An Interview with Amazon’s Brad Porter, VP and Distinguished Engineer (part one of two)

BradportI recently had the opportunity to sit down with Brad Porter, a Distinguished Engineer and Vice President in Amazon’s Consumer Division, to talk about his career, his team, Amazon’s technical community and the culture that makes this a great place for developers to learn and explore.

Brad’s well-known at Amazon and you may have seen a LinkedIn post he wrote about an important artifact of Amazon’s culture: the 6-pager. I’m sharing this interview in two parts.   Part one of my interview with Brad focuses on his team, technical career paths and the Amazon tech community. In part two (coming soon), we discuss Brad’s career path inside the company, the attributes Amazon looks for when considering technical talent and what new hires can expect when they get here.

Heather: You lead an organization called Technical Risk Reduction. Can you please kick things off by explaining what your team does?

Brad: I lead a team of mostly Principal and Senior Principal Engineers at Amazon. Our job is to work in areas of the Consumer Division where there is a lot of risk, a lot of ambiguity and hard problems that need to be solved. We look for places where the work the organization is trying to accomplish involves a high degree of technical challenge and risk. We're all hands-on engineers who can help make these particular initiatives go faster.

   My job is neat because I don't ever do the same thing twice in a day. Just an hour ago, I was meeting with the team brainstorming how to process Amazon's high-volume data streams so that we can better forecast how much product we need in different places. But earlier in the day, members of my team were meeting with Prime Air and Prime Now.

Heather: Prime Now is my new favorite Amazon program. Can you tell me more about your team’s involvement?

Brad: Prime Now is growing incredibly fast. We initiated that program very quickly and launched it in 111 days. One of the Senior Principals on my team jumped into that challenge to help them get everything they needed from all the partners teams within the Consumer organization. Members of my team get to work on everything from accounting to payments to catalog to robots to drones, so we have a very broad view of the business and the technology. 

Heather: Because you work across so many Amazon business and organizations, does your team have to ramp on a new technical area every time?

Brad: I hire people who can come in and learn a new space very quickly and immediately contribute. I’ve managed to attract people who are really good at that, because they like doing it. The individuals on my team get bored in jobs where they spend two years on the same problem. For us it's super fun to go in and learn something entirely new and see if we can help move the needle for the business.

Heather: Amazon seems very comfortable with people working on problems they’ve never solved before, either because the problem is new to the person or it’s something that nobody has ever had the guts or support to take on. What’s different about Amazon that makes this work?

Brad:  Amazon is a document-oriented culture.   As a company, we write a lot of six pagers. This really helps everyone to learn quickly.  I may know nothing about a topic, but I can come into a meeting and I’m given 45 minutes or really as much time as anyone needs at the beginning to read and internalize the material. That allows us to learn new spaces very quickly, ask meaningful questions and then help. While I intentionally hire people who like to learn quickly, Amazon processes and culture make it easy for people to come up to speed quickly. I really believe this document-oriented culture where everyone reads and deeply internalizes the material is Amazon’s secret sauce to continuing to make great decisions as we scale. 

Heather: When you're talking to someone about a position in your organization, are there usual traits you see that identify them as someone who could be successful here?

Brad: I particularly like the new leadership principle “learn and be curious”. In candidates I interview, there are two dimensions I look for most. One is natural curiosity. Naturally curious people know a lot about everything and often think about systems.  They’re knowledgeable about biological systems, about computer systems and a whole diversity of things because they just want to constantly learn.

   The other trait I look for is resourcefulness.  I look for individuals who persevere in the face of roadblocks.  I try to elicit a story about how they got something done in their current company or at school.  I particularly look for those stories where it wasn't set up to be easy for them. How did they overcome the challenges?  Great candidates are very resourceful when it comes to getting things done.

Heather: In addition to being a Vice President, you are also a Distinguished Engineer.  You have Principal and Senior Principal Engineers on your team. Can you explain these titles a little bit?

Brad: Amazon has a career track for people who are individual contributors that parallels the manager track. Individual contributors aren't managing teams of people, they're hands-on helping with the technology and helping the team. Those roles parallel Senior Managers, Directors, Vice President, all the way up. Our Distinguished Engineer title is an individual contributor role that parallels the technical Vice President role at Amazon.

