Where is the Scrum?
This book is not about Scrum, it doesn’t mention it as far as I can remember, and is not something to read to learn about how to implement it.
There is something about the visionary that is Jeff Bezos that gets me thinking about Scrum. It is talked about that people who work for Bezos frequently burn out because the pace of working there is high and the pressure intense. This isn’t the part that made me think of Agile as it doesn’t seem conducive with the principle that ‘Agile processes promote sustainable development’.
No, it was the part where the writer says that if you ask anyone in the company about Amazon’s values or ambitions, they can tell you exactly the same message that Bezos believes. No confusion through the grapevine. No two departments pushing on either side of a swing door to get it to open. When one side pushes harder, so does the other and the door does not move. They all are following the same vision, the same goal. Bezos comes across in the book as the kind of boss that can be disobliging and stubborn in his ways. But his headstrong nature enables him to cut through the bureaucratic obstacles that we all come across in our product development and see what is true value. The customer. He is laser focused on their needs and will stop at nothing to make sure they come first. Sure, he gets it wrong sometimes, but he isn’t afraid of that.
One example from the book that I think a lot of us can relate to is when there was a hiccup over the emails that Amazon sends for abandoned baskets. We have all received those types of emails. But this hiccup related to automated emails being sent when customers had been browsing for personal, intimate items that they did not want to be reminded of by an email. Bezos argued that these emails shouldn’t be sent at all, regardless of product type, as he questioned the value to the customer. Even once he understood how much revenue Amazon makes from these emails. Didn’t matter. Customer comes first.
So what can we learn from this book?
I don’t think this book teaches much, if anything, that we can take to build successful Scrum teams. To me, Amazon appeared as a culture that would terrify me personally as a Scrum Master, with the safety and trust in teams buried underneath something more sinister and oppressive.
The learnings in this book are more about the value of a solid product vision, and the courage to pursue the customer need. This is a theme running throughout the book, driven by Bezos’ drive for ‘The Everything Store’ to be achieved. You can feel the passion from him in every decision that is discussed.
‘ I would define Amazon by our big ideas, which are customer centricity, putting the customer at the center of everything we do, and invention’page 424 , quote from Bezos interview by 60 Minutes, the CBS News program from December 2013
Amazon: a leader in software development
Amazon is brought up frequently as a company that iterates super fast and is skilled at identifying holes in the market, seizing them quicker than any other could. I myself use it as an example company with their famous ability to deploy every 10 seconds, or whatever the latest record is. The fact that as a book company they looked for their own market disrupter and brought in the e-Reader to replace their own business before someone else did is another story I tell in teaching.
The book has good examples of their innovation that provided the background to those famous stories I had been missing and helped me stop misusing the company as an example without a proper understanding of the facts.
Amazon does move fast. If it sees a gap in the market appearing, or new trends arising it pounces on them and invests heavily to corner the market. Examples of this are the e-reader as the new way to books, and video stores being replaced by online DVD rentals and then streaming. But Amazon didn’t come up with the ideas entirely itself as I previously thought. Most of the examples in the book are about how it invested and bought companies in these emergent industries and that then boosted them with their own development strength. They then won battles in owning the market partially through vicious sales techniques and bullying, not purely on their prowess with product development.
The best example of something that organically came out of Amazon itself is AWS. That is a much more pleasing example of an initiative that started internally powered by their own need that they then grew to be something the world would thank them for. So I think I will be using this example instead.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning a bit more about how the big businesses work, or anyone who has a general interest in where the technology we know so well came from. Product Owners would probably benefit more than Scrum Masters to read about the growth of a product from inception, through challenges, and finally to market success which is the core of the book.
The book is written by someone who is not an Amazon employee, but instead a journalist who has followed the company over the years. It is not a page-turning thriller, nor a personal recounting of events, so I will admit it took a little more drive from me to pick it up. But I am glad I did as understanding how one of the most successful product-driven companies in the world operates is surely something worth knowing.