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March 2017

Joe Lawson: My Path to Becoming an Amazonian

Joe Lawson

Editor's note: I’m excited to introduce our first addition to the blogging team here at the Amazonian Blog. Joe Lawson is a Quality Assurance Engineer in our Marketplace organization; they are the folks who find, work with and build tools for third party-sellers on Joe will be sharing his experiences working here and I think you’ll enjoy learning about him and his perspective on what it’s like being an Amazonian. Take it away, Joe…

When faced with the prospect of working for one of the Big Tech companies, the initial reaction of most people is one of self-doubt and disbelief that they have the skills needed to even get an interview, much less make it through the entire process and become a full-time employee at Amazon or Facebook or Google.  It’s very easy for me to empathize with that mindset; after all, I used to think and feel the same way.  My path to becoming an Amazonian was one that I never anticipated going down and to be completely honest, I’m still kind of surprised that I made it in.  What I want to get across in this blog post is that you DON’T necessarily need to have a deep tech background, or a plethora of tech experience, or to already work at a big tech company, in order to have the chance to work here.  I hope that my story will inspire people to apply here at Amazon, even if they don’t believe they have what it takes, because confidence plays a big role (okay, and having the basic skills and a little experience certainly helps for sure) to believe that you’re good enough to pull it off.

I grew up in a country town in Georgia by the name of LaGrange.  It’s right on the border with Alabama and has been an important supplier of manufacturing and textiles for the state for most of its existence.  There are no high-paying jobs in LaGrange, and it offers little in the way of long-term stability and growth for one’s career.  Most people never manage to leave Troup County due to economic issues, earning it the nickname “Trap County”.  Growing up and living in LaGrange for the first 18 years of my life, I felt sure that I would be one of the people that ended up staying in that town for the rest of my life, though the thought of it left me immensely dissatisfied and desirous enough to vow that I’d break that cycle however I could.

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Ayesha Harper leads the organization developing your favorite AmazonBasics

Ayesha HarperIn a recent blog interview, I gave you a glimpse into product management here at Amazon. Most people think of Amazon as a place where you can buy just about anything. But we also make a lot of products. So today I am posting an interview with Ayesha Harper, Director and General Manager of Private Label in our Hardlines division. In this interview, we talk about the Product Manager role, her path at Amazon and career mobility. We also geeked out a little over cool customer experiences.

Hi Ayesha. You’re the leader of Private Label for Hardlines. I imagine that most of the people reading this don’t know what that is.

Private label products are those we develop and sell on our website; they are Amazon-owned brands, manufactured exclusively for Amazon. In Hardlines, our private label brands are AmazonBasics, which spans a number of different product categories, and Pinzon, a bath and bedding brand.

Hardlines at Amazon is a broad and diversified business. It includes Consumer Electronics and product categories within the home like Kitchen, Home Improvement, Tools, Sports, Toys and more. Another way to think about it is that it’s not physical media (Books and DVDs, for example), not Fashion products and not Grocery items. It’s the rest...

It must be really challenging and fun to create new products from scratch. But you didn’t start out in product development at Amazon.

I’ve had five different roles in my nine years here. Amazon very much values movement in your career. Because of the number of businesses here, you are able to see businesses in different phases of growth or with completely different cycles. For example, a group like Toys has a heavy holiday season where working in Amazon Business might not.

In my career path at Amazon within Retail, I’ve been able to experience different categories. I’ve worked in Fashion, Media and now Hardlines. Each of those businesses have different challenges and growth trajectories.

When I joined, I had no idea how diversified Amazon would become over time and all the opportunities that would be available. The company has done such amazing things. Nine years later, we are developing award-winning original content, we have a huge business with Amazon Web Services, and we’re making first-party devices such as Kindle and Echo. So Amazon just continues to get more and more diversified.

And that movement between teams or these broader organizations like AWS and Kindle is available at all levels. You don’t have to be a business leader to experience that kind of variety at Amazon.

Right. From year-to-year, there’s quite a bit of movement within an organization. What we are doing in Retail and across the company is building great businesses and general management leaders. Our feeling is that folks who are able to experience and lead different organizations will be better employees and business managers.

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Be Right. Rinse and Repeat.

BlackjackAmazon holds semi-annual all-hands meetings here in Seattle. As you would imagine, we fill the better part of an arena with our Seattle-based employees these days. Attending these meeting, or watching via video stream or recording, is a great way for employees to learn about the cool work going on across the company. There are so many interesting initiatives underway and employees who are free to develop more, that at some point, it’s likely you’ll know someone up on stage or who gets recognized for their work. Innovation abounds!

The selection of what projects or initiatives are presented and who does the presenting changes each time. We had an all-hands this week led by Stephenie Landry, the VP who leads Prime Now. We also had presenters on Voice Shopping, our work hiring military members, veterans and spouses, Prime Air, and our affinity groups. There are a few traditions at these meetings like awards, Q&A and having all new employees stand up so we can all marvel at the rate at which this company is growing here in Seattle. Another regular feature is the selection and discussion of one of our leadership principles. We all work with these principles so much; it’s really great to hear leaders talk about them – how they interpret them, when they are challenging. So I thought I would share the principle we heard about this week and some of my thoughts on it. That principle is “are right, a lot”.

