Amazon is well-known for being customer-obsessed. From next-day delivery to "just walk out" shopping, the tech giant has long focused on meeting—and exceeding—customers' expectations.
It stands to reason, then, that in order to understand all of the different people who use Amazon and create products and experiences that delight them, Amazon's team should be as diverse as possible to reflect the diversity of their customers.
That's exactly how Julie Mitchell, Senior Manager of Solutions Design & Innovation Engineering at Amazon Robotics, explained it: "Amazon's culture of customer obsession, ownership, and 'insist on the highest standards' helps drive the need for diverse thinking and knowledge sharing. To innovate on behalf of our customers and provide truly useful solutions requires a broad understanding of requirements and deep knowledge of technical systems. This breadth and depth can only be achieved by learning from one another—and being insatiably curious."
We asked Julie, who will be featured on the "Get Inspired: Women Are Powerhouses Amazon Leadership Panel" at our upcoming Diversity Reboot conference (register now! It's free), to give us a sneak peek into how Amazon creates a culture that celebrates difference and uplifts diversity, while still driving hard towards business goals.
Setting the tone: creating space for ideas
As part of her role, Julie regularly attends design reviews. These meetings are focused on evaluating designs against their stated goals, identifying issues, and solidifying a go-forward plan.
At her first design review at Amazon, Julie went in confident that she had it all figured out. "I was sure I had considered all the data and presented the best proposal," she says.
Alas, she did not.
"Someone had a much different view of the same data than I had," remembers Julie. "[They] explained their perspective, which opened up a completely new way of thinking about the problem. After the design review, we came up with a much better solution that performed better than what I originally thought was possible."
Julie and her teammate ended up coming up with an answer that was better for everyone involved, but it required checking their egos at the door and creating a culture of open-mindedness that allows each individual to feel comfortable sharing their best work.
And only their best work is good enough for Amazon's customers, says Julie. "My team is responsible for developing robotic solutions that help simplify our operations," she explains. "To be good at this, we need to listen to our internal customers' needs, and innovate on technology to deliver value in a safe, scalable and reusable architecture. We can only be successful if we consider a diverse view of needs, and iterate on ideas until we find the best solution."
That kind of iteration happens all the time at Amazon—"daily!", per Julie—and it's what she credits with her team's success.
"Most technical decisions my team makes are a trade-off of priorities and competing requirements, so my team is most successful when we can look at a problem from many different perspectives to find the most optimized approach," she says. "Having a diverse team helps us to challenge each other's solution bias and enables objective design reviews of technical solutions to customer problems."
Managing towards inclusion
A culture of open-minded consideration of everyone's ideas, and moreover, a culture where everyone feels comfortable sharing those ideas, doesn't happen accidentally. It requires a commitment from team leaders and team participants alike.
It was the chance to be that kind of leader that first drew Julie to Amazon. She had worked in tech throughout her career, and was excited for the chance to really decide the future of what product development in her area could look like. "I was excited about the possibilities to use my engineering and leadership skills to build an innovative solutions design team," she says. "I love the Amazon culture with leadership that is not afraid to think big and take risks, all for the benefit of our customers."
Having a diverse team means working with people from different backgrounds, different walks of life, and who have different preferred ways of engaging at work, communicating with peers, or delivering feedback. "It's important to build diverse teams with folks from different backgrounds, subject matter expertise, genders, and experience to get unique perspectives on the work. Then, it's imperative to recognize and reward knowledge sharing and collaboration so folks feel empowered and supported in engaging in work that is outside their direct ownership," says Julie.
In order to facilitate that collaboration and sense of empowerment, Julie uses a variety of channels for sharing ideas and brainstorming, including:
- Weekly design reviews. "[These are] where each design lead gets a chance to present their work to the design community and receive feedback on their work," explains Julie.
- A shared repository of "lessons learned." "Track[ing these] drive[s] knowledge sharing and best practices in our design," says Julie.
- Bi-weekly training sessions. "[These] cover core technical skills needed to be successful Solutions design engineers so everyone has access to the same knowledge and we can share unique skills across the team," per Julie.
- Onboarding buddies. When someone new joins Julie's team, they're paired with a buddy to help them navigate the different people and processes required to be successful in their role and to help answer any questions in a low-stakes, one-on-one setting.
