Digital Squared

Big Tech Gives Back

February 23, 2023 Tom Andriola Season 1 Episode 5
Big Tech Gives Back
Digital Squared
More Info
Digital Squared
Big Tech Gives Back
Feb 23, 2023 Season 1 Episode 5
Tom Andriola

On this episode, Tom chats with Kim Majerus, Vice President, U.S. State & Local Government and Education, Amazon Web Services, Worldwide Public Sector. Together they discuss how to ensure technology and connectivity are accessible to everyone, the AWS approach toward environmental sustainability and how the company provides reskilling opportunities to develop workforce resilience.

Show Notes Transcript

On this episode, Tom chats with Kim Majerus, Vice President, U.S. State & Local Government and Education, Amazon Web Services, Worldwide Public Sector. Together they discuss how to ensure technology and connectivity are accessible to everyone, the AWS approach toward environmental sustainability and how the company provides reskilling opportunities to develop workforce resilience.

On this episode I talk to Kim Majerus, Vice President of US Public Sector at Amazon Web Services (AWS). Kim leads the U.S. state & local government and education verticals, and her team helps organizations not just take advantage of cloud computing, but more importantly, shares the tenor of conversations as trended towards digital transformation and rethinking how organizations create value for stakeholders. 

Speaking to Kim, we discuss how AWS is not just a leading technology company, but also holds themselves accountable to ensure technology and connectivity are accessible, regardless of socioeconomic status, build environmental sustainability into everything they do, and provide reskilling opportunities to ensure organizations develop workforce resilience.

We hope you enjoy this episode.

Tom: [1:24]
Kim, thanks for joining us today.

Kim: [1:26]
Thanks, Tom. And I'm excited to be a part of your podcast.

Tom: [1:28]
All right, well, we're gonna start the first question with you. So tell us about Kim. I'm interested to hear more about your career journey, and then what you love about the time you’ve spent with AWS?

Kim: [1:42]
Well, I like to start with the Amazon part. Because truly, Amazonians we often talk about our day-one culture, and that every single day is day one. For me, I've been with Amazon six years, so that's a whole lot of day ones for me. I serve as their global education leader, in addition to the US state and local business, where I have not only responsibility for the institutional sales, but I also work with the ed techs and the gov techs to help solve for mission critical solutions. So I get the public sector side, as well as the commercial side. It allows me to tap into other parts of not just the broader part, but really allows me to focus on learning environmental research, academic medicine, and a variety of citizen services, whether it's tax or Department of Motor Vehicles, so I'm pretty much anything and everything state, local and education. I would say, if I look at my organization from a whole, whether it's K through 12, or higher ed, it's really exciting, and it really plays into my career. Early in my career, I was in high school and I had an amazing opportunity to join the technology world at the age of 16. Not very often do you hear that, but it was just an amazing opportunity. I've spent time at Motorola, Harris Corporation, and prior to joining AWS, I spent 16 years at Cisco, where my last role there I was the vice president of Cisco's public sector for the US state and local education market. And before that, I actually held roles in engineering, service provider sales, partner channels, global channels, and probably the greatest learning opportunity I had was being the general manager for Ireland. But all those experiences that I've been fortunate to have really always brought me back to one thing: education, serving the public, serving the opportunity. And I love my job at Amazon. And I'm so proud, because of the one focus that has been consistent in my career: lifelong learning, and really serving the citizens. And that's really our company culture. And it's aligned to what I feel is most important and helps me make decisions as a leader here. 

Tom: [4:03]
That's amazing, and you and I had a chance to do some work together. And one of the reasons why I thought this would be a fantastic conversation for our audience is our relationship with Amazon and AWS is about a lot more than technology. Being a public higher education institution, we do a lot for social mobility and achieving the American Dream for our students. And so we're working with AWS on a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging level as well as the technology level, and that's why I wanted to bring this topic to the table today. But I have to say this: being also a lifelong person in the technology industry, the tech industry has been notoriously poor when it comes to diversity, equity inclusion. And I studied four years of Latin when I was in high school, I say that somewhat proudly. And so in the great words of Cicero, you know, with great power comes great responsibility or influence. So actually, it wasn't Uncle Ben from Spider Man, Cicero said it a couple thousand years before. So you had a great leadership perch now at AWS, as you did at Cisco before, what do you do to try to really bring more of the organization's attention and also to the customers with respect to diversity, equity inclusion? 

