Monday, August 17, 2015

Amazon and Leadership

A great deal has been written about the work environment at Amazon. The reason for this attention is that there is something unique going on there. I was only at Amazon for 19 months, but I learned a great deal that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Before I get to my feelings about my time at Amazon, I want to set the stage a bit.

First off, I love my current job at Snowflake Computing and am very grateful for the opportunity to work with the incredible team they have put together. In fact, I feel that my experience at Amazon helped set me up for success in this role.  I am passionate about the value of data in making business decisions and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to share that passion in my daily work.

Second, I feel like I need to explain my views on the modern workforce in order to give context to my feeling about Amazon and what they are doing. In my opinion, two primary forces are pulling today’s workforce in opposite directions. What I am going to say may be politically incorrect and offend some people, but I am going to try to leave the political implications out. I feel that the current environment has a great deal to do with the way that Amazon has developed its methods for teaching leadership.

On one hand, people have never felt more entitled than today. I may be getting old, but I am amazed by what people expect to be given just for showing up to work. Very few in the American technology workforce have ever known true scarcity, and as a result there are many who lack a sense of urgency about their careers. This attitude is not entirely negative. A career is only part of the life we lead, and the surplus energy can be directed into many good endeavors. However it does create a challenge for managers who are learning to deal with employees who they find difficult to motivate or direct. Perks are often thrown at employees in the hopes of luring top talent to a company and holding on to the talented workers they have.

On the other hand, the entrepreneurial spirit has never been more prevalent. Many in the workforce are driven by an inner need to succeed and are finding innovative ways to do so. Venture capital has added tremendous fuel to the fire, funding the movement and profiting greatly from the successes. Caution has been thrown to the wind in pursuit of bigger ideas, and while their have been a significant number of failures, many positive innovations have resulted. No one could have predicted how this movement has reshaped corporate America as well as our everyday lives.

In this complex environment, Amazon has thrived by adapting and finding a way to promote passion and innovation throughout the company. Still, working at Amazon is not for everyone, as evidenced by a high turnover rate and a far from stellar ratings on services such a Glassdoor. I personally loved working at Amazon, and feel strongly that it has changed me in ways that will benefit me for years to come. Still, I struggled with a number of the issues that have caused others to leave with hard feelings for the company.

For the sake of transparency, I should add that I accepted another job after 19 months at Amazon because I was offered an amazing opportunity. I was mostly happy during my time there, but I will admit that I spoke with a number of recruiters about other positions. I believe in keeping my options open and ultimately chose to take advantage of a great opportunity when it was presented to me. Though I was only at Amazon a relatively short time, the lessons I learned will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Very few things in life push us to truly excel, to reach beyond what we think we are capable of and acheive our full potential. Excellence requires extraordinary effort to achieve and maintain, along with regular self-analysis to determine areas for improvement. One very real challenge in pushing ourselves to be our best is the struggle to accept the value of who we are today while acknowledging that we can become better. Environments that are designed to promote high achievement often become stressful when we fall short of the new standards we have set for ourselves or that others have set for us.

Many have pointed out that our work environment is most strongly impacted by those with whom we interact on a daily basis. As a result, employees of a single corporation can have vastly different experiences based on the teams within which they operate. I have had the great fortune in my career of working in some great teams. The best teams motivate one another by example, with everyone working hard together to achieve success. The true challenge for upper management in a large organization is trying to ensure that the teams they manage are creating this type of environment.

Amazon’s management principles are one way to create a consistent environment throughout a huge organization. When properly applied they create a demanding but fair environment that rewards effort and encourages innovation. This environment permeates the entire organization at Amazon, all the way up to the executives. It can empower employees by offering them a chance to make a difference in a major corporation.

Working in data, I was used to being asked to provide reports to show decision makers the numbers around their decisions. At Amazon I was asked to help make decisions by providing not just the numbers, but also my insights into the numbers. Instead of just learning how to work with the data, I was encouraged to learn the business and given the opportunity to leverage my knowledge in new and exciting ways. I rarely felt pressured, outside of the pressure I put on myself to excel. I went from being satisfied as an individual contributor to wanting to lead.

I will admit that Amazon faces a number of challenges as it pushes forward. The management principles are not always consistently applied and some teams have created openly hostile environments. While I never felt that hostility within the groups where I worked, I will admit that my experience with managers was a bit uneven. The churn of the organization resulted in me having 6 managers during my time at Amazon. This happened even though I never changed roles. Some of them were great managers who nurtured my skills and encouraged me to grow. I still look up to them and am grateful for their influence. Others were honestly too busy to help me in a meaningful way. While some were more effective than others, all were friendly and none ever belittled me or put undue pressure on me. To be honest, had I had more consistent management I likely never would have considered career opportunities outside of Amazon.

An organization growing as fast as Amazon is today is bound to have some rough spots and uneven management. I never witnessed anything cruel or demeaning in any way. I have spoken to a few employees, and a few spouses of employees, who found the grind at Amazon did not suit them. That is not unusual for a place that employs thousands of workers. I have worked in dysfunctional organizations before and my time at Amazon was nothing like that. I worked with talented and driven individuals on key projects that resulted in a number of successes. I made good friends and have many fond memories.

