It might feel a little strange just grabbing your merchandise and walking out of the store

Innovation results in people learning to change old habits. I still walk into the smart elevators at Amazon and look for a button to push. There’s no button. I still reach down to pull my keys out of my ignition switch before I get out of my car. There is no ignition switch. But I HAVE gotten the hang of using my voice (and Alexa) to reorder dog food and turn on my lights.

Someday soon, I expect to feel what I assume is the adrenaline rush of walking out of a store without paying for my merchandise. Because I have to imagine that at first, shopping with Amazon Go is going to feel like shoplifting, even though your Amazon account is automatically charged for your items. Amazon Go was announced yesterday and you can learn more about the customer experience here.

 

New projects like this are constantly under development at Amazon. And unless you are on the team creating them, you are just as surprised as everyone else when they launch. Amazon Go is in a private beta right now. But I suspect that someday soon, depending on where you live, you may have the opportunity to experience another new way of shopping. Without lines.


What it means to “Disagree and Commit” and how I do it.

DisagreeIf you have been following Amazon at all, you have probably heard what sounds like code language when we talk about how we get our work done. As I have mentioned before, our Leadership Principles work like a kind of short-hand for the types of qualities that make people effective here. And they aren’t just for leaders of organizations, they are for everyone at Amazon. We are all leaders.

A blog reader recently contacted me asking for some tips on his upcoming interview and we got into a discussion of the Leadership Principles because they are definitely something I encourage anyone interviewing with Amazon to understand and think about during their prep.

He pointed out that one particular principle: “Disagree and Commit” can feel like a challenge to people who have been taught not to question authority or not to cause confrontation. Disagreeing in a real life work scenario and talking about it in an interview are different things.  

It’s even a challenge to people like me who were told earlier in their career that they are “too direct” and have adjusted their communication style accordingly. Of course, everyone who works here and exercises this principle does it in their own way. I’ll share a little bit about how I do it.

But first, let me explain this particular LP.  Here is the actual verbiage.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

You may have heard that Jeff Bezos dislikes social cohesion. It’s a detriment to business success because it causes people to stifle ideas and objections for the sake of keeping the peace. I’m the kind of person who can have a concern or objection sidetrack my attention and I need to get it out; at least have it heard. So I prefer to run the risk of ruffling feathers a little bit to unburden myself of my concern and provide some insights that may increase the chance of success for the project. It feels like the right thing to do.

A nice side effect of this focus on respectful disagreement is that it keeps people engaged in meetings. I mean, anyone can share an opinion, even if there’s a VP presenting and a junior team member has a concern. So it is less likely that people will tune out based on a feeling that they don’t really have a voice in the discussion. For employees, that’s really empowering.

You might agree with the thinking behind this leadership principle and still feel uncomfortable because it seems confrontational. I get it; like I said, I am constantly filtering myself so I don’t come off as overly direct or critical.  And that can lead to appearing non-committal, disengaged or just not that tuned in, if I let that filter shut me down too much. So I have developed an approach to “disagree and commit” that works for me.

Step one: acknowledge what you just heard. This is helpful, because it keeps the other person from thinking that you are quick on the draw to attack their idea. It shows that you are thoughtful and sometimes it actually clears up misunderstandings about their point of view.

“So what I think I’m hearing you say is that you would like to shift our investment in project A to project B so that we will see results faster. Is that right?”

Step two: ask the other side to consider new data or a different viewpoint. It’s possible that the other person has already considered your perspective and this flushes that out. Also, asking it as a question feels less threatening to the other person.

“Have you documented and weighed the risks associated with each project and will you help us understand what that looks like? At first glance, project B looks to be a riskier project.”

Step three: ask for more time and offer to assist in researching alternatives.

“I noticed that you didn’t mention any risks related to supply chain delays, which could push the timeline out for the project significantly. I have some data that I think would be helpful to consider before making a final decision. Can I have a few days to pull that data together and then we can met again to discuss it?”

This step can involve multiple rounds of engagement and loads of data, with the goal of having the other person consider your point of view. From a practical standpoint, you now have to decide whether ongoing discussion is going to change minds. If you have presented your arguments, are sure that the other person understands, and it’s their decision to make, you have done your due diligence.

Step four: Let it go. Or at least acknowledge (to yourself) that the other person’s objectives may differ from yours, that maybe they have more info that they aren’t able to share and/or ultimately, that if they own the project, it’s their decision to make. If you can get to this place, the “commit” part becomes easier.

