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The Rungs of Learning with Subbu Sundaresan, Engineering Leader at Amazon

Updated: May 31, 2022

If you've read my book, you likely know that the idea for it was born on a run prompted by my good friend Subbu Sundaresan, an engineering leader at Amazon.


Subbu is the epitome of a lifelong learner. From coming to the U.S. from India as a young man where he didn't know a soul to working in a variety of organizations to establish himself not just as a technical expert but as a credible business and people leader. He's is full inspiring quotes and great practices you're sure to benefit from.


Enjoy!


Before we get into the interview, tell us a little bit about your background.

I got an undergraduate degree in physics and graduate degree in computer engineering when I was in India and, when I moved to the U.S. for a job, I got my MBA after being here for five years.


I’m currently a senior manager software development at Amazon in the AWS division. I’ve worked for Amazon for 14 years (I had a break in there when I worked at Nordstrom for almost three years). At Amazon I’ve worked in business to business for Amazon India and had stints in grocery, books, and fulfillment. Prior experience includes high tech across various domains including Delta Airlines, consulting and at a payment processing com


What is a memorable moment or funny story from when you first moved to the U.S. from India?

I landed at JFK airport 25 years ago with my heart filled with hope and nothing much else except two suitcases filled with books. I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful for the amazing opportunities I’ve gotten over the years – this country is indeed a treasure because in many countries, this isn’t even possible. I’ve learned to navigate the system and learned that, if you’re good, you will get recognized and do interesting and challenging work.


There are lots of memorable stories of me getting settled in the U.S. but one sticks out in my mind the most.


When I first came here, I’d never driven a car before, so I learned how and got my license within my first two months arriving in Atlanta.


After I got the job at Delta, I was scheduled to meet the hiring manager at a hotel near the corporate office on my first day. I was really nervous that I was going to get lost and I didn’t want to be late so I did some test runs the night before.


The next morning, I was supposed to arrive at 8:00am and I was so worried about screwing up that I ended up leaving for the twenty-mile drive at 4:30am. On my way there, the windows of the rental car I was driving got fogged up as big semi-trucks were whizzing by. I couldn’t see at all, and I didn’t know how to defog the windows so was driving real slowly. It was nerve wracking as people were honking at me. I was already stressed about the new job already and that drive there made it all even more stressful.


I ended up arriving at the hotel by 6am and fell asleep on the couch in the lobby exhausted and where I was found by the hiring manager. Everything turned out in the end but, wow, was that stressful!


One of my values is don’t keep people waiting – be respectful of people’s time so that’s why it was important for me to be there on time. I also believe that trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets and the smallest of things matter – the way you do small things is the way you do everything and I wanted to show up and do my best.


What did growing up in India teach you about leadership?

Adaptability and agility come to mind. Growing up in India helped me adapt and flex given all the resource constraints and the highly competitive environments. For example, the education system there is top notch, and the colleges are fiercely competitive. When I applied, there were 30,000 people competing for 60 seats and I fortunately got in. I had to work very hard to stand out among all the applicants and that experience prepared me very well to succeed in today’s business world.


Additionally, I learned a very ingrained mindset of inclusion and diversity. India is very multicultural and diverse. It’s a land of paradox of extremely rich people and extremely poor people living side by side. There are many languages and many cultures. Growing up it wasn’t uncommon to have kids from all kinds of backgrounds and from all over the country. Inclusivity was a deep part of my upbringing. This ingrained acceptance of diversity helped me manage people from different cultures and backgrounds while respecting their uniqueness. The moment you surround yourself with people who don’t look like you, don’t have experiences like you, sitting at a table with you, you’ll have perspectives that are different. That will lead to better innovation and better customer experiences.


Lastly, India gave me a healthy dose of confidence and humility. I don’t like environments filled with brilliant jerks – it doesn’t resonate with me.


