Friday was my last day at Amazon

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The goodbye mail to the Alexa Smart Home team explains it all pretty well:

Date: Apr 27, 2018 3:03 PM
Subject: Smart Home Org Update

Team,

With mixed emotions I share the news that Charlie Kindel has decided to leave Amazon. Charlie has accomplished many things in his time here, not the least of which is the founding and scaling of Alexa Smart Home. Alexa would not be the leader in Smart Home that it is without his vision, leadership, and hard work – he will be deeply missed. Charlie prepared the short FAQ found below to share his thinking with the Smart Home team. In Charlie’s own words…

1. Why are you leaving Amazon?

The pace of the past 5 years has finally gotten to me and I simply need to catch my breath. I’ve recently been joking with folks that “I used to get my adrenaline rush going heli-skiing. Now I just go into work.” I have a car restoration project that is two years behind schedule. My home automation system needs a complete revamp (it’s gotten a bit crusty since it was installed in 2001).

2. Why leave Amazon and not just go on a leave?

I was originally just going to take a temporary leave, but I like the idea of having total freedom of thought to decide what’s next in my life. By making a clean break from Amazon all options (including coming back to Amazon) are still on the table.

3. What are you going to do?

Relax and goof off. I will clean my home office which is a freaking mess and work on car projects. I am hiring a CEDIA-level installer to completely refit my home automation system and I will project manage that. I hope to enjoy the awesome summer we’re about to have in Seattle with my family (both of my adult kids will be living in the Seattle area starting this summer). Professionally, I don’t know what’s next.

I will miss you all! Please don’t hesitate to keep in touch; my personal email is charlie(at)kindel.com.

Other questions I’m sure people have:

What are you going to miss the most about Amazon?

I’m going to miss the people. The Alexa Smart Home team is an incredible team that I was blessed to have built from the ground up. I’ve had so much fun watching so many people grow in their careers and it’s going to suck not being able to be around them day-to-day as they continue to flourish.

I’m also going to miss Amazon’s high standards. I’m skeptical I’ll find another environment where the drive for “raising the bar” is so consistent and strong. Wherever I go next, you can be sure I’ll be taking this with me:

Insist on the highest standards

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.

— from the Amazon Leadership Principles

What are you going to miss the least?

Leaving the house at 6:00am to beat Seattle traffic and returning home at 6:30pm every day. Although, I have to say, I did enjoy working ‘downtown’ more than I expected.

Will you ever return to Amazon?

Maybe (if they’ll have me). After being at Microsoft for 21 years I promised myself I’d never ‘fall in love’ with a company again. It’s just not healthy. But the reality is there are many, many things about how Amazon operates that deeply resonate with me. For example, the 14 leadership principles all sing to me and I have always been blown away how seriously everyone at Amazon takes them.

Are you available for consulting gigs?

Generally, no. I’m taking a very serious (ha!) break from ‘work’. However, I might be willing to take on some executive and leadership coaching. I am absolutely not available to consult on or discuss things related to my role at Amazon.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Clear Narratives Show Instead of Tell

This is yet-another-post on the topic of Amazon-style “six-page memos”, aka Narratives. This post focuses on the mantra: “Great narratives show, they don’t tell.”

When writing things you believe to be facts, ask yourself: How do I know? How can I qualify it? Then, qualify it in your words.

Tell (Bad):

The BMW E28 M5 is a rare car.

Show (Good):

Of the 722,328 E28 5-series sedans BMW built between 1981 and 1987, only 2,191 were the rare M5 variant.

When suggesting a course of action (e.g. “we should do x”), follow the suggestion with an explaination of why (e.g. “because of y and z).

Tell (Bad):

We should replace the old blinker fluid.

Show (Good):

We should replace the old blinker fluid because customers have reported 42 cases where old blinker fluid caused flux capacitors to wear out.

Its not uncommon for the data to be weak, but for the team to still be committed to a plan because of wisdom or strong anecdotes. If the data being presented has value, but has holes in it point out the holes. Don’t let (or ask) the reader to find those holes. Make it clear the risks have been assessed.

