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AWS CEO Adam Selipsky’s ‘Double-Down’ Plan To Drive Cloud Business Into The Stratosphere

Five months after taking over as CEO of AWS, Adam Selipsky is tapping into his leadership skills to drive innovation and partner success to new heights.

If there’s one trait that has served Adam Selipsky well throughout his career, it’s his inquisitive nature.

“I really believe in being a lifelong learner,” Selipsky said in a recent interview with CRN in Seattle, three months after taking over as CEO of Amazon Web Services in July. “I probably had a bit of that natural bent to start with and then had people in my life who have helped to stir the embers of that curiosity or have led me to understand how rewarding and how fulfilling it can be for me if I do question and attempt to understand more.”

His family “placed a lot of importance on learning and on education and on reading,” while teachers and professors at prestigious institutions—Seattle’s elite Lakeside School, then Harvard University and Harvard Business School—helped those early sparks catch fire. “I had an amazing high school philosophy teacher who I think really helped to open up my eyes to different ways of thinking about the world,” Selipsky recalled.

“I think I’m just really curious, and so I really enjoy seeing how a lot of different people operate,” Selipsky said.

[RELATED: AWS CEO Adam Selipsky On Gartner Magic Quadrant Allegations, Andreessen Horowitz Cloud Cost Claims And Egress Fees]

That curiosity led him into a career in the technology business. Following a stint at Mercer Management Consulting, Selipsky landed at streaming pioneer RealNetworks for six years before an 11-year run at AWS, where he worked in a chief operating officer-like role overseeing marketing, sales and support, reporting directly to then-CEO Andy Jassy. Then, in 2016, Selipsky left AWS to become CEO of Tableau Software, which he ushered through a $15.7 billion sale three years later to Salesforce.com. “I thought that it would be interesting, it would be fun, and I would really learn from them,” he said of his decision to take the CEO post at Tableau. “And I really did.”

Each of the technology companies he has worked for has been driven by a “missionary”-like zeal to change the world for customers with innovative technology, Selipsky said.

“What excited me then [at the beginning of my career] is the same thing which fundamentally excites me now, which is in each one of these areas within technology, there is the possibility of transformation—to transform how people consume things,” Selipsky said.

Now Selipsky will tap his own leadership style—bringing to bear his insatiable curiosity and own technology transformation smarts—to drive AWS innovation, customer obsession and partner success to new heights.

“It’s important for me to embrace who I am and lead in a way that works for me, which in some ways will be consistent with Amazon and many other AWS leaders,” he said. “And, just like for anybody else, some of those things will be really my own style.”

For Selipsky, his second act at AWS—a role he clearly relishes— is an opportunity to scale the cloud infrastructure and services business far beyond what either he or Jassy likely could have imagined when they first began working together 16 years ago.

Even with AWS now on an annualized revenue run rate of $64.44 billion, coming off its best growth rate since the first quarter of 2019, Selipsky is undeterred. Five months after taking over as CEO of AWS, Adam Selipsky is tapping into his leadership skills to drive innovation and partner success to new heights.

“No matter how successful we have been in the past—just given the rate of change in the industry, how quickly our market segment is evolving and just the rate of growth of AWS—there are always going to be big opportunities … to double down even further on successes, to find new areas in which our customers need us to innovate and to improve existing things we do,” he said. “So I’ve really been trying to find and focus on the most important of those.”

Among the changes early in his tenure is a revamping of the channel guard, with Cisco veteran Ruba Borno slated this month to replace AWS global channel chief Doug Yeum, who is leaving for parent company Amazon.com’s retail division. As Cisco’s new CEO in 2015, Chuck Robbins tapped Borno as a change agent when he unveiled his executive team with her as chief of staff and vice president of growth initiatives. Borno most recently was senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s global customer service centers after leading its managed services.

In addition, Jeffrey Kratz, who headed AWS’ public sector business in Latin America, Canada and the Caribbean and international sales, will take over the global public sector partner program as Sandy Carter leaves that post after two-plus years to work for a startup.

Now it’s up to Borno to lead the charge in driving a new era of channel growth under Selipsky.