Distinguished Engineers end up sharing the VP title because it turns out, as you get more and more senior in your career, hopefully your versatility goes up. Our Distinguished Engineers are all flexible; hybrids. There are 9 Distinguished Engineers at Amazon. These individuals have earned the highest regard within Amazon for their technical judgment, technical experience and their ability to get things done while working on the deepest and most challenging problems Amazon faces. Distinguished Engineers work closely with Principal and Senior Principal Engineers around the company to drive technology innovation and evolution.

The role of Principal Engineers at Amazon is a little different than other companies. At many companies, Principal Engineers are the domain expert in their area and if you need to know about their area, you talk to them. Otherwise, you leave them alone. Amazon doesn't work that way.  Things are changing too fast for someone to build a career as a domain expert in one area.  Rather than be individual experts working in isolation, our Principal community is very much a collaborative community.  We reach out to each other as peers and say, "Hey, I need help on this," or, "Do you know anyone with expertise here? How do we think about this problem?"

That's one of the neatest things about being an individual contributor Principal or Distinguished Engineer at Amazon: you are part of this community that really behaves like a community and wants to be cooperative and wants to work together and wants to partner to solve all the hardest problems. A significant amount of my time, probably 60 to 80 percent, is spent working with Principal Engineers around the company, helping them with the problems that they're solving. That’s the best part of my job.

Heather: How do these interactions within the DE and PE community take place?

Brad:  We have an email alias where people are chattering all the time. We have an informal weekly lunch that’s topic-driven. We do an annual offsite over three-days, where we get to network and mingle and talk about some of the hardest technical challenges facing the company. We also host and sponsor a weekly talk series for the entire Amazon engineering community. We get between 500 and 1,000 engineers attending every week, either in person or virtually by video-casting.

Distinguished and Principal Engineers work with the presenters, who are other Principal Engineers, Senior Engineers, Dev Managers; anyone really can present one of these talks. The Principal community pairs them up with Principal Engineer coaches to help turn their content into a high quality talk.  Not every engineer has learned how to engage an 800-person audience and even those of us who’ve done it more than once benefit from peer coaching before we present. We help the presenters transform their content and presentation style to really engage that audience. As a result, this talk series is one of the most highly regarded internal sources of technical knowledge. Everything is recorded, everything is available, so you can go back and look at years of history of technical talks at Amazon.

Another way we operate as a community is through a mechanism by which anyone at the company can request design consultations and design help from Principals. The request goes out to all the Principals and those who are most expertise in that space volunteer and say, "Yes, I'll come help you think about that design."

We also play a role in helping Senior Engineers become Principal Engineers; helping them in the promotion process and helping managers develop their technical talent to the next level. We want to keep growing this Principal community. It's not a club where we're trying to keep people out. It's an environment where we're trying to help grow the technical ranks of the company.

Heather: Do you feel like this sense of community is unique to Amazon?

Brad: I do think this camaraderie is hard to find.  In smaller companies you often don’t have as many strong technical peers.  And in very large companies it is easy to become isolated if you lack the mechanisms or the collaborative culture Amazon has put in place to keep the community functioning as a community. In a lot of ways, the company still acts very startup-like with a focus on being collaborative and the sense that it is still “Day 1”.  Building a cross-company community helps us foster and develop a social network among the leaders so that we can keep the all-in-it-together spirit you get in small startups, where everyone is collaborative and working on the hard problems.

Amazon is always thinking about how to scale and how we maintain that collaborative spirit as the company grows.  You don't want to become this entity where there's one group over here that never talks to the other group over here and there's no sharing of technical best practices or no sense of community. I think Amazon is very different from other large companies in how intentional we are about keeping that “Day 1” startup feel.

***

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview series with Brad, which I will publish next week.