“There are some risks related to this approach that I am concerned about but I am confident that you have heard and considered them. Please let me know if you need my help executing on this plan.”

One of the harder parts of this is support and commitment to the chosen path, after the fact, especially when others have concerns about the approach decided upon. Citing some of the data that was considered usually helps others see that a careful approach was taken. For example “I spoke with Steve about the potential supply chain data and he felt confident that we would be able to deliver.” You see, commit doesn’t just mean giving up the argument. It means actually getting on board and supporting the work.

The fact that Amazon is comfortable with experimentation and failure helps a lot too.  You can try something, gather data to analyze its success, and make additional strategy and investment decisions from there. So decisions here have less likelihood of being “career limiting” as many other places. In the case of our example, Steve might come around to the point of view that the supply chain issues were significant enough to impact customers and therefore, sink the project. Or he might collect data along the way to help him find a new way to solve those supply chain issues.

The steps actually work if you are on the other side of the disagree and commit scenario as well: restating what you think you heard, asking the person to consider additional data or a viewpoint.  It’s just a respectful way to disagree in pursuit of the best outcome. It focuses the conversation on a mutual understanding based on data, not a turf war or judgement about how well a plan has been constructed.

Feel free to share if you have different ways of approaching this kind of workplace situation. My approach obviously works for my own personality style, but I am sure there are many more ways to handle a disagree and commit situation.


Partnering with VPs, Alex Trebek and the Definition of "Crunk"

Stephanie Hubley is a bit of a celebrity at Amazon this week - she unseated a Jeopardy returning champion and Jeff Bezos knows her name. The Executive Assistant in Kindle appeared on Jeopardy this past Wednesday and will be returning to defend her spot in an upcoming game.

Jeff Bezos gave her a shout out at our recent employee all-hands as well. 

You can read about Stephanie's experience, in her own words here. And see how employees rallied to watch the show and cheer her on. You'll also learn more about "crunk" (which I would have struggled to define even without the pressure of the show) and get some insight into the EA role at Amazon - Stephanie cleared the calendar of the VPs she works with so they could join her to watch the show.

By the way, you don't have to be a master or trivia to be an EA at Amazon. If you are interested in exploring the different types of administrative roles across the company, you can find them here. There's also a page dedicated to EAs in Amazon's Consumer Division here and a video below.

 


Dogs in costume walk the runway at Amazon.

It's too bad we don't have more opportunities in life to see dogs dressed up in costumes. It's been a year since we wished you a "Happy Howloween!" with a bunch of dog photos from our Amazon Seattle offices. Some of us, unfortunately, have pets who show a clear disdain for dressing up, so we have to go long periods of time without dogs-in-costume photos. My dogs looked mildly tortured by the dinosaur costumes I bought them last year and I swore to them we would never do it again. But I still need a fix of dogs in costumes.

Fortunately, our social media team recently did a broadcast of pups in costume walking a really frugal runway. Aside from the ridiculously cute dogs (you have to stay tuned long enough to see Michael Jackson tell his wig to "beat it"), I'm pretty impressed by the collecti0n of human footwear.

Geekwire also covered a costume contest hosted in Van Vorst plaza on Friday, with some adorable entrants and employees talking about what it means to them to be able to bring their dogs to work. What, you think we'd only have one dog costume event on Halloween?


Recruiter Spotlight: Verjeigh McMillon speaks about her involvement in Amazon’s Black Employee Network

VerjeighFrom time to time, I’ll introduce you to recruiters here at Amazon who have something particularly interesting going on that I think you might want to know about. Today’s post is a recruiter spotlight with my co-worker Verjeigh McMillon, who is on the board of Amazon’s Black Employee Network.

Heather: Hi Verjeigh, can you start out by introducing yourself to our readers?

Verjeigh: Sure, I am Verjeigh McMillon, a Technical Sourcing Recruiter for the Customer Relationships team. They are the people who develop new customer experiences on Amazon.com based on the relationships between account holders - like households, and families who want to manage access to content and buying privileges for kids.

Heather: How long have you been at Amazon?

Verjeigh: I am a new comer to Amazon. My family and I relocated from Washington DC 8 months ago.

Heather: What is your favorite part of working at Amazon?

Verjeigh: Two things come to mind: opportunity and ownership. I have been encouraged to be ambitious and to innovate in my space. I have been able to launch new initiatives –such as an upcoming recruitment event in partnership with our Black Employees Network (BEN) – in days, that would have taken years in other organizations. With preparation and a good business case the sky is the limit with Amazon.