If you think your data has holes but still has value, point out the holes rather than have someone else do it during your presentation. Use data that both supports and argues against the author’s position. Demonstrate that you have assessed the risks.

Tell (Bad):

I am not going to replace the 5 year-old timing belt because it has less than 5,000 miles on it.

Show (Good):

I am not going to replace the timing belt because it has less than 5,000 miles on it. While this belt is older than the recommended replacement age of 4 years, this car has been stored in a humidity and climate controlled environment and the risk of the belt breaking is very low.

Some literary elements one should never use in narratives (yes, I get the irony of using an Absolute Statement here):

  • Quantifiers. Quantifiers are a type of determiner which denote imprecise quantity. They modify nouns or pronouns. Many, much, some, a few.
  • Qualificative or Qualifying Descriptive Adjectives. Big. Small. nice, complicated  better, best, and bad, worse, worst.
  • Predictive Adjectives. Expensive, funny, good.
  • Absolute statements. All, none, never, always. Nothing is in the absolute.

Finally, here are some other tips that will help you show vs. tell:

  • Correlation does not mean causation. A strong correlation between two trends is just a correlation, until there is proven causation.
  • For any data ask “is this common sense”? It’s shocking how many documents contain data that does not pass the sniff test. One mistake like this will ruin an entire narrative. You should always know the exact source of the data (use footnotes!), the timeliness of the data, how the data was calculated, and any assumptions that might not be known to the reader.
  • Don’t just put more data because you feel you need more data. Only put in data that helps create clarity or drive a decision. Likewise, don’t put data in just because getting said data was hard work.

Don’t TELL me your idea or opinion, SHOW me your idea or opinion. Use data liberally to make your case to the readers of a narrative.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Be a Great Reader

When an organization has a culture where the written word is valued, being a great reader is just as important as being a great writer. In my time at Amazon, I’ve learned (more like it was beaten into me) to have a very high-bar for my own writing. I wrote a little about this in my post Details Matter. I’ve also learned the importance of being a great reader, and that’s the topic of this post.

In the latest Amazon Shareholder letter Jeff Bezos wrote more about Amazon’s famous ‘six-page narratives’. He used the process of writing a great narrative as an example of what it means to have relentlessly high-standards.

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.”

– Jeff Bezos, Amazon 2017 Annual Letter

The “narratively structured six-page” mechanism at Amazon is not about the document itself. Instead the ‘six-page memo’ mechanism creates a virtuous cycle that results in ever-increasing clarity of thought. The major components of that cycle are great writing, great meetings (“study hall”), and great reading.

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It turns out that not everyone is a great reader (including those like me who have always read a lot)! Great reading is a skill that requires focus and training.

Understanding is key

I am not a speed reader. I am a speed understander.

– Isaac Asimov

I finish novels in a fraction of the time it takes most people because I learned as a kid how to skim and cluster (two of the primary techniques used in speed reading). For novels this is fine. But for Amazon-style narratives and technical papers speed reading is bad. Understanding is key. I had to train myself to slow down and focus on understanding to be a valuable participant in document reviews at Amazon. I am still working on it.

Learn how to understand first, then apply skills for efficiency. I see two modes to reading: Novel mode and study mode. These modes are related only because they both involve eyes seeing words on a page; otherwise they are diametrically different. In reading a novel, efficiency is key so skimming the boring bits is fine. Inventing character or plot details that were glossed over will not ruin the story.

But for narratives every word, every element of grammar, every punctuation mark, and every number were carefully chosen by the writer. Thus understanding is key. Skimming and clustering are anti-patterns to reading narratives well because if any detail is missed, the entire point of the memo may be missed.

I’ve become a better reader by training myself to be an active reader. Active reading means being 100% focused on the document at hand and scrutinizing every word, every punctuation mark, and every bit of formatting. It means checking the math. It means reading slowly and pausing regularly (like every time there’s a period indicating the end of a sentence or whitespace indicating a paragraph break!) to think critically about what the writer wrote. Great active readers can identify omitted “obvious” details the writer left out, but others miss.

Contrast this to passive reading, which is when the point is just to be entertained.

