Thinking Amazonian (Day 1)

Thanks for checking out my book! It’s still in the early stages but I wanted to give you a sneak peek!


I had the privilege of working for one of the world’s biggest celebrities and now I’m writing a book about it. OK, that’s not exactly true but it’s close. I worked at Amazon as their head of cloud banking and I’m writing a book about how Amazon gave me a new framework for thinking about the world.

I was the Head of Banking for Amazon Web Services (AWS), responsible for AWS’s strategic initiatives for banks and lenders across the world. I worked with these organizations to transform their existing businesses and bring new, innovative solutions to market with AWS.

There are lots of great books and videos about Amazon, but this one is about being Amazonian. That’s what Amazon employees call themselves. It’s more than a book about Amazon. It’s about how to take the core of Amazon’s culture (called Leadership Principles) and apply them to your work and your life. While they often look like boring management principles, they offer insights into Amazon’s success. They also offer an avenue for deeper personal growth. For example, one of Amazon’s Leadership Principles is “Dive Deep.” The principle exemplifies Amazon’s focus on operational excellence, but it also highlights how you can appreciate the beauty of the everyday world.

Understanding Amazonian thinking is key to being successful with technology. I’ve seen companies try to be like Amazon and fail. They spend millions of dollars on an innovation center and gloat about how they’ve implemented design thinking. When companies try to be more like Silicon Valley, they wear hoodies and jeans to work without knowing why. They think that the casual dress code of Silicon Valley started with the hippie counterculture of Steve Jobs. But it has a much deeper and important meaning. Silicon Valley’s casual dress code started with the godfather of Silicon Valley, Robert Noyce.

Robert Noyce was born in Burlington Iowa into a deep Midwestern Congregationalist ethic. When he started Intel, the first modern tech company, he brought his Midwestern roots to the company. He believed that no one was better than anyone else. He had a casual dress code because he believed that the best ideas should win, not the ideas from the people with the best suits and the biggest offices. As other tech companies emerged in Silicon Valley, they imported their culture from Intel. Most companies don’t know this history and adopt the dress code without adopting this focus on the meritocracy of ideas, missing the point and most of the value.

Most books about Amazon and other tech companies treat the reader as a tourist visiting a new and mystical land. It’s kind of like watching the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The UK paper, The Register, even refers to Google as “The Chocolate Factory” because it’s as weird and wonderous as Willy Wonka’s candy factory. There are wonderful and amazing things about Amazon that I’ll share in the book, I want you to get more than that. What if you could get the mind of Agustus Gloop, the glutton who fell into Mr. Wonka’s chocolate river, and find out how the experience changed him. That’s the feeling I want to give you in this book. I want to take you inside Jeff’s peculiar company.

Throughout the book, I refer to Jeff Bezos as Jeff, not because I know him personally but because all Amazonians call him that. At each all-hands meeting, Jeff highlights a few of his favorite things posted on Amazon’s internal website. Once he pulled up a humorous quote from another Amazonian named Jeff that said something like:

I am the founder of the Amazon support group “Jeffs who are not Jeff.” We come together to support the “other Jeffs” at Amazon. We meet every Thursday at 8 PM between the groups “Fire Phone Owners Anonymous” and “Amazonians named Alexa.”

So what does it mean to be Amazonian? From the outside, Amazon looks like a holding company—a collection of businesses from a bookseller to a grocery store to a television production company. There’s even my part of the business, Amazon Web Services, the world’s largest cloud provider. But all of these pieces are held together by one thing—Amazon’s culture.

Amazon’s culture is centered around 16 Leadership Principles. These Leadership Principles are the core of Amazon’s interviews, promotions, and making everyday decisions. In this book, I’m going to take you through the 16 principles and show you how I’ve applied them and how you can use them in your personal and business life.

Let’s start with the first principle: Customer Obsession. This means providing the best possible experience for each customer. When Amazon was just selling books, it meant providing the best book-buying experience in the world, but things have gotten more complicated over time.

Customer Obsession applies to the whole firm, even unlikely areas like recruiting. Most companies treat their interviewees as vendors selling their services. They want to hire the best people and ignore those that they don’t need. But Amazon knows that virtually everyone that interviews is a customer, so it strives to give each interviewee a great experience. It doesn’t want to lose that retail customer and their friends because of a bad interview experience.

What does Customer Obsession mean for this book? Well, you, as my reader, are my customer. I want to give you an amazing experience reading this book. Having an exceptional experience is about looking beyond the ordinary and creating something new. Here’s an example of an exceptional experience.

In June of  2019, I went on my first visit to Japan when I spoke at the AWS Summit in Tokyo. This is a massive conference where over 10,000 Japanese coders streamed into the Makuhari Messe Conference Center in suburban Tokyo. I tried to find my way in the flood of attendees, where everything looked familiar but slightly off. Our Japanese hosts had t-shirts that said, “ASK ME! I’m with the AWS Summit!” but when I needed directions, he responded to me with all the English he knew, saying, “AWS. Yes. Yes. AWS.”

