Rapid Reaction: Jeff Bezos Steps Down as Amazon CEO

Now he can go to space.

Welcome to an emergency edition of Big Technology on Jeff Bezos’s departure from Amazon. Subscribers call this newsletter the Last Week Tonight of Tech News. Join 8,600+ subscribers for a weekly, unfiltered look at the most important companies in the world.

After a long, successful run at the helm of Amazon, Jeff Bezos is done. Bezos said today he’ll be stepping down Amazon CEO, and Andy Jassy, the head of Amazon Web Services, will replace him.

Bezos will remain executive chairman, where he’ll focus on “new products and early initiatives.” But Jassy will run the day to day. It’s a seismic change for Amazon.

Here are a few quick thoughts about what comes next in this 🚨 emergency edition 🚨 of the Big Technology newsletter:

1) Andy Jassy the natural successor

Andy Jassy, Amazon’s incoming CEO, is the head of Amazon Web Services, a ~$40 billion annual business he built from the ground up. AWS is the world-leading cloud services provider, with Microsoft and Google lagging far behind. Jassy, crucially, was Bezos’s first technical advisor, a role where he shadowed Bezos everywhere from 2003-2004. Bezos showed Jassy how to run a company his way, and Jassy masterfully applied the philosophy at AWS. Jassy will be a Bezos-lite as CEO of Amazon. He’ll emulate everything his predecessor did. Except maybe the bald head.

2) Amazon’s culture takes the lead

The most important thing Bezos built at Amazon was the company’s culture, which puts significant authority, decision making, and trust in its lower ranks. Amazon has thrived by bringing employee ideas to life, using tactics like silent meetings, two-pizza teams, and its leadership principles to keep inventing in its old age. Some will view Bezos’s departure as the end of Amazon. But having studied the company closely I’d say it’s anything but. Bezos will leave, but the culture will remain, and that should leave Amazon in good shape.

For more on Amazon’s culture, check out Always Day One (31% off on Amazon today.)

3) See you in space, Jeff

I watched almost every available Jeff Bezos talk while I reported Always Day One. The thing that struck me most was how wistfully Bezos would talk about going to space. He’d answer questions about Amazon, but would repeatedly say that Blue Origin, his space startup, was the most important thing he was working on. Bezos is careful with his words. Looking back, it was a bit of foreshadowing. “I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives,” Bezos said today. “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.”

Bezos’s remarks about space make it clear Blue Origin will top the list of priorities. It’s going to be Bezos vs. Elon Musk in the race for space. That will be fun to watch.

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4) A kinder Amazon may emerge

Bezos is obsessed with frugality. The fact that Amazon’s pinched nearly every penny in his time as CEO was rooted in his commitment to pass along savings to customers. But the value, at times, manifested in strange ways. Amazon fought a Seattle head tax that would send additional dollars to a municipality struggling to keep up with its growth. It waited too long to pay its workers a fair wage. And it ran an HQ2 competition that turned into a sham.

Leaders signal what their companies value. Jassy’s been in a cash-printing cloud services division for decades — and not a cutthroat retail operation — so he may loosen up a bit. If he turns Amazon into a kinder company, that will serve it well in the long run.

5) Bezos is not done

When I sat in Amazon’s Seattle offices in recent years, the company’s leadership made it clear to me that they get their enjoyment in life from work, not leisure. “I want to invent, and be in uncharted territory, and have the emotion associated with the unknown that is a mixture of fear, and uncertainty, and excitement, and the belief that if you push through whatever barriers are in the way, that you end up in a state that is amazing,” Jeff Wilke, another departing executive, who ran the company’s retail organization, told me. “That kind of keeps you going, and I bet it keeps him going too.” 

“I’ve never had more energy,” Bezos said today. He isn’t going quietly into retirement.

6) Zuck stands alone

Mark Zuckerberg once tried to shadow Bezos when he was learning to become a CEO at Facebook. But Bezos turned him down. “Other than being shadowed around by Angelina Jolie, I couldn’t do anything that would bring my life to a complete standstill more than have everyone see Mark walking around,” Bezos said to Don Graham, who tried to broker the introduction (Graham was on Facebook’s board and eventually sold the Washington Post to Bezos).

When I brought this up to Zuckerberg, he seemed genuinely disappointed that Bezos never gave him the chance. Now, out of all the big tech companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft — the only founder remaining as CEO is Zuckerberg. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Unless Zuckerberg starts a space company.

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See you on Thursday

That’s all for today. I’ll be back Thursday with some data that will bust a major social media narrative. Stay tuned.

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And once again, you can pick up Always Day One, which tells the inside story of Amazon’s culture, along with the other tech giants, here.