Product Management Technology

On Amazon – A Peculiar Company

Disclaimer: I worked as the Head of Banking for Amazon Web Services. This writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.

Amazon has a very strong culture. At other places I’ve worked, culture is an aspiration at the senior level but took a back seat to more pressing concerns like making as much money as possible. Amazon’s culture is embedded in its 14 Leadership Principles that are a common language and framework that form the basis of everything the company does, from interviews to everyday decisions. You can get a good feeling of the Amazon culture by watching videos of Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. A few good ones are from the Economic Club of Washingtonan interview by his brother Mark,  the Axel Springer Award, and a 60 Minutes Story about Amazon from 1999.

Having such a strong culture can seem peculiar to outsiders. At my first interview, I was asked, “Why do you want to work at our peculiar company?” At first, I didn’t understand. Over time I’ve learned that peculiarity is a good thing. Jeff Bezos says, “As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.” At Amazon, we’re dedicated to driving forward innovation even if it makes us look different from others. We pride ourselves on doing the right thing (the smart thing) even if it looks peculiar to others.

Here are some peculiar things about Amazon, including the Amazon vocabulary.

  • Narratives. Amazon doesn’t use PowerPoints in internal meetings to make decisions, we use written documents called Narratives. Before joining I thought this was something Amazon was just trying out, but the company has been doing this for over a decade. PowerPoint is a tool for selling. At a company you don’t want people selling each other on ideas, you want people to discuss ideas to come up with the best possible solutions.
  • Working Backwards. This may be my favorite peculiar concept. At most companies, a product is created by employees based on what the company wants to build. Product managers take into account all the stakeholders decisions including customers and senior leadership.  Working Backwards starts with what the customer wants. Amazon starts with a mock customer facing press release, answers to questions that the customer might have and user documentation. This creates the core requirements because if it’s not relevant to the customer, it shouldn’t be built. For more details, Forbes did a pretty good job of describing the Working Backwards method.
  • Day 1. Amazon is obsessed with Day 1. Jeff Bezos works in a building named Day 1. In each shareholder letter, Jeff includes his original 1996 letter which highlights that Amazon, and the internet, is still at Day 1. It’s an important concept for Amazon because customers will never assume that things are good enough. Companies that rest on their laurels and assume they’ve “made it” will eventually fail because customers will continue to look for something better. Jeff writes about this in his 2016 letter to shareowners. At Amazon, it’s always Day 1.
  • Two-Way Doors. In the 2015 letter to shareowners Jeff defines the difference between one-way and two-way doors. “Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly — irreversible one-way doors — and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. But most decisions aren’t like that — they are changeable, reversible — they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. These decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.”

I’m part of the Amazon Web Services (AWS) business. We are an enterprise software company that enables other companies to build things. You can learn more about AWS in this recent interview that our CEO, Andy Jassy, gave about the business. Also, if you’re looking to interview at Amazon, there’s a great official guide and unofficial guide to interviewing at Amazon. To feel comfortable on AWS, build your own small website on S3 or EC2 with training from A Cloud Guru. Udemy normally has a discounted Software Architect Course from A Cloud Guru for about $20.