Jeff Bezos Steps Down as CEO—and Shows Amazon Is a Cloud Company Now

Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos said Tuesday he would be stepping down as CEO of the legendary ecommerce company to become its executive chair. The news, announced in a note to employees, arrived alongside Amazon’s earnings for the fourth quarter of 2020, during which the company generated over $125 billion in sales, propelled by holiday shopping and pandemic buying.

Bezos’ successor comes not from Amazon’s worldwide consumer business but from its cloud business. Longtime Amazon Web Services boss Andy Jassy will become the company’s chief executive when Bezos steps away from the day-to-day job sometime in the third quarter of this year. Jassy’s name will be new to many consumers, but those who closely follow Amazon’s inner workings say his appointment is no surprise.

“The timing was abrupt, but I suppose you don’t ‘ease’ people into these things,” says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. “Andy Jassy was the perfect and only replacement for Bezos given his clear success with AWS.”

Daryl Plummer, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, concurs. “Jassy has been groomed for this role for a long time,” he says. “And in my mind, he’s a great person to start asking the question, ‘Where do we go next?’”

A Struggle to Find a Role

Jassy joined Amazon in 1997, three years after Bezos founded the company. According to The Everything Store, a book written by Bloomberg journalist Brad Stone, Jassy was a Harvard Business School grad who seemed “unlikely to fit in at a geeky technology startup.”

Jassy filled a few different roles in the early days; Stone writes that Jassy presented the original business plan for an Amazon music service in the late 1990s but wasn’t selected to lead it. He was also put in charge of Amazon’s personalization group for a period of time. A better opportunity came when Bezos appointed Jassy his “shadow,” a chief-of-staff role that gave him unique access into the World of Bezos. Jassy’s fate was sealed when he helped launch Amazon Web Services, or AWS, in 2006.

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The original intent behind AWS was to address issues Amazon faced because of its rapid growth. The company relied on the same software and servers that many other internet companies used at the time, but over time found that this “monolithic” software was slowing its growth. So the company built its own cloud infrastructure service—not only for its own use, but, according to Jassy’s vision statement, so other companies could “use web services to build sophisticated and scalable applications.”

It was a wise move. Amazon didn’t report a meaningful profit for nearly 20 years, but AWS played a big part in making profitability a reality. Amazon started breaking out AWS’s numbers in 2014, when it reported a surprising $4.6 billion in revenue. And while a lot of internet users might have been unaware of the power Amazon had started wielding with AWS, any time there was an AWS outage—or someone tried to bravely go without using apps powered by Amazon—it became painfully obvious that AWS provided the underlying tech for many popular applications.

AWS Becomes a Profit Driver

Over time, AWS became Amazon’s main profit driver. Perhaps more notably, it got a lot brainier too, as Amazon figured out that infusing its cloud service with machine learning tools might give it a leg up on rivals Microsoft, Google, and IBM. In 2016, AWS released new machine learning services that allowed AWS customers, “which span from giants like Pinterest and Netflix to tiny startups, to build their own mini Alexas,” Steven Levy wrote in WIRED. It also launched a new cloud-based computer-vision service called Rekognition. These services are both a “powerful revenue generator and a key to Amazon’s AI flywheel, as customers as disparate as NASA and the NFL are paying to get their machine learning from Amazon,” Levy wrote.

AWS has drawn much less public and political attention than Amazon’s online store and legions of warehouse workers over the years, but Jassy’s unit has earned controversy of its own.

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