AB Thinks  →  15th January 2020

That’s a great question, Jeff

Jeff Bezos has written an open letter to Amazon shareholders every year for two decades. His 1998 letter reveals three questions recruiters and candidates would be wise to ponder.

In 1995 Jeff Bezos left his job with a Wall Street investment firm to launch an online bookstore from his garage in Seattle. The rest, as they say, is history.

Amazon went public two years later. If you’d had the foresight to become a shareholder during that Initial Public Offering in 1997, a $1,000 investment would now be worth more than $1.3million – an increase of more than 2,000 per cent.

Bezos has written to his shareholders every year since. These frank, open letters are a fascinating insight into Bezos’ business philosophy, particularly his desire to “build the world’s most customer-centric company” and the need to prioritise long-term value over short-term gain.

He is equally direct about working life at Amazon: “It’s not easy to work here (when I interview people I tell them, “You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three”), but we are working to build something important, something that matters to our customers, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about. Such things aren’t meant to be easy.”

A year later he writes: “…there is no rest for the weary. I constantly remind our employees to be afraid, to wake up every morning terrified. Not of our competition, but of our customers.”

Bezos clearly believes the right culture start with the right hires. “Setting the bar high in our approach to hiring has been, and will continue to be, the single most important element of Amazon.com’s success.”

He reveals three questions he and his colleagues ask themselves when evaluating a potential recruit. The questions encourage interviewers to look beyond the obvious and consider what might not be immediately discernible or strictly relevant. In other words, the wider potential of a candidate over the long term.

  • Will you admire this person? If you think about the people you’ve admired in your life, they are probably people you’ve been able to learn from or take an example from. For myself, I’ve always tried hard to work only with people I admire, and I encourage folks here to be just as demanding. Life is definitely too short to do otherwise.
  • Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering? We want to fight entropy. The bar has to continuously go up. I ask people to visualize the company five years from now. At that point, each of usshould look around and say, “The standards are so high now – boy, I’m glad I got in when I did!”
  • Along what dimension might this person be a superstar? Many people have unique skills, interests, and perspectives that enrich the work environment for all of us. It’s often something that’s not even related to their jobs. One person here is a National Spelling Bee champion (1978, I believe). I suspect it doesn’t help her in her everyday work, but it does make working here more fun if you can occasionally snag her in the hall with a quick challenge: “onomatopoeia!”

When hiring at AB, I tend to place aptitude and attitude above experience or even skill set. A mindset shift is harder to teach than a technical capability. If you are hiring or applying for roles in 2020, these questions are worth considering.

For those interested in further reading, Austin Allred, the co-founder of the online computer science academy Lambda, has compiled every Amazon shareholder letter (1997 to 2017) in one PDF. You can download it here.

If the new year has prompted you to consider a career move, AB is always on the look out for superstars. Please get in touch and tell us about your potential.