OAKLAND, Calif. — When Jeff Barr, a prominent executive at Amazon’s cloud-computing division and a prodigious corporate blogger, celebrated his 60th birthday last year, Corey Quinn had a surprise for him: a music video that mocked Amazon’s business.
“Jeff, can you write me a launch blog post,” sang a cartoon Amazon manager to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” “What we’ve built is a mystery to me. But it’s vast and bespoke and its console’s a joke. But if it ships, I might make VP.”
After the video’s release, Quinn, who consults for Amazon customers to help them reduce their cloud computing bills, reveled in tweaking the tech behemoth.
“The best days start with me just knowing that my planned stunts will result in at least eight internal @awscloud meetings and a crisis response plan,” he wrote on Twitter. “Today is just such a day.”
The world of cloud computing is not known for humor or outsize personalities. Quinn, 38, is an exception: a brash and outspoken person who is part tech analyst, part internet troll and part watchdog. With an irreverent style that mixes technical acumen and a sharp wit, he publishes a weekly newsletter with 21,000 subscribers, records four podcasts a week and makes YouTube videos full of geeky jokes for cloud-computing insiders. He also maintains an extremely active Twitter feed.
Officially, Quinn calls himself a cloud economist, a designation he made up when he started consulting in 2016. He thought it was less depressing than cloud accountant.
He rarely passes on an opportunity to scrutinize, analyze, explain, mock and defend Amazon’s cloud unit — sometimes all at once. He works with large Amazon clients such as The Washington Post, Ticketmaster and Epic Games, which seek his advice on contract negotiations or the best ways to reduce cloud-computing costs.
Based in San Francisco, his consulting firm, the Duckbill Group, employs 11 people and works only with Amazon Web Services customers — making his comments carry even more weight at Amazon. It also gives him more leeway to be the company’s pest-in-chief.
“It’s a frenemy relationship. When he speaks, people there listen,” said Ana Visneski, a former Amazon employee who often dealt with Quinn when she managed the process for releasing new products. “Although some people didn’t care for the snark.”
Amazon Web Services, better known as AWS, is Amazon’s most profitable business but doesn’t generate the same attention as the company’s retail business, even though its impact may be greater. The computers in Amazon’s data centers power large swaths of the internet, including Netflix and Disney+, while businesses large and small depend on AWS infrastructure to stay digitally connected.
“Everyone wants to talk about the other aspects of the business that are easier to wrap their heads around,” Quinn said, “but if we take a look at the next 10 years of Amazon, it’s pretty clear that AWS is going to be the defining part of that narrative.”
Growth of Amazon’s cloud business has created opportunities for Quinn to build a devoted following. At the AWS conference in 2019 in Las Vegas, a few dozen attendees approached him for selfies.
Amazon declined to comment for this article, and it did not make Barr available for comment. In response to a description of Quinn as a funny person in an industry devoid of humor, an Amazon spokesman replied with a link to a lighthearted video for an AWS product launch and a smiley emoji.
Quinn took a roundabout route to becoming a cloud-computing influencer. In 2003, he dropped out of the University of Maine, where he studied computer science. He hopped from one dead-end job to another before working at technology consulting firms and startups. In 2015, he was working at a financial technology startup when investment firm BlackRock acquired it. He left that job a year later to start his own consulting company.
“I am absolutely terrible as an employee,” he said. “I have sharp elbows. I get bored easily and drift into other people’s lanes.”
After years of trying to make sense of his company’s AWS bill, a confusing hodgepodge of charges for services and data storage and transfer that can extend to more than 100 pages for heavy users, he decided that other companies could use his expertise.
“I can describe what I do in six words: I fix the horrifying AWS bill,” he said.
He was also making a bet that more companies would start using AWS and use it more frequently. He was right. These days, the cloud-computing bill ranks as the third-largest expense for many internet software firms, trailing only payroll and office space.
To promote his consulting firm, later rebranded the Duckbill Group, with an angry platypus as a mascot, Quinn started his newsletter, “Last Week in AWS,” in 2017.
In 2018, he almost accepted a job on the AWS billing team, but the company demanded he sign a broad noncompete clause preventing him from leaving to work for any Amazon competitor. In a blog post accompanied by a photo of a man with both middle fingers extended, Quinn called such clauses “abusive” and said assurances that the company wouldn’t enforce them were often untrue.
The issue came up again last year when Amazon sued Brian Hall, a former AWS vice president of marketing, claiming he violated the noncompete clause when he joined Google in a similar role.
“What’s the secret sauce he’s going to take with him? Release a bunch of things with terrible names then market them incredibly poorly to infrastructure engineers?” Quinn wrote at the time.
Amazon agreed to settle the lawsuit a month later.
Hall said Quinn was a “very helpful advocate” whose opinion mattered at Amazon.
“Someone like Corey helped present AWS to customers, sometimes in ways the company liked and sometimes in ways the company didn’t like. That made him someone that had to be listened to,” Hall said.
Like many industry analysts, Quinn is also paid by the companies he criticizes. AWS has sponsored his newsletter and has paid him for advice, but Quinn said Amazon had never tried to rein in what he said. Google said it had paid him for insight, too.
A frequent target of Quinn’s jabs are uninspired AWS product names. After Amazon released a flurry of new services during a meticulously planned keynote presentation at a developers conference in December, Quinn offered his unfiltered take.
“Look at these awful service names. Gaze upon their awfulness,” he said.
He called up a slide with the worst offenders: Lookout for Equipment; Trainium; Glue Elastic Views; SageMaker Data Wrangler; and Amazon Outposts, the Smaller Ones.
Quinn recently branched out with another AWS parody music video. Instead of a birthday message for an executive, he roasted Amazon’s seemingly endless rollout of more computing capacity.
“Don’t stop releasing,” a sunglass-wearing platypus sings to the tune of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” “Data centers are increasing, hiding somewhere in your town. Don’t stop releasing.”
Quinn said that companies with trillion-dollar market valuations were fair game for his needling, but that he avoided jokes at the expense of individual employees or executives. When he made the parody video of Barr, he checked with a person close to the Amazon executive to make sure he didn’t cross any lines.
Quinn said he made an exception for Larry Ellison, a co-founder of Oracle, because “no one likes him.”
An Oracle spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking comment on Ellison’s popularity.