So first let me say that I am convinced that almost every new employees wonders what they heard the first time someone mentions this one in a meeting. “We write a lot”? Well, that is also true. But “are right, a lot”, once you get past the peculiar phrasing, is pretty core to how we operate around here. So here is the principle as we define it:

Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.

Well, it seems obvious that someone who is a leader and at the top of their game is a good decision-maker. But I believe the value in this one lies more in the “how” and also what it says about our culture.  I think we can all agree that nobody wants to be wrong a lot and we all work to minimize that for the good of our companies and ourselves. But I think that the real risk, the more damaging flip-side to being right a lot is being too scared or not ambitious or focused enough to make decisions in the first place; not putting yourself in a position where you will be required to make a decision.

So what I think that this leadership principle is saying is that we value decision-making and when decisions are made, we like the ones that are right. We appreciate employees who are willing to make a call, especially when it’s on behalf of customers. I think I’ve mentioned before that in the course of my work, I’ve met a lot of employees to talk about their experience working here. And a theme I frequently hear from people, especially those earlier in their careers, is that they are surprised what they get to own here. Decision-making and ownership go hand-in-hand.

As a company, we value experimentation. The tricky thing about experimentation is that if there isn’t a risk of being wrong, it’s not an experiment. So wait a minute, then how can you be right a lot when you are trying new things that have a relatively high probability of failing? That’s where the “how” of “are right, a lot” comes into play. It’s that third line in the definition above.

There’s something kind of gritty and Amazonian about working to include more perspectives and to try to disprove what you already think you know. Making good decisions isn’t about being the smartest person in the room, it’s about having (and using) the best data. It’s about being the most diligent and most willing to disprove your assumptions. Fortunately, with such a big company with a wide variety of projects and employee backgrounds, you can frequently find the data and the people you need to help you weigh and inform your decisions.

At the end of the day, everything you do here won’t be an experiment, so even if you are wrong 90% of the time, you still have a lot of room to be right a lot. One of the speakers at the all-hands made the point that to be right a lot, you have to be wrong a lot too, and do it quickly and inexpensively. I’ll add that you should learn from it as well. Failure in a vacuum doesn’t help you grow and it doesn’t allow others to leverage your work.

So ultimately, I think the leadership principle is about being willing to make decisions and doing so with the best information available. Am I right?

Amazon on The Muse

Main"Someone said a picture is worth a thousand words, but pictures and words together are really awesome." OK, well I just said it, but it's true; especially when the pictures and words are answering the question "what's it like to work at Amazon?" People generally want to see our environment and they want to hear employees talk about their experiences here.

We recently launched a page on The Muse, which is a web platform dedicated to providing behind-the-scenes looks at employers and lots of career-related advice. There's lots of video content, and employees talking about what it's like working here, with specific topics including internal mobility,  our writing culture, and what it means to be "peculiar". You can go to the page to experience all of the content, but I've included a few of my favorite employee profiles below.

Eric Will Sarah










You'll also find the inevitable cute dog photos on the page as well. Take a look around and let me know if you have any questions about anything you learned about Amazon on The Muse.

[Blog series] So you didn’t get the job: the values and principles you need to display in the interview

MotivatesOur blog series has focused on what to do after you get the recruiter call letting you know that the company you want to work for will not be extending an offer. After doing whatever your first instinct is - calling your best friend or S.O., having a glass of wine, whatever - there are steps you can take to understand where you can improve and hopefully increase the potential for a different interview outcome in the future. So far, we have talked about asking the recruiter for feedback, reviewing interviewer cues, analyzing the interview questions and researching the background of people who were hired into the job. Today's post focuses on some of the factors companies may consider in their hiring, that aren't specifically about skills, but more about how you work.

Values and culture can be areas that are tricky to interview for and be interviewed for, because companies want to encourage and reward the right behaviors, but they also want diversity of thought and style.  So as important as it is to think about how you present yourself in the interview, I wholeheartedly believe that you will do best in an interview when you are uniquely you and don't try to put on a persona that matches a company's principles and values if you don’t share them. In fact, I believe the most important part of selecting your next company, team, manager and job should be evaluating how well *their* values match *yours*. So my recommendation today assumes you have already done that work and feel that there is a good match and you simply want to do better at communicating that match.

Most companies publish some kind of content that explains what they value. For Amazon, it's our Leadership Principles. You can also look beyond explicit explanations of values and missions to what the company talks about online and how they describe their culture. Prior to an interview, it’s a good exercise to jot down their values or principles and some words to describe their culture and think through how you have exhibited those values in past work experiences.  After the interview, consider whether you demonstrated fidelity to those values in your responses. You might end up feeling that you didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate your work values, but if you want that job, it’s really important to find ways to work your common values into the conversation, especially in areas that are particularly aligned with the role.

