An Army acquisition officer assigned to a stint with Amazon sees firsthand where the consumer giant’s corporate values and those of the military merge and diverge.
by Lt. Col. Steven D. Gutierrez
How does it sound to hang up your military uniform, slip into something more casual, challenge convention and maybe even take your dog to work, all while immersing yourself in one of the world’s leading technology and innovation companies? That may sound too peculiar to be possible, but “peculiar” is exactly how Amazon.com Inc. likes to think of itself.
The Amazon Military Talent Partnership group runs a portfolio of military fellowship programs to provide just that kind of opportunity. For some service members and veterans, working at Amazon is a special career-broadening assignment; for others, it is an extended job interview, an unparalleled opportunity to transition seamlessly from military service to a second career with an industry juggernaut.
At Amazon, the hustle of activity creates a sense of being at the center of the business universe. The company has reshaped global consumer behavior and expectations by pioneering innovation and inventing technology. A list of Amazon products and services is extensive: Fire TV, Echo with Alexa Voice Service, one-click shopping, Marketplace, Prime, Prime Now, Prime Air, Prime Pantry and Fresh, to name just a few. It is the fastest company to reach the milestone of $100 billion in annual sales and continues to expand its network of fulfillment centers, data centers, supporting supply chain and transportation infrastructure at blistering speeds. The net result is to ensure delivery of almost anything a consumer may desire, sometimes within moments.
It is hard to imagine the company’s humble beginning in 1994, when founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, recognizing the potential of e-commerce, entered the emerging online marketplace by selling books—just books—from the garage of his rented house in Seattle, Washington. Today, Amazon sells an estimated 500 million products and is by far the largest private employer in Seattle, having invested more than $4 billion to date to create a constellation of more than 30 corporate campus-style buildings. By 2021, Amazon’s transformation of the city skyline will be complete, with more than 10 million square feet of office space available to support a workforce of 55,000. The workforce is the heart of the ubiquitous corporate behemoth that seems to disrupt, if not dominate, most market spaces it chooses to enter.
Joining Amazon’s ranks, I hit the ground running, as expected, in summer 2015 and never stopped throughout my year as an Army Acquisition Corps Training with Industry (TWI) fellow. My education, training and experience in military operations and acquisition provided a solid point of departure into unfamiliar territory. Indoctrination began at a million-square-foot fulfillment center in Phoenix, Arizona. There, the company introduces its “new hire” leaders to Amazon’s mission, principles, culture and business model. I would also work shifts as a fulfillment center associate, a member of a team receiving, storing, picking and shipping inventory. The grueling labor leaves a lasting impression meant to shape operational and strategic decision-making to consider workforce impacts, a lesson Army Acquisition Corps leaders should heed.
My fellowship’s all-access pass into different business segments provided me a front-row seat to witness, experience and participate in calculated business endeavors that only a company of Amazon’s scale—the size of an army—would dare. As a procurement manager during my TWI assignment, I designed and implemented vendor qualification systems and performance metrics for a $500 million annual spend category. My previous experience as a contracting specialist and officer conducting contract life cycle management greatly benefited the company. As a project manager at Amazon, I led the request for proposal on a project of CEO interest to fully automate fulfillment centers through robotic and mechatronic technology. (Mechatronics is a field combining multiple engineering disciplines to create “smart” devices, such as anti-lock brakes, robots and photocopiers.) I gained an appreciation for thoroughly analyzing return-on-investment (ROI) projections before making capital investment decisions. While there are always exceptions, aggressive ROI figures more often than not are telltale indications of revolutionary and disruptive technology.
I discovered that every project followed a surprisingly elegant and straightforward business model. This model has proven remarkably repeatable and relevant in vastly different business categories that span the virtual and physical domains, from e-commerce and cloud computing services to the Kindle and Fire tablet product lines. As legend has it, Bezos conceived the business model on a napkin. The scribbled-on, now framed napkin hangs on a wall in Bezos’ sixth-floor office on Amazon’s corporate campus. (See Figure 1.) The drawing is a flywheel diagram referred to as the “virtuous cycle.” At the center of the flywheel is growth, around which are selection, customer experience, traffic and sellers. Directly connected to growth is lower cost structure, which leads to lower prices, which feed back into the customer experience.
