What I Learned in One Year at AWS

The peculiar culture I came to love and how it powers innovation

I wonder sometimes where the time goes. It was the third week of May and I was heads down on arranging some startup talks, when someone casually said on a call, “Congrats on your anniversary!”

I was confused. What anniversary? Did he mean me? Then it dawned on me, he was referring to my Amazonian anniversary. The day before had marked one year when I started at AWS!

I never expected that I would work in a massive company again. I loved the startup life. One year later though, I find myself even more convinced of the decision I made to come on board.

The biggest question I had going in was about the culture. The word “peculiar” kept coming up in searches and conversations. It seemed that quite a few people never made it a year before bolting out the doors. The adherence to “Leadership Principles” seemed cult like.

With a year under my belt though, I can safely say I have navigated successfully through the vast jungle that is AWS. I can safely say that I made the right decision coming to AWS despite the challenges of a role that had to change dramatically due to the pandemic.

It can be daunting to find your place with the vast organization. What helped guide me was to understand and appreciate what makes AWS tick. In the process of finding my way, I learned a few things about AWS that may help you, whether you are a customer, partner, job seeker, or someone interested in a culture that has driven so much innovation at scale.

The Peculiar Culture

I am not sure peculiar is the word I would use for the Amazon culture. That is how Amazonians refer to the culture. What is actually peculiar though is the fact that Amazon is a company that manages to live by its values in everything they do.

Most organizations I have worked at have “values”, a “mission”, and some well-meaning words plastered onto a few walls that are meant to inspire. However no one reads them or even knows they exist. It is because they are simply words without action to back them up and make them reality.

The Leadership Principles at Amazon are very much real. They are part of the tenets of each team. They are the basis of hiring, reviews, and promotions. They are referred to in the docs and cited during meetings. Products are built based on them. You cannot escape the principles.

Culture is not the words that are written and displayed on a plaque. Culture is lived experience and how people relate to each other, whether fellow employees, customers, or partners. The success of Amazon and the very existence of AWS are a testament to the strength of the principles, that have held together a vast and continually growing organization for over 25 years.

Hiring is the Foundation

The reason the culture has been so strong at AWS comes down to the care taken in the hiring process. I have rarely seen the type of rigor and precision used in hiring as I have at AWS, and it is because their principles are the foundation for how they hire.

It is not easy to get hired into AWS. Part of that could be the fact that AWS is a really desirable place to work for many. There are whole groups out there focused on helping people get into FAANG (an acronym for Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google).

Given the scale and size by which AWS operates however, it is more than just the sheer numbers of applicants. The few people that I recommended for roles since I first joined never got far along into the rigorous hiring process. It is because the bar is set so high at the outset.

Jeff Bezos once said, “I’d rather interview 50 people and not hire anyone than hire the wrong person.” How this plays out in hiring is that every additional person they bring onto the team needs to raise the level of performance of that team by some dimension.

Having been hired as well as having been involved in a hiring “Loop” since joining, I can attest to the effort and care put into hiring. Each candidate is interviewed by five employees on two or three Leadership Principles, then the interviewers discuss their feedback. This process is also monitored by a Bar Raiser, an Amazonian trained to quality control hiring, thus ensuring each candidate is fairly evaluated.

When values are intertwined into and drive the hiring process, you build a culture to thrive for the long-term. Without the rigor applied to hiring, it is certain that AWS would not be nearly as successful as they  have been for this long.

Being Decision-Driven to Become Data-Driven

The hiring process is one example of the obsession Amazon has with data. Amazon is a famously data-driven culture. Every internal discussion about how to proceed ultimately rests not on opinions or the loudest voice in the room, but on the data.

The thing that I observed however over the past year is that data is not all that matters. Bezos was quoted once, saying:

“You collect as much data as you can, you immerse yourself in that data but then you make the decision with your heart.”

A common Amazonian saying you might here is “one-way” vs. “two-way” doors. Two-way doors are decisions that can be reversed whereas one-way doors are not so easily reversed. The reality is most decisions are reversible. This means that you are better off making the call even when you do not have all the data to support a decision.

