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Amazon leadership principle stories v2

Created: 2020-08-10 08:44:53 -0700 Modified: 2020-08-18 10:59:42 -0700

This note is only shared because I’m editing it on-stream, not because I think it’s valuable for others. They’re stories and prep material specific to my own interview process.

Note: the first part is from Amazon’s official interview-prep page, and the example question is from an Amazon recruiter that pasted them to me in an email.

Description: Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.

Example: Tell me about a decision for which data and analysis weren’t sufficient to provide the right course and you had to rely on your judgment and instincts. Give me two to three examples. They don’t have to be big strategic decisions – could be big or small OR Give me an example of when you have to make an important decision in the absence of good data because there just wasn’t any. What was the situation and how did you arrive at your decision? Did the decision turn out to be the correct one? Why or why not?

Description: Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Example: Give me an example of a calculated risk that you have taken where speed was critical. What was the situation and how did you handle it? What steps did you take to mitigate the risk? What was the outcome? OR Describe a situation where you made an important business decision without consulting your manager. What was the situation and how did it turn out?

Description: Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Example: Give me an example of your most difficult customer interaction and how you worked through it. What was the outcome? OR Tell me about a time a customer wanted one thing, but you felt they needed something else. How did you approach the situation, what were your actions and what was the end result?

Description: Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.

Example: Tell me about a goal that you set that took a long time to achieve or that you are still working towards. How do you keep focused on the goal given the other priorities you have? OR Tell me about a time where you not only met a goal but considerably exceeded expectations. How were you able to do it? What challenges did you have to overcome?

Description: Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.

Example: Tell me about a time you were trying to understand a problem on your team and you had to go down several layers to figure it out. Who did you talk with and what information proved most valuable? How did you use that information to help solve the problem? OR Tell me about a problem you had to solve that required in-depth thought and analysis? How did you know you were focusing on the right things?

Description: Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Example: Give an example of a tough or critical piece of feedback you received. What was it and what did you do about it? OR Give me an example of an idea you had that was strongly opposed. Why was there so much resistance? How did you handle the negative feedback?

Description: Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size or fixed expense.

Example: Give me an example of how you have helped save costs or eliminate waste within your operation. OR Tell me about a time when you had to make tradeoffs between quality and cost. How did you weigh the options? What was the result?

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Section titled Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Description: Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

Example: Tell me about a time that you strongly disagreed with your manager on something you deemed to be very important to the business. What was it about and how did you handle it? OR Give me an example of when you took an unpopular stance in a meeting with peers and your leader and you were the outlier. What was it, why did you feel strongly about it, and what did you do?

Description: Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.

Example: Give me an example of one of the best hires of your career. How did this person progress through their career? What did you identify during the hiring process that drove his or her success? OR Tell me how you help your team members develop their careers. Can you give me two to three examples of specific people in whom invested and how you helped them develop their careers including one who wasn’t being successful but you saw potential and chose to invest?

Description: Leaders have relentlessly high standards - many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

Example: Tell me about a time you wouldn’t compromise on achieving a great outcome when others felt something was good enough. What was the situation? OR Give me an example of a goal you’ve had where you wish you had done better. What was the goal and how could you have improved on it?

Description: Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here”. As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.

Example: Tell me about the most innovative thing you’ve done and why you thought it was innovative (can also probe with: That sounds more evolutionary than revolutionary – tell me about something you’ve done you feel was truly revolutionary? Ask for one or two additional examples to see if it’s a one off or pattern.) OR People often say the simplest solution is the best. Tell me about a particular complex problem you solved with a simple solution.

Description: Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

Example: What is the coolest thing you have learned on your own that has helped you better perform your job? OR Tell me of a time when you took on work outside of your comfort area and found it rewarding?

Description: Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job”.

Example: Tell me about a time when you took on something significant outside your area of responsibility. Why was it important? What was the outcome? OR Give me an example of a time when you didn’t think you were going to meet the commitments you promised. How did you identify the risk and communicate it to stakeholders? What was the outcome?

