Inside look at how AWS CEO Andy Jassy runs the cloud unit

Under CEO Andy Jassy’s leadership, Amazon Web Services has grown to a $40 billion business….

  • Under CEO Andy Jassy’s leadership, Amazon Web Services has grown to a $40 billion business.
  • Insider spoke with over a dozen current and former employees about Jassy’s leadership style.
  • They describe Jassy as obsessed with customer experience, with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ full support.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy has a big decision to make, it usually comes at the Chop.

Originally the name of a physical conference room next to his office at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters — short for “Charterhouse of Parma,” a book Jassy read in college — the Chop has also come into use as a catch-all term for the meetings where Jassy holds his most important brainstorming and planning sessions.

The Chop is also where big ideas, and sometimes employees, go to get chopped down to size, according to people familiar with the company.

“If you go to a Chop meeting with Andy, you better be ready,” one former senior-level employee told Insider. “He has a tremendous amount of trust in his team, but you have to be at the highest levels of diligence and preparation for any meeting with him. He’s a shark who will smell a drop of blood from 100 miles away if you’re not ready.”

One of the big decisions made in a recent Chop meeting, held virtually due to the pandemic, was the call to cut off the social media app Parler from Amazon’s cloud hosting service. Amazon ultimately decided to ban Parler because the app, favored heavily by far-right extremists for its lax content moderation policies, had not done enough to limit violent content.

By banning Parler, Amazon has turned up the heat on the debate around the tech industry’s power and influence over public discourse. It has also sparked renewed interest in Jassy, a 24-year veteran of Amazon and one of its most powerful executives, who sits at the helm of AWS — a position that makes him an invaluable asset for the company, even as recent events have demonstrated his unprecedented influence over the direction of the internet.

“AWS and Jassy — they’re the gatekeepers [of the internet],” Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, told Insider. “Jassy’s one of the most powerful leaders not just within the cloud and the tech sector, but in the world of business.”

Although he’s one of the longest serving executives at Amazon and a close confidant of CEO Jeff Bezos, Jassy still remains relatively little known outside of the tech circles. The people who have worked with Jassy, who just turned 53 earlier in January, describe him as a genuinely nice person, who nevertheless sets high expectations for his people and expects them to rise to the challenge. Jassy takes Amazon Web Services’ role in powering so much of the internet economy — and his role in keeping it on top in the cloud market — very seriously.

His lowkey demeanor, however, belies the full extent of his accomplishments. After joining Amazon in 1997, the year it went public, Jassy quickly moved up the ranks, and at one point served as Bezos’s first-ever “shadow” advisor, a quasi-chief of staff role that joins the CEO’s every meeting. Jassy is one of the highest paid execs at Amazon, having made more than $20 million in total compensation over the past three years.

But it’s his time at AWS, which he helped build from the ground up since 2003, that truly distinguishes Jassy as one of the most established and influential figures in the world of corporate technology. In less than two decades, AWS has grown into a massive business that generates over $40 billion in annual revenue, and the de facto leader in cloud computing with over 30% market share. It’s also a key source of Amazon’s profitability: AWS is responsible for over 60% of Amazon’s operating profits although its sales are just 13% of the total. There’s also been speculation about whether Amazon would spin out AWS, which would make Jassy the likely leader of a massively powerful and valuable standalone company.

While many businesses struggled during the pandemic, AWS continued to thrive, as the lockdown-driven demand for more online services increased the need for cloud computing. In the third quarter, AWS recorded $11.6 billion in revenue, a 29% increase from the year-ago period. Wall Street expects another 31% growth in AWS sales to $13 billion in the fourth quarter, according to Factset estimates, when the company reports its earnings results on Tuesday.

Jassy’s work at AWS has drawn the respect of other industry leaders as well. At one point, Microsoft’s former CEO Steve Ballmer had approached Jassy about becoming his successor, before the company eventually appointed Satya Nadella, according to a person familiar with the talks. He was also rumored to be in the running for Uber’s CEO position, shortly after Travis Kalanick stepped down in 2017. Some employees who spoke to Insider speculate Jassy could be in line to take over as Amazon’s CEO when Bezos retires, though the company hasn’t revealed any succession plan.