Making fast decisions allows for faster innovation and faster course correcting. Another Bezos saying is, “If you double the number of experiments you do per year, you’re going to double your inventiveness.” By being decision-driven, the experiments lead to gathering the data that allow you to be data-driven.

To Reinvent, Learn, and Prosper

No one grows roots at Amazon. Rarely have I met anyone that has stayed in a role for longer than a couple of years. Some of that is growth and the opportunities to move around. The other reason though is that AWS allows people to create their own adventure.

Being able to “reinvent” yourself is an important career trait. It means you are continuously learning and growing in your skills and competence. This is something built into the way AWS structures promotions, which must show accomplishment in the existing role and evidence of achievement in the role at the next rung of promotion.  

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Having a growth mindset is absolutely required to be successful at AWS that goes even deeper than the promotion process. The Leadership Principles of “Invent and Simplify” and “Learn and Be Curious” come to mind as I have grown into my role at AWS. This is what led me to launch the AWS Startups show on Clubhouse when meeting founders and hosting events in person was not possible. Taking the leap to launch a new and ambitious program is not easy, but it is possible because Amazon’s culture fosters initiative and taking chances.

Writing is the Way

Ex-Amazonians will chuckle at the mention of “6 pagers”, “narratives”, and “doc reads”. Much has been said of the writing culture at Amazon because writing is how anything gets started here. While experiments are encouraged and bias for action is applauded, for any program or service to gain support, it has to be written up in a narrative.

A narrative is either a two or six page document that describes your proposal. When the narrative is ready, the relevant people are assembled for a meeting where the first 20 to 30 minutes is spent silently reading the doc. Then the narrative is discussed in detail. Yes, we really do this and it took me awhile to get used to this process.

Narratives are quite dense from an information perspective. It reads like a wall of words, all in small font without pictures, tables, or other extraneous fluff. Phrases are carefully chosen to remove “weasel words” and conclusions not supported by data. The process of drafting and refining the narrative is an all-consuming process.

With writing comes clarity of thought. In an interview, Bezos shared, ‘There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” My own journey with writing, starting with my previous blog Strong Opinions, was a process of clarifying my thinking of how to build and scale startups.

Narratives provide the level of precision and depth that slides with bullet points could never convey. And there is a power to narratives at AWS. Every service and program that was launched and thrived long-term started from a narrative. While it may seem daunted at the beginning, there is a ton of support and resources provided internally to level up one’s writing, and some ex-Amazonians have even shared the narrative-writing structure and experience for others to learn and incorporate.

There truly is something uniquely special about AWS, a place I could not have imagined myself at back in January 2020. In the year since joining however, I have come to appreciate how deep the culture runs and how that culture can align an organization as far-flung as AWS. Not all of what I shared may resonate with you, but there are elements that I hope give you some ideas in how to shape the culture in your team and organization.

Ultimately, the opportunity to have impact and achieve success rests in power of culture aligned to purpose.

Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEVBIZOPS

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I am excited to share a podcast I did with my friend Jeremy Au at Monk’s Hill Ventures on his BRAVE Southeast Asia Tech show. I share some thoughts on the “Age of Community”, what makes Stack Overflow tick, and the importance of moderation. Please give a listen and let me know your thoughts!

Speaking of Stack Overflow, they announced that they sold to Prosus for $1.8 billion last week. This was certainly expected ever since Joel Spolsky stepped down as CEO in 2019 to bring in a new CEO to guide the company. Still it was stunning news and I am glad they the found a home to ensure their long-term existence. I personally thought they would sell to Microsoft, but it was increasingly clear that GitHub would be where they focused their efforts for development platform and experience.

The AWS Startups Clubhouse show is still going strong, with a shows running in EMEA, APAC, and the Americas! We are featuring underrepresented startup founders this month, and also have some great conversations lined up, included a show on Cloud Native Development Stacks today at 6 PM EDT (US time) that I hope you can join me for.

Thanks as always for reading and if there are stories you want to hear about or topics that you wish to share, just reply to this email or ping me on LinkedIn!


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