Description: Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

Example: Give me an example of a radical approach to a problem you proposed. What was the problem and why did you feel it required a completely different way of thinking about it? Was your approach successful? OR How do you drive adoption for your vision/ideas? How do you know how well your idea or vision has been adopted by other teams or partners? Give a specific example highlighting one of your ideas

  1. Understand what the principles are saying
  2. Come up with some strong stories that fit many principles so that I can adapt them to the question.
    1. Originally, I’d been trying to come up with a story for each principle, but then it was difficult to adapt them to the question asked during mock interviews.

I think the entire goal of this prep is to speak the leadership language and almost nothing else:

  • Market yourself positively
  • Make sure everything you say aligns to these principles
  • Are Right, A Lot: how do you deal with ambiguity, broaden your perspectives, and work when you may not have data or a strong indicator toward a particular path?
  • Bias for Action: acting fast and taking calculated risk. Essentially, this is avoiding analysis paralysis.
  • Customer Obsession: always think of the customer—how can you deliver a product or service that pleases them and earns their trust?
  • Deliver Results: persistence guided by key metrics—sticking with a project and still delivering high quality.
  • Dive Deep: be able to go to any level of depth necessary for the overall project
  • Earn Trust: be critical and introspective (since you may not always be right) and treat people with respect
  • Frugality: saving resources while still delivering a good product
  • Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit: don’t be afraid to fly against the grain despite pressures to fall in line if you think it’ll help the business
  • Hire and Develop the Best: identify, develop, and reward talent
  • Insist on the Highest Standards: have a very high standard for how things are done, e.g. make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice
  • Invent and Simplify: favor both innovation and simplification
  • Learn and Be Curious: never stop learning and push your own comfort zone
  • Ownership: never say “that’s not my job”; take on extra responsibility where appropriate
  • Think Big: set out on a bold direction instead of being satisfied with the status quo

Note: almost every story I have relates to “Deliver Results” (because of the persistence involved) and “Ownership” (because I was the owner for everything).

Main principle: Dive Deep

Subprinciples: Frugality, Ownership, Insist on the Highest Standards

  • Situation: I was working on Bot Land, which is a very CPU-intensive game for the server. I was originally running my servers on AWS’s EC2 and I had my own performance metrics being reported. I eventually migrated to Fargate and noticed that the metrics had gone down.
  • Task: identify why performance degraded and fix it.
  • Action: I investigated everything in my own stack, writing custom tools and tests to figure out where the issue may be. Nothing proved fruitful there, so I started writing tests around Docker containers themselves. It wasn’t until I continued diving very deep that I discovered a problem with Fargate itself.
    • Most parts of this investigation got incredibly technical and it took a week to figure out.
  • Result: Amazon fixed the bug and my performance problems were alleviated.
  • Learnings for the future:
    • Never assume that some part of your stack is immune from bugs.

Related resources:

Main principle: Earn Trust

Subprinciples: Customer Obsession, Are Right A Lot (didn’t have a clear connection for the root cause), Deep Dive

  • Situation (this is a pretty long situation): I’d been working on Bot Land for 4 years and was finally ready to launch. Launching just meant resetting players’ progress without deleting their accounts, so I’d planned a migration of the database and tested it thoroughly. However, since I streamed on Twitch, I was sort of a target already for malicious users, and someone created more than 100K accounts the weekend before I launched (that itself is its own separate problem/situation). This caused my migration to take too long for the Lambda since there’s a hard timeout of 15 minutes, and I only realized it as I had thousands of people watching me try to troubleshoot live. I misattributed it to an infinite loop since the tests took barely any time, so I rolled back the database and launched seemingly without issue, but a problem lurked below that only uncovered itself after a few days: some users were logging in as other users.
  • Task: identify the problem ASAP and come up with a measured way of resolving it.
  • Action: this took a lot of critical thinking. I had to examine every possible way that this could happen, and eventually realized what was wrong. Clients cached credentials as JWTs containing user IDs, and the roll back had caused those IDs to get wiped out and then reused. Once I’d identified the problem, I updated the JWT signing key, deleted all potentially affected accounts, and sent an email to the 59 people who could have had their personal information leaked. Thankfully, this information consisted of exactly one piece of data, their email address, and it would have been visible by at most one other person. I offered in-game compensation to any potentially affected users and wrote a long blog post about the issue for anyone who may not have seen the email.
  • Result: 9 of the 59 people responded saying that all was fine. Most were happy to take the in-game compensation. I also wrote notes to myself for how this could be prevented in the future (namely by pairing rollbacks with updating the JWT signing key), but I never actually had to do another rollback again.
  • Learnings for the future:
    • Testing on production data can give you reasonable confidence that something works, but if that production data changes drastically over the course of a couple of days, then you need to test again. That would have caught the timeout issue.
    • Using UUIDs for users is likely safer than using autoincrementing IDs.
      • Note: even Amazon will tell you that your email address is already in use, so it’s not like just knowing a user’s ID on its own is a security flaw.

