Following on Tuesday’s big succession announcement at Amazon, I was apparently the only human who’d been in a room with Andy Jassy more than once in recent years and was willing to talk to media. By about the fifth conversation, my talking points were stubs because the points wore off, leaving a well-polished gleam. So I might as well share them directly. If you’ve read any of the other articles this may sound familiar.

I should be clear that I’m not exactly close to Andy Jassy —  I’ve only ever been in the room with him at decision meetings and annual planning reviews; maybe a dozen times in my 5½ years there. Second, I’m not going to tell any secrets.

I’ll use Q&A format. Every one of these is one I got from one or more journalists.

Why Andy? · In 2006, AWS didn’t exist. In 2021 its annual run rate is $50B. What else do you need to know?

The obvious choices for CEO were Andy Jassy and Jeff Wilke. Without inside information, I suspect that the decision was made a few months back and explains Wilke’s exit.

I think it’s the right call. Andy, in my opinion, is an outstanding executive. AWS was the best-managed place I worked in my 40-year career, including places where I was the CEO.

He’ll be less aggressive than Jeff, right? · I got this question a few times and it surprised me, because I don’t think so at all.

I remember one annual planning meeting where I was a senior member of a (large) AWS product group; we presented our six-pager. The usual sort of talk ensued, Andy’s team challenging us on this technical or that business issue. As I’d come to expect in document-driven discussions, the quality was excellent. Eventually Andy spoke up. He had a few things to say but this is what I remember: “Are you guys thinking big enough? Could you go faster? If we gave you double the resources, what could you do?”

That’s just anecdote. But here’s a number. It’s Amazon Web Services, right? How many services, then? Somewhere around 200 at this point and the rate of new-service announcements isn’t slowing down. There’s actually a faction among customers and analysts who argue that there are too many; that it’s hard for customers to understand and choose. Except for, under Andy’s leadership the strategy has been simple: Identify every IT problem an organization can have and offer a service that solves it. Are you really going to disagree in the face of that zero-to-$50B trajectory? Aggressive enough?

What’s Jeff’s legacy? · Jeff founded Amazon in 1994 and now it’s arguably the world’s most powerful company. Investors think it’s worth $1.7T and it employs over a million people. Whether you love or loathe capitalism, you have to be impressed at those numbers.

On the other hand, as recently as ten years ago the Big-Tech companies were admired and their leaders hero-worshipped. Today, a substantial proportion of the population is disaffected with Big Tech in general and Amazon in particular. Even people who buy a lot of stuff from Amazon tell me they feel bad about it. Many feel raw fear. Jeff Bezos is definitely part of that problem.

So his legacy has to include both the corporate success and the sectoral disaffection.

Isn’t it cool that Jeff is free to explore space? · Spare me. I’m as space-crazed as the next geeky nerd but in the near-to-medium future we need to be paying close attention to this planet’s problems if we want our children to have a place to live. In terms of economics and health and the environment, space is a distraction. I was super happy to see Jeff’s letter feature the Climate Pledge prominently.

By the way, anyone noticed Jeff’s ex-wife is kicking his butt in the (difficult) practice of giving money away constructively? I hope he catches up.

What’s Andy like? · OK, this is boring, but: customer-obsessed.

Data point: Before the first Andy meeting where I’d helped write the six-pager and was expected to make the case, I got advice: “Make sure anything you say is backed by customer data.” Fortunately we’d been running a popular beta on the new service under discussion, so I had loads of anecdotes from household-name customers. So when a question came up I could say things like “Well, CustomerA says the big upside is X but CustomerB says we need to beef up Y.” The advice was good: My recollection is that the decisions went the way we’d wanted them to.

Data point: It’s the middle of the night and some AWS service is having a nasty outage; maybe a big rainstorm took out a bridge with three telcos’ fibre on it. There’ll be a late-night communication chain on what we can say to customers and when we can say it. Andy will be on that chain and the service team’s representative (back then, sometimes me) better provide regular updates.