Heather: You mentioned that you recruit for the Customer Relationships team. What kind of positions do you recruit for and what kinds of skills or qualities do you look for?

Verjeigh: I recruit for a number of professional profiles, both tech and non-tech. From UX designers, data engineers, (the ever coveted) software development engineer, to marketing, program and product managers, we’re hiring for them all. Customer Relationships is a growing new initiative team and is part of our e-commerce platform. We are true innovators and are enhancing the customer experience across amazon.com, membership platforms (Prime, Amazon Library, Amazon Households) and devices. At the core of our team are pioneers, individuals who thrive in ambiguity and are willing to explore new territory. So job-seekers that match that profile are a great for our team. Also, the customer-obsessed also have a special place in our hearts.

Heather: You are a part of Amazon’s Black Employee Network. Can you tell us a little about the organization and your involvement?

Verjeigh: I have a passion to increase opportunity for underrepresented populations and joined the Black Employee Network to make an impact. Recently, I was voted in as Technical Recruitment Chair for BEN at Amazon. The Black Employee Network provides support for underrepresented minorities at Amazon through building community, and it champions diversity throughout the company. The group was established in 2005 and was Amazon’s first affinity group. And although BEN was created to provide support for black employees at Amazon, it’s not an exclusive organization. We welcome membership and participation from those outside the black community. We have committees that support recruitment, retention, professional development, community service, social activities and minority business. We host a variety of events including community outreach, recruiting events, happy hours and tech talks. We have an open house event for technical job seekers coming up in November.

Heather: How does an employee become a BEN member?

Verjeigh: They just repeat after me: “I want to be a part of BEN.” it’s really that simple. We have an email alias that can be subscribed to that keeps members up to date on coming events and opportunities to participate.

Heather: BEN is co-sponsoring an upcoming interview event for software developers at Amazon. Can you tell us about it?

Verjeigh: We’re excited about hosting Amazon’s first Black in Tech recruitment event on Wednesday, November 16, 2016. BEN has partnered with the Customer Relationships team, which I support, for this event focused in interviewing and hiring senior software developers.

Heather: If someone is interested in being considered to interview at this event, what should they do and what does the process look like?

Verjeigh: We are seeking Software Development Engineers. Candidates fitting this profile are invited to apply at here or contact me directly at verjeigh@amazon.com . Candidates that do not fit this profile can email me directly with their resume to gain information about current or future opportunities.

Our process is fairly straight forward. Once a candidate submits their resume/application we will review and invite well aligned candidates to complete an online technical assessment. Candidates who complete a successful assessment will be able to speak with a team member and then be invited to visit us onsite for a full-day interview. At this event candidates will meet team members, view our beautiful campus, discuss their background, and code (in their language of choice). We’ll be making hiring decisions shortly after the event.

Although this event is being launched in partnership with an affinity group all candidates are being considered equally.

Heather: Can you explain a little more about the hiring team?

Verjeigh: The Customer Relationships team, also known as Amazon Households, is made of product management and technical teams that develop new customer experiences. Their engineers create and maintain services that enable business teams to offer household related benefits through programs like Amazon Prime, Amazon Family, Alexa, and Family Library. Their work impacts millions of customers shopping on Amazon.com and other Amazon marketplaces, using Kindle and watching Fire TV. Technical teams across the company leverage the services developed by this team.

Heather: Do you have any recruiting words of wisdom for people who are interested in working at Amazon?

Verjeigh: Become familiar with the Amazon leadership principals (LPs). This is truly the core of our culture and a clear picture of the type of individuals you will work beside on a daily basis.

In preparation for my Amazon interview, I studied the LPs (I didn’t cram, I studied for a week). I picked 4 LPs I index high on and wrote out examples where I showed these qualities in my professional background. I didn’t speak to all the examples I wrote but, it put me in the right mind to have the level of discussion needed with my interviewers. I was prepared.  

Also have fun and relax, you are interviewing us just as much as we are interviewing you.

Heather: Great advice. Thanks Verjeigh!


Using Amazon’s Career Site (blog series)


ValuesActive job-seekers out there are no doubt spending some time on company career sites – and I suspect many of you have visited ours. I’m in the process of creating some new content for Amazon.jobs, which will help users learn about working in our Consumer Division. But in the meantime, I’m going to share some thoughts on navigating the site and highlight some of my favorite content. I’m also going to drop a link into the menu bar above, so you can click through and check it out.