Kim: [5:25]
So when we think about access and creating opportunity, if I think about myself and my team, we're solely focused on government and education to help organizations really leverage the power of cloud computing to meet their mission outcomes. So whether it's a student, whether it's a citizen, whether it's a researcher, it's really about laser focus and to getting into that opportunity. But in order to get to that opportunity, we have to take a look at what problem we're solving for. And that's the exciting part, especially for education. If you think about students, research tells us if we could actually spark the interest of a student earlier and STEM earlier in their education journey, they become more likely and more interested in enrolling in college and university. We have about a dozen collaborations with community colleges and four year universities. And oddly enough, we are reaching into those high schools to help them develop new training programs and connect the hundreds and thousands of learners for cloud careers. Now, Tom, I'm gonna take it from Southern California. I think about the thing that we've been doing with LA Unified School District, which is the second largest public school district in the US. Now, as we come off of COVID, and we think about how technology actually supported the opportunity for citizens, teachers, educators, through COVID, when COVID-19 hit, whether the classroom moved to virtual or how we quickly deployed content, a very easy solution to help support faculty and students, we quickly moved them, to allow them to continue to educate students. Just an immediate transformation opportunity opened up the eyes of LA Unified School District IT teams, but they actually took it one step further. Not only were we helping enable their instructors for IT help support, we actually worked with them to address the student needs. Now, again, the mission is educating and supporting a student. LA Unified School District went so far to say we need to make sure that those students who are in need of mental health support, that they were supported during a time where the only support they were getting was in the school. But the work that LA Unified School District did in partnership with AWS, we quickly innovated to help support students for mental health. So when I think about the opportunity and the axis of technology, of what it allowed a local school district for California to be able to support students, that was number one for us is to help get the end result of support for students. So you have to look at these different areas of opportunities and say “What problem are we solving for?” And that's really where my team is laser focused, is to make sure that when they walk in, they walk in with all ears to say, how can we help support the biggest challenges that you have?

Tom [8:36]
So it's a great story, because LA Unified is just an absolutely massive organization and challenges. And they do things at scale that even make the University of California or the Cal State system look small. I remember meeting one of their CIOs a few years back when we went to online testing for California, and they talked about how they tried to execute that, it was just a massive challenge. I was happy for the job that I had versus the job that he had. But, you know, here's the other thing that’s very, very interesting, similar to what we talked about, at that institution that I’m at, is, there's great diversity within that student population. The socioeconomic differences, the ethnic variety that comes with a district of that size, and that, let’s say, diverse. How does AWS think about issues like the digital divide, because I like to talk about that technology is a double edged sword, it advances things, at the same time we have to be careful that it doesn't exacerbate the current inequities that exist in our society. How does AWS think about those challenges? And how does that manifest itself for how you and your team work with customers?

Kim: [9:53]
You know, can you imagine a world where digital inequality is a distant memory? Because that's really where we have to think about it. For us, our goal is even to say that it's an obligation to the public sector to make technology accessible to as many as possible. Now, we think about how the cloud can democratize knowledge and provide all individuals regardless of background, education, location, social status, the opportunity to actually build those skills. We need digital equity no matter the want, it's truly a need, because in order for a digital economy, you have to have digital equity. So when all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed to participate in the society and democracy and most importantly, when we think about the economical impact. So I truly believe it's incumbent on the public sector organizations to ensure that they're embedding digital equity in every technology process and service when they're enabling it. I mean, again, revert back to when COVID hit: unemployment claims. You couldn't go into an office. If you were disabled, of any sort, did they have the capability to actually request the support that they need? But we're doing our best and we're helping to make digital equality a reality. And we believe there are truly a couple of ways that that should be done. Obviously, and maybe not so obvious for some, is access to the internet. You know, it's still amazing to me, and the Federal Communications Commission estimates that approximately 19 million Americans or 6% of our population, still lack access to fixed broadband services at threshold speeds. Now, I'm older in my career, and I remember the early days of a modem, and that is not suitable if you think about what is needed now to have full access to what's possible. But also, you have to have a device. During the pandemic, and you know, I mentioned a little bit earlier about what we did with LA Unified School District. We actually saw government, education and private industries join together to provide devices to children in need. Now, I'm so proud of the work that we did as Amazon. We supported sourcing 132,000 noise reducing headphones to all high school students in the district, and also delivered tens of thousands of devices to those students. So think about it, we have to have access and devices. And I grew up with a family of several siblings and fighting over devices is not always great. So when we think about access to devices, and we hear it in a lot of the communications that we hear from the districts, it should be one to one. But once you have access, once you have a device, that is really about digital literacy, and that is how to engage with the technology, how to comprehend and then critically evaluate the content. And then most importantly, innovate and create. So if we have access, we have devices, then it allows you to participate in a way that some just don't know. So Amazon is doing our best through the work that we're doing with the school districts, with the communities and with our edtechs and our govtech to help make that a reality in communities across the world.

