UPDATED 09:55 EDT / DECEMBER 15 2020

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AWS chief Andy Jassy on managing during COVID – and beyond

If there’s any year when Amazon Web Services Inc.’s annual re:Invent conference has resonated the most, it’s 2020.

After all, the COVID-19 pandemic has sent nearly every business scrambling to reinvent themselves. And when it comes to technology, that means cloud computing — where AWS remains the far-and-away leader even amid heightening competition from the likes of Microsoft Corp. and Google LLC.

“If you’re not in the process of figuring out as a company how you’re going to reinvent your customer experience and reinvent who you are, you are starting to unwind. AWS Chief Executive Andy Jassy (pictured) told me in an exclusive pre-event interview. “The type of technology that we’re providing is allowing companies to totally change who they are and new companies from a standing start to do so.”

In this final installment of my four-part interview with Jassy, he digs into how AWS has managed under the cloud of COVID-19, as well as how AWS has contributed to helping other businesses and governments as well contend with the challenges of the pandemic. He also provided insights into his overall management philosophy as well as how he’s coping as a manager and as a family man during a very strange 2020.

In previous installments of the interview, Jassy revealed how he aims to reset the competitive landscapeoutlined how AWS aims to reshape computing in the cloud and how it hopes to democratize machine learning.

Check out all the re:Invent coverage through this week by SiliconANGLE, its market research sister company Wikibon and its livestreaming studio theCUBE. This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

Managing through COVID

Q: How are customers managing through the COVID-19 disruption, and how are you managing amid all the disruption?

A: I believed this before COVID, but it’s true even more so now: If you’re not in the process of figuring out as a company how you’re going to reinvent your customer experience and reinvent who you are, you are starting to unwind. The world changes so fast. And you know how hard it is to build sustainable companies, look at how few companies have been able to do it. If you look at the Fortune 500 from the 1970s, only 83 companies or 17% of them still are in the Fortune 500. If you look just 20 years ago, only half of them are still in the Fortune 500.

The type of technology that we’re providing is allowing companies to totally change who they are and new companies from a standing start to do so. If you’re a leader and you’re running a company either as the CEO or one of the senior leaders at a company, if you’re not thinking about how to build a culture and how to operate in a way where you know how to reinvent, and then you’re giving your developers and builders the tools to reinvent the customer experience, your business, you’re going to have big trouble.

Q: How has the pandemic changed how companies are looking at technology?

A: What we saw in COVID is that every company in the world, including Amazon, spend a lot of cycles trying to figure out how to save money. So that had an impact on short-term results and appropriately. We spent most of our time in the first three to six months of the pandemic in the field mostly trying to help our customers find ways to save money. Because our business model and the way we think about our business long-term is that we’re only going to succeed long-term if our customers do. We’re always willing to forgo short-term benefit to help build longer business relationships, our customers being successful. Then our business will ride along with that.

But what I also saw is that when you have these big discontinuous events like a pandemic is, it forces companies to take a step back and think about “What do I need to do differently?” And a lot of companies that we were talking to, a lot of enterprises who have been talking and talking about making these transformations to the cloud but really hadn’t done very much and were dipping their toes in the water for two, three, four years — all of a sudden they decided, “Why are we running our own infrastructure? It’s much harder to run. It’s not as cost effective. We consume a lot of resources. It’s not as quick. We don’t have main capabilities.”

And in the COVID crisis, it was much harder for them to deal if they weren’t running predominantly in the cloud versus those that did. A very large number of those companies that have been talking about moving to the cloud have shifted to having real plans around moving to the cloud and having real migration plans.

Desperation-driven reinvention

Q: So your guidance is assess, reinvent, truly get up on the reinvention playbook quickly. Otherwise you’re going to be history.

A: Yeah. I think if you’re a company that wants to reinvent, it’s also hard to just flip a switch and revamp. Most of the reinvention of big companies happens when you’re in desperate times where it’s kind of a crap shoot whether or not you can reinvent yourself. It’s kind of like borrowing money. Everyone will tell you that the worst time to borrow money is when you’re desperate. You get bad rates and sometimes you can’t find someone who will give you the money. It’s much better off to be reinventing when you’re healthy as a company.

