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Culture

Scope, Complexity, Recency, Relevancy

QuestionSome may still refer to Amazon as an “online retailer”.  I, however, proudly think of Amazon as one of the Big 4 technology companies.  That means we build cool stuff.  The kind of stuff that only comes from ideation that knows no limits.  If we can dream it, we can figure out how to make it.  That means that we need to hire highly intelligent, driven, out of the box thinkers who create, enhance, launch, break, re-build, expand, and who go into the deep end without a life preserver. 

We are the antithesis of a micro managed environment.  Micro management suffocates creativity.  We are purposefully ambiguous – we hire strategic thinkers to figure it out.  We need the wildly creative to grow.  When you have the opportunity to interview at Amazon, remember that examples of your work history should center around scope, complexity, recency, and relevancy.  Examples from 20 years ago – unless that product had a huge impact on the market or are still in use today – should probably be left out.  Scope is a little more challenging, admittedly.  Few companies operate at our scope and scale but if you can bring examples in which you built or enhanced something meaningful, we can suss out those critical thinking skills.   Complexity is important as well – that can come in two flavors.  Perhaps you took something unnecessarily complex and simplified it.  Or maybe there was opportunity to create or enhance something that was too simple or not meaningful and you designed a process that made your business, whatever that business, more impactful. 

As you go through the Amazon interview process, or any like journey, remember to look through the lens of the person sitting across the table.  How can your depth parlay?   


Storytelling is a key interview success factor

BookPeople are always asking recruiters for career and job-finding advice.  In particular, I find that candidates often want to know how to be successful going through a challenging interview process like that of Amazon’s.  One thing many successful candidates do is they remember to tell stories and that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. 

When you are engaged with a company like ours that drives their evaluation process around company culture and Leadership Principles, you have to understand their company philosophies and why they are important.  Then think about your own career path and history – how does it relate to what they stand for?  Be thoughtful about how your own professional DNA can map to the company’s values. 

When asked, “Can you give me an example of a time when …” think back on the stories you have told about your work experiences. And for each, think about the beginning, the middle and the end.  What was the situation you encountered?  Paint the picture for me, was it a business challenge that was unexpected?  How did you navigate it, what did you learn and how did you help champion others in that process?  Give me important details – but not unnecessary verbosity – so I understand how many layers you peeled to figure out the root cause of the problem. Tell me how you persevered.  Show me your character, your grit, your moxie!  Then, tell me how the story ends.  People who are artful behavioral based interviewers often bring the story full circle by saying, “and then this is the impact it had on the business …”.   Be a story teller. 


Amazon’s Accessibility Awareness Month

OpenAmazon is known to be customer-obsessed. Part of that obsession is ensuring that we optimize our work for accessibility.

According to research from the World Bank, fifteen percent of the world’s population lives with some kind of disability – that’s one billion people. At Amazon, we look for ways to make it easier for people to engage with us, across all of our businesses. This past month has been Accessibility Awareness Month at Amazon, packed full of events to help employees learn more about accessibility, integrate good practices into their work and collaborate across organizational boundaries with the goal of improving accessibility.

A few of the many events that took place this past month include:

  • An accessibility bug hunt, where all employees were challenged to find and report accessibility bugs
  • A session reviewing research on shopping for people with vision impairment. This presentation included key take-aways from shop-along exercises plus videos and sound bytes from customers.
  • Training on accessible design best practices
  • An empathy lab where employees could learn how our web pages are experienced by customers with vision impairments, or what it feels like to navigate Amazon.com (or a particular page or feature) when you can’t grip a mouse
  • A session with Twitch on making gaming more accessible and inclusive
  • Podcasts with business leaders discussing accessible design and accessibility for Amazon employees

In-person events took place in Seattle as well as a host of other Amazon office locations including Sunnyvale, Boston and London. Most also offered livestreaming and on-demand access for our colleagues around the globe.

What’s been particularly interesting for me to see this past month is the intersection of accessibility and customer obsession. Many companies focus on accessibility because it’s the right thing to do, as they should and as does Amazon. But there is a certain diligence and structure that surrounds it when you are such a customer-obsessed company. It’s not an extra thing you do; it’s an important part of your job. And there is great interest in it internally when you hire so many people that are really passionate about doing the right thing for customers; all customers.


Amazon and our local community

Marty_John._V509611493_
Marty Hartman receives a key to Mary's Place's future home on Amazon's campus

Last spring, I shared about the work we are doing with Mary’s Place, providing housing to homeless families in a building that was previously a Travelodge. Amazon had purchased the land the building sat on and put the building to good use while plans were being made to develop the property.

As it turns out, those plans involve a permanent spot for Mary’s Place. Amazon is donating 47,000 square feet of space inside the building that will occupy the city block at 7th and Bell, in the Denny Triangle area of Seattle. Sure, it’s an unusual arrangement, to partner with an organization to provide shelter for 200 women, children and families right on our campus. There’s a lot of excitement here for this opportunity.

While construction is underway, Mary’s Place residents will be temporarily be moved to another vacant hotel across the street. The planned opening date for Amazon’s new building is in 2020. You can read more about our plans here.

