How to survive your first six months at Amazon (Part I)

updated on 27 July 2021
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Before I tell the story, I'll be vocally self-critical in the best of Amazon senses. I've written this survival guide based on my own experience, which I triangulated with colleagues who started with the business at the same time. There is a good chance that you will have to find your way to adjust and thrive in Amazon's peculiar culture. Yet, I hope that the suggestions and skills that I advocate in this article will make you stronger regardless of your specific situation. Please note that Day One Careers is not affiliated with Amazon in any way. All views are our own and do not represent Amazon in any way. With these warnings out of the way, do read on.

Introduction

I spent my first six months at Amazon in a state of shell-shock. I was not the only one: almost every new starter, regardless of level, felt the same way. New joiners were easy to recognise. Our eyes appeared fuzzy, the look on our faces telegraphed anxiety, and multiple attempts to get something done blew up on one organisational land mine after another.

It was not my first time ramping up in a large and culturally distinctive organisation. Before I signed on the dotted line with Amazon, I spent twelve years in various Fortune 500 companies in multiple Sales and Marketing roles. With every career move came a new learning curve - very steep and painful at first, but progressively less taxing as time went by.

To say that Amazon was different was to say nothing. While the functional subject matter was still familiar to me (that's why Amazon hired me), everything else was new. I had to re-learn how to build effective relationships in an environment where reporting lines are either blurry or meaningless. I needed to take my business analysis game to a level that I did not know existed. I had to figure out how to credibly lead a team that was, in some areas, more qualified than me. In a nutshell, it felt like I started my first-ever job. Only this time, I did not have years to learn.

What powered me through these six turbulent months was my desire to transition into the world of technology, whatever I took me. I kept my expectations low and ploughed along despite waves of stress and setbacks. I spent my commute time learning new skills and going through training. I meditated during lunch breaks. I exercised vigorously to keep my mind at its sharpest. Most importantly, I kept my professional ego in check and approached this time with humility and respect for this fantastic organisation and its people.

In the end, I made it through the shell-shock and ended up spending over three years in Amazon Retail. I now consider my transition into Big Tech established, which makes me fortunate to be able to pursue opportunities within tech that are closer to my heart (at least for the time being).

It also gives me the benefit of hindsight. As I look back to my 6-month ramp-up, I can distil key learnings and epiphanies that I wish someone would have shared with me before I walked into Amazon's office for the first time. With this article, I intend to pay it forward. If you are about to join Amazon or have just started, you may find them useful. If you are or have been a tenured Amazonian, feel free to add your ramp-up tips in the comments section.

There are nine skills and focus areas that I found essential to survive my first six months at Amazon. I will cover the first five in this article and will follow up with the rest in Part II.

1. Learn to drive

Whatever your background, you should be mentally prepared to be overwhelmed when you join. Suppose you're anything like me and have never worked in technology companies before. In that case, you'll get a double whammy: soaking in the industry peculiarities as well as figuring out how to get things done at Amazon.

Having gone through the painful ramp-up period myself, I came to appreciate one of Amazon's Leadership Principles - Learn & Be Curious - in a very intuitive way. Embedding yourself into this organisation is like learning how to drive. It takes a long time; you need to understand the rules of the road (or the Highway Code as we call it in Britain) as well as the fundamental driving techniques. While on the road, you have to link both sets of learnings together to be able to control the vehicle and navigate safely. Doing so while the material is still fresh in your brain drains your mental batteries. You may even question whether you'll ever be able to wake up one day and just...drive in peace. The fact that millions of others do it every day does not boost your confidence.

As all drivers know, everyone (well, almost everyone) eventually "gets it". Yet, gratification does not come for a while. Many learner drivers throw in the towel before giving our brain the chance to connect the dots. Ramping up at Amazon follows the same trajectory, and you might be tempted to pull the plug mid-way. If it does happen to you, remember your first six months on the road. You made it there in the end, and you will do it again.

Self-doubt and impostor syndrome is another peculiar consequence of starting at Amazon. The hiring bar is so high that you will likely share the same floor space with colleagues whose brilliance will lead you to question why they hired you. I cannot claim that I am entirely out of the impostor syndrome, but I can recommend one book that helped me minimise the impact. It's Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck. The book is a reminder to all of us that no matter what our natural gifts and abilities are, there is always that 10% extra that we can squeeze out of talent by working hard to achieve a personal best.

