How To Survive Your First Six Months at Amazon (Part II)

Actionable tips on how to survive at Amazon during your first 6 months in the business. Part II. From an ex-Amazon hiring manager.

How To Survive Your First Six Months at Amazon (Part II)

This is the second part of a two-part article where I share strategies to survive my first six months at Amazon. Follow this link to read Part I.

6. Become a doc ninja

I can see your future at Amazon, and it is full of doc writing. Amazon speaks in narratives and avoids presentations (I explain why Amazon does not have PowerPoint in my Amazon Interview Bootcamp training). However, if you ever find yourself proposing an experiment, pulling together a retrospective analysis or even writing a manual, Amazon will expect you to capture your thoughts in a written document. When presented to leadership for approval, even new ideas are encapsulated in a document called a PRFAQ.

Amazon docs vary in style across different organisations but tend to share the following things in common:

  1. They can be no more than six pages long
  2. They have to be crisp, which is Amazon-speak for devoid of unnecessary words (adjectives are particularly frowned upon)
  3. They have to follow a strict, linear structure

When I joined the business, I had a slight advantage. My first employer, P&G, was also big on docs and tended to shy away from PowerPoint. Yet, unless you've had a similar experience somewhere else, expect a good year to grasp the subject thoroughly.

There are decent courses on doc writing offered at Amazon, and I encourage you to take them all. That said, you will do yourself a huge favour if you read one book before you join. This book is guaranteed to make you change your perspective on communicating with brevity and logic. Its lessons will serve you well in both documents and presentations - in case you decide to move on from Amazon one day. The book is The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto.

7. Get comfortable with Big Data

How much data do you think you'll be working with if you join Amazon? The answer is more than you can imagine, primarily if you've never previously worked in a Big Data business.

There are a few distinct challenges that come with Big Data:

  1. First, because there are so many data sets, it's hard to know what you need and what you don't.
  2. If you need something niche or specific, it's not immediately apparent where to look for this data and which team to ask for access to.
  3. The minute you need something other than surface-level numbers, you no longer have handy dashboards to use. This means that you have to pull this data yourself using SQL queries and manipulate it using Excel Pivot Tables or PowerPivot.

What is SQL, I hear you ask? I was asking myself the same thing when I joined. And I wish that someone mentioned SQL to me while I was working through my notice period at the previous employer. Because as soon as I joined Amazon, I realised that I had a glaring skill gap, which, if left unfilled, will jeopardise any future progress.

SQL stands for Structured Query Language. It is a programming language that humans like you and I use to tell databases what bits of data to extract (I know that I am over-simplifying for all SQL experts out there). While pulling data via SQL queries is a somewhat technical skill, most non-technical Amazon job descriptions will mention it as a desired requirement. So, long story short, you'll save yourself many late nights if you take SQL courses before you join and come with a general understanding of what it is and how to use it to get the data you need.

There are plenty of resources on the internet where you can learn SQL. Udemy, Coursera and LinkedIn Learning should have some courses that you can take. There are also plenty of books on Amazon. The one resource that I found particularly useful as a non-techie is Mimo, which teaches folks computer literacy. During my first six months at Amazon, you would have caught me zipping through the SQL Mimo learning levels while commuting to Amazon's office in East London via London Underground. The app is excellent for quick daily learning and, in combination with more formal courses on Udemy, will give you all you need to prepare for life in the Big Data.

A separate challenge comes with manipulating the data extracts that you get via SQL queries. If you're like me, the most you've used Excel for was to construct charts that you'd then plonk into a PowerPoint presentation. Once you get up to speed with Big Data, you'll need to manipulate raw extracts that may have hundreds of thousands of rows. If you are diving particularly deep, you may have to deal with data sets that have millions of rows.

To tame these beasts, you need to become an Advanced Excel user and fast. Your primary focus should be on mastering Pivot Tables and VLOOKUPs. If you see your data extracts over-stepping the one million rows limit, you will find yourself in the PowerQuery and PowerPivot territory. Unless you are an Excel Black Belt, my strong recommendation is to hit Udemy and start learning these skills pronto.

8. Start obsessing over metrics

During my 15 years in Fortune 500 businesses, I've never worked in a company that did not expect managers at all levels to set SMART goals, convert them into KPIs and measure attainment against those metrics.

However, Amazon takes obsession with metrics to a whole new level. As soon as you start running projects or managing a category, you will find yourself having to track performance every week.

Here, you will have to adopt the following mantra:

  1. Always have a plan expressed in concrete KPIs. Having an ambitious and risky plan is fine, while not having a plan is a no-go.
  2. Always have a benchmark when comparing performance. Ideally, your benchmark should be your plan. If not, it can be the previous year/quarter's performance. If that does not make sense, you can use the results of some other team that did something similar. If not - an industry average.
  3. Measure only what matters and avoid tracking everything (you will be tempted to do this once you get your SQL and Excel under control).

What helped me soak in the metrics-obsessed culture and appreciate it in the process is this book - Measure What Matters by John Doerr. John is believed to be the founding father of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), a performance measurement method prevalent in Silicon Valley. So if you have time, check this book out and read it before your Day One at Amazon.

9. Nurture the goose (that is, take care of your mental and physical health)

I will say some things here that will make me sound like your mom or dad (or Jordan Peterson). Please forgive me for this; I won't finish this two-part series unless I touch upon physical and mental health.

The harsh reality is that the combination of a steep learning curve and a high bar on personal productivity will make your early months at Amazon quite taxing. It is merely the result of having so many things to learn and accomplish in a compressed period. To not just survive but thrive in this environment, you need to be at your best - physically and mentally. You will need all the energy and mental clarity that you can get.

I'm not a doctor or a health professional, which is why I won't be recommending anything other than to care for yourself as you would care for someone who you love (a life lesson proudly stolen from Jordan Peterson). But, don't ignore the goose that lays golden eggs, and avoid burning the candle at both ends.

Work-life harmony is real even when you're new, and the pressure is high as long as you remember to pay your mind and body extra attention during this period.