21CF CTO Paul Cheesbrough and Amazon CTO Dr. Werner Vogels talk about focus on the customer, innovation and experimentation


21st Century Fox’s recently appointed Chief Technology Officer Paul Cheesbrough launched “Tech Talk,” a new series of conversations with some of the technology industry’s biggest innovators. The new series, which was live streamed for an audience of 21CF colleagues, kicked things off with a discussion between Paul and Dr. Werner Vogels, Chief Technology Officer for Amazon. During their hour together, Paul and Werner covered Amazon’s focus on the customer, the company’s culture of experimentation and its four-step product development methodology, among other topics.

Amazon’s focus on the customer is shared by 21CF CEO James Murdoch, who talked about his focus on the consumer experience for video consumption at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia 2016 conference in September: “I focus a lot on starting with the customer and working backwards from there, and what’s working for the customer and what isn’t. How does it relate to their life stage, the decisions they make, the ease of discoverability of content, for example – how all of that works.”

Focus on the customer

“The only way to survive in the long term is to associate yourself with the customer,” Werner said when discussing Amazon founder, chairman and CEO Jeff Bezos’ philosophy from the start of the tech giant.

The reason Amazon was able to survive the bursting of the dot-com bubble was because Jeff “was so focused on making sure that the customers were happy and that we could associate ourselves long term with the customer instead of worrying about competitors or worrying about the stock market,” Werner added.

The early prioritization of the customer continues to have far-reaching implications for how Amazon’s employees work.

Culture of experimentation

A significant part of Amazon’s culture is making sure that everyone understands that they are responsible for innovation. An implication of this tenet is that if someone opposes a new idea, the onus is on them to write a thorough explanation of why it shouldn’t be pursued.

“Moving fast, for us, is more important than anything else,” Werner said. Until an idea is brought to fruition and put in the hands of the customer, you won’t be able to determine if it’s a good idea or not, he explained. This also means that Amazon has to be adept at pulling the plug on unsuccessful ideas quickly.

Amazon’s willingness to fail enables the company to experiment freely, Werner said. “If you make failing cheap, you’re going to try a lot of things.”

Werner added that an important element of this culture is ensuring that no one is blamed for experimentation and that no one’s standing within the organization is diminished if a product fails. In fact, that failure can become a badge of honor if the learnings are shared with others.

Product development

Amazon’s product development methodology, called “working from the customer backwards,” has a four-step process:

  1. Write a “press release” that has a clear and simple description of what will be built.
  2. Write an FAQ of 10-20 questions.
  3. Write a user interaction document that explains how the customer is going to use the product.
  4. Write a user manual or glossary.

With these four documents in hand, someone will be able to clearly explain what the product will be and how the customer will use it, Werner explained.