Tips for Being a Great Reader

  • Be an active reader.
  • Have a pen in hand. Use it. I find having a pen in hand when I start reading helps put me in Active Reader Mode.
  • Pause on numbers and do the math yourself. Don’t trust any number. If a number seems hyperbolic, find the place in the doc where it was justified.
  • Pause after each sentence or paragraph and restate it in your head. Pausing between paragraphs allows the brain to digest details and make connections.
  • Stop if you find yourself reverting to speed reading. Go back and read what you skimmed again.
  • Don’t let document author cajole you into hurrying up. If they made the doc too long, or so confusing that you’ve had to re-read parts of it, that’s not your problem. Insist they give you more time.
  • Hold the writer to a high standard. If the doc is confusing, say so. If, after reading, you are hungry for more details on something, insist on more details. Writing, reading, and the review meetings are part of a complete mechanism that is intended to give everyone involved clarity of thought on a topic. There is nothing wrong with going through a loop multiple times, and until the topic is presented as simply and clearly as possible, your job as a reader is to help the writer come back next time with an even better version.

What tips and techniques have you learned for being a better reader?

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Customer, Business, Technology, Organization (CBTO)

Sometime near the end of the last century, J Allard coined the term BXT at Microsoft. As Robbie Bach notes in his book Xbox Revisited:

BXT = Business + eXperience + Technology

I used the BXT mental model for many years to get clarity on organizing product teams, hiring leaders, and mentoring on careers. However, several things about the BXT model always annoyed me.

  1. I always hated that B (Business) came first. The Customer ALWAYS comes first, not the Business (or Technology).
  2. While the “X” was cute and sexy in an Xbox sort-of-way, the word “experience” failed to capture the most important thing: The Customer. Building experiences is not the end, but a means to the end.
  3. It didn’t factor in another critical dimension of building great stuff for customers: All of the things around the people who build and how they are organized.

I eventually came up with a framework that addressed all of these issues. I call it CBTO. The name is certainly not as sexy sounding as BXT, but it is still easy to remember.

CBTO

CBTO = Customer + Business + Technology + Organization.

Customer

Who is the customer? How do we segment customers? How many customers are there? What do customers want? What pain do customers currently feel? What is the customer experience we are working backwards from?

Everyone in the organization needs to take this perspective, but generally folks who consider themselves Product Managers and UX Designers tend to index very highly on this perspective.

Business

Why are we doing this? Is there a new strategy, or does what we are doing accrue to an existing strategy? Is there money to be made? If so how much and when? What deals do we need to make to deliver the customer experience? What our our inputs and outputs for the business? How do we measure success?

This is typically the perspective where folks with business backgrounds (e.g. MBAs) are the strongest.

Technology

How are we going to execute? What do we need to invent to make the proposed customer experience true? What shoulders of giants do we stand on? What’s our execution model (e.g. agile or waterfall)? How do we operate our services? How do we ensure operational excellence?

The Technology perspective is usually the strongest with engineering leaders, like SDMs or Technical Program Managers. Generally engineering is where the center of gravity in most high-performing organizations is, simply because engineers are the only people who actually do work that directly impacts customers.

Organization

How are we organized? Functionally? Or single-threaded? How will we recruit and hire the best? How do we ensure everyone is setup for success in their careers? What’s our compensation and reward system?

All managers have to index high on the organizational perspective.

 

You can use the CBTO mental model to gain clarity on a broad range of topics. For example:

  • If you are designing an organization you can use it to determine if you have the right balance of leadership in place to be successful. The best product organizations have a balance excellence in across all four perspectives.
  • When considering a career move, ask yourself where you are strong, and where you are weak relative to these perspectives. Then decide which of them you’d like to be putting more energy into in your next role.
  • When interviewing leaders, ask them to stack rank their relative strengths and weakness across these four perspectives. If you are hiring someone to be an engineering leader and their stack is “BOCT” then they probably won’t make a very good engineering leader.

Frameworks and mental models like BXT or CBTO can help create clarity of thought. There’s no perfect framework, but I have found CBTO to work pretty well for me. What do you think?

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.