Carnegie Mellon University

A lot has changed for Chris Nelson since his last profile back in the spring of 2013. Soon after the profile was published, he moved from one coast to the other in order to help establish Amazon’s presence in Boston all while starting a new group within the company that focused on the data needs for the company’s virtual assistant AI technology. That work led to him becoming the Director of Alexa Secure AI Foundations Data Platform. He now serves on the Advisory Council for the Security and Privacy in the Lifecycle of IoT for Consumer Environments (SPLICE) research team. And he has a young daughter whom he adores.

Alexa, tell me about the early days

In the last eight years Chris has been dedicated to what has, arguably, become one of the largest distributed systems on the Internet. “I started with a team of four people and grew that to an organization of over 100. We continue to invest and innovate in large scale data logistics and automation for AI and ML workflows for Alexa,  as well as supporting other businesses within Amazon.”

Leadership Brings A Shift in Focus

While working on the MSE capstone project, Chris was laying the foundations for his move into a senior leadership role. “We were a small team, but it was clear that we were a team of leaders so you learn how to make space for others to make decisions, allow freedom to try new ideas, while identifying and focusing on the critical path. That concept stays with you over time, but may get applied differently as your role changes.”

In his estimation, the most notable shift — as he moved from being an individual responsible for high caliber execution and delivery to learning how to be an effective leader of large teams, and eventually, stepping into an executive role — was his mindset. “As I was growing in the role, and growing the organization at the same time, I found that I switched into more of a teacher/coach mindset. When you lead a large organization, you can’t do everything yourself. It becomes necessary to focus on what’s good enough, and how to teach the team to do better over time. It is important to establish a culture where you can nurture a team that is capable of achieving results over the long term rather than focus on short term gains.”

Chris’s mindset complements the company ethos. “Fortunately, a key component to the culture at Amazon is an ownership mentality with a focus on the long term. It’s better to spend the time establishing a healthy culture and work towards setting your team up for success over the long term, even if it means you don’t deliver quite as much in the short term. There is a real risk of burnout when you over focus on perfection, you have to identify and maintain a sustainable pace while iteratively delivering customer value early and often.”

The Importance of Being Empathetic

“When I first took on a leadership role, I had this idea that I had two selves: manager/work self and private self. While learning how to be a manager of a large organization, I found that being authentic and vulnerable with my team allows them to be the same. I think you establish better connections with people and better work relationships which translates — ultimately — into better results. That only really works if you’re empathetic. You have to be able to listen to people who are showing up with their whole selves and understand that they are individuals with needs. There is an aspect of being a successful leader that requires a basic level of emotional intelligence and the willingness to practice empathy.”