Tom: [13:22]
Yeah, I think it's interesting, right? That connectivity and access is the first hurdle to a world with greater equity. And then you get to, and this is the space that I live in, how do you kind of give people the knowledge and the skills to be able to go out and get the job and have the career progression that leads to the opportunities that life can provide? And how do you do that in an equitable way? We have an institution where half of our students are first generation, we're a Hispanic serving institution. I see AWS doing a lot of things to really kind of bring, and this is not just kind of a social mobility issue, this is an economic competitiveness issue for our country, right? We only graduated 54,000 students in the United States with CS degrees. And, you know, we have over 1.2 million jobs projected between now and 2030. Talk a little bit about what AWS is doing trying to bring up, now that we're doing a better job on the access, to bring up the skill level, so that we have a larger population of people who are literate with data, especially, to be able to go out there and build a career around it.

Kim: [14:37]
Tom, the number one discussion that myself and my peers had over the last, I would say year, has been primarily focused on skills gaps. So whether you're taking a look at the World Economic Forum, where actually they report that 50% of all employees need to be reskilled, or upskilled by 2025, we started looking at the report literally two years ago. And as we roll into 2023, we don't have much more time to go. So Amazon is leaning in. And here we've made several commitments to reskill the current workers and prepare the next generation of tech leaders, as a part of our efforts. And anybody who's listening, I hope that they take the opportunity to take a look at the information that we have on our site. But we want to continue to support that future workforce. In 2020, we actually invested hundreds of millions of dollars to provide free cloud computing skills training to 29 million by 2025. And that's really to address what we heard from the World Economic Forum.

Tom: [15:43]
Kim, I want to make sure I heard that right. 29 million by 2025?

Kim: [15:49]
29 million by 2025, and we do send out regular updates on how we are progressing our efforts. But, Tom, it's important. And we see that as a key impairment for those next generation learners, the current workforce today, and in order for them to get there, they have to upskill and reskill themselves. So it's a big lofty opportunity for us to make our impact, and that's a global objective. But just to bring it a little bit closer to what we're doing, from a fiscal perspective, we actually have two AWS skill centers, we have one in Seattle, and one in Arlington, Virginia. And we have additional sites planned in 2023. But in addition to the online learning skills that you could capture, if you're in those two geographies – and look for more in the future – we offer free foundational cloud training that actually also offers interactive exhibits, because a lot of people are trying to say, “Hey, how does this fit in my world? Or how does this fit in the environment that I'm operating in?” So we actually hold career networking events with local employers and organizations that are interested in exploring those cloud career possibilities. I mean, it doesn't matter what part of an industry you're in, or if you're a student or a parent, or just interacting with government. Everything has changed because of the digital environments to which we're operating in. The time I saw you at The Reinvent in Las Vegas a couple of months back -  It's our biggest annual conference, and each November – we actually focus on just the cloud computing community – we announced that we have an AWS Machine Learning University, or what we call MLU, is actually also providing free educator enablement programs that prioritizes US community colleges, minority serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities. So not only are we trying to get the entire community aware of the free training that's available, we're also trying to do our best to make sure that those underserved areas have access, and then we focus on opportunities. Again, this goes back to our diversity opportunities. How do we continue to enable communities so that they're solving for their issues, for their opportunities of what they'd like to see different. It's exciting to be a part of, but at the end of the day, we need all the institutions to embrace so that when students are leaving their institutions, they're leaving with cloud skills, because that's the future. And, ironically, really, the next generation that's pushing governments to think differently, education institutions to think differently, because without that ability to meet them where they're at, there's still going to be a continued gap. Because I know my young children operate at school far differently than I did in the past, and we need to unleash that for them. So, cloud skills is going to help them do that and push all of us to do more and better and faster.

