I imagine that Now Go Build, a video
series in which you visit global entrepreneurs who use Amazon’s cloud-based technologies to do things like
support Indonesian farmers and integrate refugees into the German workforce, has given you a nice window
Now Go Build is basically a recording of something that I’ve been doing
for the past four or five years—
meeting companies all over the world that
have tremendous impact that AWS
has helped them achieve. As technologists, we sometimes get so wrapped
up in technology that we forget about
the end-user stories. Most of these
young businesses are solving really
hard problems. They’re not hard
problems in the technology sense,
but they’re hard problems in the human sense.
I’m still so proud of the first episode
that we did in Jakarta, where I met the
founders of a start-up called Hara Token. These guys provide identity verification for the poorest farmers in Indonesia so they can get loans at regular
banks instead of using loan sharks,
who charge interest rates of 60%.
It must be a very interesting exercise—
and very humbling.
The current general view of technology companies is that they focus
on uninhibited growth or on profit.
But these are entrepreneurs trying to
build a business while also solving
very difficult human problems.
In 2006, Jim Gray interviewed you in
ACM Queue and noted how much it
pains you to hear people describe Amazon as an online retailer, rather than
a technology company. Now, I don’t
think anyone would question your
dominance in the tech world.
Jim was a mentor to me for a long
time, and there are so many things in
that interview that are still true today.
His thinking has had a significant
impact on technology architectures
around the world, including at Amazon
and AWS. I think we should continue to
honor his memory and be grateful for
all of the things that he impacted.
Leah Hoffmann is a technology writer based in Piermont,
N Y, USA.
© 2020 ACM 0001-0782/20/2 $15.00
base groups. We have so many unique,
purpose-built databases, and each of
those groups is in contact with their
most important customers. That creates a feedback loop that I have not seen
anywhere else. In fact, more than 90%
of all new features and services that we
deliver are driven by customer requests.
At the moment, AWS is quite a bit big-
ger than your competitors. How will
you continue to differentiate your-
selves in the future?
First, let me say that this is not going
to be a winner-take-all market. There’s
going to be a handful of global companies that are going to be really successful
in this space, and that’s good, because
customers need choices. The major
thing that separates AWS from most other places is that we don’t follow our competitors. We focus on the feedback that
our customers are giving us, and we’ll
continue to go down that path—and at
the same time, be a pioneer.
I’m reminded of the famous and probably apocryphal Henry Ford quote
about how, if he’d asked for their feedback, his customers would have simply
requested faster horses.
We are innovators in this space, and
we also have to be conscious that we
use our inventive brain power not just
to fix a particular customer’s problem
but, whenever possible, solve for issues
that apply to many more businesses.
That’s one of my major tasks, to listen
to different types of customers and try
to find the bigger patterns.
Is there any-
thing you would have done differently,
either in terms of developing AWS ser-
vices or promoting them to customers?
Well, that’s a long list. The good
thing is that we have a culture at Amazon that allows you to change your
mind. One of the principles we had in
the earlier days was that this should all
be self-service. Customers should not
have to talk to a human; they should
be able to do everything by themselves.
On the one hand, that removed a number of obstacles for people to start using our technology, because all you
needed was a credit card and an email
address. But over time, we discovered
that enterprises as well as startups really want to have human contact. They
need account management, professional services, and architectural support to help them build their systems.
It’s something we didn’t appreciate
enough in the early days.
What about in terms of technology?
There’s lots of things I would have
done differently. For example, in the
beginning, we combined identity and
account. Those are t wo different things.
Identity is a security component, and
account is what you bill things to. If we
had been smarter, we would have separated them, as we eventually did.
You have talked about the importance
of giving developers operational responsibilities, and the Amazon product definition process of “working
backwards” is also designed to in-centivize people to take the customer’s view. What else have you learned
about building and maintaining a
The product nature is crucial to how
we operate at Amazon. Things that are
now common terms—service-oriented
architecture, micro-services, DevOps,
DevSecOps—were pioneered at Amazon before we had words for them.
That certainly goes for the operational side of things. If you really want your
engineers and your product people to
be in touch with your customers, there
cannot be a layer of operations people
between them. Our thinking has always
been to make sure our engineers are
in contact with their customers so that
they can make decisions on their behalf. Take, for example, the AWS data-
as well as startups
really want to have
human contact. ...
we didn’t appreciate
the early days.”
[CONTINUED FROM P. 96]