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Difference between Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates?


I've given presentations on "creating passionate users" at both Amazon and Microsoft. 2 big companies, 2 CEOs. Guess which CEO has been to the talk? And he didn't just sit there, he participated. His hand shot up when I asked a question. He quit fondling his Blackberry. But far more importantly--he asked an amazing question.

And it was a question I can't imagine being asked by Bill Gates, even in the alternate universe where Bill Gates WOULD choose to see a talk on "creating passionate users."

So there he was, Jeff Bezos, third row. (The talk he came to was at O'Reilly's Foo Camp, not the one I did at Amazon.)

I tried to imagine what he was doing there. You're Jeff f'n Bezos. More than 10,000 people work for you. You're building a space ship!

After the talk, Jeff came up (patiently waiting his turn) and said he was really going to think hard about the implications of the some of the things we talked about, especially the part on levels and rewards. Then he asked, "How can I do more for our reviewers? These people do so much, and work so hard--especially the ones who do a lot of reviews -- and the 'Top [some number] Reviewer' badges are not enough." I was speechless. Not because I couldn't think of an answer, but because I couldn't believe someone this far up the food chain would even think--let alone care about this. My talk is geared toward--and usually attended by--founders of tiny start-ups, not Big Company CEOs. [Visualize me doing one of those cartoon double-take head shake eye-pop things]

But then I remembered my trip to Amazon, where Paul Graham gave a fabulous talk on what a company loses when it gets big, and how important it was to hang on to a start-up sensibility as you grow. Paul said to the Amazon folks, "You're a big company now, but how can you still act like a start-up in the ways that really matter."

And there's Jeff Bezos, doing exactly that. Acting just like the enthusiastic start-up folks I usually see--the ones whose chance for success hangs on their ability to make and keep users happy. The ones who don't have 10,000 other people to do it for them.

I have no idea if he thought about it ever again, and yes we all have our stories of bad Amazon customer service. But the point is, Jeff Bezos, CEO, chose to spend time and attention on a talk about user passion. And remember, what we (and Jeff) were talking about is at the implementation level, not some abstract concept of "we must be good to our customers." I believe most CEOs do care--at least strategically--about having happy users, but wouldn't waste a single synapse actually thinking about specific ways to make it happen.

So, to my original question on the difference between Jeff and Bill--would Bill Gates attend a talk like this? (And I'm not talking about my talk in particular, but anything--by anyone--on these kinds of user-happiness topics.) Ask yourself, would your CEO choose to hear a talk on how to create passionate users? How about your upper-level managers? Anyone besides you? When I worked at Sun, I gave many lunch-time "brown-bag" talks on this over my 4 years, and it would never have occurred to me that, say, Scott McNealy might drop in. Or any mid-to-upper-level manager. (Although I'm delighted that there are some kick-ass higher-up Sun folks I know now that are working on this... but I hadn't met any of them until recently.)

I didn't charge a fee to do this talk at Microsoft, or any other company that has convinced me they'll take it seriously and try to make a difference. I don't do this for pay; I do it because I believe it matters. The problem is, the places it matters the most are the ones least likely to think about it. No, they have too many other--apparently more important--things to think about. And for the rest of us? That means there's plenty of opportunities for small companies and start-ups that DO make user happiness (not the same as "customer satisfaction") the top priority.

p.s. the question Jeff raised his hand on (and answered) was, "Who in popular culture speaks English without using contractions?" Jeff answered, correctly, "Data!" (thus reinforcing his geek cred). If you want to know why that question--and answer--was relevant, you'll have to read my earlier post on conversational language ; )

Posted by Kathy on February 2, 2007 | Permalink


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As much I <3 Amazon and I </3 Microsoft, I have to say that Gates does have a reputation for dropping in to development planning meetings, having meticulously reviewed documents and such, and getting down into the details with designers and such. This was a few years ago, but not that many.

I'm not saying that the end result is all that good, but he does get down to implementation-level stuff.

Posted by: Kyle Maxwell | Feb 2, 2007 9:50:39 PM

So.. what was your answer to Jeff's question?

Posted by: Ross Hill | Feb 2, 2007 9:52:34 PM

I'm fresh out of grad school, so I can't help but think about how this applies to learning institutions. For example, plenty of upper/middle management people in education believe that "we need to get more girls/women interested in science and engineering" -- but the people that really make the difference are the ones who light the fire under their own asses, and push themselves (and others) to answer the tough question -- HOW do we GET people passionate about something, how do we KEEP them passionate, and how do we FEED and NURTURE that passion.

