How To Pitch Jeff Bezos (And Other “Giant-Brained Aliens”)

Is Jeff Bezos really like a “giant-brained alien?” In categorizing the Amazon founder’s unusual genius, Google (and former Amazon) engineer Steve Yegge compares Bezos and those like him to “hyper-intelligent aliens with a tangential interest in human affairs.” He is not trying to be disrespectful. He is just trying to explain how to go about pitching an idea to someone like Bezos. (The short answer: assume he already knows everything about the topic you are going to present, no slides, and “delete every third paragraph” of your pitch).

Yegge does this in a follow up post on Google+ to his earlier rant on Google+ and Amazon.

If you haven’t heard of Steve Yegge yet, he’s the guy who accidentally shared a 4,500-plus-word pointed critique on the shortcomings of Google+, his former employer, Amazon, among other things, publicly on the very social network he was criticizing. The post was meant to be shared among his colleagues, but it appears that Google+’s Circles of Sharing can even be confusing to those who work at Google. (The full rant was posted on Hacker News here.)

The initial post made the rounds, even working all the way up the chain to Google Co-founder Sergey Brin. At Web 2.0 this week, Brin was asked about the memo, to which he somewhat jokingly replied, “I stopped reading it after the first 1,000 pages or so”. To Google’s credit, in spite of this being an epic Reply-All-type FAIL and having “potential PR nightmare” written all over it, the company elected not to sack Yegge, and is instead taking his beef into consideration. Turning a frown upside down, or a minus into a plus, if you prefer. Personally, I applaud Google for the way it’s handled this situation. We all make mistakes, and clearly Yegge was, at the very least, trying to be constructive in his criticism. In varying degrees, we’ve all been there.

After dealing with a lot of media (and internal) attention, Yegge was back on Google+, and decided to use the platform to clarify some of his earlier statements, specifically about his former employer, Amazon, and its founder, Jeff Bezos. In his initial manifesto, Yegge referred to Bezos as the “Dread Pirate”.

On Friday morning, Yegge (currently an engineer at Google) explained:

I still have a lot of friends at Amazon. In fact the place is chock-full of people I admire and respect. And up until now I have prided myself on my professionalism whenever I have talked about Amazon. Bagging on the company, even in an internal memo, was uncharacteristically unprofessional of me. So I’ve been feeling pretty guilty for the past week.

So, in his post, the Google engineer attempts to paint a more balanced picture of the billionaire genius behind Amazon, fleshing out his thoughts through relating a specific experience he had pitching the CEO on one of his ideas.

The content is very similar to a post Joel Spolsky wrote for Inc. Magazine back in 2008, in which he recounted his experience working for Microsoft, and specifically, Bill Gates. Spolsky wrote the post shortly after Gates retired from Microsoft to focus on his charitable work. It gave many outsiders a glimpse into Gates’ management style and introduced many to the billionaire’s “F Counter” — the guy/system by which people were able to judge whether or not their idea/pitch had been successful. In short, the fewer “F words” Gates issued, the better.

Yegge’s post, in contrast, is actually very funny. In fact, I thought it was so funny, I read it out loud to a couple of people. And like Spolsky’s post did for Gates, Yegge’s Google+ entry paints a vivid image of Bezos, what he is like to work with, his management style, and how the CEO interacts with employees.

The alien analogies stem from Yegge’s effort to describe what it was like to construct a presentation (and then present it) to the Amazon Overlord. Besides being funny, the post will also likely be of use to current or future Amazon employees who have to confront the anxiety-producing prospect of pitching an idea to a guy who, according to Yegge’s rendering, is already an expert in the subject you want to raise, and is probably a lot smarter than you are.

Bezos is so goddamned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you … for years he’s had armies of people taking care of everything for him. He doesn’t have to do anything at all except dress himself in the morning and read presentations all day long. So he’s really, REALLY good at reading presentations. He’s like the Franz Liszt of sight-reading presentations.

Yep, he just compared Bezos to Franz Liszt. That just happened. He continues:

So you have to start tearing out whole paragraphs, or even pages, to make it interesting for him. He will fill in the gaps himself without missing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.’

According to Yegge’s experience, even after weeks (maybe even months) of preparation, Bezos will still outsmart the presenter, and just knowing your subject from top-to-bottom isn’t enough; you apparently have to be ready for a potentially withering question or angle that you weren’t expecting.

He is going to have at least one deep insight about the subject, right there on the spot, and it’s going to make you look like a complete buffoon … Trust me folks, I saw this happen time and again, for years. Jeff Bezos has all these incredibly intelligent, experienced domain experts surrounding him at huge meetings, and on a daily basis he thinks of shit that they never saw coming. It’s a guaranteed facepalm fest.

While this kind of management style and intimidation factor is sure to inspire a culture of paranoia, it seems like that’s just want Bezos wants. He’s known for taking an unusual, quirky, alternative (however you want to say it) approach to building his company, preferring loose-fitting and sometimes poorly communicating teams over a well-oiled machine that creates groupthink — one not so befitting of innovation. And, hey, when you feel like you’re always one step away from losing your job (even if that fear is only in your head), you may just be willing to take more risks.

As if banning PowerPoint from the Amazon offices isn’t enough to stop and ponder Bezos’ intelligence, then maybe the new Kindle line has that potential. When Bezos presented the Kindle Fire at the end of September, he seemed to both literally and figuratively take a page out of Steve Jobs’ book. As Matt wrote at the time, Amazon has actually succeeded in building a tablet that both geeks and non-geeks alike want to buy. No small feat.

The release wasn’t about what’s inside — Amazon’s custom UI built on some Android frame or another — it was about how well the new browser works to iron out Android kinks, not about how it has EC2, but what that means to users, and what it means to have all the whizbang consumer functionality of Amazon products up front, with a not-too-shabby processor backing it all up. Kindle Fire at first brush looks like it actually “just works”, too.

Sure, it’s not the iPad and likely won’t be, but it is $300 cheaper. Android and Windows devices et al have been trying to launch cheaper, viable alternatives to the iPad for how long now, and have they? Not really. With its new-and-improved Kindle, Amazon is making a play at a covetable, marketshare-hungry tablet.

Apple is one of the few companies in the world that, in television spots, can simply just show their product and how it works, maybe play some canned music in the background, and you’ll actually feel impelled to buy it. Need to buy it. Even if you hate technology. Or maybe Apple can get away with the stripped-down TV spots simply because it has the confidence in their products that allow them to do that. Everyone else seems to have to rely on lightning bolts and CGI to spruce up their gadgets, or cars, as the case may be.

Bezos seemed to exude that kind of Jobs-ian confidence on stage, and though Bezos is somewhat of an enigmatic figure in the Seattle tech scene, based on Yegge’s portrait of him, it kind of seems like he’s been that way all along. Some scratched their heads as Amazon built up its streaming video, MP3 downloads and cloud computing capabilities. But with Fire and Touch, it’s become clear why. The Kindle is no longer just a reader.

While Bezos may remind some of Gates in the way he is able to display ferocious domain expertise (Gates was and is a programmer and understood the moving parts of Microsoft products better than most), he certainly seems to have Steve Jobs’ DNA, too.

As Chris Dixon said in talking about the difference between a good CEO and a superhuman CEO, the test of a great leader is not just building a successful company that has a good run for a few years, but building a company that leads innovation in their industry with a string of leading products, devices, etc. It’s way too early to say for Bezos and Amazon, but a $39 billion web platform, streaming services, EC2 and killer cloud services, the Kindle, and now the Kindle Fire, it doesn’t seem ridiculous to posit that (while no one will ever replace Jobs), he may be next in line.

Let us know what you think.