2. Own your outcomes

Back in P&G, we had an unwritten rule. There was never such thing as "I could not do it". Or "there were market headwinds". Or "it's someone else's fault". It was always "I screwed up". Or not, in case you were successful.

The point was that you always had to own your outcomes entirely, whether you achieved your goals or not. If you delivered the plan, your effort gets the credit. If you missed the number, it was always your fault.

As bizarre and irrational as this principle seemed at first, it reflected a practical leadership philosophy. As leaders, we should be the masters of our destiny. We should always rise above the circumstances in case the market dealt us the wrong hand. And in those cases where the whole universe was playing against us, the attitude of extreme ownership ensured that we stretched ourselves - and our teams - to do everything within our power to fight the tide.

At P&G, extreme ownership became immortal in Jim Lafferty's Letter to New ABMs, an instrumental artefact of corporate culture produced by James Michael Lafferty, a senior exec with a passion for people coaching and development. Jim makes a point that the most successful employees are those who make the best out of every situation. To them, every assignment is a great one. Today Jim is no longer with P&G, but his letter still lives in all onboarding packs.

Precisely ten years after I left P&G, I discovered Jocko Willink, a retired US Navy SEAL, and a co-author of a book titled… Extreme Ownership. Through his stories from both battlefield and the corporate world, he was preaching the same leadership gospel. You must always own your outcome no matter the circumstances.

Two years after I had discovered Jocko, I joined Amazon and found Extreme Ownership on the (semi) official internal reading list. It was not a surprise. Not only is Ownership one of Amazon's highly revered Leadership Principles, but the attitude of total accountability for the outcome also penetrates every leadership meeting. Worried that your category will miss the plan due to external factors? Outline what exactly is your intent to mitigate. Expecting to smash the targets? Be ready to analyse and discuss what exactly produced the favourable outcomes (and make sure that the learnings are captured in a doc so that others can benefit).

You cannot take a lukewarm stance against this leadership bar. You either subscribe to the mental model and raise above it or you will crumble under the weight of accountability. You can guess which camp you need to find yourself in at Amazon.

3. Spread your tentacles

If you researched anything about Amazon, you know that its organisational design strives to adhere to the two-pizza team rule. This principle is there because Amazon sees intra-team communication as administrative overhead and tries to minimise it. That is why when teams speak with each other, the communication should follow a formalised SOP and be well documented.

While I don't think that everyone followed this rule to the letter, I found most teams at Amazon incredibly self-contained and autonomous. I also discovered that the intent to formalise interactions between groups produced a side-effect. It turned out that getting anything done while following the rules was hard. It was also slow and somewhat bureaucratic.

Consider a simple yet somewhat exaggerated situation where you need a tech team that runs a part of a website to create a new feature that helps your part of the business sell more products. For this to happen, you'd need to fill out a few web forms, write a doc, present it and get it aligned by senior leaders on both sides, and then get your requests prioritised in the next year's plan.

The reality of your predicament at Amazon will be such that there won't ever be time to wait until the next year's plan. So you will need to find a way how to get stuff done through other teams by circumnavigating the process.

The magic key that will allow you to rip through the matrix is relationships.

Of all places to work on planet Earth, I expected Amazon to be the least relationship-driven. Before I joined, I saw this business as a neatly organised enterprise where everyone gets on with things, works out priorities quickly, has enough resources and, to quote Olaf from Frozen II, "absolutely everything makes sense". Besides, its organisational design tries to reduce the importance of relationships and the communication overhead that is required to build them.

Yet, in reality, having meaningful connections with colleagues that don't share immediate floor space with you is the only way to accomplish anything at Amazon. Especially if doing so requires someone to sacrifice something. I will go as far as to say that for those in leadership roles being able to build relationships at Amazon are even more important than some of the technical skills.

Here is a concrete example from the very beginning of my Amazon journey. I was in the middle of launching a new feature when I suddenly realised that the customer experience on the website was not rendering correctly. After inspecting every input that my team was responsible for, I realised that we had a more significant - technical - issue on our hands. A central tech team in Seattle would have to help us, and they happen to be one of the most "in demand" teams at Amazon. I needed them to jump into the problem ASAP, but the chances of this happening were slim. Our problem, in the grand scheme of things, was just not big enough for them to get their on-call engineer to take a look.