I was excited to experience everything Japanese. Familiar things like cheesecake took on a magical new meaning, both fluffier and sweeter than the American or Italian versions. 7-11 was a place to get high-quality food like beef teriyaki jerky or dried squid. While my hotel room had one tiny bed, the hotel also had five bathhouses. These bathhouses were traditional in Japanese hotels, and I had to try them. The signs said that there were absolutely no visible tattoos or bathing suits allowed. There were various different stations filled with cold water, like one where you were massaged by rollers and another where sitting in one tub caused water to cascade into others. It was a novel and exciting theme park for nude cold plunges. At the same time, I was terrified that one of my business colleagues would come in and sit next to me. Luckily the bath was empty the whole time I was there. I was in a world of sensory overload where I constantly wanted more. If the 7-11 was this good, the best thing in Tokyo must be mind-blowing. When I asked my host, he told me the best thing in Tokyo is the Imperial Palace.

The Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Emporer of Japan. After crossing the moat that protected the palace from ancient invaders, I entered a history far older and more powerful than I imagined. I walked through a grassy lawn area where the Emperor housed his concubines and visited the base of the giant Tenshu tower that burned down in 1657. The rulers of Toyko were so powerful that they never felt the need to rebuild it.

But walking through The Palace, something was missing. I felt this when I was walking through the palace’s East Gardens. While the gardens were beautiful, they weren’t that different from the gardens of Central Park a few blocks from my apartment. While it sounds silly and pretentious, I wanted more from these trees and plants.

But how could I have a better experience at the East Gardens? The Emperor had done his part. In 1968, the Emperor opened the gardens to the public because he wanted to share this treasure with the people. People like me could walk around except on Mondays and Fridays when it was closed for the Emporer and the Imperial Family to stroll around.

I wondered what the Emporer did on those days in the garden. I bet I could do these things too. I could sit and meditate next to the Emporer’s iris garden, one of the most beautiful in the world. The irises were transplanted from the iris garden of Meiji Jingu, a shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, the great-great-grandfather of the current Emperor.

Approaching the Emperor’s Iris Garden

In the Emperor’s Iris Garden

As I sat there for an hour my perspective totally changed. Instead of demanding more and better experiences from everything, I was able to appreciate the best things in life. I felt a sublime calmness and happiness come over me. Strange and wonderful things started to happen as I let things unfold, like when a couple sat next to me with a Yankees cap. I learned that they were from Chile and were in Japan visiting a friend they met through an organization of international friendship created by Jimmy Carter. The Yankees cap came via one of their friends who lived a mile north of me, halfway around the world in New York.

When I left the garden, I felt like an Emperor. It wasn’t about the quantity of experience but its quality. I was able to take this experience and feeling with me when I went home. In this book, I want to give you that kind of experience, treating you like the special customer that you are.

Tenets of This Book (Unless You Know Better)

This is your Day 1 book to thinking Amazonian. it goes through the basics of the Leadership Principles, shows how to think more deeply about them, and lets you apply them to your life. It’s a leadership book about the everyday lessons we can learn from one of today’s great companies.

At Amazon, when starting as a project or creating a document, it’s common to put forward a short number of tenets that underlie the initiative. They help Amazonians focus on the most important concepts and keep the long-term goal front and center.(1)To learn more about the tenets, check out the book Working Backwards. To learn its history check out former VP David Glick’s LinkedIn post.

Tenets are normally followed by the words “unless you know better.” This is highlighted by the Amazonian concept of “Day 1.” Amazon knows that as it gets larger, there’s a tendency for companies to get staid in their ways so it’s important to always act as if it’s Day 1. It’s so important that Jeff’s office is always in a building named “Day 1.” When his office moves to a new building, that building becomes the new “Day 1.”

One of the inside jokes at Amazon goes something like this:

Rob, on his second day of work at Amazon, says, “It’s great to start day 2 at Amazon.”

His nearby colleagues respond, “Rob, it’s always Day 1 at Amazon.”

Give it a try. At one all-hands meeting, someone asked, “Do we really have to use the Working Backwards method all the time. It’s A lot of work.” And Jeff answered, “If you know something better you should use it. However, I ask you to try it A few times first. We use this process tens of thousands of times and great results.” Once you grasp the principles, I’m sure you’ll have your own thoughts on how to apply them.

The tenets behind this book(unless you know better) are:

  1. Make the Leadership Principles Accessible: Use stories of Amazon and my own stories to make them real. Use simple language whenever possible.
  2. Be Interesting and Practical: This book isn’t a book shouldn’t be abstract theory. It’s a prarctical and fun guide into the workings of Amazon.
  3. Get You to Act: I want to help you lead a better life. I want you to use Amazon as an inspiration. I want you to see how powerful Amazon’s ideas are and then give you practical ways to apply them.
  4. Make It Fun: I had a lot of fun writing this book, discovering wondeful stories and those in my own life. I want you to enjoy it and to help you to become a better leader at home and at work. But never take any of this too seriously.

