Amazon’s Jon Allen ’94 on self-driving cars, cloud computing, the automotive future, and why he loves his job: “It’s the pace of innovation.”

Interview by Sean Markey

Last year, NU Board of Fellows Chair Jon Allen joined Amazon Web Services (AWS) to lead its global automotive practice. Working from a satellite Amazon campus in northern Virginia but more often hopping time zones, Allen and his team help global automakers leverage the power of AWS using data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and high-process computing to innovate and think big. “It’s about taking what seems like an impossible task and making it into a reality.”

Allen’s path to the cutting edge of computer-driven innovation in industry is all the more remarkable given where he started.

The Massachusetts native was technically deaf until the age of four, when surgery on his drainage canals first restored his hearing. In school, Allen struggled with dyslexia, a learning disability that wasn’t caught until his freshman year at Norwich. A political science major, MP, and regimental XO, he commissioned into the Army after graduation and earned his Ranger tab and, later, a master’s degree in national security studies from Georgetown following his Army service. It was ten years ago, while working at Booz Allen, that Allen dove into the automotive field, when GM asked for his help on a cybersecurity issue. The congenital problem solver says he had doubts—clearly unfounded—that was he was the right person for the job. “I had to run out and buy Car & Driver magazine.”

What do you do at Amazon Web Services?

(Photo by Ken Geiger.)

I help the big automakers and suppliers innovate on the cloud. It’s a lot of machine learning, a lot of data science. The numbers are like seven million miles have to be driven for a car to learn to drive autonomously. That just takes forever to do. You can’t get there. So how do you? Simulation. Customers need us to come in and say, “Here’s the infrastructure, now go.” They need people like us who understand cloud and technologies to at least get them going on their cloud journey.

How did you land at Amazon?

They called me.

What’s the culture like at Amazon?

Amazon has a set of leadership principles we use every day, whether we’re discussing ideas for new projects or deciding on the best approach to solving a problem. It is just one of the things that makes Amazon peculiar. Every conversation rotates back to our leadership principles. One of the most important for my team is, Invent and Simplify. The other is, Learn and Be Curious. I have people on my staff who were the directors of connected cars for major automotive makers. They decided to join my team, because they can roll their sleeves up and actually build something. Everybody’s a builder.

What I really love is that whatever you dream up and build, you also have to carry that thing through to production. It doesn’t get handed off to somebody else. In 2017 alone, AWS released over 1,400 new services. A large percentage of what we build are services customers have asked for. We didn’t just create them in a bubble, and then say, “Here’s a box. Use this.” To say that Amazon is customer obsessed is an absolute understatement. The whole Jeff Bezos model of being customer obsessed is across the organization’s DNA.

What do you find most interesting about the work?

It’s the pace of innovation. Also, I love being able to solve the really, really hard problems. Going in to each one of these automotive makers, you’re trying to solve what seems like an impossible task. My team and I go in there and help them innovate and think big. How do you really think big? We’re not coming in just with a technology solution. Like, you know, upload this software. It’s more about taking what seems like an impossible task and making into a reality.

The other part I really love: We have a concept here called “two-pizza” teams. We look at the size of the project. If I can’t feed the team with two pizzas, it’s too big. I might have two or three pizza teams on one project. But each team is responsible for just a portion of it to keep it agile. An agile organization means it’s quick. You sprint for a couple weeks, with the goal of showing value very quickly. It’s not the old days, where you have this two-year-long slog that can’t chart to development and you never get there.

How is the auto industry changing today?

The automotive industry right now is going through a major transformation. Everything from connected cars to autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, even to the dealer experience. And then on the other end is manufacturing—how cars are made. Old manufacturing techniques, you know, are no longer going to be the future.

In the past, automakers would have the car at the center of the ecosystem. Now, they’re putting the customer in the center of the ecosystem: You’re an extension of your car now. So even when you’re not with your car, you’re still with your car. It’s said that cars are only driven 10 percent of the time. Well, I’m using my car right now. It’s just in the parking garage. It’s still pulling data down. It still knows where I am right now. It’s still doing algorithms around my driver preferences, where I go, where I shop, you name it. So the car has become just like your mobile device.

When you look at the near future, what do you see?

Well, the quote I always steal from GM CEO Mary Barra is, "There is going to be more change in the next five to 10 years than we’ve witnessed in the last 50." Automotive makers are no longer calling themselves just auto makers. They call themselves mobility companies. Look at the relationship that GM has with Lyft, or VW has with Smart Car, all these amazing investments. Even the [electric] scooters that you see, they’re partially owned by VW and Uber. The ecosystem isn’t just cars anymore. It’s mobility. And that’s going to lead into the future of autonomous driving. There are different levels of autonomous driving. Level 5 is like full up, you’re in the backseat watching Harry Potter, while the car’s driving for itself. We’re 10, 15 years away from even seeing that. But we’re going to see it with fleets. That’s number one.

Number two is how automotive makers interact with their customers. A lot of times, your experience with an auto maker was when you bought the car and when you sold the car. Then the obnoxious mailers that you got every couple of months in the mail, “Come in and buy a car.” But now, because automakers are pushing connected services to you as a customer, the model is completely changing. With the introduction of 5G [wireless service] it’s going to completely change. It’s going to blow it all up at that point. And then, in order to do that, you need Cloud. Because it’s about connectivity.

It’s interesting with electric vehicles. It’s kind of a buzz between Elon Musk and GM’s recent announcement that they’re going to focus more on AV, autonomous vehicles, than EV, electric vehicles. I think this is an interesting space, and we’re going to see some really cool technologies around the future of the battery. How quickly batteries charge and the life of batteries and the whole technology piece around enabling electric vehicles. Right now, the infrastructure isn’t there. We don’t have enough charging stations in America to really go to scale on this thing.

What’s your hardest problem?

Scale. I’ve had one ... two ... three ... four ... five customer calls today. Today. There’re just not enough hours in the day. Given the innovation, the speed at which things are moving so quickly, being able to scale and address all the customer needs is critically important.

Does cybersecurity concern you?

The good news is that the auto industry got ahead of this thing. Cybersecurity is not a market differentiator for automotive makers. You’re either secure now and you can do it, or you’re not secure and you’re not going to be making cars.

What car do you drive?

I never say. In the auto industry, you never do. Because you’ll just [upset] 17 other makers.

Interview condensed and edited for length, clarity, and style.

Photographer Ken Geiger is a Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist based in Washington, D.C. Writer Sean Markey is the Record’s editor in chief.

The Norwich Record | Spring 2019

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