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An Amazon Story

This last week I was sitting with friends around a campfire and told the following true story. They found it rather interesting, so I figured it was worth retelling. The truth is, my career has been a really weird one…there’s nothing linear about any of the progression through work that I’ve chosen. It has been a truly wild ride, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Amazon. 1999. It was a totally different company than it is now, though in many ways it’s probably still Day 1. Back then, no one believed in Amazon but us…the insiders, those that had drunk the kool-aid of the best business model for commerce (e-commerce…what a funny name now). There were so many people on “the street” that liked to write these scathing “Amazon will explode in a fiery ball of bankruptcy” stories that even the stalwart had their confidence shaken from time to time. I mean, how many times did I have to explain that I worked for a company that made no profit…sigh. Anyway, from the vantage point of 2014, it’s really easy to think it was a foregone conclusion, but for those of us in the “earlyish” times, it was an exhilirating wild west adventure.

My part in the story began when I joined on as a UNIX Administrator…it was an interesting role which was kind of a precursor to DevOps, at least for me anyway. One of my first projects was working on CMF, a configuration management framework that was mostly done but wasn’t working yet. I finished it off and it became the means (in those days) wherein we reliably built out servers. Of course, it had a tiny fraction of Chef or Puppet, but it was fun and worked for awhile.

But anyway, the inglorius part of being a UNIX Administrator was being on call. Oh, the oncall. Of course, I was single and working 80+ hour weeks, so what’s a few more hours in the middle of the night, right? Needless to say, it wears on you after awhile.

One particular oncall, I woke up to the pager going off at some ungodly hour (3am perhaps?). The site was completely browning out because ACB (the primary database, increasingly inaccurately named Amazon.com Books) was getting overwhelmed and something in the order pipeline was all jammed up.

These late night calls could be a lot of fun at times, as people of many different disciplines would come together and fix some crazy stuff (of course, there would always be some middle manager trying to expedite) but they were interesting to say the least.

This particular night, the root cause was a mispriced iPod in UK (I think). Instead of it being like £300.00, it was £3.00. Whoops, pricing mistake! It made it on some deal site and the rest was history.

Well, I’m not really a “status quo” person, nor really content to “just do my job”, so the next day I went into the office armed with my trusty weapon “Maths” (you see, I was in neutrino astrophysics before I came to Amazon, so I have some math experience) and a slightly trusty other weapon “Perl” and that day I made the ASIN Spike Report. What it could do was identify when anomalous activity was happening across the whole catalog of items and let the buyers know that they either:

  • had an item which just jumped in popularity or
  • a mispriced item.

As soon as I had the working prototype (same day), I didn’t know who to show it to. I asked around as to who might want to be on the email distribution (it emailed the instant stuff was identified as weird) and I was introduced to a buyer (name lost to the mists of time…sorry!) and he connected the dots to the whole group. It was a HUGE success and completely changed my career. They were able to use it for all sorts of things (like buying lots of inventory before other people knew there was a new best-seller).

From that moment, I became pricing guy and started working with tons of buyers from all different departments (even though I was still a UNIX Admin). Not too long afterwards, I was picked up by a Dr. Larson who was building a special team around pricing at Amazon. I won the “Just do it” award (thanks Jeff for the signed shoe!) and my first innovation award (a patent for the thing…note, I didn’t describe how it worked!). From there I transitioned to the Software side of things and have loved almost every minute of building things that help people do whatever it is that they do.

Anyway, that special team will have to be the topic for another time (it led to presenting to the Board…thanks Rick for doing most of the talking, brainstorming with the CTO/CIO over algorithms, a big bump in profit for the company and a great opportunity for me).

Amazon.com was a truly amazing experience.

Tagged with: personal

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