Few companies have made such a profound impact on business and our daily lives as Amazon. The corporate giant has transformed online shopping in many ways, from implementing customer reviews and its signature Amazon Prime program to providing stellar customer service and embracing e-books.
Working at a company that is creating truly disruptive innovation is a privilege for Dan Zamansky (MBA ’13), a senior product manager at Amazon Web Services (AWS). The company offers a portfolio of remote computing services originally developed to support the rapid growth of Amazon.com.
When the popularity of Amazon’s retail site exploded, the company faced a complex engineering problem: It needed vast IT resources and massive databases to store information about each item, as well as customer information and reviews. Compounding the complexity of an already large-scale operation, the holiday season brought huge spikes in activity to the site – and Amazon needed a solution that could manage the high-volume traffic.
Today, AWS is providing that solution – and reshaping the business world. A one-stop shop that provides fast and easy access to a wide array of cloud computing resources, AWS allows customers – ranging from developers and startups to corporate powerhouses – to run entire applications in the cloud. And just as you don’t need a power generator to have electricity or need to build a private antenna to have cellular reception, with AWS you don’t need to buy and maintain bulky and expensive servers to run software applications. Its services allow anyone developing an app to make it available to any number of users anywhere in the world within minutes.
The AWS cloud-based computing services also make it possible for businesses in developing economies to become players in the global marketplace. Zamansky notes that it possible for someone – a software engineer in Nigeria, for example – to create an app and offer it to customers in the United States, Europe or anywhere in the world within minutes. “AWS lowers the barriers for international business by providing entrepreneurs everywhere the opportunity to offer their products to any market, in any country, quickly and without requiring an upfront investment,” he says.
And it’s a game changer. More and more companies are switching from on-premise IT infrastructures to the cloud, allowing them to get to market faster and run their applications more efficiently with no upfront costs, says Zamansky. “Without such an option, many of the popular apps we see today wouldn’t exist because of the time, costs and complexity associated with setting up their own IT infrastructure.”
Amazon prides itself on innovating on behalf of its customers, and AWS is constantly developing new products and services. To effectively manage its expanding array of offerings, AWS operates in a matrix structure.
“Being a senior product manager at AWS is essentially like being a CEO of a small start-up within the company,” Zamansky explains. “I have a broad range of responsibilities, from defining the product’s strategy, guiding engineering efforts and setting roadmaps, to setting the right pricing, executing marketing programs and working with customers.”
And while the rapid pace and scale of innovation is exciting, it comes with its fair share of challenges – especially when it comes to leadership. In his role, Zamansky is faced with exercising leadership without formal authority.
“Our organization’s matrix structure means I am responsible for the work produced by people that do not report to me and often have competing priorities,” he says. “Yet the accountability for any failure to deliver a great product on time lies on my shoulders as the project manager.”
He finds himself applying lessons learned at UNC Kenan-Flagler – such as establishing relationships with colleagues based on trust and mutual respect – on a daily basis while leading his team at AWS.
“In this environment, effective relationships are critical for success,” he says. “My rule is to always give praise in public, but deliver constructive feedback in private. This helps build trust and commitment, two essential elements for effective leadership.”
And working for a truly global company like AWS, which serves hundreds of thousands of customers in more than 190 countries, presents another set of leadership challenges. The efforts that Zamansky leads often span not just countries and regions, but different work and conversation styles as well.
“As a leader, it’s important that I’m able to adapt to different styles and personalities of colleagues and customers,” he says. “The cultural awareness I cultivated through leadership courses and activities at UNC Kenan-Flagler helps tremendously in this regard – in effectively motivating and aligning my team towards a common goal, as well as in fostering relationships with customers.
And with companies innovating faster than ever, shortening the shelf life of products, Zamansky knows he has to stay on his toes.
“Constant innovation isn’t just something companies choose to do to get ahead, but rather is a necessity to remain relevant in an ever-changing world,” he says. “In an industry where today’s innovations rapidly become yesterday’s news, identifying the right product path to take and delivering a great solution time after time is the only way to succeed.”