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Why I returned to Amazon

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Disclaimer: The opinions here are mine and mine alone. I do not speak for Amazon.

I started working at Amazon as a Principal Engineer on September 6, 2016. During that time, I worked in Amazon groceries, including Fresh, Prime Now, and Whole Foods; and later in Amazon Fashion. I loved it and had no plans to leave.

But in late 2021, I got an email from a recruiter for a role at Zwift. That really piqued my interest. After lots of deliberation, I decided. I left Amazon and started at Zwift on November 29, 2021. I worked there for just about six months, then realized, for personal reasons, that it wasn’t a good long-term fit for me. I resigned and then rejoined Amazon on June 8, 2022. Now I’m working on the Operations and Robotics team, learning lots in a super ambiguous space, and loving it.

Before going back to Amazon I considered other options in big tech. I even began interviewing at non-Amazon places. But ultimately, Amazon felt like the right choice to me for many reasons.

Culture was the single biggest reason I chose Amazon over others. Amazon has a culture I already understand, I trust, and ultimately find precious. I have a good idea how to succeed at Amazon, and that familiarity felt comfortable and enticing. To a lesser degree, the stability of the company pulled me in. Amazon is well diversified and should be able to weather just about any economic uncertainty in the coming years. As I get deeper into my grey years, stability is important to me. Finally, the growth opportunities in front of me sealed the deal. I could probably grow in lots of different roles. But I feel like the talented people I’m surrounded with at Amazon, and even the opportunity to work directly with people I consider industry luminaries, is a gift I have to take advantage of.

Reason one: Culture

Many know the Amazon founders built the company around its famous leadership principles. What’s hard to explain is just how much we operate around these principles daily. As an example, I’ll share something I experienced during my first interview and start with Amazon in 2016.

While interviewing for a PE role, I went through a multitude of calls before getting to my onsite loop. In each call, I noticed my interviewer emphasized the importance of these leadership principles. I realized I needed to take them seriously as part of my interview prep, and I did. Despite that, I figured they were like the sort of company values things I’d experienced at every other place I’d worked – something that looks nice in a bit of PR, but which is ignored by 99% of the employees 100% of the time. Or something that is updated pseudo-collaboratively once a year at the annual offsite and then promptly forgotten.

Fast forward a bit. I got hired and anxiously showed up for my first day. To my surprise, people were quoting the leadership principles, or LPs for short, in everyday conversations. They’re using them to drive the right actions and make important decisions. Most importantly, they’re holding each other accountable in terms of individual and team performance based exactly on one thing - the LPs. I was astonished. These things were real. It’s hard to explain to outsiders, but it’s true – its leadership principles truly defined Amazon’s company culture.

A few of the LPs stand out to me as most impactful, and were key in drawing me back into Amazon. I’m emphasizing the parts of each LP below which most made me want to return to Amazon.

Customer Obsession

Leaders 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.

This is our first LP, and it’s first for a reason. Nothing is more important than this. In fact, in my experience, if I’m unable to express the customer value for something I want to work on clearly, I’m going to have a really hard time convincing others it’s a smart way to spend my time. And rightfully so! If we’re not doing things to solve customer needs and continually earn their trust, then what the heck are we doing?

At Amazon, small teams of Builders connect directly to customer-facing metrics — like business metrics or customer satisfaction, or things more technical like system availability. When I see this, it leaves me more confident that we are optimizing for what customers want and need.

Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.“

At a superficial level, this seems obvious. But it’s not. It’s more nuanced than it appears, and this took me awhile to really understand.

In my first year at Amazon, my manager taught me the actual meaning and value of ownership. It’s not just about filtering out not my jobbers, who have no place in any workforce. It’s about owning everything. That seems crazy and daunting, which is why it took me some time to understand.

There’s a book which teaches this better than I ever will: Extreme Ownership. Fair warning — the book is based on military experience and is full of what some may consider too much masculinity and machismo. But, if you can get past that part, the lessons in here are grand.

Once I understood ownership like this, I noticed something interesting: the most successful Amazonians were also the strongest owners. I think it’s a huge recipe for success and I encourage anyone reading this to strive to be the best owner possible.

Are Right, A Lot

Leaders are right a lot. They have sound judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.

This one seems straightforward too, but it’s often misinterpreted. There are multiple dimensions to this. Being right, a lot, doesn’t mean you are super smart, know everything, and always have the right answers. In fact, Amazonians say that the smartest people in the world are the kind of people who change their mind a lot. That’s because they seek diverse perspectives, recognize their own limitations as a single human, and act on new information in a constructive, thoughtful way. That’s ridiculously smart behavior which I appreciate immensely and hope to model myself.

Hire and Develop the Best

Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.