Looking At The World From The ‘Outside In’

Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff said what distinguishes Selipsky’s leadership style from other executives is his proclivity to look at an organization “from the outside in.” While he believes in product strategy, Selipsky always looks at the external ecosystem and how it can become a greater success.

“I was always very impressed with how he always wanted to know what is happening from the outside—that could be from the channel, the competitors, customers,” said Benioff, who worked with Selipsky after Salesforce acquired Tableau. “He does a great job by looking not just at how the world is from the corporate view, but how the world looks from the external view. That’s a really unique and important aspect of his leadership and how he thinks. He takes this outside-in feedback as the critical part of how he builds his core strategy. You can see that in how he originally built AWS.”

Selipsky’s business ethos reflects Amazon.com’s “customer obsession” leadership principle and extends to how he sees partners fueling customers’ success. As the company prepares to mark the 10-year anniversary of the AWS Partner Network (APN) in April, Selipsky is clear about the increasing role that partners will play in the cloud computing leader’s growth—and how AWS plans to facilitate that.

“We’re going to do more,” Selipsky said, when asked to delineate his message to partners.

He pointed to areas such as free or very heavily discounted training for partners, as well as the ISV Accelerate program through which hundreds of independent software vendors (ISVs) and consulting partners are going to market with the cloud giant as evidence of ways that AWS already has been “doubling down” on investments in the channel.

“We’re really just entering the meat of adoption of the cloud, and as we get there, and we move more and more into that mainstream and into very use-case-specific and industry-specific needs, the importance and the role of the partner ecosystem will only continue to increase,” Selipsky said.

He envisions AWS leveraging partners to drive deeper into vertical markets—whether it is telecommunications, consumer goods or financial services—as customers demand more targeted solutions. “I think it will be really important that we have really strong partners in each of those areas,” he said.

Selipsky’s drive to double down on partners comes as AWS is ramping up its investments in co-selling with its 100,000-plus ecosystem partners and pouring more resources into programs with distributors to help on-board solution providers and expand globally. AWS also has added new partner incentives and brought more features to AWS Marketplace, its sales channel for ISVs and consulting partners to sell their solutions and services to customers.

“I hope a few years from now we’ll have done an even better job in terms of providing capabilities to make it really easy for partners to on-board, to skill up and ultimately to serve end customers with us in a very seamless way,” Selipsky said.

Eran Gil, CEO of Denver-based AllCloud, expects Selipsky to be a very positive force for AWS and its ecosystem as a leader who recognizes the importance of partners in moving the business ahead. Selipsky benefits not only from his background at AWS, but at Tableau and under Salesforce, Gil said.

“Adam will bring a good fresh set of eyes into the system and upon the community, and I believe he will help drive it forward,” said Gil, whose company, an AWS Premier Consulting Partner, expanded its strategic collaboration with the cloud provider in November. “He knows how the operations work, he knows Andy [Jassy] very well. He has seen how the Tableau ecosystem has evolved. Adam probably has a very good view of what a very healthy ecosystem and maturing ecosystem like Salesforce is and would bring that to the table.”

The Father Of The APN

Selipsky started shadowing Jassy in mid-May, before the title exchange in early July when Jassy officially replaced Jeff Bezos as the CEO of Amazon.com.

He had worked side by side with Jassy from the beginning of AWS to build Amazon’s cloud business from the ground up. He ran most of AWS’ external-facing capabilities, also overseeing its business development and partner alliances programs. For the latter, Selipsky asked his partner team to develop a program that would nurture solution providers, including systems integrators, consulting partners and ISVs, to help them further develop their businesses with AWS. Under his guidance, the APN launched in 2012. It has since grown more than 100 percent, on average, year over year and is adding 50 partners per day.

AWS’ partner ecosystem has been a critical plank of the overall AWS strategy from the beginning, Selipsky said. “Since we opened our doors to customers, we’ve had partners who were vital to our customers and therefore vital to AWS,” he said. “All we’ve really done is to expand the capabilities that we offer and expand our ability to work well with partners. The plan is to really continue that momentum, continue that acceleration.”

When Stephen Orban joined AWS as global head of enterprise strategy in 2014, he worked closely with Selipsky on a number of projects, including the launch of the Migration Acceleration Program in 2016, and witnessed Selipsky’s partner focus.