Principles: Insist on the Highest Standards

Subprinciples: Ownership (due to co-founding issues), Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit (didn’t stick with status quo), Are Right A Lot (no real metrics behind “fun”)

  • Situation: I’d co-founded Xtonomous with one other person, and we designed a game sort of in a vacuum. After about a year of doing development work, I had a hunch that what we designed wouldn’t be fun. It’s difficult to tell with a game because any product is designed to meet the customer’s needs, but the needs from a customer for a game is just to have fun, which is hard to quantify.
  • Task: redesign the game in a way that would be more fun.
  • Action: I wrote out a 71-page document exploring practically every possibility without affecting the heart of the game. After that, I narrowed it down to the idea that I thought was best and spent the next month iterating on prototypes and play-testing.
  • Result: the game ended up being much more fun than it had been. Users were more engaged and for longer. It also resulted in a cascading set of decisions:
    • Code that no longer mattered
    • Assumptions that needed to be revisited
    • Different infrastructure needs (the game was no longer realtime)
  • Learnings for the future
    • MVP is important
    • Prototyping is important
      • It’s always hard to know when you’ve put in enough work to satisfy a non-quantifiable need. For example, if you take a game that isn’t fun and add SUPER polished graphics, then it’s probably enough for 20% more people to find it fun. Likewise with audio, gameplay, plot, tutorials, etc.
    • Additions
      • Talk to other people to figure out their perspectives
      • Talk about reading as much as possible

Principles: Bias for Action

  • Situation: I was under a lot of time pressure to try to build Adam Learns as fast as possible. I needed to be able to take in payments, and it wasn’t until I did research that I realized how complex taxes are, so I needed a company to handle it for me. That meant that I couldn’t build my own payment system and had to settle on an existing one.
  • Task: figure out which payment system to use and how to integrate it.
  • Action: investigating features, APIs, and prices was essentially just the normal process of shopping around. However, when it came to using the payment system that I settled on, I needed to thoroughly prototype how it would function. They had some peculiar decisions that involved working with their customer support to navigate.
    • Because of my slight lack of trust in their system, I did end up coding more features to protect customers, e.g. preventing duplicate purchases. This was impossible to do protect against all scenarios due to how their system is set up, so I had to make some compromises.
    • I also needed to change my cookie-consent dialog and user flow due to their ambiguous privacy policy since I wanted to comply with GDPR and the ePrivacy Regulation
  • Result: I got it up and running and payments have been processed solely through that.
  • Learnings:
    • The absolute biggest learning here is the importance of an MVP. Without payments, I couldn’t have proven whether the product would even work, so it’s not something I should belabor.
    • If a company is willing to give support, then make sure to use it since their decisions don’t always make sense even when they’ve clarified them (i.e. they had to cut their own corners to get things running).

Principles: Customer Obsession

  • Situation: some people have wanted to purchase a course but weren’t sure that it would help them.
  • Task: come up with some way to give them confidence to make a purchase.
  • Action: offer them a deal where they could pay what they wanted, including nothing
  • Result: I made a couple of sales and they seemed happy with the courses

Principles: Frugality

Note: I don’t remember enough about what I did to be able to talk about this. I should phrase this as how I didn’t let the lack of money get in the way of solving problems.

