Y Combinator interviewed the first employee of Amazon.com, Shel Kaphan. He explains his initial thoughts in joining Jeff Bezos and what Amazon has become. The most interesting is how he looks and analyzes technology, then and now.
For myself, when I look at technology these days, I see that it’s either doing something to connect people or it’s doing something that isolates people. I tend to make value judgments based on that kind of consideration about what is worth working on.
You walk down the streets, you have to weave around people standing there in random orientations in the middle of the sidewalk looking at their cellphones. Then you see people speaking robotically so that their speech recognizer can understand them. Now they are running around in mobs in parks with their phones in front of them trying to catch imaginary animals. I don’t necessarily see all that as a positive development.
I think technology has a role to play but I don’t see it being exploited very carefully in that way. But this is the kind of economy that we live in. And it’s very, very addictive. Even people who complain about it are still subject to it.
He is spot on in my opinion on how technology does a great job of either isolating or connecting us. It is the job of all of us as makers, creators, and entrepreneurs to keep this front and center. I believe it comes down to empathy. For instance, Slack truly gets this. If you haven’t used their product, it is fantastic and there is a reason they’re a true unicorn. Read their mission statement on culture, and you see building empathy into their product is a very conscious decision.
Building things for others to use is an act of empathy. Every decision made about how a thing is built and how it should be used comes from the worldview of the maker. How well they can see things through the user’s eyes determines the value of their work. No one person can see the world through another’s eyes. It’s all approximation and guesswork. Thus the only way for us to broaden our understanding of our users, to see things the way they do, is through hiring people with as many diverse experiences and backgrounds as we can.
Back to Shel Kaphan and his interview. He gives some great advice for starting something new.
One thing that the Amazon experience taught me is try to imagine what a project or company would be like if it was more successful than you could ever possibly imagine. It’s very unlikely but it’s possible. You have to think about what the environment will be like if that happens, and how the people involved in it might change.
Doesn’t hurt to believe that if you were employee # 1 at one of the most successful companies of our time.
Also published on Medium.