“I would say very confidently that Adam was very partner-obsessed then, and he helped guide us to make sure that we had the right partner ISV tools and professional service partners who could help customers drive migrations faster and more efficiently through automation,” said Orban, now general manager of AWS Marketplace, Control Services and Data Exchange.

Following Selipsky’s return, the two since have met to discuss various initiatives involving AWS Marketplace.

“Adam remains super adamant that we provide partners with the best experience to reach customers and build solutions on,” Orban said. “He’s always putting himself in the seat of the partner and what we need to do to work backwards from their needs. Whether it be driving more automation for how they go to market or doing better co-sell with them, he’s very adamant about that.”

Forrest Danson, global chief commercial officer for the Amazon/ AWS alliance at New York-based Deloitte Consulting, an AWS Premier Partner, said Selipsky has been spending time “getting smarter” about how partners are engaging with AWS and their joint customers.

“He did pledge his ongoing commitment to partners and being partner-led,” Danson said.

That pledge could help AWS make strides in overcoming a criticism that while it’s partner-friendly, it’s not partner-centric enough. Some solution providers say that while the APN is moving in the right direction, there’s still room for improvement.

“From what I’m seeing, a lot of people that were brought into the organization are from technology partners that have had a very well-defined channel strategy, so I’m hoping that that continues to sort of permeate throughout the organization and that they bring that experience and that knowledge of how to work with the channel to more of AWS,” said Ethan Simmons, managing partner at PTP, a Norwood, Mass.-based AWS Advanced Consulting Partner.

Top rival Microsoft says its partners have a hand in 95 percent of its commercial revenue, and Google Cloud has committed to moving toward a 100 percent go-to-market plan with channel partners. Historically, there has been no such commitment from AWS. Selipsky said he “doesn’t think of it as a quantitative goal,” and that he wants to “serve each customer in the way that’s best for that customer.”

“In some cases, that will mean a very light partner element; in other cases, it’ll mean a deep partner contribution where the partner is even leading the relationship and leading the engagement,” he said.

Simon Anderson, CEO of AWS Premier Consulting Partner Mission Cloud Services, said he sees AWS doing the right thing with regard to its partner program and go[1]to-market alignment.

“Every year, we see improvements in how they engage, but there are always bumps along the way, as with any partner or channel organization,” Anderson said. “The tooling for partners has improved. AWS recently updated the solution provider partner program to give additional financial incentives to partners like Mission that drive above-baseline usage of AWS by customers. They have been making some material improvements in all the billing outputs that we really need to … bill our own customers. There’s still a bunch of improvements we’ve asked for ... that are in the works, but that’s been progressing pretty nicely as well.”

Anderson credits Yeum for setting “the right tone” for the APN since becoming AWS channel chief in mid-2019.

And PTP’s Simmons sees evidence that AWS sales reps are increasingly recognizing they need to leverage the channel more to hit their internal growth targets, even though they don’t receive incentives to bring in partners on deals as they do for AWS Professional Services. “Since the last AWS sales kickoff [in February], we’re seeing far more activity from sales reps ... including us in opportunities,” Simmons said. “They’re engaging us on deals, and I think part of that is due to some things on the AWS side. As continue to work that more into their strategy for growing, the better it’ll get for partners.”

Driving More Co-Selling With Partners

When Intel veteran Rachel Mushahwar started this year as Americas partner sales leader for AWS’ commercial sales team, she was tasked with looking at how to drive higher partner attach rates and help partners co-sell and create unique sales offerings with AWS.

“We want to increase our partner attach year over year,” Mushahwar said. “We don’t have a specific goal, but we do know that partners … will continue to fuel our growth. Our partners have got deep industry expertise. They create new solutions that solve very specific problems leveraging AWS services and infrastructure. They help our customers grow new revenue streams, they increase the operational efficiency of our customers’ infrastructure, and they reduce risk. And as more and more customers mobilize, migrate or modernize their infrastructure, we will need our partners to help us do that.”

