Andy Jassy’s first seat at Amazon when he joined the company in 1997 was in an office “the size of a closet” in an early Amazon headquarters with stained carpets overlooking a needle exchange near Pike Place Market, said his then-officemate Brian Birtwistle. The space was so small the backs of their chairs touched.
Jassy’s next seat at Amazon will be at the helm of what has grown, in his nearly 25 years at the company, into a corporation worth $1.7 trillion and the nation’s second-largest employer.
Jassy, who since 2003 has led Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company’s cloud-computing division, will replace Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as CEO by autumn of this year, Amazon announced in a quarterly earnings statement filed this past week. Bezos will remain chair of Amazon’s board of directors.
Amazon under Jassy’s leadership is unlikely to change markedly from Bezos’ tenure. In his management style, Jassy, 53, is close to a carbon copy of the incisive, dynamic Bezos, in part a result of 18 months Jassy spent shadowing Bezos in a chief-of-staff-like role in 2002 and 2003. The two executives share an intense focus on the customer and an imposing business acumen, former colleagues say. Amazon declined to make Jassy available for an interview.
But the company’s blockbuster 2020 earnings and projections for strong future growth aside, Jassy will inherit an Amazon beset with challenges both internal and external.
Antitrust scrutiny of the world’s largest online retailer is likely to sharpen in the coming years. Employee activism around climate change, racial equity and warehouse conditions intensified during the past year. Worker-rights advocates are closely watching an upcoming union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, which, if successful, would likely galvanize additional union organizing at Amazon.
“Andy is now in the hot seat,” said former AWS vice president and distinguished engineer Tim Bray, who resigned last year in protest over Amazon firing employees critical of the company’s treatment of warehouse workers. “But it’s the seat that Andy’s going to have to sit in.”
Outside the world of cloud computing, Jassy has not until recently been a household name. Among non-techie Seattleites, he may be best known as part owner of the Seattle Kraken NHL team.
Jassy’s success at AWS, though, has been meteoric. The division dominates competitors and is Amazon’s principal money-spinner.
Jassy “invented the cloud-computing world as we know it,” said Matt McIlwain, a partner at Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group, an early investor in Amazon. The launch of AWS ushered in a new era of pay-as-you-go remote computing infrastructure. Rather than manage their own servers, businesses, government agencies and individuals pay cloud-service providers like AWS for digital storage space, database management and raw computing power. AWS data centers now support everything from Zoom and Netflix to Reddit and the CIA.
Initially, AWS was inward-looking, designed to resolve Amazon frustrations over the company’s own server capacity. Sensing an opportunity, the company began marketing AWS products to customers in 2006, years before Microsoft, Google, Alibaba and others launched competing cloud platforms.
AWS dominates the cloud-computing sector, commanding a 45% market share by total revenue, compared with Microsoft’s 17.9% and Google’s 5.3%, according to a 2019 report by research firm Gartner. And while accounting for just 12% of Amazon’s revenue last year, AWS made up 63% of the company’s $21.3 billion profit.
Former colleagues and Seattle-area associates attribute Jassy’s success to his relentless — and very Amazonian — obsession with delighting customers.
“Andy is sort of the world’s greatest product manager,” Bray said. “He’s guiding the selection of the right sets of features and services to meet customer needs. He’s very customer-focused.”
Before taking charge of AWS in 2003, Jassy’s career at Amazon was somewhat meandering. He entered the company on the marketing team, where he “was one of my go-to guys,” said David Risher, who ran Amazon’s retail division between 1997 and 2002.
Jassy was soon put in charge of strategizing how Amazon could get into the business of selling music. The assignment was a natural fit: Jassy is a major music buff. He’s seen Dave Matthews Band play live at least 26 times, according to his Facebook page. Jassy’s two children with his wife, Elana, 53, are musical; his daughter performed at Seattle’s 2019 Northwest Folklife Festival. For years, former colleagues said, there were rumors that Jassy might defect to a digital music service.
Jassy’s plan earned a vote of approval from Bezos. The first nonbook merchandise Amazon began selling was CDs. For two years, Jassy bounced back and forth between the music and marketing divisions.
In 2002, Bezos asked if Jassy would serve as his “shadow,” a role comparable to chief of staff.
Initially, Jassy hesitated to take the job, Birtwistle said. Bezos had extended the same opportunity to a number of former CEOs of startups acquired by Amazon, but those arrangements were short-lived.
