An inside view of life at Amazon, from a Microsoft veteran

Brandon Watson

Brandon Watson has been at Amazon for all of three months, and he admits he’s still in his honeymoon phase.

But he has a unique perspective on life at the Seattle company in part because of his history at Microsoft, where he was one of the leaders of the Windows Phone team. In a post on his personal blog today, Watson shares his thoughts on life at Amazon. It’s a detailed glimpse into a side of Amazon that isn’t generally visible to the outside world.

He’s careful not to explicitly compare it to his experience at Microsoft, but it will be hard for knowledgeable readers not to see the contrast — including the way Amazon conducts meetings (no PowerPoint!?); the management style Watson describes (low-key “teachable moments” vs. public confrontations); and the vending machines with credit-card readers (Microsoft is legendary for its free sodas).

A good chunk of the post is focused on the culture of meetings. Here’s one section that caught our attention …

The written word matters a lot more at Amazon than any place at which I have ever worked.  In any meeting where a decision is to be made, or a review of any kind, there is a set document type which is to be used to drive the meeting.  The topic is set ahead of time, and the meeting owner brings the document to the meeting.

What makes this process so interesting is that there is little to no preselling/politicking of decisions.  By beginning meetings with a set time period to read the document (anywhere from 15 to 30 mins), the team can process the doc and an informed discussion can be had.  The docs are limited to 2 pages for a shorter discussion, and to 6 pages for longer reviews.  Appendices can be attached, most notably containing a FAQ.  This structure forces clarity of thought, refined thinking, and organization of ideas.  It’s easy to hide that you don’t know what you are talking about in a PowerPoint deck.  Not so much in a 2 page Word doc.

I have to admit, when I was first being recruited and someone tried explaining this concept to me, I had a very strong adverse reaction.  Not sure why.  Maybe because it was different.  Having now lived through a few doc creation exercises, I much prefer this as a device for driving decisions in a company where projects have many stakeholders.

Read the full post here.

Watson, who previously oversaw Windows Phone’s work with third-party app developers, oversees Kindle software for Amazon, focusing on product management for Kindle readers on third-party devices and the Kindle Fire table.

Update:

  • Guest

    What’s that, the 100th “MS’s culture is toxic, corrosive, and hopelessly gridlocked by excessive useless meetings” blog post by an ex-MS employee? I think everyone gets that by now. What they’re wondering is why Ballmer is still around in the face of that (not to mention losing to Apple and Google on so many dimensions).

    • Guest

      Did you read the post? Brandon made no mention of toxicity, corrosion, or Steve Ballmer.

      • Guest

        Oh please. As even he says, read between the lines.

        • Thomas R.

          Are all MS employees so defensive now? Feeling victimized by the press? Sounds like Fox News but it’s the “War on Microsoft” by the lamestream media. 

          Hey did you hear what Google, Amazon and Apple said about Microsoft? “Microsoft who?”

          • Guest

            MS employee? Learn how to read.

  • Guest

    Thank you, Brandon, for writing this post!

  • http://www.mannequinapp.com/ Prashant S

    The “narrative” was my absolute favorite part of Amazon (along with the decidedly Lean Startup style culture that exists to this day). I resisted it at first, but within a week I was head over heels in love with it. Every large company has its moments of bloviating in meetings, but it is very rare at Amazon.

    Indeed, my two years at Amazon broke 10+ years of bad habits I had accrued at Microsoft. I still respect Microsoft a great deal and don’t want to be seen as disparaging the company (where many of my closest friends still work), but I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Amazon and credit Andy Jassy, the AWS team, and Jeff Bezos a great deal for preparing me for the startup life.

    • Guest

      “my two years at Amazon broke 10+ years of bad habits I had accrued at Microsoft”

      For example?

