Andy Jassy: The man who hit Jeff Bezos on the head, and built AWS, to be Amazon's next CEO

Jassy, a career executive at the Seattle-based online retail and cloud computing giant, will take over from the founder and CEO later this year as Bezos steps away from day-to-day operations

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Feb 3, 2021 05:05:05 PM IST
Updated: Feb 3, 2021 05:48:57 PM IST

andy sassy_gettyimages-670451714-bgImage credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Andy Jassy’s original plan, after an MBA from Harvard University, was to spend two or three years at Amazon and move back to New York, where he is from. He and his wife had even decided on that plan of action, scribbling on a napkin, sitting at a bar, Jassy had recalled in an interview with Forbes India in July 2016.

That abandoned decision was 23 years ago. Today, Jassy is credited with leading Amazon Web Services (AWS)—which offers computing power and storage on a pay-as-you-go model—to its leadership position in cloud computing. AWS turned in more than $45.4 billion in sales for 2020, and its operating income of $13.5 billion accounted for 59 percent of Amazon’s consolidated operating income.

“Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos will transition to role of Executive Chair in Q3, Andy Jassy to become Chief Executive Officer of Amazon at that time,” Amazon said in a press release on February 2, while also reporting its financial results for the December quarter of 2020. Jassy is currently the CEO of AWS.

Jassy, 52, saw strong reasons to stay on at Amazon: “The culture at Amazon isn’t slow, it’s not stodgy. It’s fast-paced,” he recalled in the 2016 interview. “It operates like a big startup, which suits my entrepreneurial interests well. It isn’t political. I would have been very ineffective in a political environment. It’s very driven by what you deliver.”

And Jassy certainly delivered. On his watch, AWS has grown at a rapid pace. In July 2016, when he visited Amazon’s newly opened India-based ‘region’—as the company calls its large data centre facilities—in Mumbai, AWS was on track to hit $10 billion in annual revenues, he had told Forbes India. By 2019, that figure had become a quarterly number. AWS’s sales for the three months ended December 31, 2020, rose 28 percent to $12.74 billion from $9.95 billion for the year-ago period.

“Andy has helped AWS take massive strides in cloud computing, absolutely,” an industry executive told Forbes India. “I interacted with him at their re:Invent summit in 2019, and he really understands customer expectations and needs, something that clearly makes him stand out.”

In November last year, AWS announced a second India-based Asia Pacific region, which is being built in Hyderabad with an investment of around $2.8 billion. 

Early in his career at Amazon, Jassy had a memorable experience with Bezos that he probably could have done without. At the home of a senior marketing executive, various Amazon executives were unwinding over a game that involved whacking a medicine ball with a broom to try and get it to move. There weren’t enough brooms for the 20-odd people and improvisations included a canoe paddle for Jassy. “The game was very aggressive and people, including myself, were swinging wildly. I hit Jeff [Bezos] on the head,” he had told Forbes India.

The anecdote was already famous, made so by the award-winning book on Bezos and Amazon, titled The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos And The Age Of Amazon by journalist Brad Stone. But Bezos had since forgotten the incident, Jassy told Forbes India.

Over the years, Jassy built multiple businesses within Amazon. For example, he was the author of the original plan to build the company’s music business in 1998 although, eventually, the mandate to lead the business did not fall on him.

He also served as the first official 'technical advisor’ to Bezos during 2003-04. Jassy’s success following the stint helped make the role a coveted one, and is better known as ‘shadow’ to Bezos. Jassy went everywhere his boss went, sat in on all the meetings, brainstormed strategy on a daily basis and so on, according to Stone’s book. Important assignments often followed the stint as shadow. Amit Agarwal, senior VP at Amazon and country manager for India, was also a Bezos shadow, and was named to lead the company’s international expansion after his stint.

“I was flattered by the offer to work closely with Jeff but wasn’t initially excited about it, because I’d seen the way it had gone down before,” Stone cited Jassy as saying, in a Bloomberg piece in October 2013. Some previous shadows had left the company. “I asked Jeff what success would look like. He said success would be if I got to know him and he got to know me and we built trust in each other.”

“Andy is well known inside the company and has been at Amazon almost as long as I have. He will be an outstanding leader, and he has my full confidence,” Bezos, 57, wrote in an email on February 2 to 1.3 million “fellow Amazonians” worldwide, which was also posted on the company’s website.

"Being the CEO of Amazon is a deep responsibility, and it’s consuming. When you have a responsibility like that, it’s hard to put attention on anything else,” Bezos further wrote. “As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions. I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring.”

Bezos joins Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Alphabet’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin as founders of some of the largest tech companies who have stepped back from day-to-day running of their businesses. The move allows them to devote more time to other interests—from philanthropy to space faring. At Blue Origin, the aerospace company that Bezos founded in 2000, he wants to build reusable rockets and spacecraft.

“Congrats @JeffBezos, best wishes for Day 1 and Earth fund. Congrats @ajassy on your new role!” Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said via the micro-blogging site Twitter on February 3. Bezos, one of the world’s richest people, started the Day One Fund in 2018 with his then-wife MacKenzie Scott. They committed $2 billion to supporting non-profits in two areas— helping the homeless, and supporting education for the poor. In 2020, Bezos created the $10 billion Earth Fund to fight climate change.

“Amazon is what it is because of invention. We do crazy things together and then make them normal. We pioneered customer reviews, 1-Click, personalised recommendations, Prime’s insanely-fast shipping, Just Walk Out shopping, the Climate Pledge, Kindle, Alexa, marketplace, infrastructure cloud computing, Career Choice, and much more,” Bezos said in the Amazon’s earnings press release.

“If you do it right, a few years after a surprising invention, the new thing has become normal. People yawn. That yawn is the greatest compliment an inventor can receive. When you look at our financial results, what you’re actually seeing are the long-run cumulative results of invention,” he added. “Right now I see Amazon at its most inventive ever, making it an optimal time for this transition.”

Work on AWS started in 2003, and when it was launched in 2006, the business started with two services.: The EC2 or elastic cloud compute, which allowed businesses to rent processing power on the go, and the S3 or simple storage service. Today, AWS is the largest cloud computing service provider in the world by revenue. Its services are used by the smallest startups and the largest corporations.

In India alone, even before it started its local data centres, the service had racked up over 75,000 customers—from shaadi.com to the Tata Group. In the coming years, India could be “one of the largest businesses and regions for AWS in the world, if not the largest”, Jassy predicted in 2016. The Indian cloud computing market will grow at a compounded annual rate of 22.2 percent to about $7.4 billion from 2020 to 2024, research company IDC projects.

“Organisations worldwide are now going beyond scalability and agility as the reason for cloud computing,” Rishu Sharma, principal analyst for cloud and artificial intelligence at IDC, told Forbes India on the phone. “They are looking at it as a platform for digital innovation,” she said.

This makes Jassy the leader of one of the most important providers of the underlying technologies that will support those innovations. AWS offers more than 175 services for compute, storage, databases, networking, analytics, robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, mobile, security, hybrid, virtual and augmented reality, media, and application development, deployment, and management.

“We find ways to say yes to a lot of new ideas, because we like inventing, we like pioneering. We are willing and excited to experiment. We are not afraid to fail,” Jassy told Forbes India in 2016. “We tend to look at things with a 10-year horizon. We are tactically impatient but strategically patient.”

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