Jassy and Bezos hammered out the terms of the role together, with Jassy telling the Amazon founder, “I want to go to all the meetings, I want to have responsibility, I want to set this up for success,” Birtwistle said. “Obviously, it worked out. And the deep trust those two developed … that was likely the beginning to him becoming successor to Amazon.”
In 18 months at Bezos’ side, Jassy imbibed the CEO’s zeal for “taking big ideas and making them bigger,” Jassy said in a recent podcast interview.
“I thought I had very high standards before I started that job,” Jassy said in the podcast. “And then, in doing that shadow job, I realized my standards weren’t high enough.”
Jassy takes a “cranial” approach to interrogating new ideas, said former AWS solutions architect Miles Ward. “He was brilliant, and he asked very precise questions, and he was very, very fast. It was totally intimidating.”
But where some have described Bezos’ intensity as bordering on tempestuous, Jassy is seen as less overbearing.
“What I like about Andy is that he will share his thoughts in a constructive way, and then he will sit back and be part of the decision-making group as a whole,” said Reggie Brown, who works with Jassy on the board of Seattle education nonprofit Rainier Scholars. “I find that humility very attractive.”
In addition to serving on the board of Rainier Scholars, a role he’s held for nearly a decade, Jassy is on the board of the Rainier Prep charter school and recently joined an advisory group of Risher’s nonprofit Worldreader, which provides free access to thousands of e-books in more than 50 languages.
Jassy also has a reputation for mischievous humor. He gives some colleagues nicknames: Birtwistle he called “Bees,” because of his initials B.B. Early AWS employee Manny Medina was known as “Funky Cold,” a reference to the Tone Loc song.
“There are some dour faces at Amazon,” Medina said. “But Jassy is a very gregarious guy. Always laid back. Not less smart [than Bezos], just way more approachable.”
The Tatonka Bowl, a chicken wing-eating contest Jassy instituted in his early days at Amazon, has morphed from an after-work pigout fest at Greenwood’s Wingdome to the largest wing-eating competition in the world, hosted at AWS’ annual re:Invent conference. A prodigious sports fan with an allegiance since childhood to the New York Giants, Rangers, Knicks and Mets, Jassy invites friends and co-workers to watch games in the basement of his Capitol Hill home, which he renovated into a sports bar he calls HelmetHead.
Jassy’s leadership will likely be tested early in his new role, as Amazon navigates a tumultuous period in its history.
Worker organizing has gained momentum recently at Amazon warehouses, where some employees have said the experience of working long shifts for little pay amid a pandemic underscored to them that Amazon views them as expendable. The company is also facing probes from regulators around the world about allegations of price-fixing and other monopolistic practices, particularly related to its Marketplace platform for third-party vendors.
The day after the announcement that Jassy would succeed Bezos, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, an influential worker group, indicated a new CEO would not stop its advocacy that the company commit to more stringent environmental goals.
“Andy Jassy led AWS through its continued partnerships with the fossil fuel industry, so as he takes over, we know we must continue to proudly stand with our co-workers across the world for climate justice,” the group said in a statement. “Our CEO transition is just another opportunity for workers to join together and demand that Amazon address its own complacency.”
Amazon has said it provides “cloud services to companies in the energy industry to make their legacy businesses less carbon intensive and help them accelerate development of renewable energy businesses.”
There are indications Jassy may prove responsive to some criticisms of the commerce behemoth he will soon lead.
“He’s got nerves of steel,” Risher said. “But the thing I think might set him apart … is that I think he’s a sort of values-driven leader as much as anything else.”
In response to accusations that racial bias inhered in an AWS facial recognition tool the company sold to federal security and law enforcement agencies, Jassy initially had argued it was not Amazon’s job to ensure police departments did not misuse its software, and pleaded for federal regulation of biometric technologies.
But last summer, as protests against police brutality shook the nation, AWS announced a yearlong moratorium on local law enforcement use of the facial recognition software. Internally, Jassy has championed diversity initiatives including the Black Employees Network affinity group.
“Can’t let Breonna Taylor death go with no accountability,” Jassy later wrote on Twitter. “If you don’t hold police depts accountable for murdering black people, we will never have justice and change, or be the country we aspire (and claim) to be.”
A previous version of this article misstated the mission of Rainier Scholars, a 12-year program supporting low-income students of color on the road to college. It is a separate organization from the Rainier Prep charter school. Jassy sits on the boards of both organizations.