On my first day at Amazon, I stood on the corner of 34th street next by the Hudson River, across the street from the just opened Hudson Yards development. I was standing in front of a futuristic glass structure. The building used to belong to WNET, New York’s PBS station. Now, the old concrete facade was replaced with a thoroughly modern facing. Gone was WNET and in came JP Morgan’s Chase’s Digital Team in one elevator bay and Amazon in the other.
As I walked down the industrial space with 15-foot ceilings, I passed by little cafes and pastry shops, that felt a little bit steampunk and a little bit Epcot. I passed by a large indoor “Central Park” area covered in astroturf and beanbag chairs. Amazonians were gathered around to watch the quarterly all-hands that Jeff was leading from Seattle. It was all very organic, providing a way for small teams to organize and meet. At the time, Amazon had over 5,000 people in New York but everything was very decentralized. We didn’t even have an auditorium to bring everyone together when Amazon announced that New York was selected, and then de-selected, as Amazon’s second headquarters.
Walking into orientation, there were people from many different companies and industries, starting jobs in everything from Amazon Advertising to Amazon Web Services. There were businesses that I’d never even heard of like Comixology, Amazon’s comic book subsidiary. About half of the new hires were from Amazon Web Services. There was a large contingent that moved from Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Sevices’s largest cloud competitor. It was easy to spot the former Microsoft employees as we filled out the orientation forms on our new laptops. They kept jabbing their screens with their fingers. Jab, jab, jab. “My computer’s broken,” they’d say, before realizing they no longer had their Microsoft Surface touchscreens.
While the orientation meeting only lasted 3 hours, Amazon has a three month onboarding process. I spent that time learning Amazon’s culture and Leadership Principles. These principles bring the whole company together, from Amazon Fresh, the grocery store, to Amazon Studios, the television and mobile producer. Throughout this book, I’ll share the many tidbits and tricks along the way.
Amazon has a very strong culture. At other places I’ve worked, culture is an aspiration at the senior level but takes a back seat to more pressing concerns like making as much money as possible. Amazon embeds its culture in its 16 Leadership Principles (called LP’s inside Amazon). This is a common language and framework that forms the basis of everything the company does, from interviews to business strategy.
When Amazon started, he was adamant about ensuring that everyone knew how he wanted things done. When the company was small, Jeff was involved in everything from interviewing candidates to shipping boxes. He was able to communicate his philosophy to all of his employees. But as the company grew, he needed a way to instill these principles in the culture. He did this through the Leadership Principles. As Jeff said, in the 2015 shareholder letter, “You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you’re discovering it, uncovering it—not creating it.”
Amazonians tend to bit skeptical of the Leadership Principles when they first see them. They’ll ask some version of, “These Leadership Principles are interesting, but after orientation do you really use them? Don’t you just put them in a drawer and let them fade away?”
The leadership principles are plastered all throughout the building. Walking down the hall in any Amazon office, you’ll see words like “Dive Deep” written on the walls. In JFK 14, there are custom photographs of old New York with Amazon leadership principles surreptitiously hidden in old store windows or billboards.
The Leadership Principles make Amazon into religion. The Leadership Principles just become a way that you live your life. They are the principles that you’re reminded of every day until they become part of who you are. For veteran Amazonians, it’s hard to understand why people wouldn’t think this way.
It’s like the story of two fish swimming along. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
At Amazon, the LPs are part of everything about the company They define what it means to be Amazonian. As we will learn in Leadership Principle #6, Hire and Develop the Best, it’s the core of the hiring process. At most companies, you just need a boss to really like you and think you’re a good fit for the job. Other people have a say, but your boss makes the final decision. At Amazon, you need two people to OK you. You have the hiring manager and the Bar Raiser both hire you. The hiring manager makes sure that you can do the job. The Bar Raiser makes sure that you’re Amazonian, and match up well against the Leadership Principles.(1)One Bar Raiser even gives tips on how to succeed in your Amazon Interviews on his personal blog.
Many of my early days were spent understanding these leadership principles in depth. I left orientation with a laminated sheet of the Leadership Principles. I brought it home and showed it to my wife and said “Honey I think these are just good for Amazon but they’re good for life and business in general.” This is a book about taking my favorite elements of Amazon’s culture and showing how they could be relevant to your world.
Some Amazonian Secrets I Learned
I also learned the basics of AWS.(2)It’s a little scary but I’ll take you through it in LP #7, Learn and Be Curious. and getting deeper into the culture of Amazon. I watched early videos of Jeff from 1999, when had hair and a giant guffaw, and read his first letter to shareholders. I was amazed that in two decades how little Amazon’s culture has changed.
