I was ambitious and worked hard to advance my career at Amazon and then Facebook. I thought the way to get ahead was to deliver results, then push for more responsibility and position myself for promotion. I later came to realize I had it totally backwards. Here's my story:
Ambition can be a good thing when it's channeled productively. Ambitious people push forward. For example, my litmus test for whether I should stay in a job or make a change was always to ask myself whether I was still on a vertical learning curve. If not, find a new challenge.
But early on I was nakedly ambitious. After one year at Amazon I thought I deserved to be Director. When my manager didn't promote me, I moved to another team who offered to promote me as part of the move. The promotion was later rescinded because my new manager lacked authority.
What defines a great company culture? I worked for two iconic companies and founders with nearly polar opposite cultures. Amazon was heads-down, secretive, forthright. Facebook was open, transparent, collaborative. Here's what I learned about culture working for Bezos and Zuck:
Culture implicitly sets expectations for behavior. Strong cultures are well-defined with sharp edges, and well-understood by everyone in the organization top to bottom. Strong founders with unapologetic personalities set the culture early and maintain it as the company scales.
When I joined Amzn in 1999, we had top-secret teams working on new products like Auctions, Toys and Electronics. Before a product launched, the only people in the know were those who needed to know. Everyone else was told to keep their heads down and focus on their own work.
I learned about leadership & scaling from Sheryl Sandberg. My direct manager for 10+ yrs, we spent countless hours together in weekly 1x1s (she attended religiously), meetings, offsites, dinners, travel, etc. Here are some of the most important lessons I took away from Sheryl:
In one of our early M-team offsites, everyone shared their mission in life. Sheryl described her passion for scaling organizations. She was single-mindedly focused on this purpose and loved everything about scaling. It's a huge strength to know what you were put on earth to do.
Sheryl implemented critical systems to help us scale - eg 360 perf reviews, calibrations, promotions, refresh grants, PIPs. She brought structure to our management team and board meetings, hired senior people across the company, and streamlined communications up and down the org.
People often ask me to compare working for Bezos vs Zuck. I worked with Mark much more closely for much longer, but I did work directly with Jeff in my last 2 years at Amazon incubating the Kindle. Here are some thoughts on similarities that make them both generational leaders:
Jeff was 30 yrs old when he started Amzn, and he was 35 by the time I joined in '99. Mark started FB at 19 yrs old and was 22 when I joined in '06 (and is now 36!). After I joined FB, I shared with Mark that I thought he most closely resembled Jeff among all the tech founders.
They both lived in the future and saw around corners, always thinking years/decades ahead. And at the same time, they were both obsessive over the tiniest product and design details. They could go from 30,000 feet to 3 feet in a split second.
Andy Jassy launched my career over 20 years ago. Here's what he did and why I will be forever grateful to the new CEO of Amazon:
In my first year of b-school I desperately wanted an internship at Amazon. They weren't recruiting from Michigan so I asked everyone I knew if they had any contacts. My parents' friends' daughter's boyfriend had gone to b-school with Andy Jassy, early marketing manager at Amazon.
I begged for an intro and he connected me to Andy who was gracious but said they were too heads down to think about summer internships. I asked Andy if he would get lunch with me if I showed up to his office in Seattle. He agreed, and I flew to Seattle over Xmas break.
I learned an important lesson in business when I launched a new retail category early in my career at Amazon: Fail Fast! I spent 18 months shipping a product that should have taken a few months, delaying the oppty to learn and adjust to our initial failure. Here's what happened:
I was originally hired at Amazon on the business development team. After a year I got recruited to help ship a new computer store and run merchandising. I jumped at the opportunity to launch a new business and learn new skills. Amzn was great at creating these opportunities.
Two weeks after joining the retail team, I was in a meeting presenting our pro forma P&L for our computer store launch. I was forecasting inventory turns and gross margins. It was exciting to be thrown into the deep end. I felt like I was at a start-up inside of a start-up.
I was at Amzn in 2000 when the internet bubble popped. Capital markets dried up & we were burning $1B/yr. Our biggest expense was datacenter -> expensive Sun servers. We spent a year ripping out Sun & replacing with HP/Linux, which formed the foundation for AWS. The backstory:
My first week at Amzn in '99 I saw McNealy in the elevator on his way to Bezos' office. Sun Microsystems was one of the most valuable companies in the world at that time (peak market cap >$300B). In those days, buying Sun was like buying IBM: "nobody ever got fired for it"
Our motto was "get big fast." Site stability was critical - every second of downtime was lost sales - so we spent big $$ to keep the site up. Sun servers were the most reliable so all internet co's used them back then, even though Sun's proprietary stack was expensive & sticky.