Insider spoke with over a dozen current and former Amazon employees who have worked with Jassy to get a better picture of the management style and work culture he’s fostered at AWS. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the press.

Every press release 

The Chop, where AWS’s biggest decisions are made, was initially a single conference room with a poster of the Dave Matthews Band, Jassy’s favorite. In the past year or so, however, AWS turned it into two side-by-side conference rooms in a new office building called Re:Invent, so Jassy can schedule back-to-back meetings without delay. (The second conference room is called the Rothschild, named after Jassy’s favorite high school teacher).

Among AWS employees, the Chop is now more broadly used to describe any important meeting involving Jassy. And those meetings tend to get intense.

Teams could take weeks preparing for the Chop, going through dozens of different versions of their presentations, which use Amazon’s famous six-pagers that describe detailed plans for a new product or initiative. All documents requiring his attention are printed out — he rarely reviews them digitally, unless he’s traveling — and often gathered in a manila folder. 

When it’s time to present, as many as 50 people from teams including legal, product, and finance gather in the Chop and sit in complete silence, sometimes for as long as 30 minutes, as everyone in the room goes through the document. When Jassy reviews the proposal — usually with a pencil and not a pen — he prefers to speak after everyone else shares their thoughts, as most senior executives at Amazon do. 

Indeed, Jassy is “as down to earth as a CEO as you’re going to meet,” says one former employee. At the same time, former employees say he’s no pushover, either, and isn’t afraid to call out anyone who comes unprepared for a tough question at the Chop.

“He doesn’t suffer foolishness,” Scott Chancellor, a former AWS director who’s now the chief product and technology officer at IT management software company Apptio, told Insider. “People who don’t do their best in those meetings won’t get a second shot, at least not for a long time.”

Jassy also takes an interest in specifics that’s not common for an executive of his level, with high standards and a fine attention to detail.

He reviews every single press release for AWS before they’re published, according to people familiar with the process. He also gives approval for almost every major change in naming and branding of AWS services, an unusual level of involvement in day-to-day operations for a big company CEO. When he likes what he sees, he often says: “Giddy up, let’s get this going.”

There are drawbacks to this approach. Jassy has seven or eight meetings every day, and getting in front of him can be a challenge since his calendar is typically packed at least two weeks out. Some employees say they have to work among themselves to trade calendar openings to prioritize urgent decisions. AWS’s spokesperson disputed this account of trading calendar spots.

“It can be a very inefficient hub-spoke model,” one senior employee told Insider. “He has the decision on product name, text for how a product will be talked about, and the blog posts that are deemed very meaningful.”

Some employees say moving to a new job can get difficult once you’re used to Jassy’s level of attention to detail, which they don’t always find with their new bosses.

But for those newly joining AWS, Amazon makes the transition easy by offering director-level employees across the company a program called “Escape Velocity,” people say. The three-day program, described as a “religious conversion” by one former employee, is meant to rid new hires of their previous workplace habits. AWS’s spokesperson disputed the characterization of the program being a “religious conversion.”

“The name comes from helping people escape the orbit of previous employers and cultures,” this former employee said.

‘It’s 100% Andy’s show’

A Harvard business grad with limited coding experience, Jassy nonetheless commands respect for the way he leads the cloud unit, to the degree that even Bezos gives him wide latitude.

That’s partly because AWS deals with a completely different set of industry norms and customer base than Amazon’s core retail business does. It’s also a testament to Bezos’s unbounded trust in Jassy, who was promoted from AWS’s SVP to CEO in 2016.

“Jeff has allowed Andy to do his job without anybody looking over his shoulder,” one former senior-level employee said. “It’s 100% Andy’s show. Jeff does not tell Andy what to do…They’re almost side-by-side on the org chart.”

The difference between Bezos and Jassy was perhaps best exemplified after the 2015 New York Times article about Amazon’s grueling work environment, according to Taimur Rashid, AWS’s former managing director of business development who’s now chief business development officer for Redis Labs.

Bezos, at the time, sent a company-wide email saying the story failed to accurately depict the culture he knew at Amazon, while Jassy sent a rousing email to AWS employees saying, “We are inventing the new normal.”

