September - 2006 - issue > How I Got Where I am Today
Poonam Ramakrishnan
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Within a year of Amit Agarwal’s entry at Amazon in 1999, the media ran a riot of criticisms on the company’s ailing businesses. It was a testing time for Agarwal, but the 32-year-old seems to have believed in himself and Amazon’s technology without getting disillusioned then. “I never felt I was losing. Rather it was an inspiration to work towards betterment,” he reminisces.

Agarwal has always stood by merit. That is what his father prepared him for. “You need to come up through merit. I don’t have any money for donations. If you don’t take control of your future, you have the option of selling vada-pavs.” Wacky, it may seem, but these very words of his father inspired Agarwal to dream big and be self aware of his goals.

Realizing the importance of being ambitious and working hard, Agarwal struggled through schooldays, and was always the topper. With a burning desire to succeed, he prepared for the IITJEE and ranked 56th. Ironically though, he had a tough time explaining to his father why he wasn’t the 1st!

Though IIT Powai was a stone’s throw away from his home, his father forced him to go to IIT Kanpur to pursue his studies. “My father wanted me to stay away from family and understand the realities of life. It taught me to be strong in life and go far away rather than being stuck in the same place,” Agarwal recalls.

Adapting to the new environment helped him transform into an outgoing person from the introvert that he was. He ‘dreamt big’ and went to the U.S. to pursue his masters at Stanford University. With the likes of Larry Page and Sergey Brin in the same campus at that time, he could not afford to fall back in the race! “They were disruptive thinkers who thought long-term. Being born in a developed society, they had the right kind of exposure and hence could take risks.” Agarwal though had different priorities altogether.

“Financial stability was my prime concern. I didn’t want to take risks because of the hardships I had seen,” he says. So, despite his obsession for research and desire to pursue a Ph.D, Agarwal took up his first job at Cambridge Technology Partners, a consulting company. Over here, the young Agarwal interacted with several CIOs from across industry verticals and helped them solve their problems. Though the job wasn’t a technically challenging one, it provided the platform for direct interaction with clients. “I learnt to drive consensus on disparate opinions. It got me over the fear of interacting.”

Agarwal then moved to Informatica. “It was that phase when startups fascinated me. The problem in big companies is that you don’t have the impact to move the wheels yourself.” Though he made the change in order to reach the ‘high bar’, he soon realized that the job was taking him far away from the customer.

The enterprise market was dying out and the consumer market was evolving. Agarwal wanted to have his play in this space. Friends meanwhile suggested he move to Amazon. But this one time, he didn’t make haste; he rather observed what Amazon really did. “Everything being personalized and tailored to customer needs, the focus at Amazon was amazing,” he says adding Jeff Bezos’s (Amazon founder) thoughts on end-to-end ownership, customer obsession and drive for innovations inspired him.

So he moved to Amazon and his team started focusing on building tools that made customer experience easy. The pioneer of online retailing, Amazon is spending heavily on development in anticipation of consumers wanting to download music, video and books instead of having them delivered by post. India is expected to become a major pillar of Amazon’s development activities. And Agarwal’s team has a critical role in this play. It essentially includes responding to customer needs in real time, with the help of the Internet. “Everything I was doing then was motivated by customers,” he says. He was squarely focused on his job to build teams, which would provide incremental value to the customer.

Over the years, Agarwal has built expertise in developing distributed systems and creating e-commerce solutions, including Amazon’s marketplace business, managed auctions, zShops, and merchants programs. He has multiple patents pending approval. He has learnt the importance of believing in customer ownership and delivering products with a lasting value. He explains, “When customers provide feedback, it’s essential to solve the problems they have in creative ways. And that does not mean expensive solution.”

Agarwal feels that customer criticisms should be recognized as ways to improve. “The first thing that we all need to understand is that customers are as good at perceiving solutions to problems as we techies are.” The only difference is that they just hint that a problem exists but the onus is ours to figure out the solution, he says.

Speaking to him for a while would make you understand that you can be on a completely different plane when you have customer at the center of what you develop. Quite often engineers fail to understand where and who will use the product. When you understand the customer mindset, the creative animal in you is aroused.

Agarwal says, “Engineering is not about cool technology. It is about being responsible for whatever you build.” The culture at Amazon is such that whatever you have built, you own it forever. “If something goes wrong after two years, I am still accountable,” he notes.

With media reports of Amazon getting into consumer electronic goods selling business filling the air, there is still a long way to invent the best way to sell non-perishable goods like vada-pavs on the Internet. But for now, Agarwal has found a job that would help him eat lot of them.

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