I had a December tradition at Facebook of delivering a one-hour "end of year talk" to my org. The topics changed each year but the common thread was a reflection on life and work outside of our day-to-day. Here's a high-level summary of some of the themes I shared in those talks:
One of my favorite books is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. We all have activities where we are in a flow state. For me it's surfing - when I see a wave on the horizon coming towards me and suddenly I'm lifted up - I'm not thinking of anything else in that moment.
When we close our eyes and imagine our flow state activities, most of us picture things we do in our free time - cooking, rock climbing, music, writing, etc. But when we evaluate our waking time, most hours are spent at work. What would it look like to experience flow at work?
A few days after I joined as head of biz dev at Facebook in 2006, MySpace announced a partnership w/Google worth $1B. I sent an internal email suggesting we pursue a similar deal and Zuck gave me a hunting license. Here's how I signed the biggest deal of my career with Microsoft:
Microsoft had been left at the alter with MySpace. They bid more than Google for the right to run banner ads, but MySpace was owned by NewsCorp and Rupert liked Google better. Ballmer was reportedly very upset about losing, so my first call was to some folks I knew at Microsoft.
MySpace had 10x more users than Facebook at the time, but we were #2 and growing. I told Microsoft we could be their “rebound date,” but they had to move fast because Google was also pursuing us (which was true). I didn’t mention we were wary of Google’s competitive ambitions.
I got my first real job in '99 on the biz dev team at Amazon. Like most first jobs, it was a combination of hustle and luck. I had no idea Amazon (or later Facebook) would become what it is today, but I knew I wanted to work there. Here's how it happened:
In high school I thought I wanted a career in business, but my dad was a doctor, my mom a therapist, aunts/uncles physicians & lawyers. I had no role model in biz except my grandfather who owned a fleet of taxi cabs in NY. And my grandmother who always told me "work for yourself"
Harvard had no business major so I thought I would try economics. But after taking Econ 101 freshman year, I decided it wasn't for me (too theoretical and math heavy). Instead I studied Sociology and went down a path of learning about human behavior.
In 2004 I had an offer to join the new Kindle team at Amzn and I jumped at the oppty. I was on our retail team at the time -> Kindle was new/sexy. But a week before I was scheduled to start my new job, I was told to stay put and I learned an important lesson. Here’s the story:
2 years earlier I had been given P&L responsibility for Amzn’s cell phone store. We sold phones + plans (like Car Warehouse and Best Buy). This was Amzn’s highest margin biz, but it was tiny and not growing and I was told it could get shut down. I had 6 mos to turn it around.
The industry model at that time was give phones for free w/ service plan attach. I reinvested the service plan margin to make phones less than free, and rev growth exploded. GM % plummeted, but profit $ went way up. My little biz was our fastest growing segment at Amzn!
In 2008 Facebook’s user growth hit a wall at 80M and we were having serious debates about whether any social network could ever reach 100M users. 2 years later we had doubled our user base and not long after that we reached 1B users. Here’s how we did it:
I joined FB in summer ‘06 when we had 7M users and were adding 5k/day. Over the next 18 months, Zuck shipped News Feed, Open Registration, Platform and community-led translation. By end of ‘07 we had 70M users and it seemed like we couldn’t be stopped.
Towards end of ‘07 I helped raise our Series C at $15B valuation. We had <400 employees and only $250M revenue, but we had explosive user growth and powerful network effects. Our entire valuation was based on how fast people were signing up for FB all over the world.
May 18, 2012 - there was a crisp blue sky at FB’s campus as we rang the opening bell. Emotions ran high as we took a brief moment to celebrate our hard work. The stock traded up for the first few hours. Then it traded down for the next 12 months...
Facebook’s IPO coincided with a paradigm shift in technology. The majority of our usage and revenue transitioned from desktop to mobile practically overnight. Facebook’s journey to a mobile-first company started with a strategic error and ended with a pivot. Here’s the story:
Mobile initially presented us with a number of challenges, and our instinct was to innovate our way around them. The heart of our strategy was HTML5, which turned out to be a flawed approach. We spent 2 years sprinting down the wrong path before reversing course. Why?
Amazon launched in July 1995, and every Xmas was a near death experience for the first 7 years. I joined in ‘99 and got to experience this first hand. Starting in late Nov, all corporate employees were shipped to fulfillment centers to pack boxes for 6 weeks. Here’s what I saw:
Despite efforts to plan ahead, the company literally couldn’t keep up with holiday demand. 40% of all annual orders would come through in 6 weeks from Thxgiving through New Years. Ops teams would start planning in Jan, but by Sept they were always massively behind.
As “earth’s most customer centric company,” failing to deliver presents for Xmas would have been like Santa missing his deadline. But when demand exceeds even your most aggressive forecasts, it’s a physical world problem that requires physical world solutions - ie human bodies.