As a result of my time at Amazon, I feel that I have internalized the spirit of the management principles. Passion for your work is very liberating, even when it borders on obsession. I will admit that the ideas promoted within Amazon do not fit everyone. Not in a world where we enjoy great diversity. However they have helped me to become more than I previously thought I could be and opened my mind to new possibilities.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Betting Big On the Cloud

I remember the first time that someone asked me about cloud computing. I was attending a software conference in 2008, representing a BI vendor. One of the conference officials came to our booth to ask if anyone from our company would be willing to sit on a panel for a discussion about cloud computing. At the time, I had heard a few whispers about the concept of cloud computing, but I didn’t have a firm grasp of the concept or any idea of the impact it would have.

I declined the offer to sit on the panel, and instead watched from the audience. There were some interesting ideas presented in that discussion. However, as someone who frequently worked with very sensitive customer data, it seemed far-fetched that these same customers would push their data to an external location. Fast-forward 3 years and suddenly cloud computing was gaining incredible momentum. Amazon’s AWS had made it easy to spin up resources for any size of business. That year I spent a good chunk of my free time working on a startup that hosted its service in AWS and I learned a lot. Unfortunately our venture didn’t get very far, but the seed had been planted.

Shortly afterwards I joined a much larger cloud-based BI startup. There I began to really understand how the scale of the cloud was a game-changer. At the time, we had to work hard to convince most of our potential customers that the cloud was secure and that they could entrust their most valuable data to someone else. That was a crazy ride where once again I learned a great deal. When the time came to make a change, I made the jump to the cloud leader and joined While I was not in the AWS business unit, I quickly learned that the cloud was very much at the heart of how Amazon ran everything. Flexibility and scalability were essential for such a dynamic organization. I was providing BI for a key development team and their business partners and the cloud was a key resource in my daily work. I loved working at Amazon, and once again I continued to learn. One key principal for building a successful career in BI is to constantly be on the lookout for the next new technology. When I first heard about Snowflake Computing, the problems that they were trying to solve really resonated with me. A totally new data warehouse, purpose built for the cloud with a focus on scalability and performance. The website in those days was little more than a few buzzwords and the profiles of the founders. I realized that they had assembled a team capable of building something truly transformative and I decided that I needed to investigate further.

At first, my inquiries were mainly aimed at satisfying my curiosity. However the more I learned, the more I realized that I needed to seriously consider joining their team. As I mentioned earlier, I was very happy with my current role, so I took things very slowly. At each step of the process there were more questions, but the things I heard made me think that this company was something special.

After a few weeks and interviews, it came time for me to interview at the headquarters. My first interview was with Benoit Dageville and Thierry Cruanes, two of the three founders of Snowflake. I actually started the interview off in French since they are both French and I once lived in France. However as we turned to technical subjects we transitioned to English so that I could understand the details. I was blown away by what they told me about what they had built over the past two years. I was sold, and decided to make the jump.

Snowflake has built a database that truly leverages the flexibility and scalability of the cloud. By separating storage from compute in a unique way, they have enabled customers to handle their data in ways that no one could even consider previously. For example, with unlimited storage at a reasonable cost you can load raw semi-structured data into Snowflake without worrying about consuming valuable storage in a traditional database cluster. Snowflake built on that foundation and added built-in parsing to discover the schema of the semi-structured data to enable schema on read. The applications are practically limitless, and the speed and ease-of-use far exceed any Hadoop implementation I have ever dealt with.

On top of the freedom to store data in new ways, Snowflake’s architecture allows for scalable compute resources to handle variable loads and practically eliminate resource contention. We are just beginning to see the applications for this functionality, as customers are no longer tied to a fixed amount of compute resources.

With all of this functionality, one would assume that managing Snowflake would be a challenge. But the beauty of the cloud is that we are able to deliver all of this a service that requires little to no administration. Simply define a data model, load your data, and start querying.

Some database gurus may feel that they want to get under the hood to tune the database to meet their specific needs. I am one of those who felt that my skills were the key to providing access to the right data in the right way. I have come to realize the while I may be good at getting the most out of a database, Snowflake engineers are great at making a database that is easy for anyone to use. Snowflake’s database allows users from analysts and engineers to data scientists to leverage their skills with data in an environment that is automatically optimized for performance and scalability.

To use an analogy, I can make money in the stock market by researching stocks and buying and selling on my own. Still, I won’t ever be able to beat the top fund managers that are paid to be the best at what they are and have the tools and focus to suceed. Snowflake lets you leverage the work of some of the top minds in the industry that have made a database that runs better than any other database in the world.

It took a number of years for me to realize, but the idea of cloud computing is enabling solutions we never could have dreamed of 7 years ago. I am not a gambler, but I am “all in” on the cloud and feel confident that this is one bet that will pay off.