I wanted to write a simple and accessible book about Amazon’s Leadership Principles and how they changed the way I think. It takes a while to unpack the Leadership Principles and it can get intimidating. I wanted to demystify these principles and make them easy to understand. 

This is a book about useful ideas that can help you in life. Like any leadership book, the best ideas have been around for millennia. Amazon didn’t invent these principles but packaged them and acted on them. It reminds me of this poem I stumbled across (literally!) while walking the streets of Manhattan.

A Plaque on Library Walk across from the New York Public Library Main Branch

Most of these principles are obvious and well-known. Take this very Amazonian quote about customer obsession.

A business built on customer service understands and anticipates the customer’s needs. It designs goods and services to meet those needs and builds products that perform to customer expectations. It then packages them carefully, labels them correctly, sells them at a fair price, delivers them as scheduled, and follows up, as necessary, to satisfy the customer. This kind of commitment to service leads to customer loyalty and to genuine improvements at the bottom line.

Sounds very Amazonian right? Except it’s not from Amazon At all. It’s a quote from the president’s 1992 proclamation on customer service week. Literally, you could not find something more generic and prosaic. We need more than this. We need to get into the details. As Lewis Menand said, “The question is not, what would Jesus do? but How, exactly, would He do it?”

Even the most seemingly obvious principles are riddled with nuance. Take the idea of happiness. We all want to be happy; however, happiness can mean many things. For many years, psychologists had a hard time understanding happiness. They used to measure happiness by texting someone every five minutes and then asking them happy they were. Measuring happiness this way gave some very misguided results. They found that people who have children were less happy. It made me think that I might have made a mistake having children. But this was an artifact of the way that they measured happiness. When they got the text, instead of watching TV they’re changing diapers are helping with homework.

However, a few years ago, psychologists realized that they were looking at happiness the wrong way. As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann said:

If you ask for the happiness of the remembering self, it’s a completely different thing. This is not about how happily a person lives. It is about how satisfied or pleased the person is when that person thinks about her life. Very different notion. Anyone who doesn’t distinguish those notions is going to mess up the study of happiness, and I belong to a crowd of students of well-being, who’ve been messing up the study of happiness for a long time in precisely this way. 

Daniel Kahnemann, TED Talk, The riddle of experience vs. memory

“Aha!” I thought. Psychologists have discovered a totally new form of happiness. But they hadn’t. The two forms of happiness had already been figured out by the ancient Greeks. The standard view of Greek happiness was hedonia—the point-in-time happiness of “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!” However, there was another form of happiness that was used called eudemonia. This is the word that Aristotle used when he described the happiness of living a good life—Kahnemann’s remembering form of happiness of raising kids.

This is all to say that Amazon didn’t invent these principles. It did, however, put them into practice. As you’ll see, the overriding guide behind these Leadership Principles is to be customer obsessed, think long term, invent new ways of doing things, and always strive for operational excellence. All of these things are simple in theory but hard to implement in practice, both for individuals as well as businesses. Take Jeff’s true but uncomfortable idea that, “Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great.”(2)Amazon’s 2016 Letter to Shareholders. I want you to see that Amazon takes an honest view of the world. It does the hard things and prompt you to do some of them as well.

But remember, don’t take all of this too seriously. The goal of this book is to help you to achieve your goals and make you happier. Try them on for size and see what works, but don’t overdo it. In his book, “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg took on a personal project of self-improvement. He noticed that he would eat a cookie in the middle of the afternoon. Wanting to change this behavior, Duhigg analyzed what prompted this cookie break, and he replaced this with something more productive, a chat with his colleges. Lewis Menand asks us if this was really the best outcome:

He soon found that he no longer needed the cookie. He had management-theorized himself into becoming a more disciplined person. The story made me sad. Mr. Duhigg. Charles. Life is short. Eat the cookie.

The Life Biz, Louis Menand, The New Yorker, March 21, 2016

This book is split up into 2 main parts:

  1. Amazon Basics: This section, a pun on Amazon’s private label brand, gives the overall introduction to the book. It starts with my orientation, introduces Amazon’s peculiar ways, and takes you through the basics of AWS.
  2. Amazon’s Leadership Principles: The core of Amazon’s culture are its 16 Leadership Principles. So the core of this book covers these principles, starting with the principles themself, showing how they’re used at Amazon, and highlighting how these principles can be used in everyday life.

Sample Chapters

Introductory Chapters

From Amazon’s Leadership Principles:



1 To learn more about the tenets, check out the book Working Backwards. To learn its history check out former VP David Glick’s LinkedIn post.
2 Amazon’s 2016 Letter to Shareholders.