How Jeff Bezos Raised the Talent Bar at Amazon
Posted on May 14, 2015, by Christopher
Questions for the Candidate
Since the beginning, Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos has been espousing the mantra “Every time we hire someone, he or she should raise the bar for the next hire, so that the overall talent pool is always improving”.(Stone 43)
A few of the early probing questions Bezos used in his hiring interrogations were:
- What is your SAT score?
- How many gas stations are in the United States?
- Why are manhole covers round?
While modern software companies seem to be phasing out the use of brain teasers and academic accolades in interviews, Bezos found them to be a useful test to measure the quality of a candidate’s thinking. To him, there wasn’t a right solution and answers served as a glimpse into a candidate’s problem solving creativity.
Bezos maintained his high bar for entry at Amazon. Even when high-quality employees recommended friends with similar accomplishments, he was very meticulous with his line of questioning.
One guaranteed way to be rejected was mentioning the desire for a good work-life balance. To Bezos, this showed a lack of commitment to his historic goals.
Dropping Early Key People & Hurting Feelings
Bezos was comfortable with growing pains. He could break a few eggs if it meant an omelette.
Early on there was a hacker named Shel Kaphan who led the effort to develop Amazon. At the time Jeff Bezos’s Amazon was just a smattering of cells in a spreadsheet with some limited predictions.
Kaphan was the one who fleshed it all out into a functioning application.
By his 5-year anniversary, however, he wasn’t building anything at all. Bezos had removed him from active participation in Amazon.
Kaphan was an introverted hacker and behind on growing his department. Bezos made the decision to move forward with others.
Kaphan was deeply hurt by Bezos’ decision to keep him from doing anything impactful and said the way it was all handled “was one of the biggest disappointments of my entire life.”
Kaphan ended up quitting very soon after.
This was a microcosm of the kind of thing going on with all early Amazon employees.
Due to Bezos’s obsession with “raising the bar” of talent, a lot of early employees were replaced with new, more experienced versions of themselves.
To his credit, Bezos did describe Kaphan as “the most important person ever in the history of Amazon.com.” (Stone 63)
His heart isn’t completely made of stone.
Just as a vacuum salesman relies on the features and benefits of a model in a sale, so too does a recruiter rely on a company’s core values and mission in a job proposition.
I’ve mentioned how Peter Thiel and PayPal relied on one vital question as a startup looking for new blood. Namely, “Why should the 20th employee join your company?”
PayPal answered this with answers about their mission and team. Their mission early on was to create “a new digital currency to replace the U.S. Dollar”.
Bezos and Amazon were very astute with their answer to Thiel’s question. Bezos was obsessed with every hire raising the talent bar since Amazon started, but he finally pinned down the company’s values after a whiteboard session with a shiny new recruiting team.
They agreed upon five core values:
- Customer Obsession
- Bias for Action
- High Bar for Talent
…and later on, a sixth
Bezos borrowed the idea for a senior interviewer from another Seattle resident, Microsoft. These senior roles make the final judgement on every Amazon hire to ensure they encapsulate the six values outlined above. Bezos deemed the senior group ‘bar raisers’. (Stone 88-89)
The ‘bar raisers’ program still exists at Amazon to this day. Based on their proven intuition, these employees have been honored with the most prestigious talent recruiting positions at the company.
Every interview has a ‘bar raiser’ get involved at some point in the process. Empowered with a veto, ‘bar raisers’ can terminate any in-process hire who does not mesh with the 6 core values and does not raise the talent bar.
Many companies fall victim to lower standards because they are so focused on filling their required positions. Amazon’s ‘bar raiser’ team was instrumental in mitigating the risk of that as the organization grew.
The First Job Post
To get a glimpse of how high the bar was before ‘bar raisers’ were a thing, here’s Amazon’s first job post. Notice the “you should be able to do so in about one-third the time that most competent people think possible” part. A pretty strong start for their first job post…
Usenet bulletin-board posting, August 21, 1994
Well-capitalized start-up seeks extremely talented C/C++/Unix developers to help pioneer commerce on the Internet. You must have experience designing and building large and complex (yet maintainable) systems, and you should be able to do so in about one-third the time that most competent people think possible. You should have a BS, MS, or PhD in Computer Science or the equivalent. Top-notch communication skills are essential. Familiarity with web servers and HTML would be helpful but is not necessary.
Expect talented, motivated, intense, and interesting co-workers. Must be willing to relocate to the Seattle area (we will help cover moving costs).
Your compensation will include meaningful equity ownership.
Send resume and cover letter to Jeff Bezos. US mail: Cadabra, Inc. 10704 N.E. 28th St., Bellevue, WA 98004
We are an equal opportunity employer.
About the Author: Christopher Murray is a growth hacker at HiringSolved. He’s also a Gangplank Chandler community member and volunteer where he supplies a weekly newsletter; edits blog posts; and handles community promotions. He started with HiringSolved in November 2014, and has immersed himself in the knowledge of sourcing, HR, and Recruiting. Christopher has a background in freelance writing, hacking, and marketing. His duties at HiringSolved include site content growth, writing patents & press releases, conducting email blasts, and charting their trajectory in the new media landscape.