Eyes to the skies, Seattle

Seafair is an annual Seattle event, or more precisely, a collection of annual events that started in the fifties and celebrate life in our great city. It runs for ten weeks, starting in mid-June, but this weekend (“Seafair Weekend”) it kicks into high gear. Boats tie up to the log boom, getting in place to watch the air show featuring the Blue Angels. The Seafair Cup has hydroplanes (if you are unfamiliar, think race boats with jet engines) racing around the course to the cheers of thousands of viewers. Live music, lots of food and fortunately, really good weather karma; most Seafair Weekends I can remember have been perfectly sunny.

The Seattle Times ran a story this week on opportunities to enjoy the weekend’s events. For those of us here not participating in one of the many events, we will still surely see and hear the Blue Angels roaring overhead at some point (interspersed with the occasional old-time bi-plane or other military aircraft).

Also in the air, but new on the Seafair scene this year? Amazon One, one of our new Prime Air fleet of forty 767s which will be doing a guest flyover. If you are interested, there are videos of the plane getting painted and our design team talking about how the exterior design came together.

Also, here is a short interview with Dave Clark, SVP of Worldwide Operations from Boeing Field, in which he talks about the role of the fleet relative to Amazon's Prime program.

 


Varsha Raghavan is breaking tech pro stereotypes

“I can write a beautiful piece of code, that’s art. I can sing a beautiful aria, and that’s art, too.”

I love to hear about the unique interests and talents co-workers have. It’s like getting an entirely new perspective on someone you feel you already know pretty well. And I’ve noticed that there seems to be some relationship between technology and music. In my recruiting career, I have hired many people who have majored in music and many more who have some kind of musical side-jam.

Varsha Raghavan works as a Research Engineer in Amazon’s Prime Air organization. She is also appearing in Twister Beach at Café Nordo’s. Varsha was recently profiled in KUOW’s Art of Our City series. She got her masters’ degree from MIT, while continuing to foster the love of music she discovered at the theater camp she intended to help with her childhood shyness. She’s definitely breaking tech pro stereotypes…

 


Star Trek Beyond, starring Jeff Bezos?

If you are looking forward to the upcoming Star Trek movie, keep your eyes open for a cameo from someone unexpected: Jeff Bezos. He’ll be appearing as Starfleet Official in Star Trek Beyond.

 

 

A fan of Star Trek since childhood – he even noted Star Trek as the inspiration for the Echo device and Alexa automated assistant – it sounds like Jeff is getting to live out a dream. I’m not sure how this particular dream ranks among others, like launching rockets into space (and returning them successfully) or changing how America (and the world) shops.


Another successful Prime Day

Prime Day thank you 2016

Did you participate in Prime Day yesterday? If so, you joined tens of millions of other shoppers who took advantage of some great deals. I bought a Cuisinart tabletop grill, which I am irrationally excited about.

I know this is only year 2 for Prime Day, but I like reviewing the data that we share after the event. Ninety-thousand TVs were bought. And the most popular item globally? The Fire TV Stick; I have one and understand the appeal.  Top product in the US was the Instant Pot 7-in-1 Multi-Functional Pressure Cooker.  Some other fun statistics:

Members purchased over 24,000 Double Hammocks by Vivere and over 23,000 iRobot Roomba 614 Vacuum Cleaning Robots. Vacuuming your home while hanging out in your hammock just got easier.

Members purchased on average one Alexa-exclusive deal per second during Prime Day using their voice. And next year, it’s likely even more people will; sales of Echo devices were 2.5x the previous record sales day.

If you want see additional data, you can read our Prime Day press release here.

And here is a little behind-the-scenes look at some of the fulfillment center employees getting those millions of products out the door and into your homes.

 


GLAMazon and Pride

Amazon has a number of affinity groups that help build internal networks and shape the company by providing insights we can use to understand and serve our diverse customers around the world. One of those groups is GLAmazon, which educates employees about LGBTQ issues, promotes opportunities for engagement both inside the company (through mentorship and social gatherings) and outside through sponsoring, hosting and participating in events like Seattle Pride.

We recently posted some videos, one featuring employees talking about GLAmazon and their personal experiences…

 

 

…and another showing Amazon’s participation in Pride events around the world.

 

 

 

We love to see you showing your pride, Amazonians!

To learn more about GLAmazon, and other affinity groups at Amazon, visit our diversity page.