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[Blog series] So you didn’t get the job: using free research to understand potential experience gaps

LinkedInIn our blog series on what to do after you interviewed and were declined for a job, we’ve looked at the best way to ask the recruiter for feedback, understanding interviewer cues and extracting job competencies from the questions you were asked. By this point, you may have identified a few things you can work on. But another source of information to consider is the backgrounds of people who actually got the job, assuming the position you interviewed for is not brand new or completely unique. It’s easy to jump on LinkedIn and search for people who work at the company in the role you interviewed for (BTW, if you don’t want people to know you are looking at their profiles, you can adjust your “profile viewing options” here). Unless you designate otherwise, your search will pull up people who have the company listed as a current or past employer, which is what you want.  Just don't overlook the people who aren't currently working at the company or in the role when they appear in your search. Their info is valuable as well (maybe more so if their subsequent job is on your desired career path as well).

So the obvious thing to look at is the past companies and education of these people, prior to them working at the company you are interested in. When you do this, don't necessarily take those things at face value. If you see a lot of people who worked at large companies, or who graduated from top-ranked schools, instead of saying "well, they only seem to hire people with this particular background", think about what this suggests about what skills and qualities they value. They might just be looking for people who have worked on large-scale software deployments or who are intellectually rigorous and both of those can be achieved with or without working at a massive company or going to an Ivy. So when you start to notice patterns, dig deeper and ask yourself what is meaningful and actionable.

Some of the patterns to look for are related to previous employers like industry and size of company. Also, look at peoples' career progression - did they start in another industry or functional area and could that experience be valuable in the role you are focused on? Also, look at how these people talk about their skills. Are they highlighting specific competencies in their summary, position descriptions or skills tags? Chances are the ones they chose to highlight are the ones they have been recognized for at work.

Once you have done this, you should have a pretty good idea of the hiring profile for the position and can compare your background. Don't get discouraged if the people who hold the position don't look like you "on paper". I'm reminded of a frequent conversation I would have with hiring managers back when I was recruiting for marketing folks. Many of them would include an MBA on their list of requirements for their open position. So when I met with them I would say "I just want to make sure we are on the same page. If I find a candidate who is doing this same job at our biggest competitor but doesn't have an MBA, you don't want to talk to them, right?" Every single time (every.single.time.), this made the hiring manager think differently about what skills are required and what are preferred or nice-to-have. And if they brought you in for the interview the first time, they are open to people with your background.

So for you, I would just recommend focusing on how to get the skills and experience for the job (or deepening your existing experience) and don't assume that the company requires a certain "pedigree". For every position I ever recruited for, I could name an experience outlier - someone who was really awesome at their job but whose background was different from their peers. The goal with this exercise is to understand the underlying skills and competencies that will help you get the job.

I hope as you are completing this process, you are starting to see clear areas for you to focus on, not only for your future interview performance but for your own career growth.

The next post will be on evaluating some of the less tangible factors that come into play, like values.

[Blog series] So you didn’t get the job: understanding what you were actually interviewed for

QuestionAs part of the “So you didn’t get the job” interview series, I’m reviewing some of the things you can do after an interview to understand why things didn’t go as you had hoped. Being declined for a job you really wanted is not fun. But it’s an opportunity to learn where you might continue to build skills so that the interview outcome is better the next time you interview. Otherwise, you could be repeating the same mistakes or failing to build the critical skills required for your ideal job. We’ve already talked about how to ask the recruiter for feedback and evaluate any cues you were given in the interview. Now, we will focus on understanding what each of your interviewers was assessing for.

This step is another one you want to do while the interview is fresh in your mind. The first step is to write down as many of the questions you were asked in the interview as you can remember. Keep in mind that, especially at larger companies more experienced at hiring, they assign areas for each interviewer to probe on. So maybe track the questions you were asked by interviewer. For each question, jot down a few thoughts on what skills or competencies the interviewer might have been assessing for.

Once you have done this, you probably have a good idea of what each person was trying to assess for, so you might also cross reference the cues your interviewer provided to understand themes, like maybe that things started to go sideways whenever you were answering a question about projects with multiple stakeholders, or that you nailed the strategy case questions but when you had to explain how to operationalize your plan, you struggled. This will help you potentially uncover areas of development. It might also be a good idea to review the job description and document not only the competencies it explicitly lists as requirements but those that you can assume by the nature of the job itself. Likely, these will align with the competency areas you identified when listing the questions you were asked.

Now think through how you responded to the questions and consider whether you gave the interviewer what they were looking for with your answers; did you demonstrate the skills that each questions was designed to address? With some thought, you will almost certainly identify some questions that you could have answered better. It's always easier to do this kind of forensic review in the comfort of your home when the pressure is off. If you are anything like me, you play the "Why Did I Say That? Game" when you are trying to fall asleep at night anyway.  So perhaps you can just consider this the "Why Did I say That? Game - Interview Edition".

As I mentioned, this step works best when the interviews are still fresh in your mind. So even before you know the outcome of the interview, you might want to jot down notes on what you were asked. The bonus is, if you get the job, you will have a good understanding of what your new team will expect of you.