Tom: [19:00]
Yeah, you’ve got a great point, as technology advances, the younger generation always pushes the changes that come into our economy. And so these – whether we call them Gen Z, or digital natives – it's like, they’re so much more comfortable with the technology and the user level, and they come up with these very, very unique ways of thinking about using a technology that people of an earlier generation go, “I just never would have gone there.” And one of the things that I recognize, and I just had a great example of this a couple of weeks ago, at a mental health challenge that we held here at our university, is the difference between our students and their concept of mental health apps on their phone, and we had a set of high school teams come in and kind of pitch some ideas. And they were using earbuds as not just as something to hear through, but as an interaction mechanism, to be able to get answers to questions to help people deal with their mental health situation they were dealing with. And those of us who were sitting there, and even the students who were pitching to win the grand prize were going, “That is a very, very cool, novel and I never would have thought of that idea.” So it just shows you that as these technologies become more pervasive, every generation continues to push us. And the equity issue is a huge one, right? Because, again, as we give everyone devices, we give everyone connectivity to connect in, we need to make sure – and I love what you all are doing with MLU because it is really saying we need to get everyone to the table, we need to give everyone those opportunities – and sometimes we need ethics, not sometimes, all the time, we've learned we got to go that extra mile to make sure that those from underrepresented groups, we make a special effort to bring them to the opportunities because they just don't always see them in the same way as other types of students. I want to pivot a little bit here to something that a lot of people don't understand about Amazon, the company. And you know, AWS is a component of this, that Amazon has built an amazingly successful company, and they've built capabilities, but you're one of the few companies that I've seen actually make those capabilities available to the rest of the world. And you know, as an example, the AWS platform, which is the platform that Amazon runs its business on, is now available to many, many million organizations out there to help run their businesses. And it's not just cloud computing, it's call center software and you made an announcement about supply chain solutions this year at your annual conference, but one of the most amazing things I think far too few people understand is that Amazon and AWS making their capabilities available to the small business and entrepreneur has generated over 2.7 million jobs over the last several years for our economy. It's one of the most successful, untold stories about small business innovation and individual entrepreneurship. And people are building those businesses off of the AWS platform. So how does Amazon talk to communities about this? And I'm really interested to hear how do you talk to underrepresented communities or socio economically depressed communities about the opportunity to leapfrog forward utilizing a platform that AWS provides?

Kim: [22:25]
Well, the exciting part for me, and we see this, think about innovation, so whether you're a small-medium enterprise company, a startup or even a government trying to reinvent or reimagine what an engagement could look like? It comes down to: they have an idea, they have a vision, and now how do they capture that? So for us, we have several different organizations that target each one of those communities differently with different programs. So there's a host of programs, whether you’re small, medium, and even the enterprise organizations, because they're solving for different pumps, like seats, do. They have communities they have to touch in different ways. So what we do is we work backwards from the opportunity that they seek to serve better. And you know, you're right, we don't talk about it very often, because we'd like to have our customers talk about the experience that they have, because it's truly what they're delivering to their community, their customer, their constituents that really is making the most impact. So what we do is we work backwards: what problem are you trying to solve? What opportunity? And as we work backwards, we help them identify and really push them on: what is the data telling you? Why do you see that this is a problem? How are you creating a better outcome based on the results of the past, because doing the same thing over and over again,, and expecting a different outcome, it doesn't work anymore, we have enough data, no matter where you're at, in or what business that you're in, that says we have to do things differently. So if we take the data, help them understand how to leverage the data, and work backwards from solving that problem in that form, it allows them to address their need, not just something AWS is telling them that they could use. It's really, truly saying, let's work backwards, I don't have one product to sell, I have multiple services to offer. And in order to do that, it's all about what they need, not what I have. 

