Need for speed at Amazon Web Services
Amazon Web Services is one of the world’s largest IT infrastructure services firms, and a subsidiary of Amazon, the e-commerce retail behemoth. It boasts much of the agility and disruptiveness of its parent, including through the key mechanism to drive innovation: the “working backwards” methodology.
This requires that before a single line of code is written for any new project, the team behind it practices the more traditional form of writing with a mock press release.
This is designed to clearly explain the basics of the new service, feature, or business, and how it will impact customers.
AWS’ working-backwards blueprint is the foundation for the entire organisation’s innovation ethos; one which saw the firm roll out more than 1,000 significant features and services last year.
Leading the change is Nick Walton, Head of Southeast Asia for AWS.
“I’ve always been involved in technology and I’ve been really passionate about it. I love seeing how technology can change and improve people’s lives, and how it can help businesses grow and innovate,” he says.
Walton himself is drawn to “high-change environments”.
Having grown up and attended university in New Zealand, he has since lived and worked in both the UK and in Australia. He spent 15 years in various business development and technology roles, including working for Microsoft.
Always passionate about the rapid changes heralded by technology, Walton joined AWS as Regional Sales Manager in 2011, where he was involved in helping establish the business in Australia.
After assuming the role of Head of Enterprise in 2014, Walton took over the reins as Head of Southeast Asia in January last year.
Walton religiously ascribes to the Amazon motto indoctrinated by Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos.
“At Amazon, it’s always Day One. We always look forward, not backwards. We’re always challenging ourselves in serving our customers,” he says.
“We’re just getting started.”
Holding the forte at AWS
Describe your leadership style
One thing that is really important to me as a leader, and one that’s been particularly crucial since I moved to Southeast Asia, is to be open and hire people who are more experienced and capable than me. The strength of the people around you is such a key part of success.
I’m also very open-minded and I would describe my leadership style as being heavily consensus-driven. That’s a really key characteristic of the culture at Amazon.
We believe that the best ideas come from all parts of the organisation. It’s not just the most senior person who has all the right ideas; we encourage and expect ideas to come from employees who have different roles and who are at different levels. We do a lot to encourage this type of culture where everyone can have a voice and really contribute to come up with the best strategies for the business.
How would your employees describe you?
I’ve been with the business for quite a while and have a reasonable degree of experience working with customers and understanding how they are able to leverage on cloud technology.
But it’s also about adopting that consensus-driven approach. I encourage and like to hear ideas coming from different people within the organisation. I’m under no illusion that I have all the best ideas. That’s something that is important to me.
Tell us briefly what AWS does
We deliver more than 90 different cloud computing services today, ranging from virtual servers, analytics, and the Internet of Things, to artificial intelligence and machine learning. These are all delivered as a service to consumers.
If you contrast that to the old world where delivering technology was about buying services, building, and configuring data centres, this is a new world of utility-based cloud services that we’ve pioneered.
We’re helping customers of all kinds, including large banks and start-ups. You can see the kinds of economic activity that is driven from there.
How do you drive Amazon’s leadership philosophy within Southeast Asia?
Most definitely. The Amazon leadership principles are a key part of how we think and how we run the business. That’s been developed during the 20-plus year history of Amazon.
We have 14 leadership principles and “customer obsession” is the Number One.
It’s been deliberately crafted as the first principle and it has been so central to our success over the last 20 years.
Focusing on and obsessing over customers, and doing everything we can to deliver the best services and the right products, is entrenched in our retail and web- service businesses.
More than 90% of the services and features we develop are driven by our customers. I think this is also a key differentiator.
What’s it like to work at Amazon Web Services?
I’ve been having an amazing experience working here over the last six years.
We like to build at Amazon. What does that mean?
We like to build new services, businesses, and careers, and to give people opportunities to develop their own experiences. I think it’s an amazing environment where we’re open to experimenting and trying new things, and this offers new and challenging opportunities for our employees to develop themselves.
Challenges facing AWS
What qualities are you looking for in new hires?
Positivity and energy are the most important things for me.
We need people who are optimistic and who are looking for the best solutions to solve problems. That’s really important.
We also need individuals who are able to operate and navigate in an increasingly ambiguous business landscape. Things are moving faster and there are changing trends and elements in terms of how businesses run. We need individuals who can cut through the noise and identify how to make an impact.
At AWS, we’re really focused on how we can help customers be successful. We’re
changing the way technology is delivered at a pretty fundamental level. We’ve been in the cloud business for more than 10 years and this is a huge once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the way technology is delivered. It’s having an amazing impact with our customers.
Organisations are tapping onto our technology to help society. For example, a company has built a platform that allows radiology services to be distributed more broadly across a wider audience than it has ever been possible before.
