I 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.