Amazon Web Services – Two Years In

Today marks my second anniversary as an AWS employee. Time flies and I’m still having a lot of fun.

After I sold the company I founded in 2019 and parted ways two years later, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I’ve often joked that I enjoy working in open source and in network monitoring so much that I would do it for free, so I still wanted to keep working (although probably not so much with the “free” part). When my friend Spot Callaway told me about an open source opportunity at AWS, I was intrigued. After meeting the amazing people I would be working with, I was eager to survive the AWS interview process (called “The Loop“) and join the team.

I wasn’t sure I would be comfortable at a company with roughly 100,000 times the employees of my small venture, but I find that I really enjoy how AWS is structured. There is a philosophy that teams at Amazon should never be bigger than one that can be fed with two pizzas (“two pizza” teams) and so you feel a lot of autonomy. There is also this idea of “two-way” vs. “one-way” doors. Decisions that can be reversed, i.e. “two-way doors”, can be made quickly and at a lower level, whereas decisions that can’t be reversed require more thought and a higher level approval. The team I’m on, the Open Source Strategy and Marketing team (OSSM “awesome”) is amazing, and the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing imposter syndrome has been working with this group of incredible people (and remember kiddos, it’s not imposter syndrome if you are an actual imposter).

Recently, Michael Coté posted a link on Mastodon to an article written back in 2018 by Luke Kanies on “Why We Hate Working for Big Companies“. Outside of Amazon I’ve only worked for one big company, and that was Northern Telecom. A lot of what he writes about really reflected on my experience at NORTEL, but not so much my experience at AWS. Even though AWS has a hierarchical management structure, in practice it seems very flat to me. I’ve always felt that I have access to my skip-level VP, and Amazon has a culture of escalation so that issues can be resolved quickly. I personally have a lot of autonomy to decide how to best implement our team and corporate goals, and I don’t feel that there is some sort of “central planning organization” dictating what I do.

The late, great Anthony Bourdain once talked about the reason he is did his television show was for the access. He simply didn’t have an easier way to get the experiences he wanted outside of it. I like that, in my role at AWS, I get to work with the organizations that in many ways form the heart of modern open source software, such as the Apache Software Foundation and the Linux Foundation. I get to step up my open source game and grow as a person.

But the main reason I like my job is that I get to work with some amazing customers. I like to think that AWS is the best place for companies, especially startups, to run their cloud workloads, and while that may not be true for everyone it is my goal to help make it true. Prior to our acquisition we were an AWS shop and that was mainly because AWS made it easy for us to get started with using the cloud. I literally get paid to meet with these companies that in many cases are defining their market with innovative products and to help them be successful.

It’s a lot of fun.

These days, especially in technology, nothing is certain, but my plan is to keep working at AWS until I retire at age 65. My hope is that I’ll continue in my current role but there are so many opportunities at AWS that I can explore new things as well. My friend William Hurley has gotten me interested in quantum computing, and Amazon is doing some foundational work in that field with Amazon Braket. I’m still skeptical about the hype around Generative AI but the tools I get to play with at AWS have been more powerful than the other things I’ve tried.

For example, I have a group of friends who get together once a week for lunch. One of them meant to write that this week it was at “my abode” but somehow that got autocorrected to “mime abides”. The image that popped into my head was of Jeff Bridges in his role in “The Big Lebowsky” but dressed as a mime. I wanted to create that picture so I tried it on a couple of GenAI image services and they came up short. I decided to try it on AWS and not only did I get an image I could use, I could send my prompt to a number of different models with just one click and choose the best one.

Yeah – it’s definitely not perfect and I am no “prompt engineer” but to be able to create this quickly and easily served my purpose to make my joke.

When I am asked in interviews what is your biggest weakness, my answer is that I can’t handle a job that requires a lot of rote and repetitive work. I thrive in constantly changing environments, and I am grateful that my job at AWS is such a match for my temperament, and many thanks to my teammates for creating such a great environment in which to grow.

Posted in AWS

Remaining 2022 Conferences

Today marks my three month anniversary with AWS, and I’m loving it. It has been a lot of fun returning to conferences, so I thought I’d post a list of the ones I will be attending for the rest of the year.

If you are going to any of these as well, please reach out as I miss seeing people in person and would love to catch up (or, get acquainted).

Why You Should Attend SCaLE 19x

The 19th iteration of the Southern California Linux Expo (SCaLE) is around two weeks away, and I wanted to suggest some reasons why you should attend, assuming you are into free and open source software. AWS, where I work, is a platinum sponsor. The conference runs for four days starting on July 28th and is located at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton.

