Amazon President and CEO Andy R. Jassy ’90 discussed failure, innovation, and the future of technology at a Thursday lecture moderated by School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Francis J. Doyle III.
Jassy, 55, joined Amazon in 1997 after receiving his MBA from Harvard Business School, holding various leadership roles in the company before founding Amazon Web Services. Harvard partners with AWS on research efforts on topics including quantum networking and solving global challenges through data science.
Jassy, a former Crimson advertising manager, began the event by discussing his philosophy on how to build and manage innovative teams, underscoring decentralized product development and moving fast with reversible “two-way door” decisions.
“We over-index hiring builders. We think of builders as people who like to invent,” Jassy said. “People who like to look at customer experiences, figure out what can be better about them, and seek to change them or reinvent them.”
Jassy, who succeeded Jeff Bezos as president and CEO of Amazon in July 2021, credited Amazon’s success to its willingness to launch new projects and innovate.
“We say yes to a lot more new ideas than most companies,” Jassy said.
Throughout the talk, Jassy discussed the importance of embracing failure.
Jassy said the Fire Phone — Amazon’s short-lived entry into the smartphone market — was an example of strong execution and risk-taking, though it ultimately did not succeed. Still, the project’s team was rewarded for their work and subsequently placed on other high-priority initiatives, which Jassy described as a “cultural, reaffirming experience.”
Reflecting on Amazon’s history, Jassy said tolerance for failure and iteration is one of the reasons the company continues to innovate.
“Almost all the most important lessons I’ve learned have been through failure — professionally, academically, all of it,” Jassy added.
During the talk, Doyle said he believes Jassy’s lessons about failure are applicable to academic and research experiences at Harvard.
Jassy also discussed his views on the future of technology and generative artificial intelligence.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jassy said about large language models. “The models have gotten so much better so quickly over the last nine months.”
“Literally, almost every customer experience has a chance to change. And I think it’s one of the most exciting, important technology opportunities and changes since the Internet,” Jassy added. “So that is incredibly exciting.”
Beyond his career, Jassy also discussed his avid interest in sports, appreciation for family, and focus on education and racial equity through the organization Rainier Scholars, a nonprofit he supports.
Asked about career advice, Jassy encouraged exploring diverse interests, saying he had initially intended to pursue law before realizing it was not the right fit for him.
“You don’t have to know what you are going to do right now in college,” Jassy said. “Try things and see what you like. Don’t feel like you have to declare early.”
“Pick the things to do here, or when you get out of school, that you’re passionate about right now,” Jassy added. “Having something that you wake up in the morning and that you’re excited to do really matters.”
Doyle wrote in a statement following the event that SEAS invites top executives from tech companies, like Jassy, to share their perspectives at lecture events.
“He had numerous pearls of wisdom that he shared with our students,” Doyle wrote. “I was struck by his encouragement to be confident, challenge ideas and ask questions.”
—Staff writer Andrew M. Lu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.