In a little over two decades, Amazon’s strategy of creating unrivaled economies of scale and ruthlessly pursuing efficiencies has catapulted the company to dizzying heights. Despite the exponential growth, market indicators suggest that this is only the beginning. That sense of a perennially new beginning creates a feeling that every day is day one for Amazon. This launch-day type of energy permeates all levels of the company, even after 20-plus years of endeavoring to be Earth’s most customer-centric company. All the while, the Army and its Acquisition Corps battle complacency, in part by placing select members of the workforce in positions to leverage lessons learned from the best companies in industry to ensure the continued distinction of fielding the best-equipped fighting force in the world.
MANAGING TALENT TO SHAPE ‘AMAZONIANS’
Talent management, an increasingly prominent theme in Army acquisition, is especially vital to filling Amazon’s expanding ranks as the company grows with its market share—from 30,000 employees in 2010 to over 230,000 in 2016. Recruiting, retaining and developing human capital, while imbuing the expanding workforce with the mindset that it is still day one, is no simple task in the technology space. Within the tech industry, specialists in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are scarce and in high demand. Attracting the best in the human resources, marketing, program management and procurement disciplines is also fiercely competitive.
Like the company’s business model, Amazon’s leadership principles pervade day-to-day operations and shaped my initial expectations. Dialogue with my director touched on tasks related to each. Amazon seeks to draw and develop employees who share these principles:
- Customer obsession.
- Invent and simplify.
- Are right, a lot.
- Learn and be curious.
- Hire and develop the best.
- Insist on the highest standards.
- Think big.
- Bias for action.
- Earn trust.
- Dive deep.
- Have backbone; disagree and commit.
- Deliver results.
If these leadership principles seem a lot like the core values of military personnel, they are. The parallels are not lost on Amazon recruiters, either, as they develop comprehensive initiatives to attract, recruit and develop military talent. Colby Williamson, a Marine Corps veteran and recruiting manager with Amazon, believes that, “Regardless of someone’s military occupational specialty, branch or rank, the leadership skills developed while in the armed forces closely resemble Amazon’s 14 leadership principles.
“At Amazon, we look for leaders who are customer-centric, have a bias for action and think outside the box. Our culture is fast-paced, and our leaders are given a lot of ownership to make business decisions. This makes for a natural fit for military leaders, where they can also find a strong sense of belonging with their peers.” Amazon believes that military personnel who live by an ethos of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor and integrity already mirror Amazonian dogma.
HOW THE EXCHANGES BEGAN
The genesis for military personnel exchanges with industry was a critical requirement to establish officers with skills reflecting particular industrial practices and procedures that are necessary in materiel acquisition and logistics leaders. In response, DOD and its branches of service developed relationships with companies in the military-industrial complex that could help fill the void that military and civilian curricula could not fill, and could host officers for training assignments.
Currently, military assignments in the corporate world include the Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellows Program, the Army’s Training with Industry, the Air Force’s Education with Industry and, as of October 2015, the Navy’s Tours with Industry, with varying requirements for participation. Ideally, these cohorts will be strategically placed in follow-on assignments that make the most of their newly acquired higher-level managerial techniques and in-depth understanding of private-sector business methods to help the government collaborate and conduct business with industry more effectively. (For a U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center perspective on the TWI program, see “Shrinking the Divide,”.)
For example, military fellows assigned to Amazon are exposed to a commercial business culture that shuns PowerPoint presentations in favor of narrative white papers. Juan Garcia, formerly assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs and now director of associate career development with Amazon, acknowledged that, “It’s one of Amazon’s many cultural norms that vary sharply from traditional Pentagon practices.” Favoring substance over style, Amazon believes that written documentation is better for decision-making, forcing organization of thought, avoiding misinterpretation and generating thoughtful inquiry from a better-informed audience.
Capt. Matthew Getts, an Air Force Education with Industry fellow, worked with Amazon Transportation Services and was impressed with the company’s ability to harness “big data” and automation to make more informed decisions. “Metrics were automated, at the $0.01 level of granularity, and with changes expressed in basis points (one-hundredth of 1 percent),” Getts said. “This data is packed into a six-page narrative and reviewed by the team together. This approach enables near-real-time informed decisions and cuts out unnecessary information that slows down decisions.”
The content of white papers is often dense, heavy on business analytics and light on anecdotal material. Consequently, military fellows assigned to Amazon tend to return to the government with expertise in presenting actionable information. In exchange, the company gains a seasoned military leader providing an exclusive perspective on projects and programs from the “other side.” As the government expands its business with Amazon Web Services for cloud computing services, this will become increasingly critical.