At AWS re:Invent 2021, which was slated to kick off Nov. 29 in Las Vegas, Mushahwar planned to spearhead a first-ever panel where partners could hear directly from all of AWS’ global sales vice presidents about the critical role of partners in delivering more value to customers.

“A big part of it is really getting all of our VPs of sales completely ingrained in the importance of partners,” Mushahwar said in an interview ahead of the event. “Developing the program, developing the pipeline and really helping with certifications—all of those are extremely important. But at the end of the day, our partners want to hear from sales, and our partners want to hear how we can go be successful together, focused on customers. So we’re evolving our partner sales organization to be even more partner-friendly than we have been in the past.”

Mushawar said partners attending the panel would hear about the strategic investments that AWS is making to grow shared customer accounts.

“We’re going to talk about our joint co-sell strategy and how teaming agreements will help us continue to be successful together, really align sales motions and find some new opportunities that will bring new value for customers,” Mushahwar said. “We’ll talk about partner attach and how we want to increase that partner attach. What is our sales strategy by region? What does that look like in terms of workloads, in terms of modernizing infrastructure and in terms of bringing new customers to the cloud?”

Some partners told CRN they get lost in the AWS crowd and said it takes a lot of work to make sure AWS sales reps know what solutions they offer. Leads trickle in, they say, and it requires them to lean into a complex and ever-shifting organization in the hope of getting included in deals.

“A big part of what we are shifting to is to address that specific feedback,” Mushahwar said. “With the partner sales organizations—and this is from our global partners’ sales perspective—our [partner sales managers and independent software sales managers] will be the sales reps accountable for making sure that we’ve got those connections into the field and into those customers.”

Ramping Up Distributor Programs

AWS also is ramping up its efforts with distributors, which play a key role in accelerating the growth of AWS and its partners. It’s working with companies including Ingram Micro Cloud and the newly formed TD Synnex—along with regional distributors in its Europe, Middle East and Africa region and Asia-Pacific and Japan—to help bring on smaller partners and expand into regions where it doesn’t have a presence.

AWS is “just scratching the surface” when it comes to using distributors to build out a broader partner ecosystem and is now working to catch up, Yeum said prior to the announcement of his new role.

“It’s a fact that a company like Microsoft, they’ve worked longer with distribution partners,” he said. “We have been working with distribution partners for a while, but not at the scale that we think we will be able to going forward. ... We think they can provide us with leverage that we don’t have, especially in the SMB space.”

AWS signed strategic collaboration agreements with Ingram Micro Cloud in March and TD Synnex (then-Tech Data) in August to expand AWS business together and is seeing good traction, Yeum said.

Irvine, Calif.-based Ingram Micro Cloud, also an AWS Advanced Consulting Partner, plans to scale adoption with emerging ISVs and SMB customers and continue to expand its work with AWS systems integrators and value-added resellers, including public sector partners.

“The strategic collaboration agreement really deepened and broadened how we plan to grow together,” said Tim FitzGerald, Ingram Micro Cloud’s vice president of global infrastructure-as[1]a-service go to market. “It is indicative of [AWS’] belief in the role that the channel can play in accelerating growth and better meeting the needs of the clients that we all serve. It’s about scale. They’re looking for us to develop a partner ecosystem that’s deeply competent on AWS technologies. Key areas like sales enablement, practice development, technical enablement, and business and financial support underpin the value [proposition] that we represent that [AWS] is benefiting from.”

The Battle For Enterprises

At stake is a worldwide end-user spending pool on public cloud services estimated to reach $332.3 billion this year and $397.5 billion in 2022, according to research firm Gartner.

AWS leads the industry with 33 percent market share of cloud infrastructure services spending, followed by Microsoft at 20 percent and Google Cloud at 10 percent, according to Synergy Research Group.

Selipsky has been meeting with partners to get a sense of how they’re working with enterprise customers, as partner-led engagements now are at a different scale and level of sophistication than during his previous tenure, when they were more focused on high-tech and midmarket customers.

He points to AWS’ cloud dominance since its inception in making the case for why enterprise customers should give their business to AWS instead of Microsoft, which benefits from decades-long enterprise relationships and is estimated, according to Wedbush Securities, to have made cloud converts of less than 40 percent of its huge on-premises customer base.

