Ever wonder what it’s like to work for Amazon? What’s the average workday like in the world’s most valuable Internet company, and the second-largest private employer in the U.S.? What is the environment like? How diverse and inclusive are the teams? At the 2021 BEYA STEM Conference, six Amazon leaders convened over a Zoom call to answer these questions and more.
One of the conversation’s main topics was how the leaders stay abreast of technology in a company known for never-ending innovation.
“You need a really strong foundation to stay up-to-date with technology trends, and you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Dawit Bereket, senior solutions architect manager. “We do a lot of just-in-time learning, where you learn what you need to know to support your customer. For example, if you go to a customer meeting and something pops up that you’re not an expert in, find the experts and spend a half-hour or half a day learning to give them what they need.”
Drew Jelani, a software development engineer, says that, unlike many other companies, Amazon gives its developers freedom in how they choose to solve problems, leaving room for creativity and innovation. “If I as an engineer have a particular library or system that I think is useful for a given problem, and the team agrees it’s good to use, then we use it,” he says. “Leaning into ownership at the team and (organization) level is critical for us to stay ahead of the curve.”
Patrick Cook, senior technical program manager, agrees that Amazon’s openness to ideas and the ownership it imparts on its employees is crucial to innovation. However, he adds that this allows the company always to provide the best solutions for the customer.
“We have innovation days where everyone brings ideas in. We write them down, build solutions together, and rank the results based on customer need,” he says of his department. “So it’s always a combination of involving everybody, putting things into practice, and prioritizing them in a way that focuses on the customer.”
Jameka Pankey, a senior business partner of inclusion, diversity, and equity (IDE), points out that Amazon’s leadership’s diversity helps the company build the best and most innovative solutions for its customers.
“This is a company that truly believes in IDE,” she says, discussing how she feels comfortable acting and speaking naturally in her job. “I work for a company that allows me to be my true self. You can’t say you’re a customer-obsessed company if I can’t be myself, because I’m your customer.”
Alex Morrison, senior customer solutions leader, agrees, emphasizing the importance of a diverse workforce. “Expanded creativity, solving problems, increased profitability, and productivity…it all comes from diversity,” they say.
While they point out that Amazon should be far more diverse than it currently is, they believe that the company fosters an environment where talented people can work toward achieving their goals.
“Being at AWS [Amazon Web Services] has allowed me to see some of my dreams come true,” one said, mentioning a research paper they recently co-authored and published on the topic of gender pronoun biases in artificial intelligence AI) and machine learning (ML). “AI and ML is where I want to spend the rest of my career. Unfortunately, biases are real, and if we don’t have our voices in the room, we’re never going to be represented, and we’ll always be the victim in the biases race.”
Pankey agrees, encouraging early-career professionals from underrepresented groups to seek employment with a company that supports their interests and wants to see them thrive.
“You’re in a good space right now because corporate America is trying to get woke,” she says, offering advice on choosing a company to work for. “[When applying for jobs], ask yourself, ‘Is this a place where I’ll feel valued? Is it a place where I can grow and develop? Is it a place where I can challenge upward when I don’t see what should be?”
For her, that’s Amazon. Pointing to a framed poster of Spike Lee’s character Radio Raheem raising his fist, she says passionately, “See that? That says ‘Do the Right Thing.’ I work for a company that allows me to have that in my office, and they believe in it.”