About 13 years ago, Andy Jassy had a big, big idea. What if you could rent computing power and storage over the Internet instead of having to buy a whole bunch of equipment?
Jassy worked for Amazon.com at the time, as the technical assistant to one Jeff Bezos – the founder and CEO of Amazon. He told Jeff about the idea. They decided to do it. And now, more than a decade later, Andy Jassy has not only built a business that brings in 16 billion dollars a year. He and his team also essentially invented the business of cloud computing, and upended the tech world in the process.
I flew out to Las Vegas this week to have a chat with Andy Jassy, the CEO of Amazon Web Services. The company was having its annual re:Invent conference, where software programmers from around the world gather to hear the latest cloud tools Amazon is looking to put in their hands.
I wanted to hear from him about how he got started at Amazon; how he worked with his boss, Jeff Bezos, to launch a business that has turned out to be Amazon's biggest profit-maker; what his strategy is now, and just how massive he thinks it all can get.
Saying No to Jeff Bezos
Part of the reason Jassy was in a great position to suggest Amazon launch the first large-scale cloud computing business was proximity to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. He had been serving as Bezos's technical adviser for about a year when he came up with the idea. Interestingly, he initially turned down Bezos's offer of the role.
"It was a very undefined role," Jassy tells me. "When I talked to Jeff about it, I said, 'Well, what's the goal of the role?' He said, 'Well, the goal is for me to get to know you better, and for you to get to know me better, and to build some trust.' And I thought, Well that's interesting, but it doesn't sound like a mission."
Things came together because Bezos was willing to let Jassy craft the role into something more like a chief of staff to the CEO – and that made a lot more sense to Jassy.
The Wrong Way to Think About Being Right
Jassy says that kind of flexibility is a key to healthy leadership. Too many leaders, he says, misunderstand the real point of being correct.
"They think that being right a lot means that the idea has to come from you," he says, "and you dig in on your idea and you have to win the argument. The job for all of us as leaders is to make the right decisions."
How Big Amazon's Cloud Can Get
Jassy, Bezos and Amazon's senior leadership team certainly were right about the potential of the cloud computing business. But how big can it get? I asked him if he thinks Amazon Web Services could become the biggest enterprise cloud company on the planet.
"I do think it's possible," he says. "It has the chance, I think, to be a really large business. And I think that if we are able to accomplish the right type of customer experience and continue to build what customers ask us over time, as the market moves more and more toward cloud, I think we have the chance to be the largest enterprise company in the world."
We'll have to wait and see if he's right about that.