Setting the standard

Lessons From Jeff Bezos to Developers

Allan Foster
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From a developer’s perspective, Amazon and its leadership have been trailblazers, shaping best practices for work and culture while laying the foundation for innovative work across industries. What lessons can developers take away and apply to their own work?

When Jeff Bezos announced his plan to step down from his role as Amazon’s CEO, tech leaders across the world paused to reflect not only the impact Bezos made on e-commerce but on technology and the industry at large. What he created at Amazon set the standard for user experiences and redefined consumer expectations, most notably through reimaging delivery and cost strategies. Less obvious — but just as important — Amazon created a superior customer experience through identity by making it nearly invisible for consumers without compromising security in the process. From a developer’s perspective, Amazon and its leadership have been trailblazers, shaping best practices for work and culture while laying the foundation for innovative work across industries.

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Give Ownership of the Success and Failure of any Project

Accountability throughout an organization is vital to ensure a successful business outcome is attainable. No matter what, the people working on any project must recognize and own the successes and failures. Part of what this requires is the type of culture that supports recognition, beginning from the top-down. A leader who can demonstrate these traits will reciprocate those same values throughout their organization, creating a culture that leads by example.

API is King

Developers must have the understanding that their public APIs are their lifeline for any project. Transparency throughout the process is owed to those users who depend on you. What a user sees is what they get. An organization should never have any hidden motives or secret contracts with other developers when working throughout various platforms. This was central to the culture that Bezos created — in fact, it was a mandate. Developers have to define what they do and then do that – no back-door approaches allowed.

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the days of sending emails between companies was not yet a thing, I remember my coworkers and I could count the number of email addresses on our business cards. Each email address served a different function for a different client or company, and we wore them like badges. It was a sense of pride knowing that you had so many different forms of communication for different purposes. The problem was that the first couple of hours of my day was dedicated to going through each individual inbox, which became extremely inefficient but we didn’t know any better. And then America Online came along in the early ’90s, changing the way we communicated forever by creating a central network that allowed for emails to be sent between one another, regardless of what company you worked for or where you were. By creating a central interface, it allowed their system to scale globally rather than limiting communication into small little communities. The same holds true for developers, if they focus their work around a public API and functionality, it opens the door for a much more scalable end-service.

The Amazon Experience

Enterprises and developers need to collaborate on a plan with a unified end-goal in mind when approaching a new service. This is something that Bezos and his team agreed on early on and is a big part of why their business evolved to what it came to be. From a developer perspective, in terms of user experience, I think one of the things that Amazon has done for us is to push us to ask the question “what is the end goal for this project?” Bezos and his team knew they needed to create a specific platform with certain functions and capabilities to reach their end goal and in doing so paved the way for a much bigger outcome.

Amazon’s user experience changed the way developers approached the e-commerce industry. Most sites have their users go through the complicated ritual of requiring usernames and passwords, two-factor authentications, etc., which can cause frustrations for users. But Amazon saw the flaw in that approach and developed a platform that made for a desirable user experience that was both user-friendly and secure. In a Garner’s study from 2014, I remember reading that says that when you’re engaged in an e-commerce transaction, every superfluous click you have to make, you lose between 15-20% of your audience. When you reflect on your own purchases, you can relate to this situation by thinking of all the times you grew frustrated over having to sign up for things or enter security captchas to complete your transaction. A process that Amazon has learned to eliminate or minimize within the buyer’s journey.

Treating Everyone as your Customer

Understanding that your service or product may be used by many people and for reasons you never expected is vital to building a successful platform. By creating a service that is universal and scalable, you can grow the possibilities of your work by expanding the customer base. One of my favorite quotes from Good Eats host Alton Brown is that “there are no unitaskers in the kitchen.” The same should be true from a development perspective. When you’re building something, you should be building it for many different customers and clients. They need to be able to utilize your API as a service, never go in and develop a unitasker.

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Define your position

With any project, define your position, put it in writing, put a stake in the ground, and hammer it in. Give something concrete to discuss when developing and working towards a new idea. This is very important when working on projects and interacting with multiple stakeholders. Having everybody aligned with the same vision only increases your chances of manifesting your desired outcome.

Bezos is famous for not allowing PowerPoints in his company meetings. He is a firm believer in defining your position in writing and distributing it amongst the staff beforehand, ensuring that everyone is aligned on what is being discussed before attending the meeting. In doing so, Bezos and his team can increase productivity by minimizing any doubts or questions so that the time can be used constructively.

Think about scale

While you may be building a product today to address a problem that your company has, think about how this product can have longevity and how it can impact other businesses in the future. An example of this is what Amazon has done with what started as an e-commerce platform they built to sell products. They needed infrastructure to make this happen, so they built AWS. But now, AWS has turned into much more than just a tool for Amazon to sell products – it’s now a tool that other businesses can use to build their own website. AWS and Amazon’s quick-delivery offerings have been driven because Jeff Bezos saw something Amazon needed, and built it in a way that could fill a void for other people and companies that need to do the same thing.

Following the company’s innovation with AWS, Bezos was able to shift his focus to other aspects of the business which lead to advancements in delivery logistics which has changed the way people see online shopping. He created a way to deliver his products and services to his customers quickly and efficiently, which has impacted the industry on a global scale. We saw the tremendous impact that a delivery service like Amazon had during the past year’s pandemic. Customers were able to order their essentials safely from the comfort of their own homes.

Don’t be afraid to fail

What innovators and developers need to understand is that it’s ok to make mistakes, and as long as you are honest as to why it failed, it’s okay to acknowledge when things didn’t work and move on. The fear of error can stunt a company’s ability to grow if they fear failure more than the outcome. It’s okay to fail if you can learn something when that happens, take those learnings and apply them to the next project. If Bezos and his Amazon team had walked away at their first mistake, the world would likely be a different place right now.

The most valuable thing that Jeff Bezos has done for Amazon is setting a culture and expected “norm” that’s propagated down the front line. By ensuring that his vision and values were reflected in his work, Amazon was able to become a giant that will go down in history for changing the way we see the e-commerce industry. Bezos’s approach allows for scale, and that’s one of the biggest components of a successful business today. By being able to look ahead and past their current offerings, development after development was able to take place.

The key takeaway from all of this is that Amazon was able to enhance, and nearly perfect, the customer experience. By focusing on efficiency throughout its platform and reducing the friction throughout the buyer’s journey, Amazon has been able to remain dominant and innovative. It allows customers to navigate the company’s offerings in a way that many strive to replicate. Amazon is moving towards a “never log in again” experience that will continue to advance in the years to come.


Allan Foster

Allan Foster is currently Chief Evangelist at ForgeRock. As a founding member, he has helped build ForgeRock into a multinational identity software vendor. Allan has over 25 years of experience in the software development, internet, and Identity management spaces and serves on several boards, including DIACC and Kantara. Prior to joining ForgeRock, Allan worked for Apple, Netscape, AOL, Guru Associates, and Sun Microsystems. In his spare time, Allan likes to drink fine wines and bake delicious bread.

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