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John Darrow
“The work I do increases efficiency and makes complex physical fulfillment operations possible with the click of a button,” says Amazon’s John Darrow. (Photo courtesy John Darrow)

John Darrow has been at Amazon since the days when the tech giant was simply “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore,” selling just books and shipping orders out of one Seattle warehouse.

Nineteen years later, Darrow has grown through the ranks to become a senior principal engineer in charge of the technology that powers Amazon Operations, fulfilling billions of orders around the world. He’s also GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week.

“Initially I was a temporary employee doing tech support in a room above the Art Bar, but my unix hacking skills acquired during college nights writing IRC bots, and doing physics labs at UC Santa Cruz were enough to make me dangerous,” Darrow said. “I was soon converted to a software development engineering role and worked on much of the early Amazon systems that managed customers, orders, email and phone calls.”

Darrow said he built critical portions of the CRM web app named Arizona, and then led development of software that is still used by the company’s customer service contact centers. He eventually migrated to helping third-party sellers manage inventory, and about six years ago moved into operations.

“I get to work on software and architecture that marries cloud and edge computing, physical and virtual operations and state, resource scheduling and optimization, robotics and industrial IoT, computer vision, and the scale of billions of units of inventory and customer orders.”

Almost two decades in one place seems like a long time. Is it still fun?

“After so much time, what I can say is that I’ve never been bored, and the business and technical challenges just continue to keep me growing,” Darrow said. “The pace and energy keep me young. I love this place.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, John Darrow:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “I lead engineering oversight for technology powering Amazon Operations, as we build out a supply chain and fulfillment network meeting the needs of our customers all over the world. More specifically, I obsess about how we model physical inventory, processes, resources, people, machines and workflow so that we get customers what they need when they need it. All this movement of stuff is magic from the outside, but from the inside it’s a giant, well organized puzzle with software that is helping people and machines work seamlessly together. The work I do increases efficiency and makes complex physical fulfillment operations possible with the click of a button. I think it’s an awesome opportunity and I’m privileged to be at the center of it. Here’s a video about what I do and why I do it:

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “We are at the very beginning of cracking this nut. Despite world class software and customer experience, most of the evolution and maturation of what e-commerce is and the potential of connected inventory, process, people and automation is still ahead of us.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “I have two daughters, Juniper and Chloe, who were born on my first and third Amazon “peaks.” From the beginning they helped me strike the right balance between home and work life, and I get to share my adventures with them. They will be the first to tell you that I’m a geek! Part of what drives me is to think about what the world will be like for them in another 10, 20, or 50 years. What should technology do to change or shape that world, and what can I do for them with all the wisdom, visibility, tools and influence that I now have?”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “Sonos and good speakers — I love listening to music and always need variety. And, the Alexa voice integration is great! Having all that music at my disposal and having it sound good wherever I am still feels like fantastic science fiction to me! I spent so much time as a kid recording the radio, trying to acquire records, tapes, CDs. After years of trying to build music servers and raiding disk drives and using remote players, now these omnipresent music ecosystems do all the work.”

John Darrow
John Darrow in an Amazon fulfillment center. (Photo courtesy John Darrow)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I’m a packrat, and end up with huge piles of papers and notebooks on my desk. Of course I never read those ever again, so every few months I have to push everything off into a box. I now use a single wide monitor plugged into a mac laptop. I used to have several linux desktops under my desk, but these days all my other hosts are in AWS. I use a headphone DAC/amp and enjoying trying out different headphones to listen to predominantly house music while working.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Keep it simple and make it fun. Although I spend a lot of time in my head and obsessively make things complicated, the bridge to getting things done is to simplify your goals and connect to them with people. At this point, my top career goal is to keep enjoying my day job and I find that comes by blending (1) tackling hard challenges, (2) being inspired by and inspiring people, and (3) learning how to do new things.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “False dilemma; Linux serverside, Mac clientside, and I can’t deny that some Windows apps are just better.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Picard of course!”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Does a time machine work that is not also a transporter? Otherwise you would be left in empty space as the Earth objectively leaves its position at t0. A cloak of invisibility is flawed because you are certain to disturb other senses outside of visible light.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “build TapeBot, and TapeBotNet. TapeBot will handily tape any two things together or lay tape between any two reference points. TapeBotNet will abstract an interface to a swarming network of TapeBots, so that you don’t have to worry about which bot will do the work for you. You can just issue your taping commands and it will find the nearest TapeBot with enough tape to do the job, and voila!, items attached!”

I once waited in line for … “David Sedaris’s autograph.”

Your role models: “Buffy, Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, and Dr. Horrible, because they are each heroes in their own way.”

Greatest game in history: “‘Call of Cthulu.’ Surprisingly I don’t play video games, but do enjoy board and role playing games. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Best gadget ever: “Do white LEDs count? I remember building electronics as a kid with red and green LEDs from Radio Shack. I was impressed with the energy efficiency of compact fluorescent bulbs, but then LED lights came out. 1/6 the energy and 20x the lifespan? A replacement for car headlights? It’s amazing.”

First computer: “Atari 400. Basic, 1.79MHz, 16k and no tape drive, baby!”

Current phone: “iPhone 7.”

Favorite app: “Reddit.”

Favorite cause: “I’m concerned by the massive and disruptive environmental changes we are seeing over our lifetime. So the Environmental Defense Fund or Earthjustice are good causes.”

Most important technology of 2016: “Reinforcement learning as a way of more robustly training ML models. AlphaGo had its big victory at the end of 2015, which propelled new methods for leveraging machine learning in optimization problems. This is the decade of AI and while the computers are still sharp as marbles, the ways that we can leverage this kind of intelligence is nothing short of science fiction come to life.”

Most important technology of 2018: “I wish I could predict the future! There’s some pretty amazing things happening right now in electric vehicles that I think have potential to be really exciting and impactful in a positive way for society. It will be interesting to watch it all unfold.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Don’t worry, everyone else is just as confused as you are. But with curiosity, patience, funky beats and a core of joy, we can change the world and look good while at it.”


Twitter: @jdarrow

LinkedIn: John Darrow

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