Regardless of how they're engaging with each other, Julie appreciates the chance to work on solutions with a diverse team. "It's directly led to producing highly innovative solutions," she says. "We thrive on learning from each other's unique perspectives and building upon each other's ideas for an outcome that is better than it would have been if only a single individual developed it. I consider diversity to be my team's superpower in tackling our broad scope of design work across the Amazon team."
If you're interested in learning more about open roles at Amazon, visit their PowerToFly profile here. To register for Julie's panel, which is taking place Thursday, February 4 from 2-3 p.m. EST, sign up for the Diversity Reboot conference!
Advice from Kensho's Susan Triantafillou on Leading Authentically & Advancing Your Career with a Growth Mindset
When Susan Triantafillou, Head of Data Engineering and Infrastructure at fintech company Kensho Technologies, finds herself contemplating whether or not a risk is worth taking, she always asks herself one question: "If I turn this down, will I look back on this moment five years from now and regret it?"
That was the question she asked herself in 2014 when faced, just one year into her career, with the opportunity to leave a very stable job as a software engineer and join data analysis startup Visallo as a founding member.
The answer was a resounding yes, so she quit her job to pursue the risks—and rewards—of startup life. Chief among them was the opportunity to test and grow her leadership skills. "As a software engineer, I was usually coding most of the time, but at Visallo, I had a much wider variety of responsibilities, including working with clients, contributing on the business side, and working with product development," Susan explains.
After nearly four years at Visallo, the company was acquired by Kensho, and Susan quickly took on even more significant leadership challenges; she advanced from an initial role as a software engineer to Head of Visallo Engineering, then to Head of Data Engineering and Infrastructure, all within two years.
We sat down with Susan to learn how her leadership style has changed and grown over time, how she identifies and leans into her strengths, and what advice she has for other women growing their careers.
Finding her own leadership style: balancing flexibility and a growth mindset
Susan's appetite for risk and new challenges has provided her with ample opportunities to test and develop her leadership style, finding an approach that is both effective and authentic to her.
"I've learned that it's a balancing act. I always want to be understanding, and I certainly want to be flexible whenever it's appropriate," says Susan. "I've learned to embrace those strengths especially while having hard conversations."
Overall, Susan's ability to put herself in her team members' shoes has served her well. When she became the Head of Data Engineering and Infrastructure at Kensho, she knew she needed to get to know the members of her new team. She began with asking lots of questions.
"I started with technical questions," she explains, "but I also asked them about their expectations of me. What everybody expects and needs from a leader is different, and understanding that up front was really helpful in structuring the role."
She recognized that her team needed two things: flexibility and a growth mindset. Both of those are core to Susan's leadership philosophy, so she was in a good position to make an impact.
"I want to help lay the foundation for success while giving people on the team the flexibility to use their unique skills to achieve our goals," says Susan. "Kensho really believes that an innovation mindset stems from embracing your mistakes and evolving from them. It's not a blame game."
That approach structures how Susan manages on a day-to-day basis, from how she encourages question-asking in group meetings to how she leads empathetic post-mortems focused on growing together. "I like to provide constructive criticism, because I think that that's how you help people grow," she says.
Susan stresses that she's able to provide that criticism because as a leader, she begins her interactions with a sense of mutual respect; she doesn't think that empathy and criticism are mutually exclusive, but rather, two key ingredients to helping others grow as much as possible. "I would say a lot of my leadership style probably stems from my ethnic background. In Taiwanese culture respect is embedded at the core. I respect my team's time, effort, dedication, and style to help achieve their goals. I respect their experience and their skills. It's a lot more efficient to gain their trust and respect, and then once everybody's on the same page, we can sprint rather than walk towards our goals."
3 key tips to advance your career as a woman in leadership
When Kensho acquired the company Susan was working for previously, she says that it was a smooth transition. "The team's flexibility and talent made it easy to get everybody up to speed very quickly," she remembers. "I have to credit Kensho's culture and values for that."
One of the things that Susan says she likes best about Kensho and its values is their focus on curiosity and learning. "We have 'knowledge days' where we don't work on our day-to-day jobs," she says. "You take that day to actually learn. And I think that's key for innovation, it's key in terms of employee growth, and it's key in terms for company growth as well."
That commitment to growth underlies three key pieces of advice that Susan would recommend for anyone looking to step up and manage bigger teams and departments:
1. Constantly be learning. That means approaching new problems and new areas with humility as you get up to speed, while trusting—and being confident—that you'll get there eventually. "My mind typically leaps to how I can do better next time, which is great for pushing myself to the next level, but not always great for building confidence, so I've been working on that," Susan explains.