I knew that, unless I somehow found a personal way into that team, we were doomed. I did not have a network at the time, so I had to borrow someone else's connections. That someone ended up being a senior leader in Seattle who I knew personally and with whom I had built an initial buffer of trust. I reached out to him without even looking at the clock, and he responded. He also woke up his friend who was a senior leader in the central tech team whose help I so desperately needed. In the end, the central tech team fixed our problem very quickly, and the launch went well.

If you're someone for whom networking comes natural, you are in luck. As for me, I had to go through a long and painful rehab to get to a place where I could invite myself for (often virtual) coffee chats with colleagues outside my team. Possibly, this is because I am a certified introvert.

Yet, being bad at building networks was not a massive problem for me at the start of my career. At P&G, relationships were useful, but keeping them transactional was all that was required. Since Marketing was the lead function in the business, having a Marketing job title meant that most people would naturally follow you in any direction.

But then, after spending ten years working in several big corporates, I realised that the rest of the professional world runs on networks. Relationships, not clear org charts and roles and responsibilities, is what keeps the wheels turning. Purely transactional connections would only work at the start and help with minor deliverables. The minute your asks start calling for trade-offs on the other side, just putting names to faces does not cut the mustard. This arrangement works both ways. As you get emotionally invested in relationships, you end up offering concessions and doing favours more often.

What got me over the line was not some book or a course, but a mentor who was a natural relationship builder. His coaching was highly counter-intuitive but ended up re-wiring my brain in a way that was useful to me int he long-term.

He suggested that I start inviting random colleagues for coffee and lunches and try to get to know them without having an immediate business agenda. He asked me to fake it till I make it in case some of the contacts end up underwhelming. I followed his advice to the letter. Over time, I found myself reaching out to new colleagues quite naturally and having coffees without agenda. Some connections proved useful in the future for one business need or another, while others turned into friendships.

As soon as you start with Amazon, I highly recommend that you ask your manager to give you a list of people with whom to have a chat. Ask every new colleague that you meet to suggest at least three other colleagues that you should meet.

Do this three times, and your initial network will be complete. Yes, it will take time, and you'll have to take your training on top. But the pay-back is worth the investment, guaranteed.

If there is one book that I found useful on my journey to become more effective at constructing networks, it is Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook by Gary Vaynerchuk. The book is technically about Content Marketing, but he has a handy relationship framework that I ended up adopting (I won't be offering spoilers - check out the book for yourself) when spreading my tentacles at Amazon.

4. Take people with you

During my 15 years in Fortune 500 Consumer businesses, I have witnessed every style of decision-making on Earth. At some places, getting a project approved required a metric ton of data while at others, it was about the prettiest presentation. Some businesses preferred to codify decision-making principles, thresholds, ROI percentages and everything in between. Some chose to let their employees wallow in ambiguity while they figured out the ways of getting their recommendations over the line.

However, I discovered one fundamental principle of taking peers and stakeholders on the journey that was effective in every organisation. Ironically, this principle did not come from the world of organisational effectiveness but the world of marketing. Let me explain.

At the heart of the discipline, Marketing is about developing a deep understanding of your customers and using these insights to create winning products and services that they reward with sales. Quality customer insights allow marketers to address needs that are both expressed (e.g. in online product reviews) and unexpressed (Amazon encourages employees to look around the corner and delight customers with products and services that they did not know they needed).

It turns out that if you treat internal customers and stakeholders as you would treat external customers, you can become highly persuasive and increase the chances that your recommendations see the light of day.

You see, the minute you produce a presentation or a document that proposes a change of direction - however small or large - you have created an internal product. The recommendation flies or flops depending on how relevant it is to what your internal customers need and want. And the only way to discover these insights is to do the homework before the paper hits the table.

So how do you go about discovering relevant stakeholder insights? I recommend three ways.

First, adopt the practice from the previous section and make sure that you have frequent and informal catch-ups set up with key people whose approvals you will need in the future. During these coffee chats, try to understand what's on their plate and what keeps them busy. Try to learn about their most pressing challenges as well as some of the recent wins that keep them excited.

Second, speak with colleagues who presented to these stakeholders before and were successful. Try to tease out insights about what went well and why, and be sure to write them down. Then speak with folks who were not successful and colleague the same insights - this time about what went wrong.

Third, pre-align the main points and messages by socialising them with key stakeholders in advance of the decision-making forum. Use this cautiously and always be sure to clarify that you are sharing draft ideas. If your stakeholders welcome draft ideas, you can quickly calibrate if your proposals have a standing chance of survival, or if you are too far from what is considered acceptable.