“That’s the key thing I love about Andy: He is authentic, genuine, empathetic,” Rashid said. “In many ways, it’s Andy’s company.”

Tim Bray, a former AWS VP who also served as one of the company’s few distinguished engineers, told Insider that he had never been in the same room or email thread with Bezos during his five years at Amazon. Bray, who left the company last year over concerns about Amazon’s treatment of warehouse workers, said that’s likely because he was only involved in engineering decisions, but he agrees that AWS is almost run like a standalone business.

“I do think that Andy is given a very free hand at AWS, mostly because he’s been producing such great results,” Bray told Insider.

Bezos is consulted, however, when it comes to major calls for corporate development and acquisitions.

For example, in the lead-up to a landmark 2016 partnership deal between AWS and Salesforce, Bezos joined meetings with Jassy and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, according to a person directly involved in those talks. Though it was Jassy that closed the deal, Bezos put the finishing touches to the partnership that Salesforce agreed to spend $400 million on AWS services.

Rashid, the former AWS managing director, recalls a price drop on one of Amazon’s cloud infrastructure services requiring consultation from Bezos, given the material impact it would have on the budget.

Bezos’s famous question mark emails also still make their way to AWS employees. Bezos is known to read customer emails and forward them, with a single question mark, to the appropriate employees who can address the concerns.

“[Bezos’s] presence is felt typically in concern for the customer,” said Chancellor, the former AWS director. “Jeff would read the [customer] email and forward it along with a question mark, and you’d know you’d need to come to a resolution fast.”

jeff bezos amazon

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2019.

MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images


‘Nice’ emails

Like Bezos, Jassy has his own signature email communication style. Where Bezos is famous for responding to emails with a mere question mark, Jassy’s catchphrase is a simple “nice.”

When AWS sends out emails about launch updates or deal closings to its employees, Jassy typically responds with a single word, “Nice,” with varying numbers of exclamation marks.

These “nice” emails are famous among the rank-and-file, and some even believe Jassy set up a bot to automatically respond in this way.

At the office, Jassy is known for certain quirks. Jassy long insisted on using a Blackberry phone, often teasing AWS executives for declining to come up with any services that support it, a person familiar said. He’s also known for his love for beef jerky — in the early days of Amazon’s annual Re:Invent cloud conference, there would be buffets with different assortments of jerky, reflecting Jassy’s snacking preferences.

Outside of work, Jassy is known for being a huge sports fan. Jassy still runs a football pool with a group of current and former Amazon employees. He has a large sports bar in the basement of his home, where tickets to major sporting events, like the Superbowl, are on display. Last year, he also became part of the minority ownership group for the Seattle Kraken ice hockey team. 

Unlike some of his competitors with extensive engineering experience, Jassy is not the most technical figure. Some people say that’s made Jassy work even harder because he had to start from scratch, learning the ropes of developing key technology and selling software to large corporate customers. 

In his early days, Jassy would often get into intense debates with sales executives over how to approach a big customer deal, only to later find out they were right, one former executive told Insider. That has changed over the years, this person said, and Jassy has now significantly improved his salesmanship, directly engaging with some of AWS’s largest customers.

‘World is relying on Amazon’

For all of Amazon’s success, AWS and Jassy have faced their share of friction in recent years. 

Lawmakers have called for more regulation over Amazon’s growing market power, with some floating the idea of forcing the company to spin off AWS. In the broader House antitrust report on the tech industry published in October, Congress highlighted various business practices that it alleges give an unfair competitive advantage to AWS, which could include ways to lock in customers and the potential to access customers’ confidential data, among others.

AWS was also embroiled in a political standoff with the Trump administration last year when the highly-coveted cloud computing contract with the Defense Department went to Microsoft. AWS has repeatedly disputed the decision, calling it a “politically corrupted contract award” rooted in former President Donald Trump’s public feud with Bezos, even after the agency reaffirmed its commitment to Microsoft.

Jassy is one of the most outspoken executives at Amazon when it comes to political issues. He’s made strong statements on Twitter condemning police killings of Black Americans and praising court decisions to uphold protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children and make it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Jassy also publicly called out what he said was former Trump’s “disdain” for Amazon.

