From Amazon’s cloud guy: 6 hiring tips for startups

Andy Jassy, senior vice president of Amazon Web Services, at AWS Summit 2013 in San Francisco, April 30, 2013

Nobody really thinks of Amazon Web Services as a startup any more. But it was not all that long ago when retail giant readied its push into the cloud infrastructure market. Andy Jassy, senior VP of web services for Amazon, shared some wisdom on hiring for startups with attendees of a Startup Secrets event hosted by Michael Skok, partner at North Bridge Venture Partners on Wednesday.

Andy Jassy and Michael Skok chat at the Harvard iLab.

Andy Jassy and Michael Skok chat at the Harvard iLab.

When he was given the green light to hire 57 people to build AWS back in 2003, here’s what Jassy looked for (and continues to look for) in prospective employees.

1: Intelligence

It’s table stakes but it’s important. When AWS was staffing up, it was key to find people with deep infrastructure knowledge but who “were not pickled,” Jassy said. Knowledge is important but so is intellectual curiosity.

A startup or a startup within a bigger company needs to make sure that the folks it hires know a lot of stuff, but don’t think they know it all already, Jassy told a roomful of entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs at Harvard Business School’s iLab.

2: Stick-to-itiveness

It was clear from the get go that AWS would be a huge project so team members had to be able to handle the long haul. “We knew this would be hard so we wanted people who would stick it out.  We screened for tenacity,” Jassy said.

3: Big vision, big energy:

Another checklist item was that hires would be “hungry, ambitious people with a high bias for action … any startup needs to move fast not slow,” Jassy told a roomful of entrepreneurs. Folks had to be optimistic that they could “change the world.” At that time the idea of rolling out big data centers and offer services for rent at low margin was a huge bet.

4: Willingness to debate

The debates over spec’ing out which services or features to build immediately, which to hold off on and which to skip, have to come early in the process. Hashing out the plan often before rolling it out was also a huge deal that’s not usually popular with developers, who just want to get on with it.

But it’s really important to validate your plan of action before writing code, Jassy said. “There is nothing worse for dev teams to believe this is the product and get way down the road and have people flip it around,” he said.

The odd upside of pre-planning is that once it’s done, development usually goes much, much faster, he said.

5: People who listen

The other side of that same coin is that developers and managers really need to heed feedback from users or potential users. “I’ve seen teams soliciting feedback and then not listening to it. Sometimes you have such a strong vision, it’ shard to hear something needs to change. You have to hear and be willing to adjust,” Jassy said. But it’s also important to drill down into that feedback to make sure what you’re hearing is really what they’re saying.

“We ask lots of questions,” Jassy said.

6: Startup DNA

Amazon preferred people who had been at startups or at startups within existing companies and it didn’t hurt if the startups had failed. “We just wanted them to be self aware of why it didn’t work. We want people at all levels who are really good learners.”

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