A customer was recently asked this very question by his boss. The individual in question has responsibility for legacy migration programmes. Perhaps this seems a little unfair - the organisation is considerably older than Amazon, has been investing in IT since card readers were around, and is living with the consequences of past IT choices, many of which were made decades previously. However, it is an interesting question because there are a few things we can potentially learn.  

What does it mean to be like Amazon and why can’t most companies be like them?

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has a technical background and understands how to use technology to drive innovation (he has a degree in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Princeton). Amazon’s vision is simple: “… to be Earth’s most customer-centric company for four primary customer sets: consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators”. The company views its customers differently. It also has a different view of technology and how to use it to deliver success in the market. Using technology to drive innovation is a key component of that.

Amazon folk history suggests that the idea for Amazon Web Services (AWS) was born out of an internal programme to streamline internal processes between hardware engineers and programmers. Having submitted the internal improvements proposal, it was also suggested that spare capacity could be rented out to customers. Whether this is really how Amazon stole a march on its competitors is immaterial. Amazon spotted an internal inefficiency and came up with a solution. However, they also identified a potential gap in the market for that same solution, by creating an innovative way to make use of its spare capacity ahead of internal demand.

This approach of turning internal business challenges into commercial opportunities was not a one off. For example, Amazon have recently launched a new commercial data-mining product called Amazon Redshift.  This product was originally designed and built as a solution for AWS metering, where more than ten million customer records of usage data were being captured every second.

What lessons can we learn and apply in our own organisation?

Can you make things more streamlined by standardising and restricting choice?

Implementing a range of “T-shirt sizes” for infrastructure – physical or virtual – pays dividends in reduced support costs, even if it runs counter to typical engineering instincts to build on a platform that may not be perfect for that solution.  Put simply, the optimisation is at the point of business cost, rather than individual solution purity.

Can you break the link between the infrastructure and the business application?

Traditionally in infrastructure programmes we build the platform, OS, middleware, application, then we patch and upgrade the application until we get to a new release of the application that is no longer supported on the current OS/platform.  At this point a major programme is initiated that refreshes the entire IT stack, often changing business functionality as well. What if we proactively migrated the OS/platform at a time when the application version is supported on current and next versions of the OS instead?

Can you create an innovative environment where it is easy to try things?

The ability to quickly implement a proof of concept test very early in a programme lifecycle has tremendous business value, often (dis)proving the business case.  Amazon has a well-documented ability to split its website to compare the performance of new algorithms in real time. This is out of reach for most businesses, but there are many “proofs of concept” that can be tested. To do this, you need to have a very clear view of what you are proving and the measureable success criteria.

Exception works with some of the UK’s largest companies and government organisations to integrate modern technology infrastructure solutions into their existing operations. If you’re looking for advice or support on how to take your infrastructure services forward, contact Exception today.

David Luke

Back to articles