Note: Everything expressed here represents my own thoughts and opinions and I am not speaking for my employer Amazon Web Services.

I’ve been to a number of SCaLE conferences and I’m always impressed at how well they are run. This is a grass-roots, volunteer-led conference yet it is always at par with the more commercial trade shows I attend and sometimes exceeds them. This year looks exceptionally good.

The first reason you should go is the content. The conference has quite a number of tracks including one focused on containers and orchestration (‘natch) and also infrastructure, security and observability. There are tracks on using open source in the medical field as well as government. Big Data gets its own track as well as embedded systems, and there are several more tracks guaranteed to touch on almost every interest within free and open source software.

The conference spans four days, with the first two days focused more on workshops. Co-located with SCaLE is a two day, two track technical conference focused on PostgreSQL, and on Friday is the tenth DevOps Day LA. AWS is hosting a half-day workshop focused on Cloud Native builders with presentations on Kubernetes, InfluxDB and Apache Cassandra.

The second reason you should go is networking, or what is often called the “hallway track”.

For the last several years I’ve worked remote (i.e. not in an office outside of the home) and I will probably continue to do so for the rest of my career. Remote work has become almost a standard within technical jobs.

But I have to say I miss being able to see people face to face. When I was with OpenNMS we had this product where you could buy a year of support coupled with a week of on-site professional services and training. I used to love doing those, but even before COVID those trips became less frequent as companies adopted a distributed work force. There was really no “on-site” place to go when your team was across four time zones.

Technical conferences, such as SCaLE, provide a great opportunity to get together in person, and it can be wonderful to talk in an informal setting to people you may only know through e-mails, video calls and social media. A number of my coworkers will be at SCaLE and I am looking forward to spending some “in real life” time with them.

If you look through the list of speakers at this year’s conference, it is a “who’s who” of open source leaders and contributors, and you’ll have to the chance to meet them as well as other like-minded people. I love the fact that the organizers have built in a 30 minute cushion between talks. Not only does this avoid the rush that usually happens as one speaker finishes and another sets up, it gives people time to socialize before heading off to the next talk. Of course, it goes without saying that you should be courteous to speakers and other attendees, and SCaLE has published a Code of Conduct to formalize what that means, but also don’t let that stop you from asking tough or difficult questions of the speakers (just be nice about it). I always loved it when I was a speaker and someone asked me something I had never thought about.

The third reason you should go is the Exhibition Hall. There are a ton of sponsors who will have booths at the show (including AWS) and this is a great chance to talk with those projects you love, find new ones to love, and often there is some great swag to be had. The hall will be open on Friday through Sunday.

Finally, on Saturday night there is the famous “Game Night” reception and party. I’m excited that the original nerdcore rapper, MC Frontalot, will be performing. Frontalot combines musicianship with nerdy topics like video games, cosplay, fairy tales and technology into an incredibly entertaining show. If you are new to his work check out his YouTube channel. One of my favorite songs is “Stoop Sale” (kids especially like that one, so I guess I’m a kid at heart), and he recently had a fan take his song “Secrets from the Future” (about how all of our encrypted secrets will one day be an open book) and run the lyrics through the Midjourney AI image generator. The result is pretty amazing.

A full SCaLE pass runs $85, and I can’t think of a better value. In-person technical instruction runs $500+ a day, and even if you went to one of those on-line class sites you’re still going to pay $15-$50 a class, and here you can attend 15 or so sessions for around $5 per, and that doesn’t include all the extra stuff outside of the presentations. Even with travel it is still a deal.

I am very eager to attend and I hope to see you there, too.

Just one more note, this one on COVID. I am pretty rigorous when it comes to avoiding this disease which is one reason I haven’t traveled much in the last 2+ years. The first conference I attended since the pandemic started was the Open Source Summit in Austin, and while some people did test positive it was a small fraction of total attendees. One reason was that they had a mask requirement (except when eating or drinking) and you had to show proof of vaccination or a negative test. SCaLE has adopted a similar policy, and while this won’t mean it is impossible to get sick the evidence suggests that this will greatly limit exposure among the attendees. If you have health issues you may still want to stay home and if you come and don’t feel well use your best judgement. I will be taking along some rapid tests that I got for free from as well as frequently taking my temperature just to be sure.

AWS: Impressions So Far

When I announced that I had joined AWS, at least two of my three readers reached out with questions so I thought I’d post an update on my onboarding process and impressions so far.

