How Amazon ended up in San Diego

One of my favorite career accomplishments so far was founding the Amazon San Diego office.  I wrote the 6-pager proposal about the city and presented it to Amazon VP/SVPs to gain approval.  I was employee #1 in the office, hiring a team that grew to 300+ people in less than 3 years. I chose all three locations – first the temp space in Solana Beach, then the interim space in UTC, then the final office at Campus Point where the office lives today.  I got to meet the mayor and be interviewed on TV which was a ton of fun.  You can read all about it in this Amazon Day One blog article.  There’s another more lighthearted article that talks about the space itself on Hatch.

download.jpegWhat those articles don’t highlight is the huge team effort it took to get us there.  Each manager at the office owned a different major initiative. One oversaw our hiring pipeline, while another ran mixers and events, while another keep the office stocked with snacks and beer. At the very start, the office didn’t have a printer, so another leader and I drove to Staples, bought one, brought it back in his truck, and plugged it in. We had 4 people squeezed into 2-person offices and it was a blast.

Hiring the right people, mentoring them to become leaders, and leaving behind an office that continues to thrive was incredibly rewarding.  It taught me a ton about what it means to be a good leader.  It’s not about telling people what to do or delegating tasks. It’s about inspiring people with a big hairy goal, empowering and supporting them, but then generally getting the hell out of their way.

This can be a very uncomfortable feeling.  If you do it right, you won’t have details on everything happening under your watch. People will be making decisions on their own and acting autonomously. You’ll find out things that have been happening for weeks that you were completely unaware of.  The trick is, when you find out, do those things make you go “cool!” or “holy sh*t why are they doing THAT??”

I’m not going to lie, there were definitely several “oh shit” moments – but most of the time it was pleasant surprises. Credit goes to the phenomenal management and senior engineering talent we were able to hire. For my part, I tried to be clear in what was most important. Rather than telling people what to do, I just tried to inspire them by why we were there in the first place.  We were colonizing a whole new city for Amazon – a pretty audacious goal to be part of.

Our mission as I saw it was:

  1. Prove to people that San Diego was a real tech city – real enough to support top-tier companies like Amazon.
  2. Create a culture where people were proud of their work, felt appreciated, and had a fun time overall.
  3. Bring the San Diego influence back into Amazon, and demonstrate that you could do awesome things while still having fun.

That’s basically it.  I like keeping things simple. 🙂

To everyone who was involved (and continues to be involved), all I can say is thank you.  It was an experience I’ll cherish the rest of my life and it’s hard for me to put into words how humbled I feel meeting so many incredible people.  Can’t wait to hear when the office hits 1,000 people!


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