I got my first taste of what it’s like to create and build something of my own when I was in high school. I would spend all of my time outside of my schoolwork obsessively working on a fansite for the band Radiohead. Eventually, the site got pretty popular, and the band started sending me exclusive news and swag. They even invited me to shows and events where I got to meet them. During my senior year, a startup approached me about purchasing the site for a community they were building. I agreed and the money funded my college education. I remember the passion and excitement I felt in building something that truly mattered to others. It was a fun send-off to college.
I graduated with a Computer Science degree from the University of Waterloo which has an incredible internship program. You do six internships that are four months each, and graduate with two years of real work experience. My final internship was at Amazon in the fall of 2004. Upon graduating, I joined the company as a full-time software development engineer. Since then, I’ve worked in a few areas of the company including retail, devices, and operations. I’ve even had the opportunity to help invent and build new products for our customers like the first Kindle. Now, I lead our Last Mile Delivery and Technology teams, which develop delivery programs and technology to help make deliveries possible all around the world. If you’ve ever seen one of Amazon’s navy-blue delivery vans, you’ve seen part of what we do.
I’ve been lucky to have had the chance to build inventive products and technology for customers while learning along the way. Here are some of my best pieces of advice for anyone hoping to grow at any stage of their life or career.
1.Learn from failure
I was just six months out of school and working on the Amazon retail website when I made a code change to the order confirmation page that did not go well. Because of my mistake, customers saw a blank white screen after they made a purchase instead of the order details and suggested products they would typically see. This was a really tough failure for a new college hire to go through. But the experience helped me learn and led to the development of mechanisms and guardrails to prevent similar situations from happening again. We all make mistakes, and we should always learn from them to improve for the future.
Over the years I’ve had to really work at challenging myself so I could continue learning. There are a few key strategies that I use that have really helped me. First, put yourself in uncomfortable situations. For example, I’ve struggled for years with public speaking, and I’ve looked for every opportunity to practice. Second, take every interaction as an opportunity to learn something. I’m constantly surrounded by people who know more than me, and I try to soak up as much information and value as I can from every moment. Finally, when you don't know something, seek out an expert who you can learn from to get better. At the end of the day, learning will require discomfort, but it’s well worth it.
Back in 2010, the Devices organization invested in four big, risky projects. The first one never saw the light of day. The second, which I worked on, was the Fire Phone and it was not successful. In fact, I would probably characterize it as one of the biggest failures in Amazon's history. The third and fourth were Echo with Alexa and Fire TV, which have been incredibly successful products for our customers. We planted a lot of seeds, and while some of them didn’t grow, the others flourished. Innovation requires some amount of risk taking and being comfortable with potential failure.
Amazon has an annual planning period where each organization produces a document that outlines the vision and roadmap for the next year and presents it to senior leadership. A few years ago, we felt good about the Last Mile Delivery plan going into the discussion, but the leader we presented to said, “This is a good plan, but it's really boring. Where are all the big ideas?” And he was right. We went back and brainstormed a number of crazy, moonshot ideas, and one of those ideas led us to building a part of our organization and corresponding products for our customers that play an important role to this day. Sometimes we get stuck in the day-to-day, and it’s helpful to keep thinking bigger and set the right mechanisms to encourage our teams to do so.
5.Make room at the table for others
In 2008, Oprah wanted to interview Jeff Bezos about the Kindle as part of her “Favorite Things” list. I was part of that trip to help make sure the technical aspects went well. After the recording, our group, including Jeff, went out to dinner to celebrate. I walked into the room and was looking for a place to sit. The person sitting across from Jeff stood up, walked over to me, and said, “I interact with Jeff frequently enough. Why don't you take my seat so you can talk to him tonight?” I was one of the most junior people in the room, and this gesture made me feel like an equal. That moment has stayed with me over the years, serving as a great lesson to be a good ally and sponsor, and to give opportunities to others.
6.Never doubt your value
In the past, I often received feedback to speak up more in large meetings. I struggled with this for a long time for a few reasons—one being that I wanted to make sure I added value to the conversation. Sometimes I felt like the things in my head were obvious. I’ve grown to appreciate that it’s easy to underestimate the value you add to a conversation. Beyond that, by doing a bit of research ahead of meetings, coming up with questions and preparing in advance, and understanding the viewpoints and experiences of the audience, you can more confidently speak up in meetings and ensure your voice adds value.
I hope these lessons I’ve shared can help you to learn and grow into a career you love. If you’re interested in learning a bit more, check out leadership tips from Amazon’s Vice President of People Experience and Technology, J. Ofori Agboka.