My working life at Amazon: an interview with the tech giant's director of consumer retail
On World Productivity Day, Amazon director of consumer retail – Fiona McDonnell – reveals how she got her job, and the reality of working for the tech giantGabrielle Lane
How do you get a job at Amazon? You put in a request. Fiona McDonnell, now Amazon’s director of consumer retail, made a speculative application in 2015 and joined as a director for its toys division, based in Germany.
“If I hadn’t approached Amazon myself, I might not be here today,” she admits. “If you know what you’re good at and the things you’re passionate about, then speculative approaches can really make an impact.”
She chose Amazon because she wanted to ‘go digital’. Of course, Amazon is the world’s largest retailer by market capitalisation. It’s said to ship up to 400 items per second at its peak: This year its first quarter earnings showed its net income more than doubled to $1.6bn year-on-year.
“I was looking to expand my learning, to be in a genuinely customer-focused environment and to ‘be digital’, not just talk about it. So I decided to change gear for a fast-paced tech company,” she adds. McDonnell says the move “truly delivered”.
WORKING AT AMAZON
McDonnell describes Amazon as a “company of entrepreneurs”. In a relatively flat structure, autonomy keeps the business productive. “Every team, especially in product and engineering, owns what it does from end-to-end. We are given the autonomy to create and accomplish, as well as the room to fail and improve, and this is the culture across our business globally,” reveals McDonnell.
Teams should never be too large. Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos famously has a ‘two pizza rule’.
THE JEFF BEZOS TWO-PIZZA RULE
“I must say – I do like the two-pizza rule!” agrees McDonnell. “This is essentially the idea that if you can’t feed a team on two pizzas then it’s too large. Less is certainly more: communication or rather, ineffective communication, is a real productivity drag, so keeping project teams smaller and focused allows us to maintain pace despite being a large company.”
FAST DECISION-MAKING AT AMAZON
As for quick decision-making – another reported Amazon value – that’s in place too. It’s part of a company Leadership Principle called ‘bias for action’.
“Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking,” says McDonnell.
In fact, Amazon uses its Leadership Principles to spot future leaders. “The best future leaders make decisions quickly, are curious to learn and are natural innovators,” she asserts.
WHY AMAZON WORKS BACKWARDS
When Amazon wants to solve a problem, or evolve its service, it works backwards. This enables it to be customer focused. “We take time to refine the problem and isolate the customer pain-points so that we innovate, design or improve with the customer front and centre. That’s what helps to constantly deliver better experiences.”
FLEXIBLE WORKING AT AMAZON
Amazon not only gives its employees flexibility in how they work, but when they work, too. For her own part, McDonnell admits: “I’m constantly striving to balance being the Mum, being the director, and getting to enjoy the rest of my life!”
“As a Mum of two, I work from home some days and I do the school run a couple of mornings a week – something that is very important to me. I also make a point to leave the office at 5pm every day so I can get home to see my children before bedtime and I can take time out to see them at school events. I am lucky to be able to use technology to deliver on my work when and where it fits. Having the freedom to do all of these things and be able to support my team in the same way when they need it is really valuable and makes me incredibly proud of working for Amazon.”
Some might assume that Amazon’s productivity drive will increase the number of its automated processes over time. Certainly, the company is famed for its incorporation of artificial intelligence – whether that be for the ‘suggested products’ function on its website, or the consumer interface that is virtual assistant, Alexa. McDonnell is reassuring about the continuing role for managers, however.
Read more: Could a robot replace your boss?
“While processes are becoming more and more automated, I don’t think that management will change as much,” she says. “Our use of machine learning throughout our business requires supervision, insight and analysis from our teams. While artificial intelligence enables decisions to be taken using logic, good management brings judgement.”
She believes the role of a manager is to unite a team, regardless of whether that team involves the use of automated processes. “Ultimately, people are important and a great manager needs to have the ability to set a vision and inspire others to work towards it, to engage with their team and in turn, to help them engage and audit the ‘automation’ alongside them too.”
Fiona McDonnell is director of consumer retail at Amazon.