When the coronavirus first began to upend life in 2020, AWS came under fire after several reports said it was being less flexible in its pricing than its competitors, like Google or Microsoft. The company later appeared to have become more accommodating, amending certain contract terms for customers hit hard by the economic downturn. Airbnb, for example, was able to renegotiate a cloud contract with AWS to fulfill its $1.2 billion minimum spend commitment over a longer period of time. AWS’s spokesperson disputed the characterization of being less flexible with its pricing during the pandemic.

Early on in the pandemic, Jassy told AWS employees that “the world is relying on Amazon,” according to an email seen by Insider. It may be true — AWS powers everything from video streaming apps to online banking services to government data storage, making it a major backbone to the internet and the foundation on which services like Zoom and Netflix rely.

Amazon’s decision to ban Parler was significant because AWS is “religious about not discontinuing services,” one former senior-level employee recently told Insider. Because Amazon oversees a critical aspect of its customers’ operations, the last thing it wants is customers thinking “if it can happen to Parler, it can happen to me,” the former employee explained.

One area of particular interest for Jassy has been the Black Lives Matter movement. Amazon’s decision to double the number of its Black executives and ban non-inclusive language in engineering documents came after Jassy and ex-retail boss Jeff Wilke met with members of the Black Employee Network, an internal affinity group representing African-American workers. This year, Jassy decided to take over Wilke’s former role of executive sponsor for the BEN group, a person familiar with the move told Insider.

‘Build over buy’

AWS has always held a “skeptical” view towards large acquisitions, people familiar with the team said. Jassy’s strategy has always been to “build versus buy,” and AWS only formed its own corporate development team in 2013, they said.

Concerns about potentially slowing down AWS’s core business, and in some cases, the weak link to Amazon’s broader goal of accelerating cloud adoption, have kept the company from closing any big deal, one of the people said.

But given AWS’s massive scale, it’ll soon have to start buying companies to generate further growth, as most other business software companies do. In fact, AWS has evaluated almost every major IT and enterprise deal that has happened within the last five years, a former senior executive told Insider. While he didn’t go into specifics, it lends credence to reports from 2017 that AWS at one point thought of buying workplace chat app

Slack
, which ultimately sold to Salesforce late last year in a $27.7 billion mega-deal that has yet to close.

Jassy has chosen instead to prioritize building and selling existing services.

Years ago, in the Chop, Jassy helped spark an acronym that today guides AWS sales strategy for what he identified as “strategic services.” In the meeting, Jassy complained that the company’s database services should be growing faster, and pointed to five existing products that could provide AWS the “differentiation and value” needed, recalls Rashid, the former AWS managing director.

After the meeting, the business development team came up with the acronym “KRADL” to help salespeople remember the five strategic products Jassy had mentioned – Kinesis, Redshift, Aurora, DynamoDB, and Lambda, Rashid said.

 

On the frontier for AWS appears to be quantum computing. Some employees say Bezos approved a new quantum computing roadmap for Amazon and AWS, which launched its first quantum product in 2019, and the company as of publication time lists more than 40 quantum computing job openings, including those advertised to “aid in AWS’s effort to bring cloud quantum computing services to its worldwide customer base.”

Perhaps Bezos’s appreciation for AWS was best shown during last October’s internal all-hands meeting, a recording of which was reviewed by Insider. When asked how AWS is helping customers get through the pandemic, Bezos said companies like Zoom have been able to meet their increased computing needs only because of the cloud technology AWS had built over the last several years.

“If they had been in the old world, the pre-AWS world, where they had to build new data centers and install new servers and get everything set up in order to handle that increased demand, they would have never been able to do it,” Bezos said, referring to AWS’s largest customers. “It’s literally because of the ability of this new way of doing computation that this team invented 15 years ago that that’s possible at all.”

Are you an Amazon Web Services employee? Contact reporter Ashley Stewart via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-425-344-8242) or email ([email protected]).

Do you work at Amazon? Contact reporter Eugene Kim via encrypted messaging apps Signal/Telegram (+1-415-926 -2066) or email ([email protected]).