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Retrospective: 150th Day One at Amazon (AWS)

11 min read

How was your 2020 professionally?

The year has been the beginning of lingering Covid pandemic disrupting life of every individual on the planet – some less, and some more. Now it’s been more than a year of sailing through this pandemic – we definitely didn’t get used to it or thrive significantly when it comes to mental state, but adapted to it to quite some extent with what has become the new normal.

For me, the locked-down year turned out to be a professional year filled with significant experiments and a steep learning curve – Thankful to be a knowledge worker in such challenging times. While I learnt (or at-least still trying to) to work remotely from balcony, kitchen, bedroom, living-room, and cafes, I managed to get hooked onto more offline hobbies beyond photography and blogging.

I tasted multiple work responsibilities in 2020 while navigating the overlapping space of data science and machine learning engineering in the travel industry, few weeks of deep learning research in medical startup, and mentorship and project management. After exploring opportunities in Europe and interviewing with 15+ organizations (yes it took me quite a while to have a match for the next career challenge) in the first half of 2020, I accepted the offer from Amazon Web Services (AWS) to start as a Machine Learning Specialist Solutions Architect for EMEA. Not a Goodbye: trivago Culture – Thanks to the amazing people around me who helped me burgeon in the difficult times.

For the new career challenge at AWS, what interested me the most is the responsibility to work backwards from the various business problems and empower industry solutions to transform and scale their machine learning workloads with AWS, and specifically Amazon SageMaker – thus freeing them up from the undifferentiated infrastructure heavy-lifting in data science projects.

Starting at AWS: Always Day One

I decided to look back and pen down this blog, having crossed my 150th Day One at AWS earlier this month in April 2021.

Day 1 is both a culture and an operating model that puts the customer at the center of everything Amazon does.

Quoting from the Elements of Amazon’s Day 1 Culture

This concept sums up a lot in a nutshell. One of the keys to success is to get your hands into things that will constantly keep you engaged and high on the fuel of motivation. The chart below illustrates how this mentality helps to stay relevant and on your toes, irrespective of your role at Amazon.

Source: Elements of Amazon’s Day 1 Culture

Not only did I move to a new city in the middle of lockdown, but also took up the challenge to get into the new shoes of the job role remotely. I can’t complain about the Work-from-home setup which was absolutely seamless, but the challenge remained in connecting with globally located new colleagues and customers over video calls. Business travel and building relationships in-person had to be replaced by alternatives for the short-term till the unpredictable pandemic would subside. This is also where the mindset of every single work-day being Day One helps at Amazon – thanks to the welcoming people with amazing mindset out there that I could make the best of the situation to thrive.

Learnings: Developing Muscle-Memory to Learn

The most interesting part that I dived into over the past five months at AWS is learning how to learn effectively and developing that essential muscle-memory to learn things quickly. In my previous role, I had identified one of my strengths from the trivago core-values to be a Fanatic Learner, and I meant every word when I appeared at What do the trivago values mean to you?

I had read through the 14 Amazon Leadership Principles (LP) while interviewing last year with AWS and related them to my past experiences – but knowing them theoretically versus living them on job is of-course a different game. As I began to work closely with some of the leadership principles, the more I learnt to admire them. And one of the foundation to live through them is majorly influenced by how effective you’re at learning new things every single day.

Customer Obsession; Ownership; Invent and Simplify; Are Right, A Lot; Learn and be Curious; Hire and Develop the Best; Insist on the Highest Standards; Think Big; Bias for Action; Frugality; Earn Trust; Dive Deep; Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit; Deliver Results

Amazon Leadership Principles

In a role like Specialist Solutions Architect in Machine Learning, it is crucial to not only learn about a large number of topics on a regular basis, but also independently judge when to dive-deep versus going across the breath zooming out. And it’s a tricky situation if you have fitting curious-minds being thrown into a candy-store of extremely interesting topics across a varied pool of domains for both thought leadership and innovating on behalf of customers in all possible industry verticals – that’s where the art of stress-free productivity comes in.

I am a big fan of the concept that our brain is wired for learning new concepts and generating brilliant ideas, rather than archiving. It is more of a massive compute machine blessed with creativity, rather than a large storage chunk. Thus an effective way to keep learning regularly and being agile is crucial.

That’s the critical first step in getting to the state of “mind like water.” Just gathering a few more things than you currently have will probably create a positive feeling for you. But if you can hang in there and really do the whole collection process, 100 percent, it will change your experience dramatically and give you an important new reference point for being on top of your work.

– David Allen
Work from Home; Berlin 2021

Learnings: Don’t Have Time VS Not a Priority

Along with developing my learning in how to learn, I discovered a fresh perspectives as I transitioned into this new role with a bunch of talented colleagues at AWS – To be able to tell myself: “This one isn’t my priority right now” rather than stressing over the fact “I don’t have time for this” when it comes to my ever-growing backlog – be it a backlog at work or personals projects.

Everyone including me often consumes a lot of interesting content in the lines of time management and prioritization, but only a few people find the optimal balance to thrive. I see this as a constant and never-ending process to embrace – balancing the bike as long as you’re riding it without stopping, sometime adapting to speed versus slowing down steadily.

Apply the “Do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it” rule to get your inbox empty.
Re-asses goals and stay focused in changing situations.
Plan and unstick projects.
Overcome feelings of confusion, anxiety and overwhelmed.
Feel fine about what you’re not doing.

Back-cover of David Allen’s Getting Things Done

Reading them is much easier than actually being in the process of implementing them actively without hitting a dead-end. If you look it up on the internet, you would stumble across plethora of models to guide you – for example the 20 Product Prioritization Techniques: A Map and Guided Tour from Folding Burritos. But what suits you (YOU) the best is something you’d know once you get your hands dirty to try them out and fail.

I don’t regret to have realigned my personal life balance and spend more than 40hrs/ week in the initial months of the role to experiment, identify and play around with different models, tools and applications that almost fit my demands and have a baseline to start with. Looking back, my learning curve has been exponential the last few months – learning how to channelize energy into scaling my efforts while balancing time for myself.

Conclusion

It did take me almost 20 weeks to onboard and learn various skills before I could start working independently with customers as a ML specialist. It is eye-opening how these initial kick-starter skills comprised less of technical knowledge and more of time-management, muscle-memory, agility, and prioritization abilities – because at the end of the day, picking any new technical skill comes as a by-product of the above.

1. Capture
2. Clarify
3. Organize
4. Reflect
5. Engage

None of of us know the pandemic timelines and where are we heading towards with Covid-19. One thing that stays essential is to develop the ability to be agile enough to learn new skills regularly in this ever-changing world, more now than ever before. A baseline knowledge is often essential that comes as apart of a university degree, work experience, or even self-learning. But what matters at the end of the day to keep growing in the current situations is – how well do you manage your time, learn effectively (as much as needed, as little as needed), and how you sustain yourself taking care of yourself for the long marathon that comprises of multiple smaller sprints.

Treat every day as Day One – May you get one step better every day-one at the art of stress-free productivity to innovate. Reach the best of your career interests to do what you enjoy, while adding value to the ecosystem in your own ways.

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