Combine insights from all three approaches, digest them and use them to inform your work. Over time, you should see your hit rate increase. If you are interested in diving deeper into the topic of managing stakeholders, I recommend Taking People With You by David Novak. While it's not the most inspirational business book that I have ever read, it does an excellent job of explaining the idea of treating internal stakeholders like customers.

5. Smash through the workload and avoid burnout

Work-life balance, or WLB, is where Amazon often gets a bad reputation. You don't have to dig deep to discover current and former Amazonians complaining about long work hours, burnout and outsized expectations. Glassdoor, Indeed, and Blind will give you all the details. As much as Jeff B tries to retire the concept of work-life balance and replace it with WLH (work-life harmony), I don't think that he has been successful.

The truth is, at Amazon, you will get to work on some of the most exciting projects in technology (I mention some of Amazon's big and bold bets in my Interview Bootcamp course). You will run shoulders with colleagues that will make you wonder why the company hired you. You may even leave your mark on new products and projects that will generate headlines around the world.

However, this opportunity will come with an exceptionally high bar on personal productivity. You will have to get a lot of stuff done, and your day will be fuller than you have ever imagined. It was not uncommon for Amazonians who shared the same office space with me to feel overwhelmed with work. Some thought that they could never reach the end of their to-do list.

I certainly felt a massive workload landing on my shoulders three months after I joined (I have to thank my first manager for giving me one quarter to). While putting in the hours was not new to me, at Amazon, I had to deal with a couple of extra contingencies. First, I was new to tech and had a whole list of new technical skills to pick up. Second, I now had young children, and I could no longer spend evenings hacking away at spreadsheets. Those were now devoted to bath and bedtimes.

For the first time in my career, I needed personal productivity frameworks that would allow me to square severe bandwidth shortages with the highest workload that I have experienced.

For starters, I had to draw the line at how much of my time and energy I was willing to contribute to work. While moving into tech was exciting and financially rewarding, I could not afford to experience occupational burnout. I made a promise to myself to wrap the job around the family and not the other way round (except a few particular situations).

With this tenet firmly in my mind, I needed to prioritise my work. Thankfully, some folks at Amazon were using 5 Choices - a prioritisation framework that was developed by Franklin-Covey. Franklin-Covey is a global business that trains people on how to be at the top of their game at work. It was founded by Steven Covey, author of "The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People", a book that I had to re-read three times to appreciate its depth fully.

I found the simplicity of "5 Choices" arresting, especially "Choice 3" where the creators of the framework urge us to diarise (schedule) the most critical work (the Big Rocks).

The next thing that I needed was a system to organise the actual work that needs doing. Here I relied on Getting Things Done (GTD), a workflow system developed by David Allen. I will admit that I am not following it to the letter. For instance, tagging to-dos by context does not work for me, especially since just about every step involves email. However, I do diligently keep a list of recurring agenda items and try to sort the rest of to-dos into separate lists. I also maintain a list of projects and critical goals that I can refer to whenever I need to remind myself what my Big Rocks are.

Combining the two frameworks (5 Choices for prioritisation and GTD for workflow management), I ended up with a powerful mental model to maximise productivity and avoid burnout. If you don't have a working system and you are not a natural all-remembering project manager, feel free to give these a try.

To be continued

We will cover focus areas 6-9 in the next article. Meanwhile, if you'd like to add your recipe for ramping up well at Amazon, I cordially invite you to join our Community Platform and contribute.

If you have been invited to an interview at Amazon, you should check out our YouTube channel for interview preparation videos (all free).

I have also created a comprehensive Amazon Interview Bootcamp training. This course has over 9 hours of video content and covers everything you need to know to prepare for behavioural interviews at Amazon. We dive deep into all Amazon quirks and peculiarities, discuss every Leadership Principle in-depth and help you master the STAR format.

To complement the training set, I've also created a training that is 100% focused on the STAR technique of answering behavioural interview questions. In this course, which I called STAR Method Bootcamp, I share my insights from over 15 years interviewing candidates across Fortune 500 businesses in the EU in a competency interview style. The training is shorter than Amazon Interview Bootcamp, and it has a live demo of me showing how to apply STAR technique theory to practice.

Lastly, if you think that someone can benefit from reading this article, I would appreciate it if you could share it with them.

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