2. Find mentors everywhere. "Understand that you can learn from anyone and everyone, regardless of their background or how much experience they have," says Susan. "Recognize that you're competing against yourself and not the people around you, and look to your mentors for help."
3. Embrace change and the unknown. Susan says that she owes her career to a willingness to take risks. "I left a stable job to go join a company without knowing if it would even exist in a year or two," she says. "You need to seize the opportunity when it's given to you."
If you're interested in working with Susan at Kensho, check out their open roles here.
A Conversation with Bounteous' Jen Spofford
Jen Spofford would tell you that she never had her sights set on becoming a partner at The Archer Group, an advertising agency acquired earlier this year by digital transformation agency Bounteous.
Her former boss would beg to differ.
"He likes to tell the story of my interview," says Jen. "I had studied the website and seen pictures of the leadership team, and one of my questions to him was why were there no women in leadership. He responded with 'you know, there just hasn't been the right opportunity.'"
While the specific role of partner may not have been on her mind, Jen did have her sights set on changing that.
And she has. Seven years into her career at Archer, Jen made partner. Three years later, she and her four co-partners architected the firm's acquisition by Bounteous, where Jen is now the Senior Vice President of Client Service—and where Jen's picture on the company website is joined by pictures of two dozen other women in leadership.
We sat down with Jen to learn about her professional journey, her leadership philosophy, and why she thinks intrinsic motivation is the best path to career fulfillment.
Seeking discomfort to find growth
Jen was born in Delaware and now works out of Bounteous' Wilmington office (well, she did, in pre-pandemic times), which is just a few miles away from where her dad worked for 40 years. "I felt a little mad at the universe for returning me back exactly where I came from," she jokes.
She didn't start her career there, though. After studying advertising at Penn State, she worked for several big agencies in New York City, putting in the hours and honing her account management skills.
"I worked my way through the big guys, and that's kind of how New York felt—you had to constantly be on the move to grow," she says. She got into digital advertising and loved it, and took a role at a boutique firm that specialized in digital in order to learn as much as she could. "It was amazing, but emotional. I had 16 hats and I wasn't always wearing them well," remembers Jen.
She was looking for a slightly bigger agency that still had digital focus, and that's when she found Archer, which just so happened to be in her home state.
She came on as an account manager and within a year was leading the whole account management team. She credits her quick advancement to her drive to improve: "My goal was always to continue to better orchestrate the impact of our work, and that happened to lead to another title." She became a partner at Archer in 2016, and now at Bounteous, Jen manages nearly 20 team members and is responsible for all of the agency's business east of Chicago.
"I know if I push myself to get into uncomfortable situations, those are the places where I'm going to grow the most personally and professionally," says Jen. "Out of those uncomfortable experiences, you forge yourself into something better."
Points of impact
As she moved up the ranks, Jen wasn't tracking her title changes—she was tracking her scope of impact. "Being in the C-suite of a company was never a long-standing dream, but the idea of contributing meaningfully and of making an impact in whatever I am doing, that's something I have to have," says Jen. "If I'm not making an impact, then I need to find a place where I can."
Seeking to make a positive impact instead of plotting a way up a career ladder has let Jen focus on what she actually loves to do, which is partnering with her clients to achieve their goals and building a strong team underneath her and helping them to grow. And while yes, the titles and the raises have come, too, and aren't completely irrelevant, Jen credits her success to not chasing them. "I don't think about my next promotion. I think about how I'm going to be able to either keep making an impact or what am I going to have to change so I'm able to make the impact I want to make."
3 tips to unlock your growth, at Bounteous and beyond
As a manager of a big team at Bounteous, Jen seeks to apply her philosophy of internally-motivated career growth with her direct reports, aiming to understand where each person on her team wants to grow and to create the conditions for their success. That does come with promotions and raises, but she's much more focused on helping her team find career fulfillment than she is on those accolades themselves.
She has three pieces of advice to share with women looking to find that fulfillment in their own roles:
1. Pinpoint how you'd like to grow. Jen highlights how important it is that you as an individual do some soul-searching on exactly where and how you want to grow, beyond whatever promotion is on the horizon. "I just don't believe most people can get a 'senior' in front of their title and will go back to their office and feel satisfied, if they weren't before," says Jen. "You need to understand what it is you wish you could do or try or learn that your current situation is not enabling."
