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

by | Apr 30, 2021 | Amazon | 0 comments

Home 9 Amazon 9 How To Survive Your First Six Months at Amazon (Part II)

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

6. Become a doc ninja

We can see your future at Amazon, and it is full of doc writing. Amazon speaks in narratives and avoids presentations (we explain why Amazon does not have PowerPoint in our Amazon Interview Whizz training). However, if you 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 Evgeny joined the business, he had a slight advantage. His first employer, P&G, was also passionate about 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 we 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. Moreover, its lessons will serve you well in documents and presentations if 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 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. Instead, you have to pull this data yourself using SQL queries and manipulate it using Excel Pivot Tables or PowerPivot.

What is SQL, we hear you ask? We were asking ourselves the same thing when we joined. And we wish someone had mentioned SQL to us before joining Amazon. Because as soon as we joined Amazon, we realised that we had a glaring skill gap, which, if left unfilled, would jeopardise any future progress.

SQL stands for Structured Query Language. It is a programming language that humans like you and us use to tell databases what bits of data to extract (I know we are 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 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 up 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 we, non-techies, found particularly useful is Mimo, which teaches folks computer literacy. 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 Big Data.

A separate challenge comes with manipulating your data extracts via SQL queries. If you’re like us, 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 diving particularly deep, you may have to deal with data sets with 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, we strongly recommend hitting Udemy and learning these skills pronto.

8. Start obsessing over metrics

During our 19+ years in Fortune 500 businesses, we’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 have to track weekly performance.

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 OK, 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 another 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 us 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)

We will say things here that make us sound like your mom or dad (or Jordan Peterson). So please forgive us; we won’t finish this two-part series unless we touch upon physical and mental health.

The harsh reality is that 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.

We’re not doctors or health professionals, so we won’t recommend anything other than to care for yourself as you would care for someone 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.