Lessons from 5 years of working at Amazon

My career at Amazon almost didn’t happen. I was first approached by an Amazon recruiter in December 2016, and at the time, thought nothing of it. I was two years into working as a freelance consultant, and at no point had any ambition to return to a big company environment. Showing true Amazon tenacity, Katie—the recruiter, was persistent and would regularly chase me up with additional LinkedIn messages.

I was supposed to start the new year on a 12-month maternity cover contract, which was pulled at the last minute. Feeling out of pocket and a little vulnerable, I agreed to take a call thinking I could potentially secure a contract out of Amazon. One discovery call with Katie turned into a chat with the hiring manager, a session with the head of the business unit, and finally the infamous Amazon hiring loop. Fast forward to May 2017 and I had an offer in hand to be the first international field marketing leader for the Startup business.

What made me change my outlook? There was something about the mandate of the role that really connected with me. The idea that I could support ambitious entrepreneurs to succeed while using Amazon’s far-reaching resources and influence was a noble enough cause I could get behind. Then there were the people I met along the way. Those smart, impressive—yet humble and unassuming Amazonians, who were united in their desire to help startup founders made the choice easy. I felt inspired and saw a lot of myself in the people I met. I also found myself drawn to the culture and values driving the business forward.

But as they say, all good things eventually come to an end.

In February, I resigned from my job at Amazon. It was not a decision I made lightly, but after working in three different parts of the business, collaborating with countless Amazonians, spending time with hundreds of customers, traveling the world with colleagues who’ve become close friends, and achieving some proud milestones, it was time for me to pursue a different kind of work. I wanted to go back to working in startups.

I’m often asked what it’s like to work at Amazon? Putting some distance between my departure and writing this post was important, as I believe there’s added clarity that comes from removing oneself from an environment that was equal parts intense, challenging, and yet fulfilling. It brings perspective. After nearly nine months of distance, I feel ready to share some of the key learnings and advice from my time as an Amazonian.

So here goes…

The Hiring Loop is Tough
One of the things you will appreciate in hindsight, is the toughness of the interview process. There is a quality bar that exists within Amazon’s recruitment practice, and it’s there for a reason. Attracting the best talent in the industry as an employer isn’t enough. You also need to go through a rigorous assessment and selection process before even making it through the door. This was and remains the hardest interview I’ve ever been subjected to in my 20+ year career.

There are countless articles and materials online that break-down what the process entails, so I won’t go into the semantics. My advice is simple: preparation. Your recruiter wants you to succeed and will give you all the information you need to come out the other end successful. Listen to the guidance. Familiarize yourself with the leadership principals (LP), prepare at least 3-4 examples for each LP that demonstrate alignment to the company values, and follow the S-T-A-R framework.

Your interviewers will be tough. They will also be polite, engaging, and interested in not just who you are, but also how you construct your ideas, the quality of the examples you provide, and your ability to articulate your thoughts with precision. It’s thanks to this hiring rigour that you will end up working in a high-performing environment with some amazing people. I can point to countless examples where I’ve had to elevate my own thinking just by being exposed to colleagues and peers of an exceptional calibre. Trust me, it makes the experience.

Live and Die by the LPs
I have worked in companies where the company mission and values have been poorly defined, disingenuous—or in some cases, non-existent. So I will forgive you for finding the in-your-face, confrontational approach Amazonians adopt to the LPs somewhat comical. I was one of those people.

You will quickly find that the LPs are no laughing matter. They permeate across the business and will regularly be used by Amazonians of every tenure to support discussions or to weaponize during crucial decision-making. Yes, you’ll find them blazed across walls in every office. But they go far beyond token sloganism. Find the two or three that inherently connect to who you are (my favourites: Learn & Be Curious; Insist on High Standards; Think Big), and allow the LPs to support you through how to create impact in your role.

Work Hard at Becoming a Better Writer
I’ve been maintaining this blog on and off since 2014. While I don’t consider myself a writer per se, I knew I had reasonably OK written communication. Or so I thought. One of the skills I will take away and treasure is how much my writing has improved because of the sheer volume of documents you will produce during your time as an Amazonian.

