New Amazon CEO Andy Jassy and his South African connection

Written on 07/16/2021
Justin Rowe-Roberts

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos handed over the reins to Andy Jassy, former CEO of Amazon Web Services, the group’s most profitable business unit. Highly respected, Jassy is said to be the brains behind Amazon Web Services and has worked side-by-side with Bezos for decades. Jassy has an interesting relationship with South Africa, with Cape Town the birthplace of AWS. His tenure provides for an exciting new era for one of the largest and most powerful businesses in the world. None more so for South Africa than Amazon’s African HQ to be based in the mother city. Amazon also makes up a healthy contingent of the BizNews global portfolio. – Justin Rowe-Roberts

By Caylin Firer*

As an Amazon Web Services (AWS) partner, we’ve always got our ears on the ground when new developments emerge in the world’s most comprehensive and broadly adopted cloud platform.

What bigger development could there be than a change at the helm of Amazon.com, the parent company of AWS.

Since 5 July 2021, Andy Jassy is officially the new CEO of Amazon, having previously served as the CEO of AWS since 2003. Jeff Bezos, the previous CEO of Amazon, has transitioned into a new role, that of “Executive Chair of the Amazon Board”.

So who is this Andy Jassy? And what exactly is his connection to South Africa?

Andrew R. Jassy was born in 1968 in Scarsdale, New York. Jassy graduated from Harvard College with honours in government. After Harvard, Jassy moved to New York City and started with a small collectables company called MBI as a project manager. He devoted 5 years to MBI where he learned more about marketing.

That was when Jassy decided to get back in the books. He applied to Harvard Business College where he wrote his last exam on a Friday afternoon in 1997 and started his career at Amazon the very next Monday. He started at Amazon a week before the company’s initial public offering.

Jassy started in the then-tiny Amazon marketing department. He was quickly recognised for his out-of-the-box thinking and was tasked to plan the company’s next steps.

With his keen sense of exploration and Amazon’s drive to become market leaders, Jassy developed a plan for Amazon to break into the music industry. He built a team consisting of software engineers, former journalists and DJs who worked together to create a music streaming platform (Amazon Music) and online music store that unlocked access to entertainment on a scale previously unforeseen.

The team was allocated a rundown little brick building in downtown Seattle to work their magic. On weekends, stale cigarette smoke lingered in the air when entering the offices in the morning.

Amazon has operated by a very simple credo since its inception: work long, work hard, work smart.

Jassy adopted this credo right from the get-go. Long nights and very little sleep brought forth amazing results in the form of Amazon Music, a platform which now offers access to over 2 million songs.

After this early success, Jeff Bezos, then CEO of Amazon, offered a temporary chief-of-staff-like position to Jassy. This position is rumored to be solely reserved for potential managers in the Amazonian family. Jassy spent the next 18 months at Bezos’s side and served as Bezos’s spokesman in meetings where Bezos could not attend.

Jassy became a fast favourite amongst his colleagues with his easy demeanour and witty comments. People always joke that he might have a photographic memory because he never forgets anything. They say that he always greets everyone by their names and even remembers their family’s names.

Around 2000, Amazon started seeing unprecedented growth. They quickly realised that they needed a long-term infrastructure solution to cope with the intense growth spurts. They decided that a stable technology infrastructure was key to withstand and manage the growth.

Their plan of action was to work in small and agile technical teams. This allowed each team to focus on specific business goals. New projects were achievable due to each team’s agility, and ability to utilise each other’s capabilities without infringing on each other’s performance. Supported by an intelligent IT platform, this helped them develop new products and services in their own area of expertise, thereby avoiding duplication within the larger project and/or application.

Jassy noticed that this platform, which would eventually become AWS, could be improved in certain areas. Amazon started building a shared infrastructure platform. In July 2002, it launched its first version of Amazon web services. This opened up the Amazon.com platform to all software developers.

These ingenious new web services were a hit and by 2004, over 100 applications had been built on the platform. This took Amazon by surprise and encouraged them to invest further in the project.

Here’s where the South African connection to Jassy and AWS starts taking shape.

Chris Pinkham is well-known in South Africa’s tech circles for having founded the country’s first commercial ISP in 1993 – The Inter networking Company of Southern Africa (Ticsa).

He joined Amazon back in 2000. Pinkham and Jassy collaborated to develop a similar web service with the intention of offering it to other developing businesses.

Amazon announced in 2002 that it was launching a software development centre in Cape Town, South Africa. As a global company, opening a development centre in South Africa didn’t seem so outrageous at the time.

Pinkham started building a team of exceptional computer scientists and software engineers underpinned with an entrepreneurial spirit. He also employed specialists in the areas of open-source operating systems, networks and security.

Amazon soon realised that there was a wealth of raw talent yet to be discovered in sunny South Africa. The development centre quickly focused its attention on developing new and innovative web services to allow software developers a space to develop their own applications, using Amazon-built technology.

South Africa soon became the birthplace of AWS cloud computing after the team successfully built the original elastic computer cloud, known as EC2. This move opened up an era of cloud computing that revolutionised how we view cloud computing. AWS’s success is self-evident – it is estimated to account for more than half of Amazon’s operating profit.

Their first customers were small tech startups and companies who lacked access to mainframe computers or backroom servers.

AWS operated a pay-per-use model. This allowed companies to cut costs that were otherwise unavoidable previously. The news spread fast, and before long, a small team of 57 employees grew well into the hundreds. Nowadays there are more than 3000 employees.

After major success, Jassy was announced as CEO of AWS. With Jassy at the helm, AWS started solving industry problems that were previously thought to be unsolvable.

Jassy is known to respect his employees as long as they respect him. As a manager, he gives his teams a wide latitude to steer their own course, all within reason. Since becoming CEO of AWS, he developed a hands-on approach, involving himself in the day-to-day operations.

Many times, Jassy will decide to edit press releases and marketing material himself. He even joins product development meetings and contributes to pricing discussions. He truly lives by Amazon’s philosophy – word hard, and always search for a better solution.

It’s no wonder then that Bezos happily handed the reins to him. His stellar reputation as a team member and a team leader brought him to this pinnacle of his career.

In his first week alone, he negotiated with the Pentagon to review their contract with Microsoft, which they agreed to, thereby allowing Amazon an opportunity to bid for the business.

With such a pioneering spirit, and backed by a world-class team, who knows where Jassy will steer Amazon towards in the future. This we can assure you – it will be incredible.

  • Caylin Firer, a marketing assistant at SovTech. SovTech manages, optimises and secures software products in the cloud and is a proud Amazon Web Service Partner in South Africa.

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