Customer-obsessed innovation at Prime Video
BA Winston, VP of Technology at Prime Video, reflects on eight years, many launches, and reducing latency for live streaming at Prime Video.
I first began interacting with Amazon in the early 2000s when my wife started buying books for our kids. We had to buy multiple books as we homeschool our kids and we were quite stunned by the selection, prices, and customer service.
In the mid-2000s, I led product and tech for a company that sold its mobile application software stack to mobile operators and cable companies, and I was then faced with the pain of renting co-location space, buying hardware, and deploying and operating it. It was time consuming, slow, expensive, and incredibly inflexible. When we started experimenting with Amazon Web Services (AWS) compute services in the late 2000s, I knew that it was going to change the future of infrastructure.
I was fascinated by how an online book seller was fast transforming the future of computing. When I attended re:Invent 2012, I was further impressed by the speed of innovation at AWS.
Then, in early 2014, I received a call about a role at Prime Video from an executive recruiter in Luxembourg. Although I had no plans of moving my family from the U.S. East Coast, I became convinced that Prime Video (then known as Amazon Video) while tiny at that time, was poised for rapid growth. I wanted to be a part of that journey and so I took the leap and joined Prime Video in October 2014.
Eight years and many, many launches later
Initially, I was responsible for video supply chain technologies and operations, in addition to some parts of playback technologies. We faced challenges publishing error-free content in a punctual manner to the Prime Video site. At the time, we ran at a much smaller scale, had very basic metrics, and our video-on-demand (VOD) content was only available on limited devices in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan.
Yet, despite this, we were a very small organization with a big vision: we wanted to increase device coverage, improve the customer experience (CX), be available on all devices, and delight our customers with different content formats. We strove to innovate and provide the best streaming experience for our customers.
Since that time, each year has been bigger than the previous one, and we have consistently innovated and delivered for our customers at an unprecedented pace. I’ve been privileged to play a role in quite a few big Prime Video launches. In 2015, we launched Prime Video Channels (third-party subscriptions on top of Prime Video) that required launching a barebone version in a few short months of live linear (24x7) streaming to support several linear channels.
In 2022, we launched TNF exclusively on Prime Video, which required massively scaling our services and video delivery and building an incredible amount of groundbreaking tech.
In 2016, we launched globally overnight across more than 240 countries and territories. That was a momentous occasion but with it came many hard challenges that we had to solve, including how to stream on small mobile phones over a 2G network in India. In 2017, we launched our first big global sports event. We built a ton of tech (including a global live stack, dynamic ad insertion, audience measurement, and scaling to support a big event) in around six months. Our launch laid the foundation for Prime Video to enter an exciting sports streaming industry. In 2018, we had to scale live events to grow from around 15 events in 2017 to several hundred in 2018. Today, we support around 20,000 live events globally – quite astounding.
In 2019, we exclusively launched the English Premier League (EPL) in the United Kingdom. That was huge moment and it paved the foundation for many more exclusive events on Prime Video. In 2022, we launched NFL Thursday Night Football (TNF) exclusively on Prime Video, which required massively scaling our services and video delivery and building an incredible amount of groundbreaking tech.
Two pivotal moments
My (brief) eight years at Prime Video have been extremely exciting so far, but during this time I’ve experienced two important moments that I’d like to share because they shape the way that I solve challenges and help build solutions with teams at Prime Video today.
The first moment was in 2017 when we launched TNF on Prime Video in only a few months. At Amazon, we live and breathe our Leadership Principles (LPs) and this time was no exception. My teams leaned into each and every LP, which ensured that the organization came together and thought about our customers at each moment and in all decisions. The LPs pushed us to constantly innovate and build new tech. To dive deep into streaming formats, define new standards, and build dynamic ad insertion (DAI) technology that provides a seamless experience for our customers.
We encourage all of our technologists to innovate, show deep ownership, and conduct forward-looking research to delight our customers.
For this launch, simplification was key because we had limited time to deliver. We built new mechanisms to get ready for a launch that we couldn’t postpone. Our teams left no stone unturned in thinking through our customer experience, including solving the challenge of very high availability and figuring out how to operate large live events. Failure simply wasn’t an option. But we learned a lot, we delivered for our customers, and we instilled confidence that Prime Video raises the bar on sports streaming, and, ultimately, we made history. This launch has paved the way for several sports properties that are now on Prime Video globally.
The second moment was when we reduced latency for live streaming. We looked for options, going deep into the network protocols and streaming protocols. I had the amazing and unique privilege of diving deep into this with a very talented and experienced principal engineer. This led us to do something a little differently and choose tech that used user datagram protocol (UDP), rather than HTTP. We found good reasons to lean into this, while being aware of several challenges. We thought big, worked with a “can-do” attitude, thought singularly about our customer’s experience, and leapt ahead of broadcast streaming.
Table tennis and customer-obsessed innovation
Even eight years after I arrived at Prime Video, every day is filled with excitement and innovation – and it’s still only Day 1.
At Prime Video, we’re constantly innovating our streaming experience and this innovation has not ceased from the day that we launched HDR on our service in 2015 (incidentally, we were the first in the industry to do that). We’re scaling our services, how we operate, evolving our culture, developing teams across the globe, and focusing on giving our employees more flexibility in their work environment and lives. We encourage all of our technologists to innovate, show deep ownership, and conduct forward-looking research (both internally and with academic institutions) to delight our customers. We’re building groundbreaking tech that delivers the future of entertainment and streaming across all content types, globally and at scale (how fun!!).
But we also like to mix work and fun. Personally, I love playing table tennis with my teammates, although so far this has not been streamed live on Prime Video but you never know. While this is often the highlight of my day, the real highlight are the stories that my teammates share. The stories of the builders, innovators, inventors, and technologists at the heart of technology and entertainment. I relish hearing these stories and watching them unfold when our products go live.
Today, we can also share some of these stories of innovation with you through this website. But they’re only a small part of the innovation at Prime Video that I’m humbled and delighted to be part of.