“Because so many other old-guard vendors were first dismissive of the cloud and then dismissive of AWS’ ability to provide cloud services—and then dismissive of the relevance of the cloud to enterprises—we actually got off to a multiyear head start in creating our various services,” Selipsky said. “And because we’ve managed to keep on innovating more quickly than anybody else, we still have a portfolio of services that is both broader in the number of services and deeper in the capabilities that we offer in each service than any other cloud provider.”

That’s demonstrated by the sheer size of AWS’ cloud computing business as well as the breadth and depth of its customer references, Selipsky said.

“If you look around the world, in every industry, with every use case—the really deep and compelling deployments that customers have done that they’re willing and eager to talk about publicly—it really doesn’t compare to anybody else,” Selipsky said.

But AWS can’t just rely on being the most mature provider and its feature functionality, said Deloitte Consulting’s Danson.

“They have to articulate why they’re the best in that space,” he said. “If you look at some of the progress that Microsoft’s [made], a little of it’s engineering and quality of product, a lot of it’s understanding how to engage at the enterprise level. They’re already in the inner workings of those organizations. AWS has the right to play at that level and is getting into those conversations, but it’s definitely a battle in there right now. As IBM and Oracle are fighting hard to get back in this game, too, I think it’s going be an interesting time going forward in the enterprise for sure.”

AWS’ Take On Multi-Cloud

AWS also needs to articulate a commitment to enabling multi-cloud connectivity, according to Danson.

“AWS was traditionally dismissive of multi-cloud strategies, and now that 90 percent of the enterprises are multi-cloud to some extent, it’s time for AWS to focus on that interoperability more,” Danson said. “That goes beyond just Kubernetes and some of the open-source standards. It’s how do you start to build some connections into the native services and some of the other clouds. How do you seamlessly operate and manage security and governance around it is the right place to start.”

There are third-party vendors coming up in that space, but the good news for AWS is that it tends to be one of the clouds used by most of Deloitte’s big clients, Danson said.

“[It’s] not the exclusive one, but owning the management infrastructure and kind of the front door to those environments is pretty critical,” he said. “A lot of what we’re working on is how to make that easier, and I think [AWS] could start to engineer some things towards that front. They’ve started softening some of that message. I remember re:Invent—probably the last live one [in 2019]—it was almost like ‘multi-cloud’ was a bad word. You really weren’t allowed to say it. They’ve started to move beyond that, but they can start to take leadership in that space as well, which I think will be important.”

Selipsky said that AWS will follow its customers’ lead.

“The thing we hear most loudly from customers is that they want us to keep innovating within AWS,” Selipsky said. “There are a lot of new services they want us to build, there are a lot of new capabilities within existing services that they want us to build. There are plenty of examples of where we are interoperable in a very seamless way with all sorts of other capabilities out there, and we’ll continue to work on those as well.”

He pointed not to interoperability with rival clouds, but to September’s launch of Amazon FSx for NetApp Ontap, a fully managed service that provides file storage built on NetApp’s Ontap file system, and AWS’ support of Microsoft SQL Server, the open-source PostgreSQL and “many other flavors” of databases.

“We actually make it very easy for customers to move their workloads wherever they want to,” Selipsky said. “If you took your data that was in Ontap on AWS, and you wanted to move it either back on-premises or to another cloud if they had Ontap capabilities, we will have built nothing to slow down the ability to do that migration. We don’t believe in trying to create technical lock-in. We want customers to be here because they want to be here. In fact, philosophically, we believe that the less lock-in there is, the more willing and eager customers will be to move to the cloud.”

AWS partners also can help customers run workloads in multiple places, Selipsky said.

“We have ISVs like NetApp, but there are many, many others with whom we partner to enable customers to run workloads in multiple places,” he said. “We have a ton of systems integrator partners who are more than capable of working with customers to help them migrate workloads to wherever those customers want them to be.”

Innovation On The Horizon

It isn’t Selipsky’s intention to make wholesale changes out of the gate at AWS, whose rapid pace of innovation under Jassy included custom AWS-designed chips, the Amazon Connect customer contact center solution and AWS Outposts, a fully managed hybrid service that extends AWS infrastructure, services, APIs and tools to virtually any data center, co-location space or on-premises facility.