There have been other plans made recently to integrate Amazon into the local community through partnerships. Back in February, we announced a partnership with Farestart, including plans to donate equipment and 25,000 square feet of space on our campus to help them launch an apprentice program.

What’s exciting to me about both of these announced opportunities is that the organizations and the people they support will be part of our campus environment, part of the same community. Having worked previously on a suburban corporate campus (beautiful soccer fields and all), I can tell you that there is a different energy when your campus is in an urban neighborhood; you are more a part of it.  Programs like these give you a connection to your community that you don’t get in other environments. It’s exciting to be a part of it.


Understanding Amazon’s flywheel

Anyone who has worked at Amazon for more than a couple weeks has heard the term “flywheel”. In fact, I suspect that many, if not most, people who interview here discuss the flywheel as part of their onsite interviews. So getting your head around Amazon’s concept of the “virtuous cycle” prior to interviews here is a good idea; I recommend researching it as part of your preparation process, not only to understand the idea of the flywheel but also to be able to articulate how your potential work at Amazon (and/or the work of the group you are interviewing with would contribute to spinning it.

The concept says a lot about how Amazon thinks about investment opportunities and why we are growing so quickly. Along with the Leadership Principles, I think it makes very clear how Amazon operates day-to-day. So I thought I would help explain the flywheel a little bit here to introduce the concept.

A flywheel is a system where each of the components is an accelerator. Invest in any one of the components and, as the flywheel spins, it benefits all components. And the flywheel spinning is how the system grows. Jim Collins popularized the flywheel concept in Good to Great. I’ll drop a link to his writing on flywheels at the bottom of this post.

Here’s Amazon’s flywheel:
Amazon Flywheel

I think seeing the image helps put Amazon’s customer obsession in context too. Because you can understand the different levers that ultimately lead to great experiences for customers and how all of us Amazonians are all part of it. If we do work that brings more traffic to Amazon.com, we’ll attract more sellers wanting to reach this larger number of potential customers. Attracting more sellers increases our selection, which improves the customer experience. This brings more traffic to Amazon.com. You can see how focusing attention on any of these components – traffic, sellers, selection or customer experience – distributes more energy to all of them. The whole system grows.

Then, as a result of the spinning, we are able to lower our cost structure which allows us to lower prices, also enhancing the customer experience. So the flywheel spins even faster as it grows; the growth itself is an accelerator. This is how Amazon went from a garage to the company you know today in a relatively short period of time.

Here are some links to additional content that will help you learn more about flywheels in general and how the concept applies to Amazon’s business in particular.

Inc. Magazine does a good job of explaining the flywheel concept

Steve Rosenbaum on how Jeff Bezos leads from behind

Jim Collins’ articles on the flywheel


What does Day 2 look like?

SpiritYou hear people talk about “Day 1” a lot at Amazon.  The uninitiated observer (or eavesdropper) might think people are talking about their first day at work. They aren’t. “It’s always Day 1” is shorthand here for “keep innovating”.  It means a lot more than that too.

The idea behind Day 1 at Amazon is that you treat your work as if it’s always Day 1; your first day doing it.  Think back to some of the Day 1s in your life… first day of school, first date in an exciting new relationship, first day of that job where you are finally working on something that you are passionate about, not just something you do to pay the bills. On Day 1, you are energized and possibilities are endless. What would happen if you could stay in that headspace? With that level of engagement, excitement and creativity?

On Day 2, people start to identify limitations, focus shifts from creativity to implementation. You start to lose some of your Day 1 zeal.

At our most recent employee all-hands meeting, someone asked Jeff Bezos what Day 2 looks like during the Q&A session at the end. His response: “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

Fast-forward about a month and Jeff’s 2016 shareholders letter, released today, is all about Day 1 and what you can do to avoid that Day 2 state of mind. His list includes obsessing over customers, ensuring processes are aligned with missions and vision, adopting external trends with a sense of eagerness, and making decisions swiftly.

His shareholders letters are always a good read – kind of like a modern entrepreneurship primer – but this one in particular reveals a lot about our culture here and why it’s exciting to work someplace where there’s always a sense of opportunity and energy.

4/19/17 edit: the video of the Q&A session was published today. Added below.


 


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.


Amazon is Fast Company’s Most Innovative Company of 2017

FailureYou may have seen that Fast Company named Amazon its most innovative company of 2017. Even having a front-row seat to so many of the cool things Amazon is creating, I forget about how many different ways Amazon is changing how people shop and live. The Fast Company article “Why Amazon is the World’s Most Innovative Company of 2017” kind of puts it into perspective.

I think about the word “innovative” quite a bit as a word nerd who spends her time talking and writing about working at Amazon. The word gets used a lot, let’s be honest. Obviously, other companies innovate; and I am a happy customer of some of the other companies on the FC 2017 list. But there are some cultural elements that are pretty unique to Amazon that I think make this a particularly great place to innovate, so I thought I would share some of those.

Innovation is Inherently Part of Everyone’s Job Here.

