Ex-Amazonian Bill Carr Shares the Keys to Amazon’s Culture

By Kaitlin Milliken |  February 12, 2021

Last week, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he would be stepping down from his position at the e-commerce company that he founded and grew over the last 26 years. Bezos will still be the executive chairman, but the CEO baton will be passed to Andy Jassy in the third quarter of 2021. While many tech companies sweat the departure of their founder, the trillion-dollar giant’s culture is created to last. 

“It’s really the problem of the founder: How do you project your thinking, and how do you maintain that culture across the company?” Says Bill Carr, who spent 15 years at Amazon from 1999 to 2015. “Amazon solved this problem by first documenting very clearly a set of leadership principles.” 

These 14 carefully-documented leadership principles, Carr says, include corporate values, how employees should work, and qualities leaders at the company should have. They are now an “everyday topic of conversation for people in the company… As they were wrestling with hard decisions, people referred to those leadership principles, to think about how to make a decision,” according to Carr.

During his tenure at the company, Carr founded the digital media services that became Amazon Music, Prime Video, and Amazon Studios. He also worked closely with Bezos, observing how the founder codified culture during times of hyper-growth. 

Carr and Colin Bryar, a fellow ex-Amazonian, explore Amazon’s leadership principles and other tenets that allowed the company’s unique culture to endure in their recently published book: Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon.

The book itself is named after Amazon’s idea of working backwards, or kicking off new initiatives by writing a mock press release for their eventual launch, complete with a frequently asked questions section. “The point of this process is that a press release really shouts…‘Why would this matter to a customer,'” Carr says. The frequently asked questions serve to lay out “all the details of that product idea, and the potential limitations or hurdles required to actually enable that new product you’ve described in the press release.”

While not every large organization can emulate Amazon’s culture, Carr says teams should write their own leadership principles to help “develop or cultivate a specific culture” that is authentic to their company. 

The following excerpt from Carr and Bryar’s book explores how Amazon’s famed “two-pizza rule” (meetings should be small enough so that all participants can be fed by two pizzas) evolved as the company grew.

Great Two-Pizza Team Leaders Proved to Be Rarities

The original idea was to create a large number of small teams — each under a solid, multi-disciplined, frontline manager, and arranged collectively into a traditional, hierarchical org chart. The manager would be comfortable mentoring and diving deep in areas ranging from technical challenges to financial modeling and business performance. Although we did identify a few such brilliant managers, they turned out to be notoriously difficult to find in sufficient numbers, even at Amazon. This greatly limited the number of two-pizza teams we could effectively deploy, unless we relaxed the constraint of forcing teams to have direct-line reporting to such rare leaders. …

We all agreed at the outset that a smaller team would work better than a larger one. But we later came to realize that the biggest predictor of a team’s success was not whether it was small, but whether it had a leader with the appropriate skills, authority, and experience to staff and manage a team whose sole focus was to get the job done.

Bigger and Better Still — The Single-Threaded Leader 

What was originally known as a two-pizza team leader (2PTL) evolved into what is now known as a single-threaded leader (STL). The STL extends the basic model of separable teams to deliver their key benefits at any scale the project demands. Today, despite their initial success, few people at Amazon still talk about two-pizza teams. …

Typically an executive, assigned to drive some innovation or initiative, would turn to one of his reports — possibly a director or senior manager — who might have responsibility for five of the executive’s 26 total initiatives. The executive would ask the director to identify one of those direct reports — let’s say a project manager — who would add the project to their to-do list. The PM, in turn, would prevail upon an engineering director to see if one of their dev teams could squeeze the work into their dev schedule. Amazon’s SVP of Devices, Dave Limp, summed up nicely what might happen next: “The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job.”

Amazon learned the hard way how this lack of a single-threaded leader could hinder them in getting new initiatives off the ground. One example is Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA). Initially known as Self-Service Order Fulfillment (SSOF), its purpose was to offer Amazon’s warehouse and shipping services to merchants. Rather than handling the storing, picking, packing, and shipping themselves, the merchants would send products to Amazon, and we would handle the logistics from there. The executives in the retail and operations teams thought this was a big, interesting idea, but for well over a year it did not gain significant traction. It was always “coming soon,” but it never actually arrived.

“The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job.” — Dave Limp, Amazon SVP of Devices

Finally, in 2005, Jeff Wilke asked Tom Taylor, then a VP, to drop his other responsibilities and gave him approval to hire and staff a team. Only then did SSOF take off, eventually morphing into Fulfillment by Amazon. …

The other crucial component of the STL model is a separable, single-threaded team being run by a single-threaded leader like Tom. As Jeff Wilke explains, “Separable means almost as separable organizationally as APIs are for software. Single-threaded means they don’t work on anything else.”

Such teams have clear, unambiguous ownership of specific features or functionality and can drive innovations with a minimum of reliance or impact upon others. Appointing a single-threaded leader is necessary but not sufficient. It’s much more than a simple org chart change. Separable, single-threaded teams have fewer organizational dependencies than conventional teams. They clearly demarcate the boundaries of what they own and where the interests of other teams begin and end. As former Amazon VP Tom Killalea aptly observed, a good rule of thumb to see if a team has sufficient autonomy is deployment — can the team build and roll out their changes without coupling, coordination, and approvals from other teams? If the answer is no, then one solution is to carve out a small piece of functionality that can be autonomous and repeat.

A single-threaded leader can head up a small team, but they can also lead the development of something as large as Amazon Echo or Digital Music. For example, with Amazon Echo and Alexa, were it not for the fact that Amazon VP Greg Hart was assigned to be the single-threaded leader, there might have been one person in charge of hardware and another in charge of software for all of Amazon’s devices — but no one whose job it was to create and launch Amazon Echo and Alexa as a whole. On the contrary, a single-threaded leader of Amazon Echo and Alexa had the freedom and autonomy to assess the novel product problems that needed to be solved, decide what and how many teams they needed, how the responsibilities should be divided up among the teams, and how big each team should be. And, crucially, since the technical dependencies problem had been solved, that leader no longer had to check with a prohibitively large number of people for each software change they needed to make.

The Payback

…The STL delivers high-velocity innovation, which in turn makes Amazon nimble and responsive even at its now-massive scale. Free of the hindrance of excess dependencies, innovators at every level can experiment and innovate faster, leading to more sharply defined products and a higher level of engagement for their creators. Ownership and accountability are much easier to establish under the STL model, keeping teams properly focused and accurately aligned with company strategies. While all these positive outcomes were possible before the first autonomous single-threaded team was created, now they have become the natural and expected consequence of this very Amazonian model for innovation.