
The group finished its initial, exploratory run, identifying many strategies and resources for educating newcomers to cloud. Just one month later, however, in March of 2020, the COVID-19 lockdown hit, sending thousands of ANZ employees home without warning. The majority of ANZ’s employees were only provisioned to work in an office environment, and as the company scrambled to increase work-from-home capacity, it found itself with thousands of its employees who wanted to work, but couldn’t.
As the twin health and technology crises unfolded around him, Butler recalled the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s adage: “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” ANZ’s employees were suddenly home with less to do than they would like. Butler wondered if there might be an opportunity amid this chaos to offer his peers an AWS training that benefited themselves, their company, and their future career prospects.
Within two days of the lockdown, Butler presented a proposal to ANZ’s IT team for rapidly rolling out a mass, remote version of their newly developed cloud training program with the somewhat audacious title of Get Certified in a Week. At a time when many employees could not securely access the internal company network, this training program would operate over the public internet and be available via personal devices, including laptops, phones, and tablets. “He said we can do this right now, and people can start learning right away,” says Dobson. “It was an easy call. We said “tell us what you need and let’s get it done.’”
Full speed ahead
Butler and his team immediately began building a custom website using Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) that contained lesson plans and self-paced learning videos, which would be supplemented by daily live webinar-based teaching sessions. The team supplemented their original content with AWS’s Training and Certification resources, and collaborated with AWS’s training specialists for assistance crafting a half-day exam preparation workshop. The entire training session was online and ready to roll in just two days. An email went out to employees asking who would like to be “flash-trained” on AWS from home. Butler had expected the program to resonate with his colleagues, but he had no idea just how robust the response would be.
“It was wild,” he recalls. “We immediately had more people than we could handle. Our webinar sessions had a cap of a thousand people per session. We passed that number almost immediately, and started planning to run a second program the following week. In short order that was fully subscribed as well. That’s how we ended up training two thousand people from all across the company and in all kinds of roles on AWS in two weeks.”
At this point Butler had been moving so quickly, that a key consideration escaped him. “Right off the bat, one of the most common questions we were seeing was: ‘You guys are our instructors, so… what certifications do you have?’ That was a real moment of reckoning for me, since I only had a single AWS Certification at that point. I realized that if I wanted to train my colleagues with any level of authority, I’d need to bolt on a whole lot more knowledge.”
The teacher becomes the student
Thus began Ian Butler’s quest to attain all 12 AWS Certifications. Over the next few months, while doing his job and running the training program, he trained himself for and passed four more Associate certifications. “In the earlier courses, you’re building fundamental knowledge,” he says. “And if you’ve been working in the cloud for a while you can move quickly.” The next set of certifications, however, were in the Professional and Specialty categories. “At that point the complexity really jumps, so the preparation time increases,” he says. “Thankfully by that point my momentum, motivation, and willpower took over.”
The following five certifications took Butler almost a year and a half to complete. It was long, but satisfying. “Learning on this journey really became addictive,” he says. “Once I started understanding how things work I got a thirst to go deeper. Every certification helps you understand the system and all of the concepts much more holistically. I also had a goal that was personally inspiring to me: to show every one of our employees that if they set their mind to it any one of AWS Certification(s) was possible with enough hard work.”
In August of 2022, Ian finally passed the final active AWS Certification exam. But his learning odyssey won’t stop there. He compares getting AWS Certifications to getting a driver’s license. “When you get your certification or your driver’s license it means you have demonstrated a base level of knowledge,” he says. “You need a lot of hands-on experience to pass the test, but to become a true expert you not only need a lot of time on top of that, you have to stay current with new capabilities and specialties as technology advances.”
His AWS Certification quest has brought career benefits as well. Before starting the program, Butler was an internal consultant in charge of a small group. Today, as a Cloud Solutions Architect he leads a team of 170 engineers who have transitioned from building on-premise solutions to accelerating ANZ’s burgeoning cloud transformation. “I wouldn’t have been considered for expanded responsibility set without the learning I gained from my AWS Certification preparation,” he says. “It’s been an amazing journey.”
Thanks to the employee cloud skilling program, Butler helped spearhead thousands of ANZ employees to get AWS Certified. And ANZ’s cloud transformation is only accelerating. 38% of the bank’s apps are now running in the cloud with a goal of 50% by the end of 2023. Butler credits the speed of this shift to ANZ’s core values. “There is a true culture of learning that pushes us to be the best we can be,” he says. “ANZ took on an aggressive cloud transformation strategy because it knew it was the path to the future. These things don’t happen by accident, though. They require hard work, planning, and dedication, but in the end they’re worth it.”