A Q&A with Lakshmi Nidamarthi
Since joining Amazon in 2000, Lakshmi Nidamarthi has been involved in launching some of Amazon’s most significant innovations like the Kindle and Frustration-Free Packaging (both of which celebrated their tenth anniversary last year). Today, Lakshmi is responsible for bringing new products to market for Amazon’s sellers as director of biz tech, FBA Product Management.
Which living person do you most admire?
I’m intrigued by people who can bring about transformation at scale. That’s why I’m particularly inspired by the educator Salman Khan of the Khan Academy. He was tutoring his cousin and that interaction inspired him to create Khan Academy – a platform to teach math, science, and much more. I also admire Jeff Bezos for the same reason – it’s been incredible to be part of the Amazon journey and personally experience the innovation at scale that’s made possible when you take the long-term view.
What is your greatest fear?
Complacency. I don’t want to ever stop learning from new experiences. I also don't like heights.
What is the single greatest innovation in history?
The Internet. It has changed how we live, communicate, socialize, and acquire knowledge.
What is your current state of mind?
I’m currently seeking to bring balance to my life through simplification. Simplification is hard. Be it at work or personal life, I look for simplifiers to complex problems. I’m trying to limit my choices– to give just one example, I’m finding there’s no reason to have more than three choices for breakfast – this way my mind is freed up to focus on what’s important.
What is your first memory of a computer?
We bought a PC in our home in India in the 1980s. I remember being curious and taking extra care to keep the area where the PC stood sparkling clean and dust free!
What is one thing you do every week to stay focused on customer needs?
I spend time on seller forums and read what sellers have to say. I also get on sales calls and tune in closely to seller anecdotes during the WBR. I make it a point to pay close attention to any potential trust busters – small but important interactions that build or break trust.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My two boys and my husband. Amazon has been a big part of our lives, my kids have come of age in the time I’ve been with the company.
What publications do you read to stay current with external trends?
I’m an article junkie and you’ll often find me turning the pages on my Flipboard app. I enjoy reading WIRED, Fast Company, and the Wall Street Journal for articles on leadership, technology, and new approaches in education, something that I’ve become very interested in after raising two children.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
At home I tell my boys, “It’s harder to be kind than clever.” It’s a quote I've heard Jeff make, and it’s something that has stayed with me. At work, my team makes fun of me for using phrases like, “What’s your North Star?” And when something’s working, “Are you doubling down?”
When and where were you happiest?
I’m happiest when I’m with my kids. I’m also happy when I’m helping build products that can help deliver impact at scale. I’m a builder at heart.
When was the last time you were wrong about something?
I’m wrong every week. A big part of Being Right, A Lot is having the ability to change your mind.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d love to be more of a transformational leader – someone who can inspire other people to find the best in themselves.
When was the last time you disagreed and committed to something?
Learning to disagree and commit is a muscle you build at Amazon. Just last week, I had a different point of view from my manager and team on how we communicated a change to sellers. While I believed in my point of view, I saw the merits to their approach, and decided to disagree and commit.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d like to be someone who takes more risks. Someone who’s a little more edgy and spontaneous.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I feel my best is yet to come. That said, I’m pretty happy with what I have accomplished so far, having a fulfilling career and being a decent parent.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
A better, wiser Lakshmi.
Looking back, was there an event or moment that altered the direction of your career?
Building out the technology and operations team for Kindle in India was a transformative experience. I had to go back to my home country, where I’d never worked. I did everything from negotiating the rates for dustbins to recruiting and building out software teams. I also had the opportunity to start the sustainability team at Amazon, and am so glad to see they are doing such awesome work today. Both experiences taught me the importance of understanding all aspects of building a product with a long term view.
Where would you most like to live?
I’m a tropical person, but I’d love to live somewhere near the Himalayas in a country like Bhutan or Tibet. There’s something about the calm that I find very appealing.
What is your most treasured possession?
A piece of ancestral jewelry given to me by my dad.
What are some innovations from your organization in 2017 that inspire the most pride within you?
There are so many innovations, because I get to work with really smart people. I’ll give one example – the Small and Light program that’s allowing sellers to sell low priced products profitably via Amazon. Fulfilling low cost items is very hard because of the low margins, and bringing Small and Light to market required us to invent across multiple dimensions – the customer experience, the seller experience, operations, Prime, and much more.
What was your first day like at Amazon?
It was pretty thrilling. I joined Amazon in the Seller Business when we were six years in as a company. I worked on the eleventh floor of the PacMed building. We were always out of space. We are still out of space! I remember having to win over some of the dogs in our area.
What is an example of a piece of advice you have received?
Over the years, my mentors have taught me the importance of knowing where to focus your energy. You’ve got to be able to pick the right areas to go deep, and know when to empower your team and let them drive the decisions.
What’s a piece of advice you have given to others?
I’ve always asked people to focus on building their skills rather than on getting to the next level or a promotion. A skill is something you can carry with you over the long term. Amazon has so many teams working on so much great stuff – there’s no shortage of opportunities to learn and develop new skills.
What would be your piece of advice to a young girl contemplating a STEM career?
Technology is something that’s going to touch every part of our lives, and we need our girls to build and invent. Drawing from my own experience, I would ask young girls to start with real-world problems they would like to solve, and then think of how they can apply science, technology, and math to solve those problems. I’d also tell young girls not to be discouraged by failure. Failure means you are actually learning something. The light bulb took hundreds upon hundreds of iterations. Finally, I'd tell them, "May the Force be with you!"
What was the last thing you purchased on Amazon?
Kitchen compost bags and a Sushi Go game. I am a happy Prime member.