  • Situation: I was trying to save costs on infrastructure and devote most of the budget toward art and UX at first.
  • Task: find a way to host Bot Land as cheaply as possible but still allow for scalability eventually.
  • Action: the actions were really per-service:
    • Load balancer: I got by with just a single load balancer for both internal and external traffic by making a load balancer that would forward based on the destination port (I needed it to be layer 7 at least for rate-limiting that I did on the client; I needed XFF headers combined with sticky sessions for that because I didn’t have a shared in-memory cache):
      • 443 → Account Servers
      • 4873 → Verdaccio
      • 8079 → Overseers
      • 9433 → Game Servers
    • EC2: I used one VM for all of my services for as long as possible while I knew that there wouldn’t be load on the servers (i.e. scaling wasn’t an issue originally).
    • Fargate: I tried using ¼-vCPUs in Fargate for a while
    • CircleCI: I managed to stay on their free plan by only running CI builds when absolutely necessary.
    • Marketing: I contacted influencers and game journalists myself. I sent tons of emails, created ad campaigns on my own (although I did have to pay for most of these), and came up with two “unusual” marketing strategies (reddit ad and crowdfunding campaign), and marketed and networked through Twitch.
  • Results: for a while, I managed to pay something like $5 per month, but then eventually a bias for action kicked in and I migrated to Fargate and then starting spending much more money.
  • Learnings:
    • Frugality is sometimes the right path, but not always. I saved a lot of time by spending more money on managed services, probably to the point where if I were being paid for my development time, I would have saved money, but since I wasn’t being paid, it cost money.

Principle: Hire and Develop the Best

  • Situation: I needed talent.
  • Task: find talent.
  • Action: found talent.
  • Result: the talent did the job.

The problem here is that I don’t really have stories about this. Everyone I hired was a contractor, and working with them was usually way better than expected in the level of professionalism, delivery of results, and communication.

Principle: Insist on the Highest Standards

  • This doesn’t really follow the STAR method, but it’s been such a valuable asset that I want to mention it somewhere. Notes have helped me retain information, study that information when I’d forgotten it, share it, and ensure that I follow good processes.
    • This is continually the aspect of my workflow that people are most vocal about praising.

Principle: Invent and Simplify (although this story is just for inventing, not simplification)

  • Situation: this wasn’t actually for any business need, so the situation was just that I wanted to explore the problem space of typing with a piano.
  • Task: design, implement, and test such a system.
  • Action: <talk about the process>
  • Result: it worked! I had a system that let me type at ~60 WPM.

Principle: Learn and Be Curious

  • Situation: <my back story about what led to Adam Learns and considering my strengths>
  • Task: make a business out of learning.
  • Action / Result: <talk about my story>

Principle: Think Big

Again, no real STAR method here, it’s just that I didn’t go with the status quo of finding a traditional job and set out on my own path.

  • Bot Land
    • Architected, designed, implemented, and released the project from start to finish.
    • Managed a remote team
    • Used Bot Land to “teach” a classroom of ~10-15 students
  • Adam Learns
    • Learned lots of technologies quickly and applied many of them while learning
    • Really shows presentation and structure
    • Blog posts were to provide value for others
    • Talk about the courses themselves
  • Twitch
    • Skills honed:
      • Presentation
      • Consistency
      • Communication
      • Organization
      • Thicker skin / lower ego
      • ”Management”
        • Feedback loop
        • Staying on topic
        • Micro-context-switching
    • Audience value
      • Influenced/inspired/mentored
      • Helped with career growth
      • Pair programmed or directly helped with a specific questions
      • Wrote articles and tips
    • I was invited by FIRST to their robotics championship in April, 2019, to conduct interviews, produce live-streamed content, and be on panels. More info here.
  • Sponsorship from Brilliant
    • Not sure this is worth talking about
  • Coding bootcamp presentation
  • Open-source contributions
    • Blockly
    • PixiJS
  • Collaborations with other streamers
    • Zorchenhimer
    • NahamSec
    • Jitspoe
  • JavaScript meetup talk
  • Leadership
    • Helped community / influenced many people
    • Helped friends with technical consulting
    • Recognizing when I’m in the wrong