I dropped out of b-school to join Amazon July ‘99. By Dec Amzn’s stock had doubled, Jeff was Time Man of the Year. Then March ‘00 internet bubble popped -> my stock options were underwater and Amzn faced bankruptcy. Yet dropping out was the best decision I ever made. Here’s why:
I needed a pattern interrupt. My life had been conformist up to that point - straight A’s, awards, Harvard, b-school. But business is messy, life is messy. I knew deep down I needed to mess stuff up, get outside the box. I’ve tried to maintain that mentality ever since then.
Shortly after I started my internship at Amzn, I asked CFO Joy Covey if she thought I should drop out of b-school to stay on full time. She said I would learn more on the job than in school (she had dropped out of high school). She was right, you can’t learn biz in a classroom.
In 2002 I was working in Amazon’s retail division. We were organized by department - books, CDs, electronics, etc - and a separate dept for products sold by 3rd parties. Then Bezos decided 3rd party should appear next to 1st party on the same product page. Here’s what happened:
Amzn launched 3rd party biz right after I joined summer 1999. Started w auctions, competing directly w eBay. Added fixed price when eBay acquired Half. Despite a ton of cross-promo, nobody visited the 3rd party store. eBay had buyer/seller network effects. Amzn couldn’t compete.
By 2002 most people thought we should shut down 3rd party biz. It wasn’t working, consumed a lot of resources, good people were on it, big distraction. At the same time, core retail biz had decelerated to single digit growth after we raised prices to stop bleeding cash.
A few months after I joined Facebook in 2006, we shipped the 2 most important products in FB’s history: News Feed + Open Registration. A lot of smart people thought these moves would destroy FB. Instead, they transformed the company and cemented Zuck’s leadership. The backstory:
News Feed shipped first. In 2006 there were no feeds (other than RSS), NF was a novel product idea. Websites were measured on page views back then, and NF was designed to reduce PVs by eliminating the need to click around profiles. Less PVs = less ad impressions, seemed crazy.
Mark described FB as a utility, and NF was central to his vision. It showed info you could already see on people’s profiles, but organized efficiently on the home page. And stories would be ranked based on what people found most interesting. This was a massive change.
In 2004 I got the opportunity to work with Jeff Bezos to develop the original Kindle. It was Amazon’s first foray into hardware and I learned a ton from my interactions with Jeff. Here’s some of the stories and lessons that I took away from that experience:
1/ Learn and adapt. Amazon’s second largest business was decimated when Apple digitized the music industry. CD sales had been important to Amazon, but they were dwarfed by book sales. Jeff took the lessons from iPod/iTunes and applied them to Kindle.
2/ Ignore the “institutional no”. Amazon’s core retail business was pummeled after dot-com crash, and we were still pulling out of the tail spin in 2004 when Jeff started the Kindle team (same year he started AWS team). Everyone told him it was a distraction, he ignored them.
The most difficult / pivotal moment in my career occured shortly after Sheryl joined FB in 2008. She saw my potential and wanted to give me more responsibility for the business, but decided first to do a 360 performance review. The feedback from my team and peers was devastating.
While everyone acknowledged my high level of competence in partnerships and business strategy (this is also what Sheryl saw in me), they universally criticized me for being political and untrustworthy. Sheryl told me I couldn’t stay at FB if I didn’t address this.
This was obviously extremely difficult to hear. I was completely unaware that people viewed me this way, and it wasn’t consistent with my values. But the feedback was clear - it wasn’t isolated - and I realized I had a huge blind spot.
I’ve sat on both sides of the platform / developer dynamic: managed FB’s developer ecosystem including Zynga during our web platform days, and managed FB’s relationship with Apple/Google as the largest app developer on iOS/Android. Here’s a few things I learned:
1/ Platform management is a fascinating case study in value creation and power dynamics. Value creation: durable platforms strike a “balance of value” between platform owners, developers and end-users.
2/ Power dynamics: there’s natural tension between platform owners and developers. They share the same end-users: who owns the customer? They make each other’s products more useful: which direction does value flow? They have overlapping features: where is “the line”?
In 2009, an unknown investor from Russia came out of nowhere to make one of the greatest late stage venture bets in the history of Silicon Valley. Why did FB choose an outsider to lead our Series D round? Here’s the inside story:
2 years earlier we famously raised from Microsoft at $15B valuation. That turned out to be a mistake because it set us up for a painful down round. By 2009 growth had slowed and the financial crisis crushed advertising. “Smart money” bids for our Series D were coming in at $3-6B.
We had a high bid at $8B from a respected valley firm, and we had a wildcard bid from Yuri Milner/DST who offered to top any other bid by 20%. We initially chose the reputable firm at a lower price, but they refused to drop a ratchet provision so we decided to give DST a chance.