The Power of a Good Idea by fmr Amazon Global Head of Product

This week Product School hosted Jeff Butler, a former Global Head of Product at Amazon for an #AskMeAnything session. Jeff answered questions on everything from the process of product discovery, the transition from finance to product, and what to do with good ideas.

Jeff Butler Former Global Head of Product Amazon

Meet Jeff Butler

Jeff recently joined the leadership team of San Francisco-based fintech, CircleUp. Previously, Jeff worked at Amazon for over 9 years and he has been progressively attaining higher managerial positions, from a Senior Financial Analyst to ultimately serving as a GM and Global Head of Product of Prime Video. Prior to this, Jeff was a Financial Analyst at Johnson & Johnson, BP, and at Halliburton. In addition, he earned a B.S in Business Administration and an MBA from Brigham Young University.

How do you do product discovery in Amazon?

At Amazon, we often take a customer-backwards approach, meaning we start with the customer and evaluate their pain points or opportunities to better serve them.  Then we work backwards from that to discover what product or features are needed to solve the pain point for the customer.

How do you go from ‘cool idea’ to real Product when let’s say your management wants you to innovate and come up with something new?

At Amazon, we start with the Press Release.  This simulates what this product will look like to the customer when it is released.  It really helps put yourself in the customers’ shoes.

What was your ambition to make your career at product management? And, how did you become successful?

I started my career at Amazon in finance, but I had a goal to move to product where I would be closer to the customer and have the opportunity to be a builder. I was able to do this as I partnered very closely with my business partners and become an expert on the business, to the point where the business team asked me to move over and join them in product.

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I feel like there are some business role labeled PM at Amazon that are not really related to Software PM as we know it but more focus on project management (mainly on eCommerce) is it the case?

Yes, I’ve found that PMs sometimes mean a lot of different things. Some are leading the business and working with TPMs or SDMs to communicate business requirements. Others are focused solely on developing technical products and do not spend much time on business strategy or operations.

What are some of the most beneficial and often overlooked questions one could ask stakeholders when gathering requirements?

Good question! I always include a few questions in my product requirements like this:

  1. What are the risks of doing xyz . . . And how do you mitigate them?
  2. What other options did you consider and why do you not recommend them?
  3. What headlines do you not want to see?
  4. What headlines DO you want to see?

Could you talk about how to constantly make impact in a product role and get recognised for your contributions?

To me, recognition in a product role comes from your customers. You should be close enough to your customers to get their feedback quickly, and hopefully you learn something from their feedback, but also get their delight at using your new product! Internal recognition, in my humble opinion, should be directed towards your dev teams.

They are the ones who put in the work to actually build the product/feature. They deserve recognition and a view to how the customer is using their product!

How do you balance between taking inspiration for future features/ enhancements from customers vs your internal teams? Which group do you normally consult first when working on a new project?

Let me answer this one, with a twist.

I’m a firm believer in thinking big and focusing on the customer. Also, resources are scarce, so you have to ruthlessly prioritize based on what is going to have the greatest impact and help you achieve your goals. With that in mind, it is helpful to have a North Star vision that everyone can get behind. Use that North Star to guide all of your decisions and prioritization.

The North Star should be hugely aspirational . . . You may never get there, but at least you always know you are on the right path

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How do you filter ‘good ideas’ from ‘great ones’ at Amazon?

Referring back to the Press Release comment. At Amazon, we write a PR/FAQ doc, then iterate on it until it is right. That means reviewing with peers, tech leads, business leads, legal, whomever is going to help you refine the idea until it is right.

Always focusing on how to test, learn, and iterate. Amazon works kinda like a VC in that way, the best ideas get iterated on until they are right and a high-judgment leader is willing and ready to fund it.

What does it take for you to be (to feel) successful on a normal day at Amazon?

I really like this question because I’ve struggled with this from time to time throughout my career. Most people at Amazon are smarter than you are and everyone is expected to deliver outsized impact.With the bar so high, it is sometimes tough to feel like you are being successful.

Two things really help me get anchored.

1) I listen to my customers and take their positive feedback as a proxy for a pat on the back, saying you’ve done a great job.

2) I look for praise from peers and leaders, even in small and simple ways (a mention in an email, a call-out in a WBR, or even a big doc review that goes well and gets to the right outcome).

Further, as a leader, I really focus on providing praise for my team when they do a great job. We pass around a Colleague of the Week (COW) award each week – It’s a plush cow. 🐮

How do you manage a new product that tends to cannibalize an existing one?

A new product that cannibalizes another one is tricky, but important to get right. You have to know and clearly understand the net impact of the new product you are delivering and fully vet out the alternatives and the risks before you can be confident to move forward, even though it might take a while for the net positive result to manifest.