We’ve also worked with the International Rice Research Institute and they are looking at ways to increase the yields of rice around the region.
These things are having a huge impact on society and to have the technology to enable these impacts for customers is very exciting and motivating for me, AWS, and our employees.
What are some of Amazon Web Services’ biggest HR challenges in Asia-Pacific?
Growth is a challenge. The business is growing really fast on a global basis.
We’re expanding our team, so one of the big initiatives and investments we’ve made across Asia-Pacific is that we’ve opened more than 20 offices in a short period of time.
Hiring and finding the right talent in a distributed manner across lots of different markets is definitely something we’ve invested lots of time and effort in.
While we have an “Amazon” way of doing things, we need to be locally relevant. We need to understand the local market, and have relationships with customers and partners in different countries.
So, finding the talent who can strike the right balance between local relevance and alignment with the Amazon culture is something we spend a lot of time on.
And what strategies is your organisation driving to tackle this?
We hire more for a culture and an attitude than anything else. That’s the priority.
We want to create the right kinds of teams who are really obsessed over customers, able to move fast and make decisions quickly, and enjoy being part of an empowered team.
One of the characteristics of AWS and Amazon and why I think it’s such a fun place to work is that we really empower our teams. We want to hire the best people that we can find and empower them to make the best decisions on behalf of our customers.
The second thing we’re doing is that we’re increasingly looking at how we can build and develop talent. We provide people with opportunities to experiment with new things, both within AWS and the broader business. As we continue to expand and move into new businesses, that presents amazing opportunities for individuals to develop their careers.
But we’re also looking at being more systematic about these things.
For example, solution architects are absolutely critical to our business. These are the individuals who work with our customers and help them develop applications on top of our platforms.
There is a global shortage of cloud solution architects. What we’ve started to do is to hire more junior individuals such as graduates and those with only a few years of experience.
We then put programmes in place to help them develop, build experience, and become more impactful throughout their career with Amazon.
How do you drive innovation in such a large, global organisation?
Amazon has a strong track record of being able to innovate despite being a pretty large organisation. We’re very deliberate in how we do that and we think that the mechanisms are really critical to execution. We say that good intentions alone are not enough.
You need to have mechanisms to make sure you’re really executing and holding yourself accountable. We’ve employed lots of mechanisms internally that really help foster the kinds of innovation we seek.
An example of this is AWS itself, which is not the most obvious thing for a seemingly e-commerce retailer to invest in. We are a large provider of IT services to businesses and we started with a very keen focus on the customer.
One of the mechanisms we use to encourage and drive innovation is the “working-backwards” methodology. This is about starting with the customer. Before we write any line of code for any new project, the first thing we do is to write a mock press release.
It helps us distil whether what we plan to do will really impact and be useful and interesting for our customers. That’s one example of a mechanism that really helps us innovate by being very focused on what customers are after.
What would you say is your current biggest challenge as Head of Southeast Asia?
One of the challenges we have is understanding how to continue to cover this broad market.
Specifically for Southeast Asia, we opened offices in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand last year.
We’ve also put local teams on the ground of each of these countries. This year, we’ve also opened an office in Vietnam. This is about being able to work more closely with our local customers. Continuing to expand is a really big focus for us.
Culture and competition
Describe the corporate culture at AWS
We look at aspects like empowerment, but we also like to move fast. “Bias for Action” –which means making decisions and moving quickly, rather than over-analysing and missing market opportunities – is something we really spend a lot of time on.
As mentioned, there are 14 leadership principles that really encapsulate the Amazon culture. Bias for Action is one of these.
Learning to be curious is something that is really important as well, particularly in an environment that is moving so quickly.
Being open minded, proactive and embracing new ideas and technologies is another key part of our culture.
And of course: It’s day one in Amazon and we’re just getting started!
How does AWS stay ahead of intense competition?
Pretty much every large technology company today is trying to build what AWS has been doing for more than 10 years. There are no shortcuts in running this type of business and operating at the scale we do. The operational experience, as well as our understanding of how to continuously innovate, are key for us.
Our pace of innovation continues to accelerate. Last year, we released more than 1,000 new features and services. This year, we’re on track to increase this further. Our innovation is very much oriented towards our customers. More than 90% of our roadmap is driven by them.
We have millions of active customers on the platform today. That gives us amazing insights and input in terms of the things customers are asking us for and knowing how to serve them.
What’s your top tip for leaders?
Specifically in Southeast Asia, I think it’s about being really open-minded and sensitive to the different ways business is conducted across a very diverse and dynamic market.
For more Asia-Pacific CEOs and business leaders discussing their HR challenges, head to HRM Asia's dedicated Leaders Talk HR forum.