Bezos Understands the Value of Shared Data (Or: Sharing is Caring)

One of the issues we confront with new clients is the difficulty in getting information from one segment or division of your business to another.  Data “silos” are extremely common, with unnecessary or unhelpful barriers between groups creating the kind of friction that diminishes your ability to achieve goals.  That can mean difficulty in getting your Malaysian warehouse to share information with your call center in Nashville or still not being able to get Kevin from sales to give you the PowerPoint he’s been “almost finished with” for about four weeks.

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Just send the PowerPoint, Kevin, okay?

This problem is almost always institutional, rather than technological.  What I mean is that it’s not terribly difficult to identify platforms that allow for meaningful collaborating and sharing of information across groups.  Frankly, even if you don’t invest in a single, cross-departmental platform, focusing on interoperability and communication can accomplish the same ends: limiting siloing of information and unlocking the potential of multiple data use-cases for all groups in your business.  It’s the people who make it difficult, and not usually the data.

Why?  Any number of reasons, but there are a few standard-issue responses that one encounters the most frequently.  You’ve probably heard, or said, one of the following excuse types:

  • Newton’s Second Law – “This is the way we’ve always done things, changing things now would require an enormous amount of time and energy.”
  • The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – “Our situation is the result of unique environmental factors that could not have been foreseen, but which now cannot be changed.”
  • The “This is Fine” Dog – “We already have GChat and Slack, we’re already communicating well.”
  • The Debbie Downer – “I heard about a company that tried to implement these kinds of changes and they were bankrupt in six weeks.”
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How do you combat these thought processes?  The best demonstration of why data fiefdoms are a bad idea is showing teams how data sharing is a good one.  We provide a good example of this in Data Leverage, referring to an interview Steve Yegge gave about his time at Amazon. Amazon’s meteoric rise from simple bookseller to the world’s general store is impressive, to be sure, but it wasn’t driven by deciding to sell batteries and milk rather than just paperbacks.  In fact, it’s Amazon Web Services that truly propelled Amazon’s growth, and the reason for that is the internal data-sharing protocols Bezos established (and by “established” we mean “ordained from on high.”)

In 2002, Bezos sent a memo to all of the company’s division leaders, and Yegge describes it as follows:

1) All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.
2) Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.
3) There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.
4) It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter. Bezos doesn’t care.
5) All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.
6) Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.
7) Thank you; have a nice day!

There is, of course, more to Amazon’s growth since 2002, but this email demonstrates a key principle: sharing data internally to make it useable externally will drive growth.  Bezos’s point is that time, energy, resources, and ideas founder on the shoals of emails asking Kevin to send you the PowerPoint – if you just had access to the data, it wouldn’t take weeks to get what you need.  More importantly, the second-to-last bullet above is what created the ability for data partnerships to drive the value of the business forward. By making all data services and datasets externally available, Bezos and Amazon were setting up their data strategy for the future, which is what all businesses should be doing.  Amazon took that operationalized approach to data sharing and turned it into the world’s most profitable platform-as-a-service.

Then again, Bezos did also appear in a Taco Bell commercial around the same time as this memo, which could also account for the explosive growth of the company since then.  Your call, really.

We tell our clients that finding ways to share data across groups can be a difficult process, but it often results in better, and more efficient use of datasets and unlocks new opportunities for growth.  Even if there isn’t a single platform that will enable all data to flow across groups, making data available across teams is a powerful method for increasing efficiency and removing internal red-tape.  And while this is all subject, of course, to the limitations on, and lawful purposes for which personal data can be used, the internal sharing of data will rarely present the same kinds of risks as external sharing or sale.  The opportunity is there, don’t waste any more time ignoring it.


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