Then track your performance against the benchmark of the old product and seek to always prove out the incrementality.

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Can you talk a little bit about how the product team and dev team are setup. Org structure. Who does what? And sequence of execution?

Product teams can have many shapes and sizes. The ones I’ve liked best are when PMs focus on the customer and develop strategy and can distill that down to business requirements, goals, and success criteria (basically the who, what, where and why).

Then, working with the SDMs and SDEs to refine those requirements so that they can come back with a design doc that shows when and how. PMs ensure the design reflects and fulfilled the business requirements, then both teams work together throughout the dev cycle to remove blockers, test, and deliver on time!

Amazon Alexa

How do you manage constant change in priority of the product with customer?

This one comes back to the North Star concept. Customers change, businesses change, everything changes. Make sure you are measuring the right things and constantly iterating on behalf of your customer towards that North Star and the prioritization becomes easier and more intuitive as a result.

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Do you see product B2B services becoming a growing space in the tech industry?

Absolutely! B2B services easily have the potential to eclipse consumer.

Which is more important customer experience or employee experience ? If you need to choose between them which will you choose?

I always stack rank customers ahead of employees, but employees comes 2nd. Short term profitability should take a back seat to investing in your people. If you are doing the right things for your people, the returns will come in the long term.

How technical are product managers at Amazon? Do you always have a TPM for every product?

Highly technical products are typically managed by Technical Product Managers, but the majority of products have a combination of technical, strategic, operational, legal, etc. aspects and are managed by Product Managers

Can you share your experience in getting buy in/ building confidence in your team during early stages in product development?

Building trust is super important. Make your key focus on the customer and build unity around that concept. Customer Obsession is something everyone can get behind.

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How is PM perceived inside the Amazonian community?

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PMs at Amazon typically run the business. They are incredibly customer focused and sometimes jacks of all trades. They know how to have a conversation with an external partner one hour, and then next, participate in a stand-up with the dev team.

What has been your biggest accomplishment as PM?

I loved launching and growing the Amazon Lending business, especially over seas. But I would say my biggest accomplishments are the growth and successes the people I’ve managed and mentored have had over the years.  That, to me, is the mark of a great leader.

Not what they accomplish themselves, but what their people are able to do.  That is how you scale as a leader.

If you were about to hire your ideal PM, what traits are absolutely a most to succeed as PM at Amazon?

Customer Obsession, ability to Think Big, being Right a Lot, have a Bias for Action, and ability to Dive Deep.

Do you consider a really good product owner should be able to help the devs team to code? Or should we have the understanding of what is being done inside our team but not get into the technical work of actually coding?

Your time as a product owner is better spent being an expert on the customer and the constraints of your organization to help lead your dev teams and remove blockers. They will always be better at coding than you anyway.

While developing your product, you suddenly found that a partially completed work did not meet the need, and there was a little time to finish the feature. What would your action plan be in this case?

I would ask, “Is this a one-way or a two-way door decision?” Meaning, if it is a one-way door – a decision that is really hard to undo or is permanent in some way, then I would strongly consider waiting until you get it right.

If it is a two-way door decision, meaning it can easily be undone or modified in the future, then I would push to get the first rev out the door and then focus on collecting feedback and iterating to make it better.

There will always be more good ideas than the capacity to execute.  How do you narrow down and decide what defines your existence?

I use a combination of tenets and a North Star vision, coupled with goals that are focused on the inputs to help you achieve your North Star vision.

How do you come up with pricing strategy?

Pricing strategy can use many different reference points: cost basis, market comps, what customers are willing to pay, etc. I tend to focus on maintaining competitive pricing in the marketplace, then obsessing over adding value to constantly maintain to improve your competitive moat.

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When you transitioned from finance to product, what did you do to upskill? Was it mainly learning on the job?

I had some great SMDs that really helped me learn how to best lead product and work with dev teams. Outside of that, building mechanisms to drive efficiency, awareness, and sound decision-making have made all the difference.

How was your WLB (work life balance) at Amazon?

WLG at Amazon (and many tech companies) can be a challenge because the pace of innovation is relentless. I focused on carving out time to protect what mattered most to me (for me it was 6-8pm when I could eat dinner and spend time with my wife and kids) and be flexible around that. Also, ruthlessly prioritizing, ignoring emails, opting out of meetings, and developing sound operating mechanisms helped me achieve a balance that worked for me.

Any last words of advice?

Pursue what you are PASSIONATE about! You will be far more effective at something you are constantly thinking about and having a blast working on than if you are treating work as a chore. If you are a builder, then get as much practice building as you can. 

Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, just start building. If your current role doesn’t let you build, then find ways to develop efficiencies and automation so that you can make time to build something that adds value. If you base you effort and innovation on solving problems for people at scale, you will always find opportunities to add value.

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