AWS for Industries

An Inside Look at the Amazon Culture: Experimentation, Failure, and Customer Obsession

Since joining AWS three years ago, the top questions I get by far pertain to Amazon’s culture and speed of innovation. Here are the kinds of things people want to know:

  • What’s it like working for AWS?
  • How does Amazon respond so quickly to customers’ wants, needs, and desires?
  • How can I innovate like Amazon?

Leadership Principles Guide Our Way

Amazon follows a core set of Leadership Principles (LPs) that we Amazonians aspire to every day. They are ingrained in our culture, and they guide the behaviors we value. It’s very telling that the first LP is Customer Obsessionleaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

I’ve spent more than 40 years in the retail industry, and I can tell you this customer obsession principle is real. Everything we do starts with the customer. In fact, we are unusually customer focused. You won’t see the classic product development and release process I was accustomed to in previous jobs, where we built a product to one-up our competitors, and then we taught the sales force how to sell it whether customers needed it or not. Instead of seeing product version 1, version 2, version 3, over multiple year cycles, at AWS, we have many “launches” throughout the year. Rarely does a day go by without a launch announcement, and many days, I receive six, seven, or eight launch announcements. While the majority of launch announcements are feature enhancements to existing services, we also add net new services to our collection of 200+ services.

Simply stated, what we build is directly driven by customer input. In fact, 90% of our daily launches, whether feature enhancements or completely new services, are from customer feedback. As for the other 10%, we infer from technology and industry trends and streamline points of struggle we observe in the customer journey. Think of AWS as a pioneer—we hire builders who look for ways to reinvent customer experiences to remove friction and flaws, which speaks to the Invent and Simplify LP.

We are long-term oriented, which means we want to build relationships with customers that will last longer than all of us. And we do right by customers because we’re focused on long-term relationships, not just a single transaction. As an example, our account managers are goaled to reduce customer spend, and we’ve regularly reduced our prices since AWS launched in 2006.

So, What’s It Like Working for AWS?

It’s refreshing. It’s a 180-degree difference from any company for which I’ve ever worked or observed. And, it’s rewarding. Every day we wake up, and we’re focused on solving our customers’ business challenges with a huge sense of urgency.

Now, some have said that the culture behind the customer obsession is “peculiar,” and for sure, we definitely have our own way of doing things. However, if I had to boil it down, there are three critical areas that set AWS apart from our competitors:

  1. Our DevOps organization.
  2. Pioneering work in next-generation application architectures and platforms.
  3. It’s OK to fail—in fact, we encourage it.

At AWS, and our sister business units like Amazon Consumer, our DevOps teams are built for speed. We have small, decentralized teams we call “two-pizza” teams, meaning a team can only be as large as two pizzas will feed. They are fast and agile, fostering ownership and autonomy. They own and run what they build. These teams experiment early and frequently, which is a critical element of our pioneering spirit. At Amazon, ownership and experimentation are rewarded, even when you fail. Jeff Bezos validated this point in his 2015 Letter to Shareholders when he said, “I believe we are the best place in the world to fail, and failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.”

Then, to empower these teams, you need a technology structure that supports rapid growth and change. This means rethinking the monolithic application structures that inhibit responding to customers’ wants, needs, and desires, and instead, embracing cloud technologies. It requires a shift to microservices—single-purpose, discrete services that implement specific business functions, loosely coupled through hardened APIs—and sunsetting the aging IT principle of throwing a relational data model at every business problem. It also requires self-service platforms without gatekeepers that enable builders to use the right tool for the right job.

So…

(Thousands of Teams) X (Microservices Architecture) X (Continuous Delivery) X (Multiple Environments) = Millions of Deployments a Year

This equation represents how, for example, Amazon.com, built on over 1,000 microservices supported by autonomous two-pizza teams, can be updated every second if necessary and why we are able to respond so quickly to our customers’ needs. And by following this formula, you too can innovate like Amazon.

Andy Jassy Summed It Up Best

As put by AWS CEO, Andy Jassy:

To me the most important thing by far is not to be focused on what competitive dynamics are, but to listen carefully to what your customers say matters. And then to have the ability to unleash your builders to build that for customers. And to be iterating constantly, and experimenting constantly, and evolving the customer experience. That’s the only way any of us who are building businesses right now have a chance to build a business that stands the test of time. And there is no platform that gives builders the ability to evolve their customer experience, and to experiment, and to innovate on behalf of their customers like AWS.

Want to learn more about innovating with AWS? Contact your account team to get started.

Tom Litchford

Tom Litchford

Tom Litchford leads AWS’s Retail industry strategy and guides the leadership team for marketing and sales enablement, channel development, and the solution offerings required to address customers’ business needs. Tom’s 35 years of experience in systems engineering, sales, and product management and marketing of technology business solutions for the retail and hospitality industries has included leadership positions at NCR Corporation and Microsoft. Prior to joining AWS in 2017, Tom served as Vice President of Retail Technologies at the National Retail Federation (NRF), where he oversaw the organization’s cybersecurity program, the Association for Retail Technology Standards (ARTS) programs and its technology communities, including the invite-only CIO Council, Women in Retail IT, IT Security Council and the Tech Council.