In normal Amazon fashion, I will work backward from the user experience and talk about how you might navigate the site depending on how much you know about Amazon and your interest in specific roles. I envision 4 scenarios:    

    1) A user shows up on Amazon.jobs knowing the group they want to work in and the role that best fits them

    2) A user shows up on Amazon.jobs and doesn’t know what group they are interested in or the right role. Hey, they are just browsing here.

    3) A user shows up and knows the right job role for them but there are so many groups to choose from and it’s hard to find them on the site.

    4) A user shows up on Amazon.jobs with a burning desire to work for a specific organization, but isn’t sure how their skills would fit.

I’m going to create a separate blog post for each of these scenarios. I will also provide info on good places to find additional info on Amazon.jobs and some tips, regardless of which user scenario best matches your situation.

So while you are waiting for those posts, I will share some of my thoughts on career sites in general.

Typically, people visit a career site specifically to search for job postings that match their background. And obviously this kind of searching behavior is a lot of what we see going on at Amazon.jobs. But something that I would encourage visitors to also think about when visiting a career site is using it to understand what the company values. Any well-constructed career site is going to feature more than just job postings. Sometimes you have to dig a bit, and even though you might think that all career site content feels the same (I mean, everyone talks about making an impact and that type of thing, us included), you can find some nuggets that give you a true sense of what a company thinks is important. On Amazon.jobs, our leadership principles are the best example if this I can think of.  

If you look at those principles and think “I feel like that too!” or “those are the things I value”, there’s a good chance that you will like it here. If you look at them and even feel lukewarm, I’ll be honest: this might not be the place for you. Because as an employee here, you will hear those principles referenced day in and day out. They are used for decision-making from the high level strategic decisions around our vision as a company to simple choices around how we do our work. And our employees are held accountable by those principles.

So when you are on a career site, Amazon’s or another company’s, look for an indication of what is valued and decide how closely their values resonate with you.

I recently watched video of an organization where teams sing when visitors walk through their work area. For some people, that might sound like fun. For others, perhaps it would feel like torture. But having silly fun was part of their culture and clearly an attractor for the right kinds of job-seekers. This is exactly the right kind of content for companies to be featuring on their career sites, by the way. Candidates should have some kind of reaction to the content and use it to opt in or opt out.

Another recommendation is to use career sites for resume and interviewing intelligence. In the past, when I have spoken with people seeking advice about their job search, one of the things they ask about is getting the attention of recruiters. This is definitely the right thing to be asking, especially if you are interested in working at a company that receives a massive volume of applicants. Reading about the company values I mentioned above, as well as the job specs (and the words they use to describe the work) should help you write or tweak your resume to get the attention of recruiters. First, you should be looking at the actual words they use in the job specs and ensure that you are using the same words to describe that kind of work on your resume. For example, referring to the software development framework used as either “agile software development” or “scrum” can mean the difference between a resume showing up in a recruiter’s search and not. Now hopefully, a recruiter looking for this experience is going to search both of those things, but often they will start with the simplest search first. And if the job spec calls for “scrum experience”, that is how they will search for it. So look at the job postings to understand the words used to describe specific types of experience.

Also look at the job postings and the company information on the career site to identify what is important to include on a resume. It’s easy to look past a lot of the buzz-wordy content on a job description. But if you know Amazon cares about delivering results (and we do, because it’s in our leadership principles and many job descriptions), you know it’s important to be explicit about the types of results you were able to achieve in previous roles. By the way, I don’t know a company where delivering results isn’t important so you should do this exercise anyway. But definitely think about how you can incorporate some of the culture elements into your own resume (and still be honest, of course).

More coming on using Amazon.jobs soon. And please feel free to add questions here if there’s anything I can answer for you.


A good resume versus a great resume. What’s the difference?

Resume tipsSometimes I wonder exactly how many resumes I have looked at in my life. It has to at least be in the tens of thousands; maybe more. I’ve seen it all: the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s never a good idea to put stickers on your resume. And typos, poor grammar and hard-to-understand content are obviously things that you want to avoid. Most professional people invest some time in putting together a good resume and it shows. Because most resumes I have looked at are pretty good.

When I was recruiting, I always reminded myself that resume writing is not a skill we were hiring for. At the same time, an exceptionally well-crafted resume made it easier for me to do my job and the fact that the information I was looking for was easy to find made it more likely that that resume (assuming the skills aligned to our needs) would end up in the “yes” pile. The less a recruiter has to struggle to find the information they need to say yes the better.

