Article 1 of 14 on Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles
This is one part in a series relating my professional history to Amazon’s 14 leadership principles. It was originally conceived to practice my storytelling in preparation for Amazon interviews. I didn’t get the job(s). Which is fine, totally fine.
Amazon Leadership Principle #1
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.
The Reluctant Server Admin
First, let’s look at Amazon’s word choice; “Customer” and “Obsession”. Customer, in the context of software design, reaches beyond just the end user. Customers are also your stakeholders and dependent teams, anyone who might consume your work. Obsession is a powerful term. Beyond the dictionary definition, obsession is deeply personal. It pushes nearly all other topics from your focus, it provides no choice, it is your train of thought.
Microsoft, Redmond, USA. A time long gone when software shipped in boxes, written onto compact discs, 2005ish.
I had recently joined the design-poor Server Division as a fresh UW design school graduate. My job: design the UI for the next great Small Business Server release. It’s goal: to enable non-technical small business owners with a dead simple, self-service yet feature rich server administration interface. Before the cloud, business owners would buy and operate their own hardware. Crazy I know. My design would have to be so easy to grok that any mom-and-pop-shop could rig their server for the betterment of the bottomline. All I had to do was design it. It was time to get obsessed.
Before UX design, I swam in the warm and dark waters of fine art. From a very young age it taught me patience and gave me grounds to practice single-mindedness. Fine art feeds on emotion, so I learned to pour myself into that water, then once I had a grip on my vision, there was no letting go until I had pulled that work out of the dark water for all to see. I didn’t label it Obsession then, but it fits.
The targets of my focus were both the more senior Microsofties, which was pretty much everyone around me, and the end-user small business owner. As a young designer, I could leverage my recently acquired design ideals to my advantage. One of the great things about design is that you are equipped to craft all of your output to meet the needs of your Customer. Every email, design option, and presentation was designed to the Nth degree. It was, of course, my goal to consistently exceed expectations, and I took every opportunity to design myself into that mold. This is both self-serving and altruistic; I would look good in the eyes of my superiors and the product would be user-centered.
My knowledge of internal customers expectations improved with each daily interaction. Each passing week taught me how to wow them more and more. Having earned the team’s trust, I set out to learn as much about my small business owners as possible. My big gamble was that this knowledge would give my beautiful, still imaginary user interface the best chance to succeed in the design-acidic Server Division.
Historically advanced-slash-boring admin tasks such as managing Active Directory users and groups, configuring network storage, setting up security, and deploying file sharing needed to become intuitive and obvious. These users knew their craft, whatever it was, but were not comfortable “using computers”. I wanted to deliver these blue-collar Americans the simplest possible server admin experience despite working in a Server Division where this design was as foreign as a database key constraint.
I made some like-minded friends in UX research. In my experience, Microsoft excels at UX research. My pals armed with personas, which I marched around like the Army of Design Rationale. Personas gave me something to work for and work from, to relate the need for simplicity and clarity to the product team. In each design review, I faced crusty, tech-first opposition but I brought weaponized usability data designed to drive the data home. The Server mossbacks didn’t argue much with data. I knew my users well now. It was paying off to have done those in-person interviews, those one-way mirror usability studies, and all that on-site research in places like Little Rock, Arkansas, where computers were still beige.
Days and nights were consumed with this deliciously complex challenge. Cliché as it may be, I remember a leap of inspiration about the navigation motif that occurred to me during a morning shower. My focus shifted from learning who my user was, to delivering my work for them. Progress battled forward. These battles reinforced my user-first position and earned the respect of my team and stakeholders. My UI solidified into a market-ready product and won some ground for design in Server.
I learned to never back down in my advocation for the user, even when going toe-to-toe with a VP or a big-brained senior dev. It was the conceptually simplified, user-first product that shipped. I’m happy with the success of Small Business Server, such that it was, and know it was due in part to my practiced ability to commit wholly to my work.
This is an old story relative to my current experience but it set a foundation that I have depended on since. User first, user always. I hadn’t before used the term “obsession” but if not for my focus on learning everything I could about my customers, I know my work would not have been as fruitful.
Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles
- Customer Obsession
- Invent & Simplify
- Are Right, a Lot
- Learn & Be Curious
- Hire & Develop the Best
- Insist on the Highest Standards
- Think Big
- Bias for Action
- Earn Trust
- Dive Deep
- Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
- Deliver Results