Photo: Flickr/Interop Events
Amazon changed the world with cloud computing, giving the average Joe access to supercomputer power at ridiculously cheap prices.Werner Vogels is Amazon’s CTO and a chief architect of its cloud. He is also one of most innovative people in the tech industry. He keeps Amazon Web Services (AWS) two steps ahead of the competition, even as countless new clouds come online to compete.
We wanted to know how he does it. So we asked. His advice can be boiled to to these six tips …
- Innovation comes from small teams that work directly with customers.
- It is easy to prioritise new projects when the engineers really know the customer.
- Amazon works to lower costs for customers, not just lower costs for itself. “We’ve reduced prices 19 times over the past 6 years, and this an area we will continue to focus,” he says.
- Amazon stays focused on the the next new thing to build instead of the success its had in the past.
- Anyone can be a visionary if the person nurtures creativity and works in an environment where new ideas are welcomed. (Note: Here are nine tips on how to do that.)
- People can get better at innovation as they age.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of the full Q&A.
BI: How do you keep you keep your team “creative” and “innovative” year after year?
WV: It’s important to note that at Amazon we strongly believe in the power of small independent teams and that extends all the way to the leadership level. We are a team of people innovating on behalf of the customer. This means that we closely involve our customers and make sure we’re building the things our customers really want. Being closely engaged with your customers is incredibly motivating. Our process is to release a service into beta that is useful to a lot of people, get customer feedback and rapidly begin adding the bells and whistles based in large part on what customers want and need from the services. The Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), which provides resizable compute capacity, is a great example of this process.
Amazon EC2 first launched in August 2006. Over the years we’ve launched 13 new Amazon EC2 instance types including instances designed specifically for high-performance computing applications, which are now used by global enterprises in science, research, engineering, auto manufacturing, media, and oil and energy industries, to name a few.
BI: How do you decide which new projects to pursue and which ones to bench?
WV: One of the philosophies at Amazon and a philosophy that we drive hard at AWS is that customers come first in everything we do. We don’t write a line of code until we fully define the product. We first think about what the customer wants, then work backwards from there. We do this so we can prioritise development based on what our customers tell us they need and allow our engineering teams to work more efficiently with minimal stops and starts. This is a process we defined early on at Amazon and a process we used when building the AWS business and still use today.
BI: When thinking over your career at Amazon, what are a few of your proudest moments?
WV: It’s been very rewarding to be part of the AWS team that’s constantly building and launching new services and features that is providing businesses with a completely new way to run virtually any business that uses technology. Amazon S3 and Amazon EC2 gave businesses and developers on-demand access to highly scalable storage and compute resources, changing the IT landscape forever. Amazon CloudFront revolutionised the CDN business model.
Several years ago I was part of the team that published a paper on the details of Amazon’s Dynamo technology, which was one of the first non-relational databases developed at Amazon. We took the strong distributed systems principles of the original Dynamo design to build a brand new and fully managed NoSQL service, Amazon DynamoDB. This was a proud moment for me and the AWS team as we took everything we learned from building large-scale, non-relational databases for Amazon.com and combined it with our experience building cloud computing services at AWS to build a brand new database service that removes the stumbling blocks businesses face when managing large scale data.
BI: Why do you think AWS has been so successful?
WV: If you take a step back and look at what’s happening in the technology industry, it’s really a fundamental and rapid shift in how technology will be acquired for years to come.
Before AWS, businesses would take on the massive capital investment of building their own infrastructure or contract with a vendor for a fixed amount of data centre capacity that they might or might not use. This choice meant paying for wasted capacity or having to worry that the amount of capacity they forecasted wouldn’t keep up with the pace with their growth. Businesses spent time and money managing their own data centre or a co-location facility, which meant time not spent on growing their actual business or differentiating their offering for customers.
AWS offers a completely new way to run virtually any business that uses technology. With AWS businesses incur no up-front expenses or long-term commitments, capital expenses become variable expenses, and users pay only for the resources that are used and can add or shed those resources on demand.
With AWS, customers can choose their operating system, middleware and programming language. They are not locked in to one choice. AWS also gives customers a range of pricing options to choose from. For example, Amazon EC2 pricing options include: on-demand instances, reserved instances and spot instances.
We’re a company that works hard to lower its costs so that we can pass savings back to our customers. If you look at the history of AWS, that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve reduced prices 19 times over the past 6 years, and this an area we will continue to focus.
BI: Many times a company will “invent” something, have success and then spend all of its time defending its turf until it becomes irrelevant by the next great thing. Why hasn’t this happened with Amazon?
WV: We are proud of our accomplishments but we don’t dwell on them – there is always a very long list of services and features that we can be delivering for our customers and that’s where we put our focus.
BI: AWS seems to build most of its own stuff internally instead of acquiring tech? Why is that and what is it about that philosophy that makes your cloud “more innovative”?
WV: AWS is unique in that it was developed from a skill we already had at Amazon.com – managing technology at very high scale. One of the key reasons we got into this business several years ago was that we believed we were very good at running highly scalable, highly reliable, cost-effective data centres and infrastructure services. Six years later, after hundreds of thousands of customers, and every imaginable use case, we’re much better at it today than we were six years ago. We’ve found that building our own technology was the best way to provide highly reliable, ultra-scalable services.
BI: Once enterprises adopt clouds and consumers have their personal cloud, then what? What we will be able to do at our jobs that we couldn’t do before the cloud? How will this change our personal lives?
WV: I have no crystal ball, but I believe we’ve just scratched the surface in terms of the innovation cloud computing is driving. One such area is eHealth, which brings together so many aspects of modern workflow: from sensors and mobile devices, to data analytics, to collaborative healthcare. There are major changes only just starting, but all driven by ubiquitous availability of compute, storage, analytics and other fundamental cloud services.
BI: Do you think being a visionary is something a person is born with or is it a skill that people learn over time (by visionary, I mean the ability to come up with game-changing ideas over and over again)?
WV: All children are born with creativity and the ability to invent. Many of us lose these fundamental skills because of “environmental impact.” The manner in which those skills can return depends on how much you are able to free yourself of the constrained environmental thinking.
BI: Who are your role models?
WV: Two people that have clearly shaped my thinking have been Jeff Bezos and Jim grey. Jeff because, next to having many other qualities, has shown me how to apply vision to daily operation.
Jim grey the famous researcher, who was regrettably lost at sea, has shown me that innovation and invention are fundamental traits not related to age. That age is not something that hampers you as an innovator it actually makes you stronger, which with an open mind you are able to attack ever-bigger problems as you mature.
BI: Can you share an anecdote about Amazon’s technology or its cloud in which you struggled to get others to understand what you (and your team) saw … how you got them to understand and support you and how you (and your team felt) felt when you were proved right?
WV: When we first launched the AWS business more than six years ago, there were certainly people who didn’t understand why Amazon would get into the technology infrastructure business. And now today, with hundreds of thousands of customers around the world – from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies to government agencies – we’re asked less and less about why we launched AWS.