AWS brought in $45.4 billion in revenue last year, up 29.5 percent from 2019. In this year’s third quarter, revenue increased 39 percent to $16.1 billion from the same period last year.

“Clearly AWS is not a turnaround,” Selipsky said. “This is a very successful business. I think my job is to help us double down in the things that we’re already doing that are important and that are going well, then also to help us identify new areas that we can be in or existing areas where we think we can do better.”

Data and analytics is one area where there is clear demand from customers for more innovation, according to Selipsky, even while AWS already has a broad data and analytics portfolio— from databases, data warehouses and data lakes to different services for querying and business intelligence, he said.

“Customers still have a lot of needs that we’re going to have to understand and work and innovate very quickly on to meet,” Selipsky said, “and so we’re going to continue to apply a lot of resources in that whole data and analytics space.”

Selipsky’s data and analytics focus is informed by his four and a half years as CEO of Tableau, whose business analytics software helps users visualize and understand data. The company quadrupled in value under Selipsky’s leadership in the three years leading to its sale to Salesforce, in what was then the third largest acquisition for the software industry.

“One thing I’ve really come to appreciate over the past few years is that when you think about data, it’s important to take a very holistic view,” noted Selipsky, who said he sometimes jokes about a “day in the life of a bit.” “You have to think not of point solutions but of the entire life cycle of data. We’re going to continue to work not only to have really effective point solutions, but also to create the overarching capabilities that enable the management of that data over time.”

Customers also want AWS to build new services that directly help them with machine learning, according to Selipsky, who also sees a big opportunity to incorporate more machine learning capabilities inside many of AWS’ existing services.

“Not only at AWS, but for the world in general, it’s still very early in the development of AI and machine learning services,” he said. “We’ve put considerable resources into our [machine learning] capabilities and have really exciting services such as Amazon SageMaker … which continue to grow really rapidly.”

Launched in 2017, Amazon SageMaker is AWS’ flagship, fully managed machine learning service that data scientists and developers can use to quickly build and train machine learning models and deploy them into production-ready hosted environments. It’s one of the fastest-growing services in AWS history.

“We will continue to offer those … base-level services directly to customers, so they can use these machine learning services in all sorts of applications,” Selipsky said. “Our partners consume many of those machine learning services as well and utilize them in the value-added services that they’re providing to customers. In addition, we will continue to bury those machine learning capabilities inside of … capabilities that we provide to customers, just to make those services better. Customers won’t even necessarily know that it’s an Amazon machine learning service that’s doing something smarter and intelligent inside of the application that they’re consuming.”

Eamonn O’Neill, co-founder and chief customer officer for Atlanta-based Lemongrass, hopes Selispky can maintain the blinding pace of innovation that took place under Jassy.

“These guys are phenomenal,” said O’Neill, whose company is an AWS Premier Consulting Partner. “AWS is giving more features to customers that they want to see, and their innovation has been mind-blowing. Technically, the services are better—they’re better written, they innovate faster, they crash less. If he can keep going at the same pace as Jassy was running it, I’d be delighted. That, in itself, would be a great achievement.”

‘I’d Always Loved Amazon’

When the opportunity came to return to AWS, Selipsky found the idea compelling for many reasons.

“I’d always loved Amazon,” he said. “I felt like I fit in well here. The culture was always one in which I thought I could work well and could thrive.”

His admiration for the company’s focus on customer obsession as well as its innovative spirit also called to him. “Those are wonderful, wonderful things to be part of,” Selipsky said.

In a March email to employees announcing his replacement, Jassy said Selipsky—in addition to knowing the culture and business well—would bring “strong judgment, customer obsession, team-building, demand generation and CEO experience to an already very strong AWS leadership team.”

Among the advice that Jassy gave to Selipsky: keep innovating at a fast clip, it’s still very early in the cloud game with most IT still running on-premises and, finally, just be himself.

“Different leaders have different characteristics,” Selipsky said. “We all have our own unique strengths and weaknesses, and no one … can be successful if they just try to be somebody else.”

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