Jeff Bezos’ Greatest Gift To Computing (And I Learned It From An Amazon PowerPoint Presentation)

Above this text is a picture of a vintage 1890s electric generator in a Belgium beer factory. If you look real close the gentleman in the sport coat with the white shirt it is Jeff Bezos. I first saw this picture in 2010 when I started with AWS. I asked my sales team to send me any relevant client sales presentations they used and this picture was on one of the first PowerPoint slides. I believe that this picture and related story is a great symbol for Jeff Bezos’ greatest gift to computing.

I know what you are thinking if you are an Amazon or ex-Amazon employee; Amazon doesn’t use PowerPoint (and the meetings are magical). The following is even a quote from Bezos himself from Brad’s post about why people shouldn’t use PowerPoint in meetings:

“The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents with a powerpoint presentation, some type of slide show.  In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points.  This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience.  And so instead, all of our meetings are structured around a 6 page narrative memo…. If you have a traditional ppt presentation, executives interrupt.  If you read the whole 6 page memo, on page 2 you have a question but on on page 4 that question is answered.”

I agree that this 6 page memo is awesome for internal meetings but I have yet to meet the client that is willing to take a sales meeting and start off reading 6 pages for 30 minutes before anyone talks. Clients tend to like an interactive story and pictures are worth a thousand words. If you have a fundamental point to make, sometimes you only want your audience to understand that one point, especially when it becomes the most important point in the evolution of IT Operations in the last forty years.

Making Your Own Power Doesn’t Make Your Beer Taste Better

I had to ask several people on the sales team to help me understand why this picture was in the presentation (no notes in presenter view of course). I pieced several stories together to come up with my own narrative that made sense and that customers responded to.  The sales team stories also relayed that Bezos loved the following narrative to explain how AWS, and cloud computing, would change IT operations forever.

In the 19th Century, the electric grid was not a stable and ubiquitous network available to all people and businesses. The Belgian beer factory that used this generator above did it because they did not have reliable access to the grid. In order to power their equipment, they owned this generator along with their dedicated employees who operated and maintained it. Whether they got their power from this generator or from the electric grid, assuming it was a stable power grid when it finally made it to the factory, didn’t make a difference on their end product. These undifferentiated tasks provided no value compared to their competitors models. Beer is beer whether your employees make the power or not. If your competitor could sell beer cheaper than you because they took advantage of the utility grid, what would you do?

You can imagine that it was probably a tough decision for the brewery to move on from tradition when they connected to the grid. Those power operators at the brewery had families to support but the grid was too compelling. The generator, and its jobs, was replaced by a utility.

In the 21st Century, you can consider cloud computing to be a utility; utility computing. This is usually where the light went off for potential customers or other prospective clients pushed back strongly. Most companies think of their IT operations teams as a strategic differentiation for their business. Explaining that cloud computing replaces manual tasks that valued employees do internally with software code can lead to some akward conversations about what happens to those employees. The good news is that people can be retrained. For most companies, moving to cloud computing provides the same benefits today that moving to the electric grid did in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Is AWS Bezos’ Gift To Computing?

You must be thinking that AWS is the gift to computing, software developers and IT operations teams. I believe this to only be partly true. I’ve written about Infrastructure as Code (IaC) before, but convincing most organizations that they don’t have to be in the data center business and that they can replace their manual tasks with software code is the true gift. By converting manual tasks, and labor, to software code it forces companies to completely re-imagine how they can perform Digital Transformations for their own business and continue their evolution in their respective marketplaces.

As we enter the second decade of cloud, you won’t hear most companies talking about how they can bring back these undifferentiated manual tasks in the data center that they used to perform. Most will realize that the story of the 19th generator is an excellent symbol of the changes their businesses are going through. AWS, Google, Azure, Kubernetes, Docker containers on managed bare metal, and other computing utilities will evolve and compete to provide those tasks for your business.

That competition and advancement of this utility as well as the global awareness of this transition to this utility model is in fact Bezos’ gift to computing.

Disclaimer: I was researching another subject when I came across this picture and it is archived here. It reminded me of this story and was the inspiration for this post.