When singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile sat down for a live video interview in December, the person asking the questions on stage could have passed for a veteran music journalist. Without any notes, he recalled insightful nuances from Carlile’s life and music, and framed 1 question in the context of a Foo Fighters lyric: “You need blind faith, but not untrue hope.”
“I’ve always thought that line was applicable to businesses and any new endeavor, which is, when you’re trying to do something really different, and new, that not everybody else is doing, you kind of have to have that blind faith, and not everybody believes it,” he said. “But you can’t have untrue hope — you’ve got to kind of check in with people just to make sure you’re not being delusional.”
The interviewer was Andy Jassy, the Amazon Web Services leader, during a session with Carlile at the virtual AWS re:Invent conference.
In hindsight, it was a glimpse into the character of Amazon’s next CEO.
In a stunning turn of events inside the Seattle tech giant, Jassy was named Tuesday to succeed Jeff Bezos as chief executive when the Amazon founder shifts to the position of executive chairman in the third quarter of this year.
The surprise announcement left people who don’t follow Amazon’s cloud business asking a logical question: who is Andy Jassy?
“He’s the kind of person you’d love to just go have a beer with, and just have a very comfortable, free-flowing dialog,” said Matt McIlwain, managing director at Seattle-based venture capital firm Madrona Venture Group, who has known Jassy personally and professionally for 20 years. “He also can be very intense and focused about those things he’s passionate about. And so it’s a neat combination.”
Jassy, 53, is a native of Scarsdale, N.Y., and a graduate of Harvard Business School who spent the past 15 years building Amazon Web Services into a successful company in its own right inside of Amazon, posting more than $45 billion in revenue and $13.5 billion in operating earnings as a division of the company last year.
His experience operating AWS also gives him unique insights into the broader company.
“AWS is also a service provider to almost every other dimension of Amazon, and so they’re all his clients today,” McIlwain observed, describing Jassy’s natural curiosity in service of customer needs. “For Amazon culturally and for Andy, from a character perspective, I think that matches in well with what this position needs.”
Jassy is a “visionary leader, worthy operator, highly respected,” said Brian Olsavsky, Amazon’s chief financial officer, speaking with journalists Tuesday after the announcement.
“He has been here almost as lengthy as Jeff Bezos and has been influential in not only operating developing a lot of our businesses and customer choices, not the least of which is the full AWS business, which is arguably the largest, most successful tech company in the world,” Olsavsky said.
Jassy’s sister, Kathy Savitt, a longtime Seattle-based entrepreneur and business leader, and the former Yahoo chief marketing officer, described him on Twitter as “an incredible leader, thinker, innovator, dispute-solver, customer advocate, [strategist] and force for cultural greatness.”
In addition to his passion for music, he has been known to organize Buffalo chicken wing-eating contests as team-building events for Amazon representatives. He is also a part proprietor of the Seattle Kraken, the city’s new National Hockey League franchise. McIlwain, who has worked with Jassy on the board of Rainier Scholars, an educational opportunity program for low-income students of color, said Jassy’s passion for the program goes past financial support, giving of his time and creativity to make a significant difference.
In his public appearances, Jassy refers to Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles as if they were handed down from atop the company’s Day One tower, never missing an opportunity to discuss the significance of traits such as customer obsession (Leadership Principle No. 1) or insisting on the highest standards (No. 7).
In that way, his selection as the next Amazon CEO appears likely to maintain the key elements of the company’s tradition. That was likely a critical consideration for Amazon’s board as it approaches 1.3 million representatives and tops $386 billion in annual revenue, and faces growing scrutiny of its market power and business practices in the years ahead.
Jassy worked as technical assistant to Bezos in the early 2000s, a “seminal time” when the company was trying to scale its business, team and infrastructure, looking how Bezos made decisions and working closely with the Amazon CEO to implement them, McIlwain said.
However, it would be a mistake to see Jassy as a mere clone of the company’s founder. For 1 thing, he has more of a competitive streak. Jassy isn’t shy about taking thinly veiled jabs at the company’s cross-regional cloud rival, Microsoft, for example. And people inside the company say he has been personally involved in deciding whether to pursue former AWS representatives and executives who leap ship for competitors under the company’s non-disclosure agreements.
“He’s a win-at-all-costs type of person,” said Zoltan Szabadi, a former AWS employee who was sued by Amazon after leaving for Google Cloud Platform in 2014, in an interview with GeekWire in 2017. “This is just 1 of the many tactics that he thinks will help his business.”
During his keynote at the recent AWS re:Invent conference, Jassy gave a treatise on business reinvention that also served as a window into his mindset.
“You have got to be maniacal and relentless — relentless and tenacious about getting to the truth,” he said. “You have to know what competitors are doing in your space. You have to know what your clients think about your product and where you sit, relatively speaking. You have to know what’s working and what’s not working.
“And you will always have a lot of people inside the company who will try and obfuscate that data from you. Sometimes they think they’re doing you a favor. And sometimes it’s for self-preservation causes. But it’s hard to get at that data, and you have to be relentless about it.
“You have to challenge people, often people who know a lot more about a subject than you do,” he said. “But you’ve got to get to the truth. And then when you realize that there’s something you have to reinvent and change, you have to have the braveness to pick the company up and force them to change and move.”