I helped run a FIRST LEGO League event at my university for several years, and every year we would invite the Dean of the College of Engineering - and he always had "prior engagements". Well this year he came, and when he saw 1,000 middle school kids (boys AND girls) jumping and cheering for a bunch of LEGO robots, he was blown away. I can only hope it got him to think, "what can I do to help".

Thanks for the post Kathy - it's good to hear a similar perspective on a different situation.

Posted by: Jake Ingman | Feb 2, 2007 10:01:24 PM

"The world's most customer-centric company" is not a joke or p.r. slogan. I've worked at both Microsoft and Amazon and I knew the answer in about 1 second.

Posted by: Ian McAllister | Feb 2, 2007 11:34:51 PM

Thank you Kathy.



Once again, you've inspired and motivated. (Contraction included for geek cred.)

Posted by: Toby Getsch | Feb 2, 2007 11:47:06 PM

Bill Gates is only a software architect.

There are two kind of analysts:
* functional analysts (marketers, commercials) - people oriented
* technical analysts (software architects) - constrains oriented

This is why Gates is not so much about people, but about implementations.

It is not wrong, it is different.

Posted by: Mihaï | Feb 3, 2007 12:23:15 AM

I worked at Amazon and all that talk of Customer Obsession is absolutely NOT a joke -- Bezos breathes, lives, and evangelizes that mantra everyday.

Posted by: Peter Abilla | Feb 3, 2007 1:55:03 AM

Great subject!

For background: I'm LDS and we have unpaid lay clergy. The leader of the congregation is called a Bishop and he is regular member of the church with a regular full-time job typically.

When I moved to the Bay Area, the Bishop of my singles congregation was the billionaire Dick Peery. On the very first Sunday I was there he met with me personally for about 20 minutes and really got to know all about me. He never once forgot my name or anything about me. He and his wife came to every party (there are lots when you're a single mormon) and each time made an effort to come and chat with me. I was no exception - he did this with everyone. I've seldom seen someone so passionate about his church calling - but it was more than that, you could tell that he was passionate about *us* personally. He would have the whole congregation to his home all the time and would stay up into the wee hours of the morning making phone calls to us to make sure everything was going well. He had put his business life on hold for the three years he served as the bishop. Totally amazing guy - these folks who retain their down-to-earthedness despite their success are really the most impressive people to me.

Posted by: Matt Jaynes | Feb 3, 2007 2:14:07 AM

But androids don't give birth! Or am I missing the point?

Posted by: John Dodds | Feb 3, 2007 6:28:22 AM

Mihaï, how about the implementations for the people, so they can enjoy the thing implemented? ;)

Posted by: Rimantas | Feb 3, 2007 7:06:48 AM

Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos.com, said (in regards to his hiring practice), "We want people who are passionate about what Zappos is about--service. I don't care if they're passionate about shoes." Zappos' three-year growth? 948%

Amazon, and Zappos are places that empower and delight me. I feel totally in control of my experiences there, which is why I return. I'm not a Microsoft basher, I think Bill Gates has done some phenominal things. Customer service just isn't one of them.

Posted by: Karen Demerly | Feb 3, 2007 7:33:08 AM

There are bad customer service experiences with Amazon? Except for the statistical law that, when you sell that much to that many people, sooner or later someone's going to be unhappy, I'm amazed to hear it. As an avid English-reader living in Italy, I was probably more thrilled when I heard about Amazon than about any other thing that's happened online before or since. I've been buying from them for 10+ years I guess. And they've NEVER let me down on customer service: they've repeatedly replaced for free orders that went missing (the Italian postal service is, uh, legendary...).

Posted by: Deirdré Straughan | Feb 3, 2007 8:14:54 AM

"We LOVE to hear from you, and we think of this blog as a big dinner party. Y'all are our invited guests, but if you're being rude and obnoxious we'll let the bouncer toss you. So please, stick to debating and criticizing ideas rather than personal attacks."

This seems ironic, don't you think?

I don't think anyone can presume to know what Bill Gates would do, and it seems a gratuitous slam, beginning with the very title of thie piece, that isn't necessary to make what is otherwise a very good point.

Posted by: Darrell Icenogle | Feb 3, 2007 9:27:11 AM

I second Deirdré on Amazon's service (and on the Italian postal service, for that). I just *love it* when books that I was expecting to receive in three weeks show up at my door in two workdays. Bezos' attention to user happiness really shows through the bottom levels.

Posted by: Paolo "Nusco" Perrotta | Feb 3, 2007 11:48:51 AM

Should not compare apples to oranges.

CEO Jeff Bezos should be compared to CEO Steve Ballmer, not to Software Architect Bill Gates ( http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/exec/billg/bio.mspx ).