2. Understand where your pain points are in your current role. Jen gives an example of when a simple promotion isn't actually what you should be asking for: "Let's say your problem is you can't let go of some of the work that you've mastered and you don't have time for things that are actually teaching you something. Well, it's not a solution to promote you if you still have to do that job from top to bottom. Maybe instead, we need to hire someone to support you." You could then free up your time to learn new things and get to grow as a manager of people.
3. Make sure you've earned your wins and you know how to communicate them. Before starting any conversation about how you'd like to grow your career, says Jen, you need to make sure you've proven to your manager you're worth investing in. "I think sometimes people early on in their career need to hear that you do need to work really hard and get those successes so you can talk about the reasons why you deserve that next opportunity," she says. "Once you have that, you can persuade me you're ready for the next level."
"If you stay open-minded, if you push yourself to do uncomfortable things, and if you work hard, you will be presented with opportunities to do more," says Jen. Part of being open-minded is being willing to collaborate on solutions, she notes. She never wants someone to leave her team because there's an issue they're having they don't know how to solve, be it a desire to work in a different role or an issue with their commute.
"There's a thousand reasons why you shouldn't leave Bounteous and only a few why you should. I want my team to be open with their challenges and real with themselves. I care about every single person on my team," says Jen. "Everyone that stays or goes, I want to help them grow. I want to give them all the opportunities I can. And I fully believe Bounteous, if it continues on its trajectory, will continue to offer them all kinds of growth."
If you're interested in working with Jen and the Bounteous team, check out their open roles here.
Developing as a Technical Leader, a Coach, and a Continual Learner: The NSA's Amy A. on Her Long Career
What do running a half-marathon training program, being an executive coach, and leading a team at the National Security Agency (NSA) have in common?
They're all things that Amy A., a senior technical leader at the NSA, likes to spend her time doing, supported by the core set of abilities she's honed through her decades of leadership.
Coaching is about enabling people to solve problems and helping them come up with the right plan for their individual situation. That's something Amy's learned in her work at the NSA: "I work with really smart people who have a lot of ideas and by default are problem solvers," says Amy. "[We have to] allow [ourselves] the space to come up with ideas, work through the idea, and not dive into problem-solving mode too early."
Developing her own career path
Amy's career began in college, where she was a computer science cooperative education student at Central Michigan University.
As she earned her degree, she learned how to design and develop databases. That turned into studying signal processing and eventually network analysis. "[This was] just as the Internet was evolving from being local to becoming a global powerhouse with connectivity around the world," remembers Amy.
That turned into professional work with the NSA, where she's worked her way up to be a technical senior executive. Her current slate of work includes leading multiple teams to update telework playbooks.
While she's thankful for people who have helped her along the way, Amy believes in the power of the individual above all. "We each own our own professional development path. I have had many mentors and coaches who have guided me or helped me navigate when I was lost. But in the end, I picked the roads I wanted to travel, and my mentors and coaches helped me grow."
Representing for underrepresented groups in tech
As a woman in tech, Amy has often been in the minority. When she was studying computer science in the 1980s, she says she was often the only woman in the classroom. "But I loved programming and I loved software design, so I stuck with it," she says.
She notes that she's seen lots of bias at work, though most of it unconscious, and that her colleagues have always been open to her feedback about it.
"In the early part of my career, there weren't a lot of women in my technical area, but there were many women at the Agency," says Amy, who notes that women's representation has grown sizably since she started. "We have a ways to go, but we have a real focus on understanding diversity and inclusion and on working towards a better tomorrow."
To help speed along that better tomorrow, Amy has played big roles in the NSA's employee resource group (ERG) for women as well as the ERG focused on the Black community. She's been senior sponsor for both groups for ten years. "I love working with the ERGs because they allow me to learn more about the issues, challenges, and accomplishments that these groups are encountering at work," says Amy.
Continuous learning at the NSA
Amy has taken advantage of the career development support offered by the NSA, from being part of the Agency's Co-Op program for students early on to traveling throughout her career to enrolling in the Agency's Senior Technical Development Program (STDP) more recently. She highlights the "diversity of roles [and the] diversity of organizations" that the NSA has exposed her to that have helped her develop over time.
Amy continues to value self-improvement and to set goals for herself. She's not one to shy away from opportunities to learn and is considering starting a PhD after she retires from the NSA.
"Every day is a learning experience. There is a lot of formal support for you to grow in your profession, but it is the informal experiences that I really value," says Amy of her time with the Agency.
If you're interested in the development opportunities and collaborative problem solving Amy has shared here, check out the National Security Agency's open roles here.