AWS Cloud Enterprise Strategy Blog

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” — Peter Drucker

I was recently involved in a discussion with a group of CTOs around the concept of 10x developers. This concept suggests that a rockstar developer is an order of magnitude more productive than an average developer. I’ve worked with thousands of developers in my career, and, while I agree that the very few rockstar developers I’ve had the opportunity to build software with produce an extraordinary amount of product quickly, they are also very rare. In addition, even though I hate to admit it, they are sometimes quite difficult to work with.

As this conversation progressed, Daniel Seltzer, one of the most profound technology executives I know, and someone who has taught me a great deal over the last several years, laid out one of the wisest series of thoughts regarding culture I have ever heard, effectively suggesting that a 10x developer strategy is far inferior to a high-multiple culture

“It would be great to have all 10x folks and just fly forever. But the truth is we have a range of people available to us, and many of them are capable of doing solid good work as long as they are given the right environment and guidance in which to do it.”

Wow, I thought. Rockstar developers are great, but it’s really hard to build a modern-day enterprise that requires dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of developers and have ALL of them be rockstars. Then Daniel went on —

“My gut tells me that a 10x contributor’s benefits are more than wiped out by .1x culture and leadership. Whereas a 10x culture applies to all of the folks, even if it just gets the full 1x+ out of them.”

I couldn’t agree with Daniel more. During my career, I’ve had the opportunity to build new teams and products, optimize existing teams and products, lead all-out business transformations, and evangelize how technology can be applied to do so. I’ve had a few modest successes and learned from countless mistakes. And, after all this experience, I’ve come to believe that most of these successes or failures can largely be attributed to how well the culture supported (or worked against) a desired outcome, or how well the culture could be shaped to support that outcome.

I spent my first seven years at Bloomberg building and optimizing a growing number of financial products inside a culture that is highly optimized for delivering data and analytics to financial services customers as fast as possible. I also had the opportunity to learn about the importance of product and domain expertise in addition to technology expertise, ownership, accountability, leadership, collaboration, and how GSD (Get Stuff Done) should always prevail over bureaucracy. And I continue to be impressed by how high-multiple the culture at Bloomberg is when it comes to the company’s core product offering.

During my last four years at Bloomberg, the organization made several investments in new businesses in an effort to diversify its revenue streams. I was part of that effort, both as the CTO and co-founder of Bloomberg Sports, and later as the head of a new “Web Shared Services” unit we stood up to drive efficiencies throughout these web-based businesses. We did make some strides toward implementing new technologies and paradigms for working. But there were also a number of times that these approaches were met with a “we don’t do that here” response that sometimes made it difficult to move the needle. In retrospect, I see that this friction was healthy, and believe that it makes good business sense for companies to focus on what they do well. It’s also clear to me, with the benefit of hindsight, that these hard-fought yards were as much about cultural evolution as anything else.

When I went to Dow Jones, I had the opportunity to completely re-shape the IT culture for one of the world’s most innovative and trusted brands. All of the changes we introduced — DevOps, talent in-sourcing, college recruiting, and cloud, to name just a few — were made in an effort to bring products to market quickly while creating a great place for builders to work. There were times, depending on the audience, that we communicated these changes through an “IT strategy,” but our real objective was to institutionalize these customs and beliefs across a large group of people — both in and out of my department — as we worked toward a common goal. Again, these were really hard-fought yards, with most of the friction coming from within my own team, but it was some of the most rewarding, relationship-building, and fun work I’ve ever done.

Now, at Amazon, I’ve had the opportunity to soak up another unique culture, which is codified in the Amazon Leadership Principles. These “LPs,” as they are commonly referred to by Amazonians, guide decision-making at Amazon, and are often thought of as the contract by which Amazonians work with one another. I believe that they’ve helped Amazon pioneer a number of diverse businesses in order to “get big fast.”

In addition, my role at AWS affords me the opportunity to speak to hundreds of executives from the world’s largest organizations in order to help them transform their people, process, and technology using the cloud. These conversations often start with questions around “Digital Transformation” (a phrase I don’t really care for, as I’ll explain later in this series), or what the future of enterprise IT will be, or how to build a better place to work, or how to be more customer-centric, but they almost always boil down to the pursuit of a culture that allows for innovation at scale.

I believe (and most of the executives I speak with agree) that as every large organization continues to contemplate the role technology will play in its future, the organization’s leaders need to be thinking about memorializing — culturally, not just strategically — customer-centric product development, modern technology, and continuous improvement into their operating model.

Your organization may not consider itself a technology company today, but the disruptors in your industry do, and it’s only a matter of time before these disruptors find a way to improve what you do.

To complete Daniel’s thought:

“I have seen so many mistakes, bad judgment, poor purchases, ethical lapses, emotional immaturity and a catalog of the causes of failure in organized efforts and “tech” investments. The smaller number of successes I can point to seem to stem more from wise leadership and careful decision-making within a strong culture that elicits the best from all who participate … That’s the X that I’m after.”

This post introduces a new series that will build upon the best practices and stages of adoption I’ve written about. I’ll elaborate on the personal experiences I touched upon above, ask others to talk about their own, highlight what we’ve learned from talking to executives who are driving toward a high-multiple culture, and, hopefully, say something that you’ll find useful as you lead your organization.

Finally, nothing would be more useful than hearing from those of you with additional experiences. If you’ve got a strong culture story to tell — good or bad — please let me know, and let’s talk about posting it here!

Keep building,
Stephen
@stephenorban
orbans@amazon.com

Note: “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” is my latest series of posts. It follows the Journey to Cloud-First series and An E-Book of Cloud Best Practices for Your Enterprise. Stay tuned for more posts in this series.