You probably already know that Amazon is obsessed with customers. I mean, customer obsession is literally Leadership Principle #1 here. So everything we do collectively and individually is viewed through the lens of customer benefit. We are always looking to address what Jeff has referred to as the “divine discontent of the customer.” It literally guides what we do.

If you think about all of the different ways that Amazon touches customers, you see that the opportunities to improve their experience are endless. We can find new technologies to better meet customer need or help us do it more efficiently, we can delight them in ways that are sometimes unexpected. All of that is innovation. And that’s not just because technology plays a central role in how we delight customers. It’s because we are always building. Everyone here can build.

I think people use the words innovation and invention distinctly. Most people associate invention with making something tangible and for the very first time. But that narrow definition of invention is different than the often- iterative process we think of as innovation. We do both at Amazon, of course, but if we use Amazon Prime as an example, you can see how innovation can continue, long after the invention. Initially conceived to offer customers faster shipping options (at a lower overall price), Prime members now have access to free books and some of the best TV programming and movies available.  And the features for members keep coming. Employees in that organization are still building, and they always will be.

I’ve seen and heard a number of promotion and award announcement here and they almost always include the word “built”.

Failure is Expected and Not Hidden

I’ve seen companies pay lip-service to the notion that failure is expected, but before Amazon, I had never seen failures shared so openly and used as an asset.  Sure, all innovative companies want employees (or at least some employees) to take risks because that is where the magic happens. But failures are frequently seen as career-limiting and something to hide. Here, we comfortably refer to initiatives as “experiments” because we know that failure is a possibility; it’s a sign that we are pushing hard enough to try new things.

At Amazon, employees obviously try to mitigate risk by using data. But when you are breaking new ground, some amount of risk is unavoidable. Ultimately, failures will occur. As Jeff has explained, “Given a ten percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time.” That means you should still expect to fail 90% of the time. And then turn that failure into a tool for other people to learn from.

You may know that we have a writing culture here. So you would be correct in assuming that failures are well documented. Employees here have access to massive amounts of data on what we have tried that’s failed, the impact of the failures, what was learned and how to keep it from happening again. The documentation isn’t about who gets the blame when things don’t go as hoped, it’s about what we can learn from our own failures.

Online, you can see a number of articles on how failure is regarded here (here are some). One example that I think illustrates the value of learning from previous failures is Amazon’s Marketplace business – that is the part of our business where third party sellers can offer goods for sale on our platform (versus Amazon owning the inventory itself). That path to Marketplace (which accounts for 50% of units sold on Amazon) started with Amazon Auctions. Never heard of “Amazon Auctions”? That’s because it wasn’t successful. Learnings from that failure were integrated into something called zShops, which eventually became Marketplace.

By the way, if you are interested in Amazon and haven’t read any of our shareholder’s letters, I would encourage you to. The 2015 letter speaks to our tolerance for failure and gives more insight into the origination and development of Marketplace.

Diversity of Opportunities Drives Innovation

Amazon is involved in so many sectors. Devices, retail, services, cloud computing, robotics, natural language processing, television and movies. I can’t think of another company that has as many diverse businesses under one proverbial roof.

For employees, because moving between organizations is pretty simple and Leadership Principles are the key, universal success factors at Amazon, people can build a career here moving from org to org, sector to sector and completely change job roles. That variety and ability to move keeps employees interested and engaged, but it also does something else: it moves innovation and approaches to problem solving across organizational boundaries. The people in a room making decisions about an initiative likely come from varied professional backgrounds. You don’t have to be a lifer in a specific space here. So it’s not unheard of to have a retail team that includes people who used to work in AWS and Kindle. Employees can make a move because they want a new challenge and bring their diversity of thought, based on their previous history, to a new team.  This cross-pollination brings new, great ideas to the table. And there is a certain kind of person who is energized by that.

When I talk to people about how they might determine whether a career at Amazon is a good choice for them, I think about my blog interview with Brad Porter and what he told me about finding people who get bored working on the same problems. Amazon is a great place for people who have, at times in their career, found they are dissatisfied when they aren’t actively learning and building things. Because the opportunities to innovate here are abundant.

To read more about Amazon’s knack for experimentation, you can read this article from Sunday’s New York Times: “Amazon’s Living Lab: Reimagining Retail on Seattle Streets”


At Amazon, you can innovate faster than you’ve ever innovated before

The pace of our work at Amazon is fast. When it comes to innovating, we focus on getting our work into the hands of consumers as quickly as possible. This gives us the opportunity to learn from our customers and improve upon what we’ve built. We never stop looking for ways to make the experience we deliver to customers better. It’s part of our DNA.

Because of the quick pace of innovation here, it sometimes feels like, as a company, we’ve packed several years’ worth of launches, awards and innovations into one year.

Last year was no exception. Here is a sampling of some of the exciting things we produced last year.

 

 

One of my favorite fast innovation stories is about Prime Now, which took 111 days from idea to launch. Amazon Prime is probably the best example I can think of when it comes to our commitment to ongoing innovation on behalf of customers. The list of benefits that come with a Prime membership keeps growing (Lifehacker has a good list here they seem to be keeping updated).

What this means for employees here is fresh, new problems to solve. And ambitious goals (like enabling one-hour delivery).