Tom: [24:24]
I want to pivot to a topic that I heard a bunch about at the AWS conference this year. And again, it's a topic that is becoming front and center, certainly to our elected government officials. It's kind of front and center now for most CEOs of medium and large companies. It's the topic of the environment and sustainability. AWS has made some really, really bold claims about sustainability. You've had some, in terms of things like renewable energy, but now there's more added to that things like water. Can you talk a little bit about AWS’ commitment to the environment and sustainable communities?

Kim: [25:08]
Well, I'm glad you heard the message loud and clear at Reinvent. But it is absolutely true. We're committed and we're invested in sustainability because it is a win all the way around. It's good for the planet, for businesses, for our customers, and really, for our communities. If you think about sustainability, we look at it in a couple of different ways. But it all started in 2019. Amazon co-founded the climate pledge. It's our commitment to be net-[zero] carbon across our businesses by 2040. Now, as consumers, and for those of you in your audience who might be listening, a lot of people are probably thinking, is it the electronic delivery vans and the packaging that's smaller, easier to recycle. But what people really aren't thinking about is the cloud. So being in the cloud itself is actually energy efficient. Moving on-premise workloads to AWS lowers the workload carbon footprint by 88 percent. And when we talk to customers about the opportunity because it is also a priority for them, they didn't realize how we were contributing to that goal Amazon-wide. So our goal is using 100% renewable energy by 2025. And we are actually five years ahead of our original goal of 2030. So when we focus on efficiency across all of all aspects of our infrastructure, from the design of our data centers, and the hardware to modeling up to performance of our operations, many customers asked us to help them measure their carbon footprint, and how they're actually saving with looking at AWS as their methodology for managing their workload. But when we take that a little bit further, we also at Reinvent – so Tom, I'm happy to hear that you heard it – we are also focused on being water positive by 2030. That means we're going to return more water to the communities and to the environment than we use in our actual data center operations. I'm gonna give you a California example in just a second. But in order for us to do this, we're increasing the use of sustainable water sources, improving water efficiencies across our operations, and reusing as much as possible and supporting water replenishment projects for our communities and environments across the world. Now in California, specifically, we have two data centers that use recycled wastewater instead of drinking water. AWS is also working with the freshwater trust to recharge groundwater using water rights from local irrigation districts, increasing summer flows into the Sacramento River and Bay Delta and improving wildlife habitats. We are truly thinking big in this opportunity. And that, again, is to support what is important and that is that climate pledge.

Tom: [28:08]
Yes, so Kim, so I heard this at the conference this year. You know, it sounds great. And of course, one of the wonderful things about working at university is you have an expert here on call to be able to talk to, and certainly when I first heard it, I had no idea of that complexity and the challenge of actually delivering on what you all have pledged. The scientists gave me a little bit of reading and I'm like, “Okay, they were impressed with the challenges and I know we're going to reach out because I think we want to learn more about how you're doing this and try to figure out how we could add into that with the expertise that we have in our institution. So I think that's amazing. I want to ask one more question. And this is kind of one about you. Because one of the things, as I've gotten to work with AWS and different people, there's consistency of something that comes up in every conversation. And it's about the leadership principles of the university, you all use it as part of the interview process. You know, it's a standard that you're all held to in terms of – it really defines the culture of the way the organization works. So can you talk about how it's influenced you as a leader, what those principles mean to you, when you go out and lead your very large organization today. 