These mutually beneficial exchanges are expanding and evolving as both officers and enlisted personnel participate in fellowships with corporations in the world of technology beyond the confines of the military-industrial complex. The intent is that the fellowships be exchanges, with industry partners scheduled to send participants to government agencies.
TODAY’S FORCE OF THE FUTURE
The nascent military associations with Amazon reflect Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s ambition to collaborate rather than compete with industry for the talent pool of free-thinking innovators. It is just that kind of thinking, outside the “five-sided box,” that the secretary of defense believes will help prevent conflict, shape security environments, win wars and maintain our military’s superiority in this complex world.
In this spirit of innovation, Carter has proposed Force of the Future talent management initiatives that depart dramatically from the status quo. No longer is the up-or-out officer promotion system sacrosanct, as DOD explores more flexible career tracks. The proposals include technical career paths, lateral entry into the military at a rank reflecting one’s former corporate status, expanded opportunities and incentives for officers and senior noncommissioned officers to attend Advanced Civil Schooling, as well as sabbaticals with industry.
Carter also has made it a point to shore up and build new bridges between DOD and the nation’s innovation and technology community. He has visited Silicon Valley several times in the past year, in the first such goodwill tours by a sitting secretary of defense in 20 years. On a trip in April, Carter courted technology companies to collaborate with DOD on national security concerns.
To establish inroads, bilateral personnel exchanges and lasting partnerships, in March he established a Defense Innovation Advisory Board. The board, led by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google Inc. parent company Alphabet Inc., comprises 12 business operation leaders, all industry experts in organizational change by way of technology adoption. The board advises the department on organizational information sharing, mobile and cloud applications, iterative product development, rapid prototyping and sophisticated data analysis in business decision-making.
As part of these efforts, Carter visited Amazon’s corporate offices in Seattle in March, meeting with Bezos and his executive team. Carter then met with the active-duty Air Force, Army and Navy military fellows assigned to Amazon, underscoring at a subsequent news conference that they are today’s force of the future. Participating in the events of that day was a highlight of both my TWI fellowship and my Army career.
Amazon uses several military fellowship programs specifically to provide transition opportunities for separating service members. Amazon Military Talent Partnership recruiters work with the Service Member for Life Transition Assistance Program to identify eligible separating service members and help them negotiate the very challenging interview process. They also help veterans translate their military skills into marketable equivalents on their resumes. While the company has long sought junior military officers for leadership roles in its fulfillment centers, newly established programs cast the net even wider, looking to hire veterans of all ranks into various functional disciplines.
In 2015, for example, Amazon participated in the Camo2Commerce program, an initiative between several western Washington employers and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. The program accepted highly qualified military personnel who were in the process of separating to participate in a 12-week fellowship with Amazon while still on active duty. The fellows worked in operations, recruiting, facilities or Amazon Web Services with the possibility of earning a full-time position.
The program costs participating companies nothing and provides an employment opportunity for military candidates who otherwise might not make it through the stringent requirements of initial hiring. At the same time, it allows both parties, the business and the candidate, to thoroughly vet each other. The Camo2Commerce program’s first three Amazon cohorts consisted of a total of 12 military fellows and resulted in a 75 percent hiring rate, with eight accepting full-time positions.
In 2016, Amazon embarked on a partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative, substantially expanding the fellowship opportunities for transitioning to the company with the addition of four locations: Washington, D.C.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Huachuca, Arizona; and Fort Campbell, Kentucky. In the boldest pledge yet to hire talent from the military community, Bezos and first lady Michelle Obama in May announced a partnership in which Amazon committed to hire 25,000 additional veterans and military spouses over the next five years. The military’s loss can be a big gain for companies like Amazon.
For more information about the Amazon Military Talent Partnership, go to http://www.amazonfulfillmentcareers.
com/opportunities/military/ and http://amazondelivers.jobs/about/military/; about the Camo2Commerce program, http://camo2commerce.com/; about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative, https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/hiring-our-heroes; and about DOD’s proposed Force of the Future initiatives, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/2015/0315_force-of-the-future/documents/FotF_Fact_Sheet_-_FINAL_11.18.pdf.
LT. COL. STEVEN D. GUTIERREZ, a U.S. Army Training with Industry Fellow with Amazon.com Inc. from July 2015 to June 2016, is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps and is Level III certified in contracting and program management. He holds an M.S. in management, acquisition and contract management and a master of public administration degree from the Florida Institute of Technology, and a B.S. in criminal justice administration from San Diego State University.
This article was originally published in the July – September 2016 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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