It’s been a decade (!) since I started at Amazon as a PM in the Kindle org, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Having just gone through their (in)famous hiring process, I was ready to hit the ground running on Day 1*. After being rejected once, years earlier, by a bar raiser, I’d prepared intensely and made it through. The myth of the bar raiser (I’ll detail my encounter in a future post) has reached a point where there are forums and articles littered with advice on navigating the experience.
But there is another bar raiser program at Amazon that is rarely talked about, which comes into play once you’re an employee: the Customer Experience Bar Raiser (CXBR).
My first week at Amazon started with a 1/2 day of new hire orientation, followed by a quick lunch with my manager, and then I was immediately thrown into the deep end. There was a new device (retroactively named the Kindle Keyboard) in the works, which was anticipated to the be the “Toyota Camry” of e-readers (i.e. everyone would buy one and hold onto it for years). The key word was “buy”, as I was the PM on point for the online sales experience.
Within 24 hours, I was in a review with the powers that be, discussing the MVP of the buying experience for the pre-announcement of the device. Luckily, there was a shell of a spec that a couple of other folks on my team / my boss had drafted. The conversation keyed in on the international purchase experience, which had been a pain point for prior generations devices - specifically, buyers outside the US were ending up with the wrong ASIN because they didn’t realize there was a different SKU with an international adapter intended for them. The business impact was a lower-than-projected accessory attach rate combined with a higher-than-expected device return rate. We brainstormed a few proposals for how to address this:
better messaging on the detail page (aka product listing)
using customer profile nuggets (IP address, shipping address)
confirmation when adding to cart / clicking the buy button
an interstitial during the cart checkout / order confirmation
(1) was low likelihood of success, (2) didn’t work for the logged out UX, (3) was a no-no [never add friction when the user clicks “buy”] and (4) seemed like it had legs.
So one of the people in the meeting says “if you’re thinking of adding a page to the checkout process, I call for a CXBR review”. And I said:
“what’s a CXBR?” - me (only on Day 2*)
A CXBR (customer experience bar raiser) was, I would quickly find out, an OG Amazonian, whose day job was something or other, but was willing to spend 20% time doing on-demand reviews of any product changes deemed by any concerned employee to be f-ing with any core CX. And I was, per the spec, definitely f-ing with the most critical of CX’s.
What was briefly a moment of fear actually quickly turned into an amazing learning opportunity, as I was assigned a CXBR who was on the order pipeline team and knew everything about everything with regards to online product purchases via Amazon.com. This person gave me a template for how to frame things for the review (clear personas, crisp data) and provided me with the criteria for how to think about the problem (buying friction, checkout latency). We ended up having less of a “review meeting” and more of a “ideation session”, and the proposed solution actually got refined significantly (FYI-ing the customer vs asking for a decision, swapping out the item in the cart with a clear message / call to action, input on how to ensure performance latency didn’t regress). Within a few days, we had a path forward along with the afterglow of a successful CXBR engagement.
All of this happened within my first week. I think sometimes about this period of exponential learning (a term I’ll elaborate on in a future post) and I’m 100% convinced that my onboarding experience was the #1 factor in my future impact in Kindle (more war stories to come). I’m also convinced that a less rapid ramp (from a cognitive load perspective) would have done me no favors. To recap, I grasped the 7 lessons below in my first 7 days:
solving customer pain (aka creating user value) is the basis for writing a spec
good specs have clear business outcomes (+attach rate, -return rate, etc)
healthy teams enable others to ship (vs creating a spider web of dependencies)
documenting (simple, living wikis) a product’s vocabulary is critical to execution
you (as a non-exec) can make any decision with a cogent plan for why/how
product principles (e.g. customer obsession) should be obvious in the day-to-day
tenure, hierarchy, title can’t beat clarity of thought (aka writing is thinking)
I’d love to hear from readers on their best / worst onboarding experiences, and perhaps this gives leaders some food for thought on how they’ve engineered the first 30/60/90 days for their new hires…
further reading / references
more about Amazon’s approach to hiring and the bar raiser program
a great analysis on how Amazon provides an integrated shopping stack
* Day 1 / Day 2 is an inside joke, because it is always Day 1 at Amazon
my favorite Amazon leadership principles were ownership and bias for action
childish drawing / interpretation