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