Last week I accidentally posted an internal rant about service platforms to my public Google+ account (i.e. this one). It somehow went viral, which is nothing short of stupefying given that it was a massive Wall of Text. The whole thing still feels surreal.
Amazingly, nothing bad happened to me at Google. Everyone just laughed at me a lot, all the way up to the top, for having committed what must be the great-granddaddy of all Reply-All screwups in tech history.
But they also listened, which is super cool. I probably shouldn’t talk much about it, but they’re already figuring out how to deal with some of the issues I raised. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though. When I claimed in my internal post that “Google does everything right”, I meant it. When they’re faced with any problem at all, whether it’s technical or organizational or cultural, they set out to solve it in a first-class way.
Anyway, whenever something goes viral, skeptics start wondering if it was faked or staged. My accident was neither. While I have no proof, I can offer you what I think is the most convincing evidence: for the last six and a half years, I have never once ragged on Amazon publicly. Even just two months ago, in a keynote talk I gave at a conference, I was pretty flattering when I talked about my experiences there. I’ve always skirted any perceived shortcomings and focused on what they do well.
I still have a lot of friends at Amazon. In fact the place is chock-full of people I admire and respect. And up until now I have prided myself on my professionalism whenever I have talked about Amazon. Bagging on the company, even in an internal memo, was uncharacteristically unprofessional of me. So I’ve been feeling pretty guilty for the past week.
So. Without retracting anything I said, I’d like to paint a more balanced picture for you. I’m going to try to paint that picture via some true stories that I’ve never shared publicly. Nothing secondhand: it’s all stuff I witnessed myself there. I hope you’ll find the stories interesting, because it’s one hell of an interesting place.
Since Amazon started with Jeff, I’ll start my stories with one about Jeff.
Amazon War Story #1: Jeff Bezos
Over the years I watched people give presentations to Jeff Bezos and come back bruised: emotionally, intellectually, often career-ily. If you came back with a nod or a signoff, you were jumping for joy. Presenting to Jeff is a gauntlet that tends to send people back to the cave to lick their wounds and stay out of the sunlight for a while.
I say “presentations” and you probably think PowerPoint, but no: he outlawed PowerPoint there many years ago. It’s not allowed on the campus. If you present to Jeff, you write it as prose.
One day it came time for me to present to Jeff. It felt like... I don’t know, maybe how they swarm around you when you’re going to meet the President. People giving you last-minute advice, wishing you luck, ushering you past regiments of admins and security guards. It’s like you’re in a movie. A gladiator movie.
Fortunately I’d spent years watching Jeff in action before my turn came, and I had prepared in an unusual way. My presentation -- which, roughly speaking was about the core skills a generalist engineer ought to know -- was a resounding success. He loved it. Afterwards everyone was patting me on the back and congratulating me like I’d just completed a game-winning hail-mary pass or something. One VP told me privately: “Presentations with Jeff never go that well.”
But here’s the thing: I had already suspected Jeff was going to like my presentation. You see, I had noticed two things about him, watching him over the years, that others had either not caught on to, or else they had not figured out how to make the knowledge actionable.
Here is how I prepared. Amazon people, take note. This will help you. I am dead serious.
To prepare a presentation for Jeff, first make damn sure you know everything there is to know about the subject. Then write a prose narrative explaining the problem and solution(s). Write it exactly the way you would write it for a leading professor or industry expert on the subject.
That is: assume he already knows everything about it. Assume he knows more than you do about it. Even if you have groundbreakingly original ideas in your material, just pretend it’s old hat for him. Write your prose in the succinct, direct, no-explanations way that you would write for a world-leading expert on the material.
You’re almost done. The last step before you’re ready to present to him is this: Delete every third paragraph.
Now you’re ready to present!
Back in the mid-1800s there was this famous-ish composer/pianist named Franz Liszt. He is widely thought to have been the greatest sight-reader who ever lived. He could sight-read anything you gave him, including crazy stuff not even written for piano, like opera scores. He was so staggeringly good at sight-reading that his brain was only fully engaged on the first run-through. After that he’d get bored and start embellishing with his own additions.
Bezos is so goddamned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first realization about him. Who knows how smart he was before he became a billionaire -- let’s just assume it was “really frigging smart”, since he did build Amazon from scratch. But for years he’s had armies of people taking care of everything for him. He doesn’t have to do anything at all except dress himself in the morning and read presentations all day long. So he’s really, REALLY good at reading presentations. He’s like the Franz Liszt of sight-reading presentations.
So you have to start tearing out whole paragraphs, or even pages, to make it interesting for him. He will fill in the gaps himself without missing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.
I mean, imagine what it would be like to start off as an incredibly smart person, arguably a first-class genius, and then somehow wind up in a situation where you have a general’s view of the industry battlefield for ten years. Not only do you have more time than anyone else, and access to more information than anyone else, you also have this long-term eagle-eye perspective that only a handful of people in the world enjoy.
In some sense you wouldn’t even be human anymore. People like Jeff are better regarded as hyper-intelligent aliens with a tangential interest in human affairs.
But how do you prepare a presentation for a giant-brained alien? Well, here’s my second realization: He will outsmart you. Knowing everything about your subject is only a first-line defense for you. It’s like armor that he’ll eat through in the first few minutes. He is going to have at least one deep insight about the subject, right there on the spot, and it’s going to make you look like a complete buffoon.
Trust me folks, I saw this happen time and again, for years. Jeff Bezos has all these incredibly intelligent, experienced domain experts surrounding him at huge meetings, and on a daily basis he thinks of shit that they never saw coming. It’s a guaranteed facepalm fest.
So I knew he was going to think of something that I hadn’t. I didn’t know what it might be, because I’d spent weeks trying to think of everything. I had reviewed the material with dozens of people. But it didn’t matter. I knew he was going to blindside me, because that’s what happens when you present to Jeff.
If you assume it’s coming, then it’s not going to catch you quite as off-guard.
And of course it happened. I forgot Data Mining. Wasn’t in the list. He asked me point-blank, very nicely: “Why aren’t Data Mining and Machine Learning in this list?” And I laughed right in his face, which sent a shock wave through the stone-faced jury of VPs who had been listening in silence, waiting for a cue from Jeff as to whether he was going to be happy or I was headed for the salt mines.
I laughed because I was delighted. He’d caught me with my pants down around my ankles, right in front of everyone, despite all my excruciating weeks of preparation. I had even deleted about a third of the exposition just to keep his giant brain busy, but it didn’t matter. He’d done it again, and I looked like a total ass-clown in front of everyone. It was frigging awesome.
So yeah, of course I couldn’t help laughing. And I said: “Yup, you got me. I don’t know why it’s not in there. It should be. I’m a dork. I’ll add it.” And he laughed, and we moved on, and everything was great. Even the VPs started smiling. It annoyed the hell out of me that they’d had to wait for a cue, but whatever. Life was good.
You have to understand: most people were scared around Bezos because they were waaaay too worried about trying to keep their jobs. People in high-level positions sometimes have a little too much personal self-esteem invested in their success. Can you imagine how annoying it must be for him to be around timid people all day long? But me -- well, I thought I was going to get fired every single day. So fuck timid. Might as well aim high and go out in a ball of flame.
That’s where the “Dread Pirate Bezos” line came from. I worked hard and had fun, but every day I honestly worried they might fire me in the morning. Sure, it was a kind of paranoia. But it was sort of healthy in a way. I kept my resume up to date, and I kept my skills up to date, and I never worried about saying something stupid and ruining my career. Because hey, they were most likely going to fire me in the morning.
Thanks to Adam DeBoor for reviewing this post for potential Career Suicide.