Andy Jassy lays out 8 keys to building the right culture at re:Invent

The general theme of the customary business strategy component of the AWS CEO’s Re:Invent keynote is that management rather than technology holds the keys to building an effective culture of innovation.

Andy Jassy presenting at Re:invent 2020, in a pretty fair imitation of a real Vegas event

Amazon Web Services [AWS] CEO Andy Jassy traditionally kicks off his opening keynote at a physical AWS re:Invent with some thoughts on a business topic –  before getting into several hours of announcing new services. Well, there wasn’t much traditional about the 2020 AWS re:Invent, which, like every event since early February, has been virtual. However, while the event itself has been stretched over three weeks – one of the moves many companies have made in the age of COVID – a couple things remained constant. First, unlike many of his CEO peers, who have listened to media experts’ advice that one can’t possibly talk for more than 15 minutes at a virtual event without having your audience wander off, Jassy had his usual three hour slot, on an imitation Vegas virtual stage, not from his home office or rec room. And while some of the three hours was taken up by virtual appearances by customers, the vast majority was him. Second, Jassy  kicked off his virtual appearance with a business topic, as he typically does – an assessment of eight keys for organizations to build the right culture. Unusually for a tech CEO – very few of the keys had anything to do with technology – and that one exception was a shameless plug for AWS.

Jassy focused intensely on the need for leadership to drive innovation, against the natural forces within an organization to avoid making risky changes.

“You have to have the leadership will to invent and reinvent,” he stressed. “You  have to be maniacal and relentless about getting to the truth – and have the courage to pick the company up and force them to change and move.”

The reason for this is rooted in his second point. If something will benefit customers, and you don’t move, a competitor will.

“You can’t fight gravity,” he stressed. “If things benefit customers, things will change. In the late 1990s, Amazon had a retail inventory business. We started seeing companies like eBay offering third party sellers, and they shipped products to customers. We had a debate about this, because we didn’t believe these third-party people would take care of customers the same way we did. But ultimately, we built a marketplace with third party sellers because we know you can’t fight gravity. We now sell more than half of Amazon retail products through third party selling.”

Jassy’s third and fourth points were flip sides of the same coin.

“One is to have talent that’s hungry to invent,” he stated. “You have to make sure you have builders who are curious about learning. But you also need to guard against the opposite. You want people to solve problems for customers and not just because they like the technology and think its cool.”

That’s an issue, Jassy said, because it’s only natural for developers to build things that they themselves think are cool.

“At AWS, we are customer focused,” he said. “We build things to help customers build their businesses.”

Speed is the fifth of Jassy’s keys.

“Speed is not preordained,” he said. “Speed is a choice. If you don’t have the ability to have speed, you won’t be able to invent when you need to.”

The sixth piece of advice to customers was not to ‘complexify’ – in other words not to hedge bets with many vendors when driving innovation.

“The reality is that for companies making big transformations, it’s much easier to be successful if you choose a partner,” he stated. “Then later on, if you want to layer on more providers, go for it.”

That sixth tip veered towards a technology recommendation, and the seventh actually crossed the line, to become a pitch for AWS.

“Use the platform with the broadest and deepest set of tools,” he said. “Why would you go with a platform that has a fraction of the functionality of the leader? We also have a much broader partner ecosystem – with Sis and ISVs who adapt for each platform. They all start with AWS because of market position. We just have a very different level of scale than anyone else.”

Jassy’s final point was an emphasis that the leadership team has to pull everything together with aggressive top-down goals.

“This forces the organization to understand that they are not going to be able to dip their toe in the water for a number of years,” he stated.

“Almost none of these keys are technological,” Jassy concluded. “They are about leadership. Companies who aren’t already reinventing themselves in some way are unwinding, whether they realize it or not.”

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