“Pushing the envelope requires having faith in your team”
Prime Video’s Michelle Dauphiny Becker, Director of Video Search, explains how Amazon empowers leaders with the trust needed to embrace unique perspectives, set bold goals, and effect positive change.
When Michelle Dauphiny Becker interviewed at Amazon in November 2020, she was blown away by Amazonians’ shared passion for solving complex customer challenges.
The culture at Prime Video is very experimentation-driven, which means any idea–no matter how ambitious–is welcomed.
“Amazon builds for a huge diversity of customers, which means we must be powered by a huge diversity of builders,” says Michelle, who joined Prime Video as Director, Video Search, in January 2021 after a two-decade technical development stint at Microsoft.
And that customer diversity, she notes, also encompasses diversity of thought, preferences, experiences, geographic locations, and more.
“We embrace all perspectives and don’t attempt to normalize customers, which would force us down a path of trying to deliver something very average,” Michelle adds. “And delivering for the “average” customer is not my goal. I want to deliver for all kinds of unique customers. As a technologist, that really excites me. And it’s something I see happening every day at Amazon.”
We met with Michelle to learn more about her career journey and leadership approach, as well as how Prime Video embraces different points of view and empowers leaders like her with the environment and trust needed to drive positive change.
1) Michelle, how do you encourage diversity of thought on your team?
“Pushing the envelope requires having faith in your team. The culture at Prime Video is very experimentation-driven, which means any idea–no matter how ambitious–is welcomed, so long as it can be substantiated with a hypothesis of how it will add customer or business value. All Amazonians are encouraged to be bold and to set ambitious goals. We feel safe setting goals we don’t yet know how to achieve because we trust that our teams will figure out how to achieve them.
We’re search technologists, working toward our mission of becoming the default place where Amazon Prime customers come to find video content.
As part of that process, we try things that may not hit the mark, but yield valuable lessons. And capturing those lessons and integrating them into what we do next creates a beautiful, positive feedback loop. We never see an experiment as a failure if it doesn’t work. Because if you know it will work, it’s not an experiment. This mindset differentiates us from other technology companies.”
2) What does your team do?
“We’re search technologists, working toward our mission of becoming the default place where Amazon Prime customers come to find video content. And we’re builders who are willing to take temporary setbacks for long-term gains, willing to assert ideas and try things that might not work, and willing to sacrifice one experience to make another one even stronger.
My team is deeply empathetic. Empathy is an under-acknowledged emotional intelligence skillset and a fundamental requirement of anyone working in search. By the time a Prime Video customer gets to search, something is on the tip of their tongue. They know what they want, but can’t find it. Empathy and being able to serve the customer in that moment is both our challenge and privilege. And a positive side effect of empathetic people is that they’re great to work with.”
3) How would you describe your approach to team-building?
“It has been a challenge, especially coming in as a new Amazonian. If anything, I’ve had to be vocally and publicly self-critical. If I can’t admit–openly and broadly–where I’ve erred, then nobody on my team will feel safe to make mistakes. We cultivate a team culture in which we can be formal enough to define and understand our goals–and have the discipline and mechanisms to achieve them–but also informal enough to be able to say, “I need help.”
So much of what I learned from working with tenured Amazonians has been around our writing culture, which I strongly align with.
I believe that being genuine and authentic is the only way to truly connect with people, and that being transparent about your misses allows you to openly celebrate your wins in a more genuine way. That involves being vulnerable, which isn’t always easy.
I’m constantly working to serve my team’s variety of needs, because members on a diverse team want and need different things. Going back to empathy, we’re all willing to reach out and help colleagues. Those connections are then much more durable.”
4) You spent 20 years of your career at another large tech company, why did you choose to come to Prime Video?
“I believe we get paid in dollars and learnings. Learning has always been my currency of choice; it has inspired and motivated me to make career changes to avoid getting stale in any particular role. Coming to Amazon was the biggest move of my career because I not only joined a new company, but I was also new to both the video space and the search space at the same time.”
5) What did you find the most interesting about Amazon’s culture when you arrived in 2021?
“So much of what I learned from working with tenured Amazonians has been around our writing culture, which I strongly align with. I see writing as the great democratizer of ideas. When you present a paper, it’s not about knowing the most people or having the loudest voice in the room. Writing forces you to inspect ideas and discern with data.”
6) As a technologist, what interests and challenges you about search?
“My vision is to become the default destination for Amazon Prime customers to find video content. It sounds so simple, but it’s actually really difficult.
Prime Video customers come to search when the homepage doesn’t connect them with the content they want. Search is the place where customers get to explicitly tell us what they want and our job is to find it. I love that this is simultaneously simple and complicated, because sometimes the customer sends us a jumbled signal to decipher. Our goal is to combine what customers tell us they want to watch right at that moment with what we understand about them.”
7) Finally, how has your perspective as a woman and mother shaped your leadership approach?
“Two things. First and foremost, being a working mother has taught me how to prioritize. As humans, we can only do a few things really well. There are always trade-offs, but as a leader, I’ve realized that there’s value in embracing that tension, and resisting the temptation to try to do everything all at once. So, at work I focus on where I can add unique value and don’t try to fiddle with everything.
Second, as humans we also have to acknowledge the cost of constant mode-switching between work and home, and sometimes that means taking a break. I was fortunate to take an extended maternity leave when my youngest child was born, and now I’m grateful to Amazon for supporting an upcoming two-month break to support that child in her college search. I’m taking off this month and next to visit schools all over the country. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with her and balance work at the same time, so this was a time I prioritized family. When I get back, I’ll be recharged and excited to balance work and family as usual.”