So what I am going to share today is my opinion of what separates a good resume from a great resume. But first, let me be clear about one thing: the resume is not going anywhere as a tool for hiring and getting hired in the professional world, no matter what some industry pundits might say. Unless your name is Oprah or Bill Gates, if you are at all interested in developing your career, you need a resume, no matter how exceptional you feel you are or have been told you are. The resume is the conversation started that leads to discussions about your career. Even for amazing talent.

I’ll focus on two facets of strong resume development in my comments below: style and content.

A good resume

A good resume is visually appealing and uncluttered. Fonts are consistent and chosen judiciously. I recommend Arial or Helvetica if you are in tech, and Georgia if you are in a more traditional field. Folks in design can get away with alternatives. But nobody wins points for a cool resume font. So easy-to-read is of primary importance. I see a lot of people get fancy with design, creating columns and adding images. And while that is all pretty to look at, when your resume gets scanned into a database (which is exactly what happens to it when you apply to a company of some size), nobody sees your format and your content is jumbled (as scanning happens from left to right).

The good resume includes all of the information that a recruiter or hiring authority would expect to see there: your education and work experience, certifications and tech skills, etc. For new grads, education should go at the top. For experienced folks (let’s say 3+ years of experience, where they are hiring you more for your recent work history), it goes near the bottom.  Hobbies? Great. You should have some and it’s OK to put them on the resume, especially if they suggest something about your personality, which you take with you into the workplace.

The great resume

A great resume includes all of the dynamics I mentioned above, but from a format standpoint, takes into account how the reader is going to read it; what they are looking for and in what order.  Recruiters generally will look at your name and location, your current role/company/dates and one or more previous roles. Depending on the company they are working for, they may next look at the education section. Once they have scanned these areas, if the candidate seems to do work similar to what they are hiring for, the recruiter will focus on their current work to identify specific skills required for the position. If that all looks good, it’s likely that they will review the whole resume in more detail before reaching out to you. So with your format, put everything where the recruiter expects them: name top and center, most recent employer aligned to the left margin and in the top third of the page, education at the bottom.

If you are thinking that a functional (versus chronological) resume is right for you, you can read my opinion on that here. Chronological resumes are preferred by recruiters for most roles, with consulting being one possible exception.

When I coach people on crafting or updating their resume, which happens a lot with friends, I tell them to make sure that a recruiter can read the top third of their resume and the very bottom section of the first page and understand what they do. Make it easy for them by putting key info were their eyes travel. No images or headshots on the resume (unless you are applying for a position in a country where that is common practice; here in the US it is not). No fancy designs or flourishes either. It detracts from your content, which is what the reader cares about.

The content itself is really the big differentiator between a good resume and a great one. And there is one activity that will help you upgrade your content. When you look at your jobs and your (presumably) bullet-point list of responsibilities, add results for each one. Go line by line and ask yourself “so what?”. For example, if you established a new geographical marketplace for your company, so what? What was the result? Well, that might have resulted in a revenue increase, it might have resulted in hiring new delivery teams to support that work, it might have earned you an award or a promotion.  Add your results for as much of your work as you can and make it as tangible as possible (using numbers if you have them). If you can also explain the strategic importance of the impact on the company, do that as well. For the above example, your new marketplace development work might have helped the company reach a milestone, identify new underserved customer targets or helped position your company better relative to competitors who were already in that market. So when you are talking about results, don’t forget the big picture.

Sharing your accomplishments in this way also makes your content more memorable. Instead of “Sales Director for XYZ Company” (which is not that memorable), you will be “The woman who created the market for SuperWidgets in the Southwest”. Totally memorable.

I’d also encourage you to think like a marketer. Ask people you know what your personal brand is; what is expected when they spend time with you, specifically at work? Integrate this into your resume. For example, I have gotten feedback before that when people work with me they know that I am going to own the project 100% and will get it done no matter what. So when I updated my resume, I made sure that end-to-end ownership of projects was well represented. You can tap into past co-workers and friends for this information on your personal brand, or even look on your past performance reviews for themes. The reason this is important is because you are likely to tap into a real need that the hiring team has that other people have likely failed to represent on their resume. And it’s also likely to be specific, so it won’t read like a lot of the resume clutter words such as “out of the box thinker” or “self-starter”.

Let me know if you have any questions on resumes, how recruiters read them and what happens to them after you apply for a job.  I know for a lot of people, working on a resume can be a little anxiety-inducing. Happy to help with advice if I can.