Same thing’s true here. You’ve got to think about it proactively and it takes a lot of things. You need a leader and you’re going to have to have the leadership that will get to the truth of where you really are. By the way, there are loads of people inside companies who are constantly trying to obfuscate and shade what the leaders say. Sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for self-preservation reasons, but leaders have to be great at getting at the truth and knowing where they have problems with their customers and in the market, and then having the courage to lead the team to make a big change.

And part of that, by the way, is you also have to be willing to acknowledge that you can’t fight gravity. The truth is that if something’s going to happen because technology enables it, whether you want it to or not, whether it’s convenient or not, it is going to happen.

So what do leaders need to do?

You have to have the will to get to the truth, the will to invent, the will to not fight gravity. And then you need the right lean-forward people on your team that want to invent. At a lot of enterprises, have you ever noticed that it’s kind of when people who had been there a really long time leave, those companies actually start to reinvent themselves? And it’s not that you can’t reinvent if you have people who’ve been there a long time. It’s just harder for people who have been doing things the same way for a long period of time to change and to want to change. They’re proud of what they built and they’re not sure they want to learn new things.

The reality is that you need builders who see what technology enables and are hungry to reinvent what they’re doing. And then you have to have a certain amount of speed that you instill in the culture. And if you don’t have that speed, if you move at a glacial pace, and to you, change happens in the order of six to 12 months instead of a couple of months or a few years instead of a year, you’re going to have problems competing in this space. Because the cloud has allowed a lot of companies to invent in a much more rapid pace than ever before.

Q: It reminds me of “The Godfather.” You don’t want to be Tom Hagen, in that scene where Michael Corleone says, “Tom, you’re not a wartime consigliere.” 

A: I had a conversation in the last few years with a CIO of a big healthcare and life sciences company whom I really respect. He’s super-smart and has done a great job. They weren’t really using the cloud. I spent some time with him explaining why I just thought they were missing the boat. And he said, “Andy, everything you said is totally right. We need to be reinventing ourselves. We can save money. We can move faster. And all that will be for the next CIO to figure out. It will not happen under my watch.”

He retired like a year later and they hired a new CIO, and now they’re one of our larger life sciences healthcare companies, but they’ve lost three, four years of what they could have been doing much more quickly. You can never measure what you lose by moving more slowly.

Joining the fight against COVID

Q: So now more than ever, necessity drives innovation.

A: If you look at what happened in COVID, we had over 5,000 customers who had to send all of their people home, send all of their customer service agents home. And over 5,000 customers spun up Connect, our call center service, remotely and changed the way they did customer service and contact centers almost overnight. In the old days, the contact center services would have been taking consultants and thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars and it would be hard to spin them up and spin them down. [Now] you can get going in minutes and you can scale the agents up or down. You only pay for when the agents interact with customers. We’ve had a couple of CEOs of banks who’ve spun up Connect who said, “We just wouldn’t have been able to function remotely if it weren’t for AWS and the cloud.”

When all is said and done, I believe that COVID, while a period that none of us would have wished on anybody or ever want to repeat, will end up accelerating the cloud by a few years.

Q: Has AWS played any role in trying to enable a COVID-19 vaccine or otherwise help this human crisis?

A: A lot of companies are doing everything they can to help find solutions to the virus as quickly as possible and stop the amount of people that are dying and getting sick, and we’ve tried to do everything we can to help as well, and it’s been across a few different types of efforts. Iin the earliest days, Amazon was just trying to allow people to have items that they needed, food and personal protective equipment and whatever they needed to survive, and AWS was trying to enable companies and governments to have business continuity as everybody was forced overnight to move away from the office to home. 

Think about what this pandemic would have been like, John, five, 10 years ago without videoconferencing. Zoom was able to scale and meet the crazy demand of everybody working from home because they were able to leverage AWS, and they run the overwhelming majority of their infrastructure in the cloud on AWS. I think it changed what people could get done across businesses, and it also changed human connection. I think people really appreciate it as they can’t see family and friends and travel the same way, to be able to do it this way is much better than doing it via phone call.

What else?