You are a boomerang employee at Amazon (in that you left Amazon, went to work at Nordstrom and ended up back at Amazon). What did leaving and coming back teach you about yourself?

Learning is a lifelong process, and you have to always maintain a beginner’s mind. Making a job switch meant overcoming a steep learning curve into new industry and role.


Even in my fourteen non-consecutive years at Amazon, I was in a lot of different functions and business lines. But going to Nordstrom, I had never worked on problems at the intersection of fashion and tech (or “softlines” as we call it). I was tasked with building an omnichannel product to bridge the gap between online and offline which was a very different domain from my experience at Amazon.


I had to learn a very different work culture at Nordstrom which presented a lot of learning like striking a balance of exuding confidence and also asking for help. There was also an element of letting go of some of what I learned at Amazon and recognizing that every environment is different. What worked at Amazon might not work at Nordstrom and I had to figure out what would and wouldn’t work.


The reason I went to Nordstrom in the first place was because of the brand and it’s a very customer obsessed company, which resonated with me. The work pressure was far less at Nordstrom than Amazon so I could invest time in other parts of my life. Overall, working at Nordstrom was a good experience but I ultimately left and went back to Amazon because I felt it wasn’t the best fit for me.


What are the ways you contribute to team member development?

I believe getting to know every single person on the team at a personal level is very important. I also believe in fostering a strong sense of psychological safety. It’s a bedrock of teamwork and camaraderie. A happy team is a productive team.


As it relates to team member development, I ensure I have my team’s back and drive clarity in our mission, vision, and goals so that people can find meaning and feel confident about making an impact.


Deeply understanding your team members career aspirations, helping them craft relevant goals and find meaningful work that helps them achieve those goals is also important. Supporting team member development makes the work more joyful for me as a leader.


How do you approach your own development?

I’m a lifelong learner and having a growth mindset is very important in today’s world. A quote that resonates with me is “don’t set out in life to be an interesting person but an interested person”.


Earlier in my career I was proud of my technical capabilities, but I realized that would only take me so far. I went back to school for my MBA, and I’d work all day and go to school at night. This additional education gave me a broader perspective on my work which I noticed was highly valued when I came to Amazon. I was surrounded by very talented leaders who came from a variety of backgrounds and were doing so many different things that this became development in and of itself.


I like to set learning goals each year. For 2022, I have some goals including getting better at technical aspects of my job and I’m learning how to play the electric guitar. I find music therapeutic, and it’s been fun and I’m trying to get better. I also have a new appreciation of how hard that craft is and I’ve created a list of bands that inspire to me (AC/DC, Queen, VanHalen, Led Zeppelin and more) and I’m listening to all their best albums. The other thing I want to do this year is get fluent at chess as well as take a fun trip with my family to another country.


What advice would you give people who want to invest in their own development, but they don’t think they have time?

I saw a James Clear quote yesterday that was “when determining the size and complexity of a new habit, ask yourself the question ‘what can I stick to even on my worst day?’”. I’ve found that the consistent program you follow is better than the perfect program you quit. This applies to meditation, exercise, and your own development. Sometimes starting with a small routine is better than taking on a big chunk of time that you can’t follow through on.


I try and have a 60 minute learning ritual each day. It can be listening to a podcast in the car or reading something on the web. This week, I listened to a podcast on the reversing of aging and read an article in the Atlantic on love and grief (it was fascinating). I’m also listening to an Audible book this week by Bill Campbell called “Trillion Dollar Coach”.


I’m celebrating my book launch this month and you sparked the idea with me on a run. What, if anything, did you learn from my book writing and publishing experience?

I know book writing is hard. Most people stumble and are unable to successfully execute on a book writing project. That being said, I was impressed with your hustle and ability to get this project done in a short time span. This is not possible unless you are very disciplined and have a consistent writing ritual (habits). I am also impressed by your ability to single handedly drive all your marketing efforts related to your book.


I'm grateful for Subbu's friendship and always inspiring me to try new things.


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