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Mossberg: Five things I learned from Jeff Bezos at Code

He has huge ambitions, but still wants to sell shoes.

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Recode.

Last week, I interviewed Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos onstage at our third annual Code Conference. It wasn’t my first such public conversation with Bezos — we had done an earlier interview in 2008 at the D conference, the predecessor to Code. Bezos joked that he appeared at our conferences “every eight years like clockwork.”

Back in May of 2008, the Kindle was still quite new, and we focused on that. This time, the scope of Bezos’s big ventures and interests was so broad that it couldn’t be contained in the allotted 60 minutes. The audience — in the room and watching via streaming — seemed to love the session, and it wasn’t because of me. (You can judge for yourself here.)

I’ve known Bezos for decades, since the very early days of Amazon, so it’s no surprise to me that he’s smart or willing to make big bets. But his answers to my questions were so thoughtful and interesting that I came away teeming with ideas.

So, in the column this week, I decided to unpack the session and focus on five things I found most valuable in those 80 minutes.

First, a couple of important caveats. A column about Bezos was never a part of his agreement to appear at Code, never even hinted at during those discussions. It only occurred to me after the conference ended. And it isn’t an effort to get him to appear again. I wouldn’t be surprised if he waits another eight years, or as he threatened, jokingly, nine years.

Also, the takeaways from this one interview, while intriguing to me and a lot of others, aren’t meant to indicate that he’s a flawless businessman or some sort of Mother Teresa. Amazon makes mistakes, including launching a smartphone in 2014 that was a flop and to which I gave a poor review (“I found its big new features less useful than I expected, and sometimes outright frustrating.”). The company has gotten into some nasty fights with book publishers and been criticized for having a harsh work culture (a charge Bezos denied onstage — again).

But Jeff Bezos was compelling onstage last week.

Wandering, taking risks and knowing when to fold

Asked what he’d be doing in five years, he said he guessed he’d be doing the same job. “I tap dance into work,” he explained. “I love my job.” Describing his role, he said, “I like to wander” down the paths of ideas. In fact, he said, he keeps the agendas of many of his meetings “loose” to encourage brainstorming and wandering.

When pursuing a project, he said, he likes to be “stubborn on the vision, but flexible on the details.” And, he’ll stick with an idea until “the last high-judgment champion folds his or her cards.”

In the tech world, you can reel off great products in several ways. You can have the once-in-a-lifetime gut instincts of a Steve Jobs. You can have the brainiac coding skills of a Bill Gates, Larry Page or Sergey Brin. Or, I learned, you can have the deep intellectual curiosity and stubbornness of a Jeff Bezos.

The next big thing

Bezos, along with other Code speakers like Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, talked about artificial intelligence being the next big tech innovation and battleground. “I think it’s gigantic,” Bezos said. “It’s probably hard to overstate how big of an impact it’s going to have on society over the next 20 years. It has been a dream since the early days of science fiction to have a computer that you can talk to in a natural way and actually ask it to have a conversation with you and ask it to do things for you. And that is coming true.”

He said that he is “deeply committed” to AI being a huge part of Amazon’s business and that the company has worked secretly on it for four years. But, even though Amazon has jumped out ahead in voice-controlled smart assistants with its Echo hardware powered by its Alexa AI platform, Bezos predicted that “all the major tech companies will do this, but there’ll also be hundreds of startup companies.” He predicted that people will use different AI “agents” for different things.

Still, he added, it’s very early. It’s not only the first inning for AI, he said, “it might even be the first guy’s up at bat.”

One complication: Privacy. He claimed Amazon makes it clear that it’s learning and collecting what he called “training data” from you by embedding your name in its devices at the factory.

But he added that the privacy issue is far from over, especially with regard to tension between tech and the government. He said Amazon stood with Apple in its recent battle with the FBI, but “I believe [privacy] is an issue of our age and that we as a citizen-run democracy are going to have to deal with that.”

Video and “the flywheel”

I asked Bezos whether, now that Amazon has a big video business as part of its Prime membership program and is producing its own shows and winning awards, it will become a media company, competing with Netflix. Surprisingly, he said he doesn’t think Amazon Prime Video competes with Netflix — that households subscribe to both services. And, he added, “when we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes, and it does that in a very direct way.” He explained that he sees Prime as a “flywheel” in which members browse and buy more to justify the annual fee they’ve paid, and that every part of the service, including award-winning TV programming, is part of the flywheel that keeps the whole thing spinning and goods flying off the shelves.

The best planet

Bezos lit up when I asked about his private space company, Blue Origin. Like its competitor, SpaceX, owned by another Code speaker, Elon Musk, Blue Origin is working on reusable rockets and has had some recent success. He said he’s been “passionate about space and rockets since I was a 5-year-old.”

Asked how he differed from Musk on space, he said they were generally “like-minded,” but that Musk was much more focused on colonizing Mars, while he was more concerned with creating a space infrastructure that could enable great deeds after decades of inertia.

While he said he, too, wanted someday to help explore other planets, he’s focused on the Earth. “Let me assure you this is the best planet ... and we need to protect it,” he said. One way to do that, he suggested, would be to move all heavy industry into orbit, where solar energy is abundant and constant, and “Earth will be zoned residential and light industrial.”

A free press … and Donald Trump

Bezos said he bought the Washington Post in 2013 because “I think it’s an important institution,” and he believes he can make it into a national and even global powerhouse. He said he disagreed with the effort by billionaire Peter Thiel to fund lawsuits against Gawker Media, apparently to drive that company out of business in revenge for outing the financier as gay years ago.

He advised public figures like Thiel to develop a “thick skin” and avoid the impulse to exact revenge on the media. He condemned anything that cultivates “a climate of fear or chill” on the press and said “beautiful speech doesn’t need protection. It’s the ugly speech that needs protection.”

Asked about an attack from Donald Trump alleging that the Post is a tax deduction for Amazon and a “scam,” Bezos said Trump is trying to “freeze or chill the media that are examining him.” Borrowing the wording of a famous Nixon administration threat to intimidate legendary Post owner Kay Graham, Bezos said, “With Kay Graham as my role model, I’m very willing to let any of my body parts go through a big fat wringer.”

Bottom line

I will likely continue to disagree with Bezos and Amazon from time to time. He may never come back to Code. But at this moment, he represents one of the few founder-CEOs to have built their visions to scale in a way that's changed the culture.

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