We also tried to help governments. Governments had to completely change what they were doing overnight. If you look at the work we did with the state of Rhode Island or the state of West Virginia where they just couldn’t pay unemployment checks, they had old legacy applications that just were really slow. In almost two weeks, we rebuilt those and also allowed them to use Connect, and they were able to pay those in a much faster way and allow people to get relief when they really needed it. The Small Business Administration here in the U.S. built on top of AWS and that allowed them to actually distribute those checks in a way that would have taken months more.

So a lot of the role that we played early on was just trying to allow the world to function, and we had a role in that and we spent a lot of cycles and work working with different partners and customers to make that possible.

Q: Has AWS helped on fighting the virus itself?

A: We built a COVID data lake where we partnered with a number of organizations and allowed them to store those items in the data lake for free. It allowed a lot of researchers to start doing various experiments to try to find the right solutions to these viruses, whether it’s vaccines or whether it’s medicine. We also partnered with a number of companies that were building vaccines: Moderna, which built their COVID-19 [vaccine] candidate on top of AWS, they built an entire digital manufacturing supply chain on us where they were using compute and data warehousing and machine learning. They went from the traditional 20 months that it usually takes to find a candidate for a vaccine to 42 days. That just doesn’t happen without the cloud, without AWS.

And we’ve been involved with Pfizer and a number of other partners who are working really hard to find vaccines and help us get through this pandemic, and we help however our customers and partners want us to help. And a lot of it has been just trying to enable them to move as quickly as possible and give them help in architecting what they’re building to be able to build in a fault-tolerant way, but also, so they can move for speed.

The human cost of 2020

Q: Personally, what have you learned this past year? How has this weird time tested you, your family, your leadership?

A: I don’t know if what I’ve learned is groundbreaking, but I’d say a few things. On the personal side, I learned that I really miss being around people in the team, and I think that being on videoconferencing all day is one thing, but it’s a very different thing than being in the same room as somebody. There’s just something that happens between human beings and the connection they have when you can look each other in the eye and you can riff on one another. I’ve missed being around the team even more than I thought I would.

I also think human beings need things to look forward to. Part of what happens sometimes when you get older in life is that you run out of things to look forward to and it makes it harder to be happy and excited about what you’re doing. And COVID has just canceled a lot of things that we all look forward to, and I think that’s hard. It’s hard for everybody. It’s hard for the team, it’s hard for individuals, it’s hard for families, it’s hard personally. All of us … have to find other ways to be happy and to get enjoyment.

Q: Any upsides?

A: The very best thing that’s happened from COVID personally is just the extra family time that we’ve gotten. My daughter, who’s a freshman in college, she’s home and is taking a gap year, and the four of us, because I have two kids, the four of us have dinner every single night and there’s just a level of closeness and connection and fun that we’ve had being together that you just wouldn’t get outside of these times.

Workwise, I think it’s changed the way we think about hiring. We always wanted to have a critical mass of people for people’s development, and I think being forced into working remotely has changed our thinking about how effectively people can work remotely if they’re willing to work the right hours and collaborate.

It also changes the way we think about meetings. In the past all the meetings have been located physically, and everyone who’s dialed in remotely is on a screen, but they’re off on the sides, a little hard to see them in conference rooms, and they just don’t get to participate the same way. When you are doing all your meetings virtually, everyone just gets a square. That has really leveled the playing field, and we’ve gotten involvement and engagement and contribution from so many more people that we’ve learned from, that I think that there’s a piece that I think we’re going to capture forever in what we do, even when people are back in the office a different way.

Q: What are the biggest challenges of the current office and work situation?

A: One of the biggest challenges that we’ve really had to grapple with is it’s harder to invent virtually. I think that a lot of invention is messy, and you go down a lot of dark paths and a lot of dead ends, and that’s just part of inventing. And when you’re virtual, the technology is so much better than before, but it’s still such that when two people speak at the same time, it kind of cancels the voice out, so people don’t do it. So people talk for a longer period of time and people don’t feel as comfortable challenging one another, and they don’t riff on what each other were saying and challenge the same way.

So as leaders, you’ve got to recognize that and find ways to really provoke the type of challenge and debate and disagreement that might not naturally happen when everybody’s virtual, and you just have to think about invention differently. I think the team’s done a really good job of it, but every day, we’re learning new things about how to operate virtually at scale. But it takes a lot of work. It’s different from when you’re in the office.

Photo: AWS/livestream

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