Any technologist would dream of working in an environment where all employees – regardless of their status or level within the company –were given the ability to make decisions. They would be enthusiastic to be a part of any organization that put innovating on behalf of customers first and operated in a way that empowered their employees to discover and bring new technologies and ideas to market. Add to the fact that everyone that you work with is a top performer in their given disciplines and it makes for a truly remarkable environment.
And they’d probably have to be insane to leave that company when their approaches to innovation and business led to their incredible growth in their market. But that’s what I did.
So, when I recently left Amazon Web Services (AWS), was I temporarily insane?
No, I made a decision. And I made that decision for – what I think – are some very good reasons. Let’s take a look at the organization that I left behind, the reasons why I left it behind and what I’m planning on doing next, and you can make up your own mind.
The amazing world of Amazon
Contrary to what many may read in the press, I never had anything but positive experiences working with AWS. In fact, I greatly admired and agreed with many of the business tenants and leadership principles.
Amazon is a customer-centric organization that puts the needs of their customers first. This is a trait that I agree with wholeheartedly. But putting customers first doesn’t come at the expense of their employees. Employees entering Amazon encounter a unique culture and organization that prizes and values innovation.
AWS functions less like a monolithic organization, where employees are given strict, rigid and constricting orders that they’re forced to follow. Instead, the organization operates more like a large corporate umbrella that sits on top of many smaller, independent startup companies. This gives the company a feel and culture much less akin to a corporate giant and much more like a technology incubator and startup factory. Think about it as an environment where you can build a startup without having to worry about payroll. The ambiguity that comes with this is hard for some people to deal with: I loved the intellectual freedom and enablement.
This different and unique approach to organizational structure and culture has some very interesting ramifications on employee experience and the workplace environment.
In AWS, even the most junior employee is empowered to make decisions. They’re all encouraged to think creatively and expected to come up with new and exciting technologies. And, with Amazon’s customer-centric approach in mind, all Amazonians are encouraged to think about the challenges and problems facing customers, and then identify new solutions to fix them.
Ultimately, AWS is an organization that rewarded innovation, empowered people and got shit done. And that was a great environment to be a part of. So why leave?
Earlier risk, asymmetric results
I would have had to work for years at a classic, large tech provider and waited my turn in line to run the book of business I handled at Amazon. The amount of responsibility I was given was tremendous and humbling. . But that’s not why I left.
When I first started working for AWS, they were a small part of the larger Amazon machine. The retail store was the profit center for the company, and the few hundred employees of AWS – most of which weren’t customer facing – were building the future. By the time I had left, AWS was a huge profit center for the company at large. And the number of employees across the entire enterprise had exploded to more than 200,000 people.
Regardless of how much you innovate – or what you invent – in a company of 200,000 people, you’re still one of 200,000 people.
Ultimately, what led to my decision to leave one of the fastest growing companies in the world wasn’t dissatisfaction with the company, but rather a desire to innovate much earlier in the risk curve. I wanted to focus my skills and abilities on new and exciting technologies and companies that were early in their maturation, high in risk, but with huge potential for success.
My time at AWS – and my time at EMC prior to that – taught me incredible lessons. While with AWS, I learned to look at a segment and identify what’s going to happen in a market. I’m now going to take that skill and apply it to companies earlier in the risk curve -innovative companies that have potential for rapid growth.
But that wasn’t the only lesson I learned from my time at AWS, and many of the others could be useful for investors and operators of early stage startup companies looking to mimic the success of AWS. In my next few posts on Valuing Innovation, I’ll share the top ten lessons that I took away from my career in the cloud at AWS and EMC.