An Interview with Amazon’s Brad Porter, VP and Distinguished Engineer (part two 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. Part one of my interview with Brad focused on his team, technical career paths and the Amazon tech community. In part two, below, 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’ve been at Amazon since 2007. Can you talk a little bit about your career path and the thinking behind staying in a technical role as your career has progressed?

Brad: Throughout my career, I have gone back and forth between managing and being an individual contributor.  Whatever I do though, I can’t get away from the technology and the architecture and the code. The larger your team, the harder it can get to meaningfully engage in that stuff. Whenever my job becomes so much management responsibility that I'm not getting to be technically hands‐on, then I swing the pendulum the other way.

When I joined Amazon, I was hired as a Director to help Amazon consolidate a number of website platform technologies. I was also hired to operate and run Amazon.com's website stack worldwide. My team was the team responsible for making sure the website stayed up; that we had the capacity and kept the latency low and the costs in line.

I spent my first year here doing that. But at that time, Amazon was also very focused on transforming its underlying e‐commerce platform to allow Amazon to expand into new e‐commerce opportunities much more quickly. I made a choice to move back to a Senior Principal role and spent the next six years helping drive that architectural transformation. When I made that move I gave up managing and operating a big team. Then as result of that work and the impact I was able to make, I was promoted to Distinguished Engineer at Amazon.  

Heather: Thinking more broadly than your own team, when you think about the technical community across Amazon, what does good tech talent look like? What skills or competencies should someone hoping to work at Amazon look to build?

Brad: As the Principal community here was expanding, the community took the time to define the tenets of great engineering at Amazon. In the same way Amazon has leadership principles that we publish externally, internally we now have a set of principles for engineers about what great engineering leadership looks like at Amazon. The one I gravitate toward as being the most unique to Amazon’s engineering culture is “Technically Fearless.”  This type of fearlessness is rooted not in recklessness, but confidence in your ability to apply your skills to any new problem.  Fearless engineers don't shy away from problems. They're not saying, "Oh, let's deploy that next year," because instead they're looking deeply at the problem and what the customer needs and saying "Here's the risk and here's the trade off and here's how we can mitigate the risk." They make informed decisions not out of a position of conservatism but of a position of confidence that this is the right thing to do.

The world is changing very fast.  You see now just how quickly machine learning is transforming business processes and how we build systems. You see how much we’re now doing with robotics and drones. We need people who aren't afraid of change. Being technically fearless is important here.

We also have a tenet that is about giving back to peers and the community called "Learn, Educate, and Advocate." The idea is that great engineers at Amazon are constantly learning but they're also constantly educating their peers. And they're advocates. When they see something that clearly works better, instead of just saying, "here's this technique, take it or leave it.,” they're saying, “here's this technique and here's where I think we should use it and why." "Learn, Educate, Advocate," as a tenet of our engineering culture is a notch more action-oriented than our company-wide “Learn and Be Curious” leadership principle. We expect engineers to take their learnings and help move the organization forward.

Heather: That really helps tech professionals understand what we value here. Do you have any advice for a college student who is pursuing a tech degree?

Brad: I'd say get outside of the box. Get together with your friends and build an app that you're just inspired to build.  Join the rocketry club.  Run for student government.  Put yourself in a position where dynamic problem solving is required.   Do well in your classes but also get hands‐on and try to challenge yourself, try new things and do it with friends.

Heather: What about advice for an experienced technical person who's interested in coming to Amazon?

Brad: Amazon has no end of work to be done and you're enabled to go do it.  Decisions are made quickly and you are rarely blocked. If you are someone who likes to get things done, the environment is addictive because in most companies you work for there are times where you find yourself waiting for decisions to be made. But given there are no lulls in the product cycle at Amazon, you have to have some discipline or it can be hard to find a balance. If you are the type of person who has the discipline to keep that balance, then you'll love it.

Heather: Amazon has a reputation for “peculiar ways”. What do you think people are surprised about when they start working here?

Brad: I often ask new people what they notice first at Amazon that was peculiar. The most common answer is "I walked into a meeting and it was like study hall for the first half an hour. Everyone just sat and read quietly like it was a library." We really do sit quietly and read in many of our meetings. 

I think another thing that surprises people is that a lot of companies have mission statements and leadership principles. Amazon is much more rigorous than many in really adhering to those. “Customer Focus” comes up in technical conversations everyday and we can tell people over and over again we do that but when they come to Amazon, they're still surprised that it really is true.

If you have any questions for Brad or for me about working at Amazon or developing your technical career,  please post in the comments below. Big thanks to Brad for sharing his thoughts and his experience at Amazon.


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.

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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.