Book Notes #51: Working Backwards by Bill Carr and Colin Bryar

Working Backwards is an insider’s breakdown of Amazon’s approach to culture, leadership, and best practices from two long-time, top-level Amazon executives.

Title: Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon
Author: Colin Bryar and Bill Carr
Year: 2021
Pages: 320

This insightful book offers a revolutionary approach to problem-solving and product development, drawing on the authors’ experiences at Amazon and the wisdom of industry leaders. 

By working backward from the desired outcome, readers will learn how to create clear and attainable goals, while also streamlining the creative process. 

Working Backwards is a book that provides a step-by-step guide to working backwards from a desired outcome to achieve success in problem-solving and product development. 

The book is based on the authors’ experiences at Amazon, where they applied this approach to help the company grow and thrive. 

As a result, I gave this book a rating of 7.0/10.

For me, a book with a note 10 is one I consider reading again every year. Among the books I rank with 10, for example, is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Overview of Working Backwards

In Working Backwards, these two long-serving Amazon executives reveal and codify the principles and practices that drive the success of one of the most extraordinary companies the world has ever known. 

With twenty-seven years of Amazon experience between them, much of it in the early aughts-a period of unmatched innovation that brought products and services including Kindle, Amazon Prime, Amazon Studios, and Amazon Web Services to life-Bryar and Carr offer unprecedented access to the Amazon way as it was refined, articulated, and proven to be repeatable, scalable, and adaptable.

With keen analysis and practical steps for applying it at your own company-no matter what, the size-the authors illuminate how Amazon’s fourteen leadership principles inform decision-making at all levels and reveal how the company’s culture has been defined by four characteristics: customer obsession, long-term thinking, eagerness to invent, and operational excellence. 

Bryar and Carr explain the set of ground-level practices that ensure these are translated into action and flow through all aspects of the business.

Working Backwards is a practical guidebook and a corporate narrative, filled with the authors’ in-the-room recollections of what “Being Amazonian” is like and how it has affected their personal and professional lives. 

They demonstrate that success on Amazon’s scale is not achieved by the genius of any single leader, but rather through a commitment to and execution of a set of well-defined, rigorously-executed principles and practices shared here for the very first time.

The book also includes stories and examples from industry leaders such as Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk, who have used this approach to achieve success in their own companies. Overall, the book is a practical and actionable guide that can help readers achieve their goals by working backwards from the desired outcome.

Whatever your talent, career, or organization might be, find out how you can put Working Backwards to work for you.

The book’s name comes from Amazon’s product development process, in which one starts with the desired outcome or end result and then works backwards to figure out the steps required to achieve that outcome.

It’s a way to reverse-engineer a problem, by first understanding the customer’s needs, and then working backwards from there to figure out how to meet those needs.

By starting with the end in mind and focusing on the customer’s needs, the process of problem-solving and product development becomes more streamlined and focused.

This approach can help to simplify the development process and make better decisions. It can also help companies to identify potential roadblocks early on and come up with creative solutions to overcome them.

My Book Highlights & Quotes

“… The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job…”

“… In a company known for its inventiveness, separable, single-threaded leadership has been one of Amazon’s most useful inventions. We discuss it in chapter three. This is the organizational strategy that minimizes the drag on efficiency created by intra-organizational dependencies. The basic premise is, for each initiative or project, there is a single leader whose focus is that project and that project alone, and that leader oversees teams of people whose attention is similarly focused on that one project…”

“… When you encounter a problem, the probability you’re actually looking at the actual root cause of the problem in the initial 24 hours is pretty close to zero, because it turns out that behind every issue there’s a very interesting story.” In the end, if you stick with identifying the true root causes of variation and eliminating them, you’ll have a predictable, in-control process that you can optimize…”

“… The customer is also at the center of how we analyze and manage performance metrics. Our emphasis is on what we call controllable input metrics, rather than output metrics. Controllable input metrics (e.g., reducing internal costs so you can affordably lower product prices, adding new items for sale on the website, or reducing standard delivery time) measure the set of activities that, if done well, will yield the desired results, or output metrics (such as monthly revenue and stock price). We detail these metrics as well as how to discover and track them in chapter six…”

“… In the 2016 shareholder letter, even though he wasn’t explicitly talking about two-pizza teams, Jeff suggested that “most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure…”

“… Our culture is four things: customer obsession instead of competitor obsession; willingness to think long term, with a longer investment horizon than most of our peers; eagerness to invent, which of course goes hand in hand with failure; and then, finally, taking professional pride in operational excellence…”

“… In a period of torrid headcount growth, founders and early employees often feel that they’re losing control of the company—it has become something different than what they set out to create. Looking back, they realize that the root cause of the problem can be traced to an ill-defined or absent hiring process. They were hiring scores of people who would change the company culture rather than those who would embody, reinforce, and add to it…”

“… I heard [Bezos] say many times that if we wanted Amazon to be a place where builders can build, we needed to eliminate communication, not encourage it… Jeff’s vision was that we needed to focus on loosely coupled interaction via machines through well-defined APIs rather than via humans through emails and meetings…”

“… The best way to fail at inventing something is by making it somebody’s part-time job…”

“… Be stubborn about the vision but flexible on the details…”

“… We had freed ourselves of the quantitative demands of Excel, the visual seduction of PowerPoint, and the distracting effect of personal performance. The idea had to be in the writing…”

At the core of Amazon’s approach are 14 leadership principles:

Customer Obsession: Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Ownership: Leaders are owners. They think long-term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.”

Invent and Simplify: Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here.” As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.

Are Right, A Lot: Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.

Learn and Be Curious: Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

Hire and Develop the Best: Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.

Insist on the Highest Standards: Leaders have relentlessly high standards — many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high-quality products, services, and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

Think Big: Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

Bias for Action: Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking. 

Frugality: Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expenses.

Earn Trust: Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Dive Deep:Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdotes differ. No task is beneath them.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit: Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

Deliver Results: Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.

Strive to be Earth’s Best Employer: Leaders work every day to create a safer, more productive, higher performing, more diverse, and more just work environment. They lead with empathy, have fun at work, and make it easy for others to have fun. Leaders ask themselves: Are my fellow employees growing? Are they empowered? Are they ready for what’s next? Leaders have a vision for and commitment to their employees’ personal success, whether that be at Amazon or elsewhere.

Success and Scale Bring Broad Responsibility: We started in a garage, but we’re not there anymore. We are big, we impact the world, and we are far from perfect. We must be humble and thoughtful about even the secondary effects of our actions. Our local communities, planet, and future generations need us to be better every day. We must begin each day with a determination to make better, do better, and be better for our customers, our employees, our partners, and the world at large. And we must end every day knowing we can do even more tomorrow. Leaders create more than they consume and always leave things better than how they found them.

These principles are not the only way to build a high-performing organization, but they have obviously and clearly worked for one of the world’s most successful companies of the current era.

In conclusion, Working Backwards is a must-read for any software engineer looking to gain a deeper understanding of Agile software engineering principles and practices. 

With its clear and concise explanations, practical advice, and valuable insights, this book is sure to help any engineer looking to make their processes more efficient and successful. 

With the help of Working Backwards, software engineers can master the most important tools and techniques to increase productivity, reduce costs, and deliver better results.

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