      • http://www.mannequinapp.com/ Prashant S

        Sure. I’ve mentioned this many times to friends and folks who are thinking of jumping ship from MS to Amazon. Keep in mind, I grew up at Microsoft, so my exposure was fairly limited to other companies. Amazon taught me a lot and prepared me for startupville. Also, unlike maybe Brandon, I’m a marketing guy, not a dev.

        1. Amazon has a culture that is maniacally focused on precision. Precision of ideas, precision of testing hypotheses, precision of communication.
        2. Hand in hand with precision is its maniacal focus on efficiency. Cost efficiency, time efficiency, eking out the last bit of efficiency out of any process.

        Now, keep in mind I was at MS in the pre-layoff, pre-recession era. Things may have changed since then, I don’t know. But I really appreciated the culture at Amazon of having to articulate very clearly a vision, but working backwards from your vision to setup the baby steps to get there. You may say to yourself, “Well, duh!” But it was not something I was forced to do in my role running marketing for Visual Studio. There were numerous pre-built processes and levers you could pull without thinking much about the cost and time consequences. Meanwhile, I had extremely limited resources as the marketing guy for AWS (a fact that I LOVED!) and had to make every headcount, every dollar, and every minute of my time count. It was truly awesome. I mean really, really awesome. Sure, there were times when I would think, “Man, if I had the Microsoft field at my disposal for such and such tactic…”, but I’d catch myself daydreaming and get back to work. I simply can’t say enough about how much I appreciated the constraints of #1 and #2 above and how it brought out the best of my experience and creativity to get things done.

        3. Microsoft has a ginormous field apparatus at its disposal. It’s not something I would think devs really get exposed to, but as marketing people, you know you can come up with something brilliant, but the only real way to make a substantial impact on revenue is if you can stick your fingers in the right sockets and tickle the right sequence of steps to get the field to buy in and believe in you, then go out there and conquer the world for you. Meanwhile, at Amazon during the time period when I was in AWS, we had a tiny group of awesome, dedicated, and hard working sales guys who packed their bags, got on planes, pounded the pavements, and earned credibility on the ground with customers.

        The thing I LOVED about this is that at Microsoft I was so insulated from how “real companies” work. I had no idea the war stories or horror stories of what sales guys would encounter with our products. At Amazon, I got to work closely with sales teams, get my hands dirty in Salesforce, see how things I thought would never have impact (developer roadshow events in various cities, for example) had a tremendous impact on lead generation and conversion. This was an absolutely invaluable education for me…again, as someone who spent the bulk of his career in one large company and who desperately wanted to one day do a startup.

        It was around my second year at AWS that I looked up, saw that we had built a good-sized marketing team under me, come up with a very achievable and well thought out marketing plan, and it dawned on me, “Yeah, you’re ready to go do a startup.” So I left and did.

        • Guest

          Thanks for expanding on your statement. That was informative.

        • Sam

          ” I had no idea the war stories or horror stories of what sales guys would encounter with our products. At Amazon, I got to work closely with sales teams, get my hands dirty in Salesforce”..
          Wouldn’t you think that’s because the nature of business has changed with cloud. It must become similar to an companies supporting cloud

  • Gurn

    Fascinating post. Yeah, Microsoft is the elephant in the room there.

    Interesting to read the constructive steps Amazon takes both culturally and process-wise. I’d love to see a generic sample of a meeting doc.

  • guestred

    need another story – FTE vs. contractor life at amazon, msft, etc.

  • Anonymous

    It’s been a year since this was posted. I’d love to read Brandon’s take now that he’s been at Amazon for longer than three months.

  • Sam

    What’s the big deal about using Word document vs PowerPoint. I don’t think the medium matters, as far as you can make the meeting effective. I would rather view a PowerPoint deck than listening to someone reading a word document in a monotonous tone.

    • Nick

      That’s not what happens. Everybody gets a copy of the doc (I personally don’t like that they are printed on paper and try to encourage soft copies), and you read it in silence and make notes.then people share their notes section by section.