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What I learned during my 15 years as an Amazon and Google insider

In an excerpt from her new book, Ann Hiatt writes about the power of infinite learning, making yourself uncomfortably excited, and placing big bets early.

What I learned during my 15 years as an Amazon and Google insider
[Photo: Ruchindra Gunasekara/Unsplash]

I first experienced the power of bold risk-taking when working for Jeff Bezos at Amazon in the early 2000s, while he was not only inventing the gold standard of e-commerce but also literally building rocket ships. However, it wasn’t until I worked at Google that I truly caught the vision for the moonshot process: I saw it while sitting with the Google X team a day a week for over a decade and watching them invent the technologies that will power our future lives.

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Google X, now renamed simply X, is in a building that used to be a shopping mall several decades ago. Rather than building it out as an office space with the signature vibrantly colored and expertly designed interiors of the other global Google buildings, Sergey Brin instructed the design team to keep it bare-bones and tactical. The walls are few and the structure is mostly bare concrete columns, with the original engineering spray paint markings and electrical and fiber cables cascading down from the ceilings. It is cold yet full of energy and movement, like an airplane hangar. There are wires and mock-ups and parts strewn around full-scale models of cars, lasers, cameras, weather balloons, and unidentifiable contraptions everywhere you look. The staircases twist through the open atrium in the middle of the building, connecting all the mad scientists as if in a black-and-white Dr. Seuss book. The energy is palpable.

The senior-leadership strategy-team meetings were moved from Google’s main campus to this building as a conscious effort to be sure that the senior leadership was exposed to a blank-slate environment and primed for innovative thinking. The SVPs’ direct reports, including me, camped outside the conference room in a large open area with tall tables we used as standing desks. We swarmed around like a beehive all day, exchanging ideas, catching up, planning, and collaborating. It was such a productive change of pace and environment that we started to hold our quarterly board of directors meeting there as well. This is how we tried to remain innovative, creative, and disruptive of even our own previous best practices.

My career has surrounded me with people who lean into and actively seek out this kind of industry disruption, and I have learned how they stomach not only the daily ambiguity of trying to create something that doesn’t yet exist but also the required constant cycle of failure that informs their next steps.

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My work philosophy has always been that my job should give as much to me as I give to it.

The truth is that the same formula that has helped X invent world-changing technologies, such as driverless cars, can also be applied to individual lives and career ambitions. Malcolm X famously said that “the future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” While he was talking specifically about the civil rights movement in the United States in 1962, this principle can be applied broadly. If we want a future that offers exceptional opportunities, then we need to take action early rather than accept the easy road. These future opportunities often never come without decisive action well in advance.

I learned early on that I cannot passively wait for opportunities to make my dreams come true. I had to qualify myself for a seat at future tables by doing the groundwork today to learn and gain the experience necessary to contribute at that level. An unavoidable aspect of this qualification process is failure.

A recipe for moonshots

During my two decades working at Amazon and Google, I have seen repeatedly that there are three key elements to creating our own future moonshot opportunities:

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  • Be an infinite learner.
  • Seek out things that make you uncomfortably excited.
  • Make big bets early.

The greatest predictor of future success is one’s willingness to learn, experiment, fail, and repeat until one can produce the desired effect predictably. The challenge of learning new skills and mastering them is a reward in and of itself, but it also qualifies us for higher achievements the next time.

My work philosophy has always been that my job should give as much to me as I give to it. And that is a decidedly high bar! What I give in terms of time, effort, and risk-taking should be rewarded with learning, skill, growth, and empowered advancement. The secret is that I had to take charge and demand this exchange. It did not happen automatically or passively. It is up to me to know what I want to learn and who I want to become and then seek it out.

It is no accident that Jeff Bezos is one of the most successful CEOs of our time. Yes, he has spectacular natural talent, intelligence, and drive. What differentiates him is the way he cultivates these abilities. When I worked at Amazon, I organized a weeklong thinking retreat for him every quarter. This had been a practice of his from long before I arrived. He would go to a hotel nearby and lock himself away from his usual routine, his staff, and his family. The first few days were spent starving himself of outside influences like newspapers, books, television, or people.

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Jeff explained to me that he needed to craft a period of time to clear his mind of clutter and noise before he could open space in his mind for innovative ideas to enter. Boredom was an essential part of his creative process. The only things he brought with him were blank notebooks and a pen. The second half of the week he spent filling the notebook with free-flowing, unedited ideas. He would come back to the office the following week with notebooks filled with industry-changing ideas and strategies that we would spend the following quarter implementing.

The remarkable thing was that Jeff often stepped away for these retreats during our most critical growth moments of the company, when others might have been tempted to double down on their hours in the office and conference rooms. Jeff was wise enough to know that his greatest asset was his mind, and he needed to create a place where he could fully tap into his inner strength and ingenuity. When he returned to the office, his productivity was always at an all-time high, and he more than made up for the hours he had spent away from the office.

Even now, nearly two decades later, I smile when I watch Amazon launching things that were born on those thinking retreats so long ago, ideas documented in those notebooks.

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Ann Hiatt received her initial business training during 15 years as the executive business partner to Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) and chief of staff to Eric Schmidt (CEO and executive chairman at Google/Alphabet). She now consults with executives and companies across the globe to reverse engineer their moonshot goals and get results.

This is an adapted excerpt from Bet on Yourself by Ann Hiatt. Copyright © 2021 by Ann Hiatt. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership.

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