The Reluctant Server Admin

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

Customer Obsession

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

  1. Cus­tomer Obses­sion
  2. Own­er­ship
  3. Invent & Sim­pli­fy
  4. Are Right, a Lot
  5. Learn & Be Curi­ous
  6. Hire & Devel­op the Best
  7. Insist on the High­est Stan­dards
  8. Think Big
  9. Bias for Action
  10. Fru­gal­i­ty
  11. Earn Trust
  12. Dive Deep
  13. Have Back­bone; Dis­agree and Com­mit
  14. Deliv­er Results