I could offer more if I could tell secrets. But customer focus is genuinely the first thing that comes to mind.

Now here’s something to watch out for. AWS claims a million-plus customers and, while I don’t know the numbers, it’d be reasonable to think that a significant chunk of the revenue comes from a smaller number of big customers. Thus, anyone who’s doing significant business has a few AWS people they’ve gotten to know pretty well and whose job is to understand their problems.

Amazon has over 150 million. Not just customers I mean, but Prime members. So I think Andy’s customer-obsession degree of difficulty is about to go way up.

Will Andy change the Amazon culture? · I doubt it. In my opinion, the vision of Jeff as singular day-to-day supergenius mastermind is just wrong. Nobody can do that at Amazon’s scale. The real achievement is building and sustaining highly effective culture and process. Around hiring and promotion, around product management, around reporting and decision-making. You can’t grow and innovate at that scale unless you can delegate strategy and tactics to lightly-supervised groups with high confidence that they’ll be right a lot.

From the point of view of Amazon’s leadership and its investors, its culture is working just fine. Why change anything? But…

Is Amazon going to become more humane? · I doubt it. There just isn’t a way to employ a million people and sell to a hundred million others others and offer a human touch.

So I don’t expect Amazon to stop bullying partners or having high injury rates at warehouses or ferociously resisting unionization.

Unless, of course, they are forced to do these things by a combination of legislation, regulation, and litigation. Which leads to:

What are the big challenges facing Amazon? · Now that Andy’s been promoted, he’s got a new responsibility: Testifying to Congress. It’s not going to be fun. And for my money, that’s going to be the biggest change to the landscape that Amazon plays on.

Quoting from the Leadership Principles: “As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.” Is it just me or does that sound like a symptom of extreme arrogance? “We’re so much smarter than everyone else that normal people can’t even understand why what we’re doing is smart.”

Now, this might be plausible when you’re a scrappy Seattle startup doing things nobody had ever previously thought of. When you’re the world’s most visible and most powerful company, you neither can nor should want to be misunderstood at scale. Maybe edit that LP a bit?

I expect Amazon to experience severe friction on multiple legal fronts. First, anti-monopoly. Note that 2020’s upsurge of antitrust litigation was not only bipartisan but in some cases Republican-led.

Regular readers here know that I’m not neutral at all about this: I enthusiastically support aggressive anti-monopoly action against not just Amazon and not just the Big-tech titans and not just in the USA, but across the economy and across the globe. I wouldn’t start with Amazon, if I were running the show, but I’d get there pretty quick.

(I’m pretty sure promoting Andy is a smart move and one he’s earned. But I’m unhappy because it decreases the likelihood that Amazon will spin off AWS voluntarily, which I think would be unambiguously good.)

A second legal front is probably going to fall out of the continuing uproar among sellers making their living on the Amazon platform. Elizabeth Warren argued powerfully in March 2019 that certain large tech businesses need to be designated as “platform utilities” and strictly regulated, most obviously by forbidding companies from both operating a marketplace and selling on it.

Finally, of course, we can expect the labor landscape to change. America lags the rest of the rich world shamefully in the imbalance of power and wealth between Capital and Labor; shifting this balance has to be pretty high on any progressive agenda.

How this goes depends on the politics playing out in Washington and then the next couple of election cycles, but my perception is that the Overton Window has moved and that the Covid interregnum may mark the high point of the fifty years of regressive politics kicked off by the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal consensus of the Seventies. Definitely watch this space.

Hey Andy, here’s some sincere advice: Get to know Congresswoman Jayapal soonest, and give a careful listen to what she says. She’s really smart and you might agree on more than you suspect.

Andy Jassy is a terrific executive and I respect him a whole lot. It’ll be fascinating to watch Amazon navigate this new landscape.


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February 05, 2021
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