One change you can expect is that when I talk about my job on this blog, I’m going to add the following disclaimer:

Note: Everything expressed here represents my own thoughts and opinions and I am not speaking for my employer Amazon Web Services.

Back when I owned the company I worked for I had more control about what I could share publicly. While I am very excited to be working for AWS and may, at some time in the future, speak on their behalf, this is not one of those times.

A number of people joked about me joining the “dark side”. My friend Talal even commented on my LinkedIn post with the complete “pitch speech” Darth Vader made to Luke Skywalker in Empire. While I got the joke I’d always had a pretty positive opinion of Amazon, gained mainly through being a retail customer.

I recently went and traced what I think to be my first interaction with Amazon back to a book purchase made in December of 1997. In the nearly 25 years I’ve been shopping there I can think of only two times that I was disappointed with their customer service (both involving returns) and numerous times when my expectations were exceeded by Amazon. For example, I once spent around $70 on two kits used to clean high performance automotive air filters. In shipment one of them leaked, and I asked if I could return it. They told me to keep both and refunded the whole $70, even after I protested that I’d be happy with half that.

It was this focus on customer service that attracted me to the possibility of working with Amazon. When I was at OpenNMS I crafted a mission statement that read “Help Customers. Have Fun. Make Money”. I thought I came up with it on my own but I may have gotten inspiration from a Dilbert cartoon, although I changed the order to put the focus on customers. I always put a high value on customer satisfaction.

I have also been a staunch, and I’ll admit, opinionated, proponent of free and open source software and nearly 20 years of those opinions are available on this blog. Despite that, AWS still wanted to talk to me, and as I went through the interview process I really warmed to the idea of working on open source at AWS.

Just before I started I received a note from the onboarding specialist with links to content related to Amazon’s “peculiar” culture. When I read the e-mail I was pretty certain they meant “particular”, as “particular” implies “specific” and “peculiar” implies “strange”. Nope, peculiar is the word they meant to use and I’m starting to understand why. They are so laser-focused on customer satisfaction that their methods can seem strange to people used to working in other companies.

As you can imagine with a company that has around 1.6 million employees, they have the onboarding process down to a science. My laptop and supporting equipment showed up before my start date, and with few problems I was able to get on the network and access Amazon resources. These last two weeks have been packed with meeting people, attending virtual classes with other new hires, and going through a lot of online training. One concept they introduce early on is the idea of “working backwards”. At Amazon, everything starts from the customer and you work backwards from there. After having this drilled into my head in one of the online courses it was funny to watch a video of Jeff Bezos during an All Hands meeting where someone asks if the “working backwards” process is optional.

Based on my previous experience with large companies I was certain of the answer: no, working backwards is not optional. Period.

But that wasn’t what he said. He said it wasn’t optional unless you can come up with something better. I know it is kind of a subtle distinction but it really resonated with me, as it drove home the fact that at Amazon no process is really written in stone. Everything is open to change if it can be improved. As I learn more about Amazon I’ve found that there are many “tenets”, or core principles, and every one of them is presented in the context that these exist until something better is discovered, and there seem to be a lot of processes in place to suggest those improvements at all levels of the company.

If there is anything that isn’t open to change, it is the goal of becoming the world’s most customer-centric company. While a lot of companies can claim to be focused on their customers without many specifics, at Amazon this is defined has having low prices, large selection and a great customer experience. Everything else is secondary.

I bring this up because it is key to understanding Amazon as a company. To get back to my area of expertise, open source, quite frequently open source involvement is measured by things such as number of commits, lines of code committed, number of projects sponsored and number of contributors. That is all well and good but seen through the lens of customer satisfaction they mean nothing, so they don’t work at Amazon. Amazon approaches open source as “how can our involvement improve the experience of our customers?”

(Again, please remember that is my personal opinion based on my short tenure at AWS and doesn’t constitute any formal policy or position)

Note that with respect to open source at AWS, “customer” can refer to both end users of software who want an easy and affordable way to leverage open source solutions as well as open source projects and companies themselves. My focus will be on the latter and I’m very eager to begin working with all of these cool organizations creating wonderful open source solutions.

This focus may not greatly increase those metrics mentioned above, but it is hoped that it will greatly increase customer satisfaction.

So, overall, I’m very happy with my decision to come to AWS. I grew up in North Carolina where the State motto is Esse Quam Videri, which is Latin for “to be rather than to seem”. My personal goal is to see AWS considered both a leader and an invaluable partner for open source companies and projects. I realize that won’t happen overnight and I welcome suggestions on how to reach that goal. In any case it looks like it is going to be a lot of fun.

Posted in AWS