Amazon #1 on MIT Technology Review's 50 Smartest Companies of 2016

Light bulbThere are a number of smart companies out there, but to make MIT Technology Review's list this year, a company has to do something major like shift an entire industry or create a new market. We're proud to be #1 on MIT's list for 2016, thanks to the success of the Alexa Voice Service and the devices that leverage it.

Credit for this goes to the people at Amazon who boldly innovate. That freedom to explore - to think big and create new experiences for customers - is found across the company. In Consumer Division (what you think of as Amazon.com), we are consistently looking for opportunities to redefine how people shop. This has resulted in the launch of new offerings like Amazon Business and Prime Now.

To learn more about the organizations where you can impact the future of shopping, you can visit the Consumer Division page on our career site. For info on roles on the Alexa team, you can learn more here.

 


Making education accessible to hourly fulfillment center workers

When you buy something on Amazon.com, thousands of Amazon employees have had a hand in getting you’re your products – from software developers building out key functionality on Amazon.com to fulfillment associates who manage our inventory, pick products and pack orders up for shipment. Most likely, someone starting out as a software developer will build out a career in the field, perhaps branching off into leadership or program management, but usually staying in a job rooted in technology. For employees working in our fulfillment centers, their jobs are often a stepping stone to something else.

Amazon recognizes this and the challenge our hourly associates can face, working a full schedule and then going to class, making time to study and, for many, raise a family. We offer a program called Career Choice, that pre-pays (not reimburses… pre-pays) 95% of the tuition costs at accredited schools for vocational certifications or Associate of Applied Science degrees in a range of fields of study (including IT, electrical trades, transportation and logistics and accounting, among others). There’s an annual limit and the employee can take advantage of the program over a 4 year term. This video has details on the program.

I really like watching the videos profiling some of the employees taking advantage of the program. The opportunity they have to take classes, often onsite, is helping them pursue a career aspiration they have held for a long time.

A number of the areas of study are in fields that would have the employees eventually working somewhere other than Amazon. This program isn’t about retraining anyone for jobs within the company. It’s about helping people get to the next stage in their careers and their lives. I think that’s pretty cool.

More info on the program here.


Jeff Bezos at ReCode, explaining the things you’ve been wondering about Amazon

Amazon is involved in many businesses, and since we are comfortable being misunderstood for long periods of time, people outside the company often speculate about the reasons behind some of our decisions (like producing our own video content for Prime members). Recently, Jeff Bezos participated in an interview with The Verge’s Walt Mossberg, covering a range of topics including the relationship between Amazon and FedEx when it comes to getting you your stuff, and why Amazon opened its own physical bookstore. I found the whole interview pretty interesting, so you can view it below, or click on the links by topic to pick up at different points in the conversation.

 

Artificial Intelligence, Echo and Alexa

Privacy

Amazon’s retail shipping infrastructure

Amazon’s brick and mortar bookstores

Jeff’s purchase of the Washington Post

Amazon culture and work/life harmony

Amazon’s Career Choice program, training fulfillment center associates in in-demand fields

Is Amazon a media company? The relationship between video and Prime

Jeff’s passion for space exploration

What Jeff will be doing in 5 years

Amazon’s 3 pillars and opportunities that might become the fourth

How to decide when to give up on an idea

Free speech and the media

Why Amazon is exploring brick and mortar

Amazon’s retail infrastructure investment in India

Big retail problems Amazon is trying to solve (now and in the future)

Learnings from Amazon in China

The wearables market


Making grandma and grandpa proud

My grandparents have all passed, but some of my best memories as an adult are of talking to my grandma and grandpa about my work. Nothing better than making the people you love proud and hearing them brag on you to their friends.

I would have loved to have brought them to work with me, especially now. I think Alexa would have delighted my grandma, and my grandpa, who worked at a Ford assembly plant, would have loved to see an Amazon fulfillment center with robots bringing products to the people packing orders.

Some of our employees at Amazon Spain got to offer their abuelos a first-hand look at what they do every day.

I love the reaction of these grandparents. What a great memory for their grandchildren to share with them too.