This can be quite jarring for new employees for several reasons. Firstly, if you come from a culture of PowerPoint and are now expected to produce narrative-form documents, the switch requires a lot of unlearn-relearn behaviour. Writing isn’t something you just pick-up. It’s like a muscle you must constantly work at and develop, which realistically can only be achieved over time and by writing more. Secondly, the quality bar for written documents is high, and goes beyond clarity of thought and the quality of the ideas presented. You will be scrutinized for structure, grammar and expressing yourself with concise and precise language. For colleagues who English is not their native tongue, this can be an additional source of stress from the outset. And lastly, the experience of your first narrative read will be a test of character. I remember mine very well and hated everyone in the room that day for picking apart a document I had put my heart and soul into perfecting. Don’t take it personally. It’s part of the fabric of how business is conducted at Amazon, and the net result will be the best version of a document you could have ever written.

Be Prepared for Scrutiny and Critique
This goes hand in hand with my last point above. It is essential you adopt a mindset where you’re open to taking feedback, and ready to debate your point of view with anyone. You can’t expect to be surrounded by bright and opinionated colleagues, without ever being challenged in ways that can sometimes come across as unnecessary or abrasive. The intentions for the most part are always good. Even though it may not feel that way in the moment, your peers and management team are there to encourage you to do better. Be better. It requires developing thick skin and the right psyche, which is chartacter-building if nothing else.

If you’re more of an intuition-based personality type, remember that data is king at Amazon. Building a series of axioms is fine, so long as you can present hard facts or solid anecdotes to support your ideas. Socialize these early and let others help guide how they shape up. It’s good practice ahead of the narrative read, and I would always make time to provide preliminary feedback to colleagues knowing how valuable it is to the process.

Learn and Be Curious
One of the aspects of working at Amazon I enjoyed enormously was the opportunities afforded to all employees for internal mobility. There are so many facets to the business, and the enormous success of the company meant we were perpetually in hiring mode.

As an employee, you are encouraged to be inquisitive. It’s one of the LPs that resonated with me the most, and the catalyst for wanting to expose myself to different parts of the organization. While it would be impossible to master everything about your line of business, in some ways, the organization actively encourages you to think about where else you can implant yourself and apply your skills and expertise.

There is an 18-24 month itch that starts to take over many an Amazonian. It tends to culminate in one of several outcomes—either getting promoted, taking on a new role within your existing company, or moving to a completely new part of the Amazon org. I am one of those incredibly fortunate people who was given some great growth opportunities. While I joined to help build the startup business, getting a chance to work on the Games side of Amazon (an industry I had no prior experience of), and then being part of a cross-portfolio special projects team were the sort of opportunities that enriched my time with the company. I felt trusted and empowered to make the most of my career, while staying curious and learning new things.

The People Make It
It would be naïve to think you will like everyone you work with. The same goes for Amazonians. You will most definitely encounter some shitty types that will eventually get managed out of the business as the system corrects itself. Some will leave. Some you’ll just learn to co-exist with. But then there are the ones you bond with, the ones who challenge and support you, lift you up, make you laugh, have your back, teach you things, push you to be better. Thank you for everything. I appreciate you.

Writing this post, I am painfully aware that I’ve failed to acknowledge some of the common criticisms made of Amazon as an employer. This is not the focus of my piece. No employer is perfect and there was much at Amazon I instinctively felt the need to rally against, because it didn’t align with my view of the world at the time. Some of these views I still maintain today. However my intention in writing this piece was to preserve a record of the things that had a positive impact on me as an individual. It doesn’t remove my ability to empathise or find common ground with employees who have expressed their frustration with the company. It just wasn’t the experience I had, and therefore I feel ill-equipped to comment on someone else’s point of view.

To end on a more upbeat final note, I would not change or trade my time as an Amazonian for anything. Those five years exist as an important period of my life that I know I’ll never get to experience again. I learnt a lot about myself, which has ultimately made me a better Marketer, thinker, and human.