I remember one advertisement that explained Amazon’s view of customer service and personalization. A British teenager walked into a record store.
“Hi there,” says the store owner.
“Hi… I’m looking for a CD from my girlfriend… I bought her something from you two years ago but I forgot the name. She really liked it. Do you have something similar?”
As the record store owner looked quizzically at the patron, I realized the difference between what Amazon offered and what physical stores offered.
I also learned a few things that would be useful to the readers of this book:
- Getting Some Mental Space: Amazon has an open office plan with most people sitting at desks in large, open rooms.(3)When I was at a bank they used to call this floorplan “trading desk” seating. Banks set up people like this when they needed to optimize communication and quick action, the kind of behavior needed when you were trading a stock. However, it’s not the right behavior for workers that need to focus for long amounts of time to get work done. The best way to survive the open office is to get some headphones. Get something big and bulky. Not only does this help to cancel out the noise around you, but it provides a signal to others not to bother you when you’re trying to focus. Also, while foosball and ping pong tables seem like they’d be a lot of fun, their sound can reverberate throughout the entire floor, making headphones even more essential.
- Discounts. One I started, everyone asked me, “Do you get a discount?” Yes, I learned, I got a discount worth up to $100 a year. Dissapointed, I felt like this was a drop in the bucket compared to my Amazon spending. However, I learned about a much better discount available to our customers at an all-hands meeting. The best financial deal at Amazon is the Amazon Prime Credit Card which gets you 5% off anything on Amazon and at Whole Foods with no annual fee beyond your prime membership. Coming from the credit card world, 5% back is an amazing deal. For a comparison, redeeming ThankYou points from Citi at Amazon is worth 0.8% per point.
- Amazon’s Building Names: Amazon names all of it’s buildings with codes of nearby airports. This is one of the many things that reminded us of Amazon’s history as an e-commerce retailer with its and its large network of fulfillment centers.(4)Amazon calls its warehouses fulfillment centers. I was in JFK14 and in our basement was JFK15, the Prime Now Warehouse (it used to be on the 5th floor). A lot of my packages in New York come through JFK8, the Staten Island Fulfillment Center. (5)You can search for JFK14 and JFK8 on Google Maps. If you want to learn more about where these names are on Amazon packages, check out this explainer. You can also see what the Prime Now fulfilment center looked like.
- Amazon in Real Life. People from all over the world would visit Amazon in Seattle to talk with us about innovation and the cloud. They’d were intersted in talking with Amazon’s top thought leaders, but they were most excited about visiting the Amazon Go store. The Go store featured Amazon’s”Just Walk Out” technology that provides the magical feeling of grabbing items off the shelf walking out without any checkout line. You don’t have to be an executive and fly to Seattle to get this experience, with Amazon Go stores now open around the world. My favorite physical Amazon experience is Amazon Books which feels like you’re literally walking through the website. When it opened, they gave out this handout that highlighted how Amazon mixes the online and offline worlds. Pre-COVID-19, Amazon used to have tours of Fulfillment Centers.You could also take a self-guided audio tour of the Amazon campus.
During these 3 months learning about Amazon’s culture, I went to a meeting with one of our customers. During the day-long discussion, there was a session on Amazon’s Culture of Innovation. This session is a behind-the-scenes view into Amazon that was shockingly similar to what I was learning in orientation. I learned that Amazon tells all of these secrets to our AWS customers! You can see this presentation by Googling Amazon’s Culture of Innovation (it’s given pretty frequently) or take a look at this presentation from the AWS re:Invent Conference.
You could just watch that presentation and learn some great things about AWS. There are better books for learning Amazon’s history or understanding the internals of the company. But this book isn’t just about Amazon. It’s certainly inspired by Amazon, but it’s my view of the company. It’s full of some of my favorite Amazon facts and anecdotes, but it’s my view of these things. it may not be the “right” view and in some ways may differ from what Amazon thinks as a company. This is a book for people who want to know more about Amazon and the way they can apply Amazon’s thinking to their own personal lives.
|↑1||One Bar Raiser even gives tips on how to succeed in your Amazon Interviews on his personal blog.|
|↑2||It’s a little scary but I’ll take you through it in LP #7, Learn and Be Curious.|
|↑3||When I was at a bank they used to call this floorplan “trading desk” seating. Banks set up people like this when they needed to optimize communication and quick action, the kind of behavior needed when you were trading a stock. However, it’s not the right behavior for workers that need to focus for long amounts of time to get work done.|
|↑4||Amazon calls its warehouses fulfillment centers.|
|↑5||You can search for JFK14 and JFK8 on Google Maps. If you want to learn more about where these names are on Amazon packages, check out this explainer. You can also see what the Prime Now fulfilment center looked like.|