4 Transferable Learnings from Amazon

I worked as a Program Manager under Amazon’s e-commerce business unit. Here are four key transferable learnings from my two-year stint at Amazon.

Opinions here are strictly personal, and I do not represent any organization.

Image showing Amazon’s 14 leadership principles
Image: Amazon’s 14 leadership principles

1. Executing core values

I have always wondered how Amazon grew to its size today while retaining its strong entrepreneurial, Day 1 culture. After working in Amazon for two years, I attribute a key part of it to Amazon’s 14 leadership principles. The 14 leadership principles were carefully picked by Jeff Bezos as the key ingredients required to run a successful business. They are unique core values that reflect the company’s commitment to innovation, integrity and customer experience. Above all, the leadership principles promote a working environment that is productive, makes high quality decisions, and moves fast.

But how are these values different from other companies? Over the course of our careers, we have seen companies develop beautifully worded values and have them displayed on corporate walls and websites. Yet, how many of these values eventually get implemented beyond the corporate walls? It is easy to assemble a group of values but it is much harder to live by them. In Amazon, the leadership principles are strongly embedded into the daily work of every Amazonian. I vividly recall when I received my access badge lanyard on the first day of work, there was an additional card attached to the lanyard; a card that listed the 14 leadership principles (refer to image above). I immediately felt the significance of it and even asked the new hire beside me if we were going to be tested on the 14 leadership principles! As I assimilated into my role back then, I was pleasantly surprised to witness how often the leadership principles were mentioned in emails and meetings. “Can we deep dive into this case? Are we able to simplify this process?”

You will hear employees at every level apply these leadership principles in daily decision making, brainstorming, problem solving, hiring, and appraisal sessions. Whether you are an Amazon employee in the United States, India or Singapore etc., the 14 leadership principles act as the compass that guide the work we do. While every team in Amazon runs like a startup (read: chaos) with different processes and best practices in place, our decisions are always guided by the 14 leadership principles. That is how the company maintains a quality workforce while giving employees the autonomy to run the show.

The good news is that these leadership qualities are universally applicable. Browse through the list and identify the leadership principles that you resonate with!

2. Prioritizing scalability and impact

In Jeff Bezos’ 2019 Letter to Shareholders, he wrote “As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle.”

In Amazon, we are faced with new challenges everyday. How does one prioritize and work on the most pressing issue? This is where I introduce the concept of scalability and impact. For a big company like Amazon where we serve millions of customers and sellers, it is imperative to develop solutions that can solve problems at scale. This means reducing cost while increasing sales, thereby enabling the company to grow at a faster rate. I recall pitching solutions and problem statements to my bosses on several occasions. The first response I receive will usually be “To what extent does this problem affect our customers or sellers? How big is the opportunity? Can we expand this solution to the other Amazon marketplaces?” We are constantly thinking about scalability and impact. Adopting this mental model trained me to prioritize and work on the most important issue or opportunity that can move the needle.

There is no playbook for identifying the most impactful solution or the greatest problem statement. That said, I find it helpful to have a curious mind and a positive learning attitude. In Amazon, employees are given the autonomy to experiment and successful failures are embraced. We are encouraged to ask questions and look at processes from different perspectives. During my two years in Amazon, I was surrounded by colleagues who often think beyond, instead of limiting themselves to a confined mental space. For example, if we find an issue, we explore corners and talk to peers about it even if it doesn’t fall into our direct scope of work. Being curious and embracing new learnings allow us to find opportunities that may potentially have cross-regional, cross-functional, or cross-department impact.

3. Writing effectively

In Amazon, we write a lot — from weekly updates, to monthly business reports, to goal setting for the new year. In fact, I have never used PowerPoint in my two years at Amazon! Amazon places a strong emphasis on developing written narratives to understand the crux of the hard problems. We see written communication as an effective way to influence and make decisions. Some people come as great writers, some don’t. I am not an avid writer but the good news is that it gets better with practice. Good written communication reflects a clear mind and the ability to structure, synthesize and deliver content in a crisp manner.

The best part? You do not have to worry about the aesthetics. We set the font type and font size to default, and stick to a page limit of six pages. Gone are the days when I find myself spending more time fretting over color schemes, pictures and slide transitions than the issue at hand. The need to go back and forth between aesthetics and content distracts me from the core message that needs to be conveyed.

Amazon also practices silent reading at the start of every meeting. Silent reading time could range between 15 minutes and 30 minutes. This is a time for all the stakeholders to stay focus and read without distraction; it anchors everyone in the right frame of mind. I personally find this practice to be very beneficial in running an effective meeting.

4. Making data-driven decisions

In Amazon, we embrace the use of data in decision making. You’ll be surprised to find that everyone in the company runs some form of data querying (read: SQL is the new literacy). The company’s data-driven culture can be explained by the sheer size of order volume that it handles — there are just insufficient resources to review orders one by one. Above all, Amazonians see the benefits of leveraging data to discover valuable insights that would have otherwise been missed opportunities. By experimenting with different datasets, we can identify trends over time and understand the magnitude of a problem in a speedy manner. We are empowered to make more informed decisions and come up with targeted, effective solutions.

A useful programming language to pick up would be Structured Query Language (SQL). SQL is a widely used programming language for relational databases. Coming from a non-technical background, I assure you that SQL is not difficult to learn. I was a self taught — my SQL journey began when I invested $15 in an online Udemy SQL course. I am by no means an SQL expert, but the key is to take the first step and learn the fundamentals. There will be colleagues with technical background who will be happy to help you upskill along the way.

From a broader perspective, I also find it extremely helpful for a non-technical person to understand the applications of programming. In other words, you do not need to know how to program or code. Instead, try to have a basic understanding of what programming can do or the scenarios that it can be applied to. This will allow you to work better with engineers and have a good grasp of solutions that programming can solve. This is useful knowledge that will come in handy during brainstorming or problem-solving sessions.

I hope you find this article insightful. Leave a comment below and share your thoughts with me!

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Sylvia Look

Google | Ex-Amazon • A former athlete turned tech enthusiast. Passionate about helping others navigate career in tech and life after sports.