Kim: [29:27]
Oh Tom, this one hits home for me, and having been here for a whole lot of day ones, I think about the leadership principles that resonate with me the most. And that is “thinking big.” In a world to which we have children growing in their journey of life, and we have our citizens, our aging parents in our life, or when we see at times, when life is hard, and we need medical support; I think about thinking big, and delivering a different outcome for the future. I want better outcomes, not only for my children, but for all children. I want my parents to feel that they're engaged in a community that understands and supports them. And at some point, everyone needs medical support. I want a world without diseases. So if we could all think big, and this is what just makes me excited about being with AWS: it really allows us to push and to be a part of the greatest innovation that we see in all those areas. And whether being a lifelong learner, whether being responsible for delivering results, whether being Earth’s most employee-centric organization; if we think about every opportunity that the leadership principles give us and are truly our guideposts for how we communicate, and what we value, it really has brought my organization, as well as the greater Amazon organization, together and focused on the mission. So, I get excited about the opportunity to do all the things that I would hope – doctors choose to invest their time to cure cancer, to cure terminal diseases –  that for me to be a part of that journey; and I know the University of California does amazing work, UC Davis, in some of the efforts that they have, it's exciting to be a part of that. So we take our leadership principles, we wear them proud, and we're loud about them. But when we could sit down with those that have the skills, we just like to be a part of that journey. So for me, the leadership principles are my guideposts and I often, good, better, indifferent for my two kids, they become a part of our vocabulary at home, because we have a high ownership. When you do something, you take high ownership to ensure that it's successful. When I talk to my customers, I am so obsessed about making them successful, because if I could make my customers successful, I will help be a part of the transformation in healthcare, I will be a part of the transformation in citizen engagement. And I will be a part of supporting the educators in this world to make the next generation workforce that will help us all. So for me, every day, I love what I do, there's not a day that I come to work or to a business meeting that I am not happy to be there. But more importantly, I'm more humbled to be a part of something that is bigger than just me. And I love my job, it doesn't feel like work when you get to be a part of all of it.

Tom: [32:56]
And maybe you've already answered this right. Kim Majerus, the leader on your true day one six years ago when you joined AWS and Kim Majerus, the person who will come to work tomorrow. What's the difference?

Kim: [33:08}
I think what the difference has been in the last six years, is truly the opportunity to do it. The culture that we are empowered with, that the roles that we have, there's nowhere better than at Amazon to do it. Every vision, every opportunity from a career perspective, from a personal ambition perspective, to truly actually impacting the future. It's what I hoped it would be. And it's delivered everything more than that.

Tom: [33:44]
That's amazing, right? I think there's a lot of leaders who want that, maybe they bring that vision, and then they feel like they have to spend a lot of energy providing air cover for their staff from those above, who would bring a lot of bureaucracy on down to them, and then spending a lot of energy trying to figure out how to instill innovative, out-of-the-box, more risk taking for their teams. It sounds like you don't have to spend a lot of energy on that. It's just kind of there. Is that like a big difference from those the other organizations you've been a part of and what you've experienced at AWS?

Kim: [34:21]
So all the organizations that I've been grateful for being a part of, they all have culture in their own way. And each are very unique. Here, it is an absolute requirement, which is why when we interview people, we interview folks on “can they fit into the culture?” So do we have to work at times? Absolutely. Do we have to get approvals at times? Absolutely. But what is the number one thing is if you're customer obsessed, and you're focused on helping them deliver results and outcome, you are empowered to help them think big and do it. There's no other organization that I've worked for that has really given that power to every single individual contributor that is a part of the organization. If you see something that can be done differently, can be done better, we want to know. And I'm a little bit of a softy and I would hope my team thinks this way as well: when they have a problem, they're not afraid to voice it. They're like, Well, why are we doing this? Can we do it better, couldn't we do it differently? And every single one of my team knows that they're in power to push. We have a culture of escalation. If you don't like the answer, keep pushing until you get the answer that you understand or you need, or more importantly, that will help you break through a barrier. At Amazon, we have that opportunity. And I'd hope to think that everyone on my team would actually say that as well. There's no problem that can't be solved, come with the data and show how we could do it better or show how we could solve a problem. It makes it better for everyone.

Tom: [36:01]
I'm gonna leave it right there. Kim, I want to thank you so much for joining us and sharing your story, the Amazon AWS story and some of the visions for the future. So thank you so much for joining us today.

Kim: [36:13]
And, Tom, I want to thank you and the University of California. The quality and the opportunity that you're giving the students of California and the globe because I know you have a diverse student population is so important to continue to change the future that we have ahead of us. Thank you.