Posted by: Mihaï | Feb 3, 2007 12:12:17 PM

Thanks for the stories everyone.

Mihai: I have to disagree -- the comparison between Jeff and Bill IS oranges to oranges... they are BOTH programming nerds, with a deep technical interest and background -- hacking, designing, etc.

And, Bill and Jeff are both the founders/visionaries of their companies, which is why I didn't use Balmer. (yes, Bill Gates is not technically the CEO at this point, but actually -- I would be far less surprised to see Gates at something on user happiness than to see Steve Balmer).

But I also disagree with the notion that a topic like this doesn't--or shouldn't--apply to a software engineer/architect/programmer or any other tech role. Who do you think I'm giving this talk to? It's almost exclusively software engineers, not marketers. Most of my talks are at the geekiest forums... OSCON, the European GNOME Conference, Linux Australia, etc. -- all loaded with almost nothing BUT programmers. In fact, if they all knew this stuff, they wouldn't need to hear it. Fortunately, a lot more software folks (especially in open source) are recognizing they could always use more help in things like usability, user experience, user learning, marketing, etc.

Darrell: I take your point, but I don't think it really applies here. I didn't make a personal attack (although it *was* gratuitous, I agree). I didn't slam (or say) Bill Gates was doing something wrong, but rather that Jeff Bezos did something surprisingly right (in my opinion), given his position. So, do I have an attitude that says Bill Gates wouldn't be interested in the details of topics like this? Yes. Is that a personal attack? Not really. The comparison was meant to highlight how Jeff Bezos is doing something you usually wouldn't find in someone that far from a start-up.

Oh what the hell... who am I trying to kid... I LOVE to make fun of Microsoft and Bill Gates : )
Even though I have deep respect and affection for quite a few heroic and creative people who work there.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 3, 2007 2:01:04 PM

Bezos kinda resembles Data in that photo.

Posted by: motobass | Feb 3, 2007 2:01:59 PM

Ian said:

"I've worked at both Microsoft and Amazon and I knew the answer in about 1 second."

Hey, that was going to be my line!


Posted by: Jeff Barr | Feb 3, 2007 4:14:09 PM

Kathy, I thought I'd have a hard time figuring out which CEO asked the question...that is, until I saw the statement "He quit fondling his Blackberry." Boom. You gave it away! There's no way Bill Gates has a Blackberry; he undoubtedly has a Microsoft(tm) Smartphone(tm), but not a Blackberry...(tm)'s added for emphasis, not for any legal reason.

Posted by: Joe Wikert | Feb 3, 2007 6:13:13 PM

I used to work at Amazon, key word 'used to'. Amazon is a great company to be a customer with, but not a great company to work for.

I just had to throw this warning in - the idea that being focused on the user, means that this guy would be great to work for or with.

So, what does it mean when Bezos pays attention to customer issues in depth, but when he was told of a high rate of regrettable attrition, did nothing? What does that kind of inconsistency mean?

For me, it meant working for a new company, one that appreciates it's employees, through and through.

Posted by: ryan | Feb 3, 2007 7:10:00 PM

Jeff came to my talk at Amazon as well.

He's brilliant, consistent and committed. I think his biggest challenge: most of his people spend much too much time asking, "What would Jeff do?"

Posted by: seth godin | Feb 4, 2007 9:46:12 AM

You said:

"I didn't charge a fee to do this talk at Microsoft, or any other company that has convinced me they'll take it seriously and try to make a difference. I don't do this for pay; I do it because I believe it matters. The problem is, the places it matters the most are the ones least likely to think about it. No, they have too many other--apparently more important--things to think about."

Even if you do it because you believe it matters, you might get more traction if you charged money for your expertise. Many companies, especially big companies, pay more attention to advice they have to pay for than to advice they can get for free. You could have a sliding scale based on corporate revenue, from $0 for brand-new start-ups, up to some cap that's big enough to show up on someone's department budget, but not so huge that you feel dirty.

Posted by: Janet | Feb 5, 2007 10:58:27 AM

I love Amazon. The books tend to arrive on schedule or early. The only time I had a problem they apologized and resolved my complaint. I can't imagine my managers every attending a talk on user satisfaction although we were all forced to attend a 2 day presentation on customer satisfaction.

Posted by: Mary | Feb 5, 2007 11:57:09 AM

Elmo on Sesame Street is another character in popular culture who doesn't use contractions. Of course knowing that doesn't exactly reinforce my geek cred.

Posted by: Julie | Feb 5, 2007 12:45:10 PM

In the same context, it might be interesting to ask whether entrepreneurs are born or bred.

Posted by: M. Mortazavi | Feb 5, 2007 4:23:51 PM

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