How AWS innovates

Some of the ways AWS keeps up a rapid pace of rolling out new features to its cloud

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Two pizza teams; being vocally self-critical; primitive building blocks and a vitriol hate for PowerPoints. These are some of the ways AWS innovates. 

Amazon.com is ranked by Forbes as the sixth most innovative company, but one could argue that its cloud computing division is the most innovative. Amazon Web Services invented the infrastructure as a service (IaaS) market in the mid-2000s and to this day is anointed by analysts as the market leader, both in terms of the scale of its distributed system, the size of its customer base, and perhaps as important as both of those things: its pace of innovation.

In 2012 AWS released what it considered to be 159 significant feature updates to its cloud. The next year, that rose to 280. Last year at its re:Invent conference SVP of AWS Andy Jassy said the company was on pace for more than 500 feature enhancements to its cloud this year.

How does the company do it?

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At AWS re:Invent 2013 the person who plays a large part in keeping AWS running as a well-oiled machine gave some insight into the inner workings of AWS at the time. Charles (Charlie) Bell is an Amazon Web Services Engineer - but he’s basically runs products and operations for the cloud computing giant.

Firstly, it may sound cliché, but Bell says everything the company does boils down to core leadership principles. Customer obsession; insist on the highest standards; think big; invent and simplify; have a bias for action; be vocally self-critical. Those are instilled across the company and Bell says and the company encourages all of its employees to embrace those tenets.

Attitude alone doesn’t lead to innovation though. Much of what has made Amazon a fast-moving company is that it does things small. Instead, AWS has what he calls “single-threaded teams” that focus on a specific task. They’re not project teams; Bell hates project reams because they have a start and a finish to them, which leads to a “launch and flee” ethic. “If you really want to do something that matters then you’re going to put a single-threaded team on it,” Bell said. “They’re going to own it and continually improve it and work on it.” In those earliest days Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wanted groups that were big enough to feed with two pizzas. That’s it. Small, focused and driven teams are the way the company is set up to move fast.

aws andy jassy 500 Joab Jackson/IDG News Service

Andy Jassy, Amazon senior vice president in charge of Amazon Web Services, speaks at the AWS re:Invent conference 2014 in Las Vegas.

That idea of everything being done in a customer-centric way is taken pretty seriously too. Bell says when a new product or service is being evaluated, often executives will ask for a number of documents to be produced. These include:

-A “six-pager” This is a six-page narrative (never more than six pages) written by whoever is proposing the idea that is distributed to executives at a meeting to discuss whether the idea should be adopted. The first 20 minutes of the meeting are spent with everyone reading the six-pager. Then, while it’s fresh in everyone’s mind, it is discussed. Writing a narrative forces the person who has the idea to organize their thoughts.

-A press release. Many times a press release is written for a product before it is ever even made. This is another exercise the company uses to force employees to think about why their idea would be useful to customers.

-An FAQ: Writing a frequently asked questions guide will expose holes in the idea and identify problem areas.

While six-pagers, press releases and FAQs are common across AWS one thing that is not are PowerPoint presentations. Bell hates them. Slideshows are typically created, they have scant details and choppy transitions. The hierarchical nature of them causes information to get lost in the weeds, he says. And when slideshows are passed on from worker to manager to executives, it’s a glorified professional game of “telephone” with the original intent of the presentation getting lost along the way. That doesn’t happen with a six-pager.

One other important feature of AWS is the idea of building new products and services based on existing tools already available to the company. AWS has a handful of primitive building blocks that many of its other services are based on. Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and Simple Storage Service (S3) are a couple of those. From there, products like Elastic Block Storage (EBS) are built to work with EC2. Combining EC2, S3, EBS and the company’s Route 53 DNS platform, engineers made RDS, the company’s relational database service. AWS uses primitive building blocks to build its features. Even AWS’s most advanced services like Lambda and Kenesis are all built on top of existing AWS products and services.

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