Joe Walowski: Going against the Grain

Rice CS alumnus Joe Walowski is now VP for Alexa at Amazon.

Rice CS alumnus Joe Walowski is now VP for Alexa at Amazon.

Ten years after opened its online doors, Rice University Computer Science alumnus Joe Walowski (B.S. ’90) was hired to expand retail sales by including third party vendors.

“Fulfillment by Amazon – FBA – was intriguing to me even though other people forecast a fail,” said Walowski. “My manager, who hired me into Amazon 15 years ago, jokes that he hired me because no one else wanted the job. Everyone was skeptical at first, but look at where it is now—we ship millions of products now on behalf of sellers.” It was a role that was sure to be full of new challenges to open up Amazon’s fulfillment capabilities. But Walowski had an ideal background, a high tolerance for risk, and believed in the concept.

“We were chartered to create a business that let independent sellers put their goods in Amazon’s fulfillment centers. While there were certainly some internal skeptics, I understood why it could be transformational for Amazon, and being an outsider allowed me to come in and think about the problem from a fresh perspective.”

“It’s exhilarating to be in the skunk works, and often times going against the grain yields outsized opportunities and pay-offs. In the case of FBA, this meant weekly meetings with Amazon leadership including Jeff Bezos to help keep us on track and ensure that our progress was moving forward internally. I learned so much from that experience, and grew my network of colleagues, as a result of the risks I took.”

While Amazon was still focused on selling books, Walowski co-founded New York City’s first online grocery, which gave him a unique appreciation for the hard reality of order fulfillment. “It’s not all bits and bytes, most businesses have a physical, operational component to them,” he said.

Following business school, Walowski was part of the first “” explosion of interest in ‘new media,’ co-founding The Industry Standard, itself a combination of print journalism, digital content, and online advertising. In 1998 the Standard was the fastest growing print periodical of all time (in terms of revenue). Yet, in 2001 and when the bubble burst, the company went bankrupt. “I have zero regrets, it was an amazing ride! Living through the ups and downs of a business cycle is fantastic experience, and I would encourage folks to seek out dynamic environments early in their career.”

After the success of launching FBA, Walowski was approached with another challenging proposal: advertising inside Amazon’s online shopping experience.

Walowski said, “When I was asked to take on a new set of businesses in the advertising realm, a lot of folks didn’t believe in that model for Amazon. But advertising is just another means of discovery, and from that perspective, experimenting with advertising was a logical extension of the Amazon shopping experience. Our team designed new, native performance advertising experiences, developing machine learning techniques to show customers highly relevant ads as they search and browse on Amazon.” The endeavor was successful, evolving from a disruptive idea to a billion dollar business, and Walowski became VP of (then) Amazon Clicks. Then, he met Alexa.

He said, “Alexa came out in 2014, when I was still focused on performance advertising. Fast forward a couple of years and Alexa was growing fast both in terms of team and mission. I was asked to create a world-class product development organization for Alexa, powered by cutting-edge computer science, and I jumped at the chance.”

He realized while a CS student at Rice that he was less interested in academic research than industry, and the opportunity to have an immediate real world impact. “The unifying theme in my career has been excitement for creating coherent customer experiences, not technology for tech’s sake. I love the feedback loop, exploring what people might want to use next, and working backwards from a customer need to a magical experience,” he said.

“Getting customer feedback is important to Amazon’s approach. It was also important when I was launching startups, but there is a much longer lead time for new companies than established ones. At Amazon, you put it out there and it’s going to be used immediately, it’s a big canvas. You find out right away what works and what breaks. That’s exciting for me.”

He said Rice University attracted him to its undergraduate program because of its reputation for engineering excellence and the “warm and down-to-earth” feel of the Rice community when he visited. He considered majoring in electrical engineering until he took a computer science course and fell in love with programming.

“Even though I loved programming and was a good student, I recognized I wasn’t the best CS student. I would probably not be doing ground-breaking research as a PhD, or out-coding the best of the best in industry, so I looked for my superpower. In time I found I was uniquely good at matching technology to real-world applications, and rallying teams around a shared vision that could be built.”

“Combining computer science and management enabled me to fully leverage my computer science degree, putting me in a position today where I lead an incredibly smart and passionate team. We’re developing a cutting edge cloud service (Alexa), pushing the state of the art in machine learning, and bringing to life, slowly but surely, the artificial intelligence we dreamed about when I was a CS student at Rice 30 years ago!"