Leaving Las Vegas

Tony Hsieh and what his legacy says about building great companies

If you need to take your mind off of 2020, watch the movie Leaving Las Vegas. This movie from 1995 features Nicolas Cage in his last (and perhaps only) outstanding performance.  After watching his character progressively drink himself to death, I can assure you 2020 will not seem so depressing.

Las Vegas has been on my mind for another reason of late. Tony Hsieh, founder of LinkExchange and Zappos and all-around good human, passed away over the weekend from injures sustained in a house fire. He was 46 years old.

Over a decade ago, a friend of mine suggested a book called Delivering Happiness authored by Tony. I do not remember the context as to why. This was after my failed startup, so I was not inclined to read about someone else’s startup story. I did read it though and it led me to think deeply about what I really wanted in life and what I wanted to achieve professionally.

I do not have any personal stories about Tony Hsieh and never met him in person. However, I did feel a connection in spirit over his ideas about having purpose, the desire to learn, and the importance of culture.

“What’s the best way to build a brand for the long term? In a word: culture.”

In the eyes of the world, Tony’s success started with LinkExchange. Selling his first company for $265 million to Microsoft and cashing out would be a considerable win in anyone’s book. Tony however only saw it as a learning process. The real success was in the culture he created at Zappos and the community he launched to rebuild downtown Las Vegas.

My failure was what was needed to rethink the assumptions I held about success. My thinking moved from short-term wins to building something of value for the long-term. I had become shy about taking big risks, but that is exactly the type of thinking that is needed to grow and learn and improve. It does not have to happen all at once, but can be the small ways we challenge ourselves every day:

“What is the 1% improvement I can change to make myself better personally and professionally.”

Core to challenging and improving oneself is finding a higher purpose. It is what nudges us along when we do not have the strength, focus, or energy to carry on. Purpose is also closely tied to our internal “why”. For Zappos, technically they are an online shoe retailer. What inspires the company and the culture however is a desire to deliver WOW experiences to customers. Tony wanted to make people happy, and selling shoes was merely the vehicle to delivering happiness.

The other reason Las Vegas is on my mind is AWS re:Invent is this week. In fact, it is happening for the next three weeks and then again for another two weeks in January. Normally re:Invent would be a week long celebration of all things cloud with new product launches, workshops, partner events, parties, and networking with over 60,000 attendees. In normal years, I would be in Vegas.

This is my first year at AWS and my first re:Invent. I am not in Las Vegas though because like all events this year, we have gone fully online. While I do miss out meeting my colleagues and customers, there is one benefit of a virtual re:Invent. I can watch all the sessions from my couch wearing pajamas.

My journey to AWS has been a path of purpose, learning, and culture. It wasn’t always a straight path and it definitely was not clear. I was always bouncing between launching something new or joining another organization to build something there. All I was certain about was the need to build something that some people in the world would find valuable.

 There is a saying about how you spend the decades of your professional life:

“Grind in your 20s. Build in your 30s. Chill in your 40s.”

Another version someone shared with me a few years ago was that your 20’s are to develop, your 30’s are to deploy, your 40’s are to scale. He is a DevOps guy though, so I forgive him. None of these however spoke to how I saw my professional life unfolding.

A career is really a continuous cycle of testing, building, scaling, and trying again. Particularly in any field with such a rapid pace of change as technology, this is the only way to stay relevant. Even listening to Andy Jassy’s re:Invent keynote, trying to keep up with the announcements on instances, storage, databases, containers, serverless, machine learning, and IoT was near impossible, though I did my best to live tweet Andy’s two hour plus talk.

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What makes this stunning pace of innovation in the cloud possible is the culture. Calling the conference re:Invent is not just a play on words. It is the outcome of a culture that prioritizes learning and curiosity, inventing and simplifying, insisting on the highest standards, taking action, and thinking big. As one manager shared with me when I joined AWS, if we never set our goals high enough, how will we know what we are capable of?

With a culture that values innovation, learning is woven into the core of an organization by default. The fact that we miss goals is not an opening to blame, it is an opportunity to learn. Weaving data into how we gauge learning enables us to either course correct or double down on decisions in a structured way.

Culture and learning are not enough though. You can have a set of core values. You can say learning matters. In many organizations though, values equate to empty words on posters and learning is merely a budget for supplemental training classes. There is no direction, just a bundle of unstructured activity.

Purpose is the foundation that establishes direction and aligns culture. At Amazon, the purpose that defines our organization is customer obsession. It is embedded into how we think and what we do. Serving the needs of customers is our North Star, and has allowed AWS to continue to accelerate its growth every year of a division that is now over $10 billion per quarter run rate.

What set Tony on his journey, changed my professional path, and led to companies that exhibit epic growth all points to purpose. In his book “Good to Great”, Jim Collins says that it is impossible to have a great life if it is not meaningful. Purpose gives us that meaning, which leads to meaningful work. When you have an entire company of people that feel they are doing meaningful work, you have a company that is an unstoppable force in the market.

What is your company’s and team’s higher purpose? How is your organization’s culture aiding or impeding the growth and success of your team?

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Community Update

This week is all about AWS re:Invent, and I will have more to share in next week’s newsletter. For now, I have a talk that I am really excited for next week and a few more talks that I will do before closing out 2020. If you have a big announcement, please do share and I will include in the newsletter.

YOW! Conference - Launching an Internal Developer Community - Monday, December 7 at 8:20 PM EST - overall this is one of my favorite developer conferences with many excellent speakers that I am honored to be included in, where I will talk about launching and scaling thriving internal developer communities.


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