It really all starts here. If you hire the best, then you’ll find they’re probably intuitively capable of embodying all the other LPs on this list. Amazon will work hard to recruit the best possible employees and compensate them well. If you want the best, you need to pay for it. But the ROI on this, while I can’t give you any magic formula, is definitely positive. I enjoy working at a company that prioritizes hiring great people and then trusts them to go do their work.

Insist on the Highest Standards

Leaders have relentlessly high standards — many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and drive their teams to deliver high quality products, services, and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

I love that nobody here ever says “it’s good enough”. Amazonians have big ideas. They set huge goals and a North Star, and then iteratively work to get there. This reach for the stars mentality is super inspiring to me.

Bias for Action

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Teams at Amazon test ideas quickly. Not in a lab - well, maybe sometimes in a lab - but in front of customers. Sometimes it doesn’t work out! But we owe our customers innovation, and a massive part of innovation is exploring uncharted territory. And to do that, you have to move quickly. Amazon is very good at deciding when something is a two-way door and moving quickly, or when something is (more rarely) a one-way door and moving deliberately. This appeals to me because it’s an optimal way to please customers consistently.

Earn Trust

Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

This is another LP that is multi-dimensional, like Are Right, A Lot. A big part of this is indeed, Leading with Empathy, treating others respectfully, and just being a kind, collaborative teammate. But a huge part of this is about being vocally self critical. At Amazon I’m surrounded by really smart people. We employ extremely accomplished people, at the top of industry and academia; and they’re all just a Slack DM away from anyone in the company.

You know what’s so amazing about this? They aren’t jerks. Yes, they’re mental giants, but you’d never know it when talking to them. Being surrounded by people way smarter than me, who are humble, and don’t for a moment think they’re better than the next person, is truly inspirational. It’s one of those things that I hope makes me a better person too.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

People debate with each other at Amazon. It’s not mean. It’s not personal. But when the team decides, everyone gets on board; even, or especially those who weren’t initially on board. I think most of us had to grow to get to this point. But when you get there, and when you work with a bunch of people there with you, it sure is fantastic.

Deliver Results

Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.

Ultimately, we get it done at Amazon. Ideas start with a customer problem, people step up to own solutions, smart but humble people iterate and learn, producing the highest quality outputs possible, they’re nice to each other along the way even when they disagree, and those ideas land in front of customers.

It’s a wonderful thing to watch and even more wonderful to be lucky enough to be a part of it.

Reason two: Stability

I seriously considered Meta and Alphabet; aka Facebook and Google. I have plenty of former colleagues, even friends, in both places. I think they’re both doing interesting things, especially in cultivating engineering-first cultures. If the right opportunity presents itself in the future, I’d absolutely consider them again. Never burn a bridge or needlessly close the door.

However, given the economic uncertainty we’re facing today, I valued the diversity of Amazon over other big tech companies. We’re most well known for online retail and AWS cloud services. But we’re also in TV and movie production, video on demand, audio on demand, live sports and creator streaming, consumer electronics, a pretty popular voice assistant, home automation and security, groceries and Whole Foods, satellite internet, physical retail stores, video gaming, aviation, drone delivery, logistics, and even pharmaceuticals and healthcare! Oh yeah, and books too; print, digital, and audio. No other company at this scale matches Amazon’s diversification.

While this wasn’t the main reason I chose Amazon, it boosts my confidence that Amazon can be a place where I can finish my career, succeeding or failing based on my effort and hard work, without worrying as much about external factors.

Reason three: Opportunity

I can learn and grow a massive amount here at Amazon. My manager, a Sr. Principal Engineer, worked on the Hubble Space Telescope flight control code. Our local Distinguished Engineer, who I’m lucky enough to get to work with, worked on the Windows NT kernel I/O system. My skip manager, a VP, is one of the friendliest leaders I’ve ever met; and yet he’s not soft. He knows when to challenge, but always does so in an empathetic manner. He’s also deeply technical. And I’m embedded on a team of Principal and Senior Principal Engineers with worlds of knowledge and experience. The tech teams around me are brilliant and productive. In summary, I am but a small ant surrounded by accomplished giants. These are smart, experienced, hardworking, customer obsessed people from whom I can learn a ton, and that’s very exciting!

Closing

I don’t know for sure because I cancelled all of my non-Amazon interviews, but there’s some chance I could’ve worked for one of those other big companies. But I decided I wanted to work for Amazon.

It’s my comfort and admiration of Amazon’s culture that most lured me back. The stability of our diversified business and opportunity to continue learning and growing from amazing colleagues are nice bonuses.

I’m thrilled to be back at Amazon and confident in my decision. Here’s to the future — I have a ton of learning and hard work ahead of me — and that sounds fun!