We knew this cohort was going to be different. Even last December — in the ‘before times’ — the decision to recruit “fungible” design candidates was hotly debated. Every hiring team has unique needs, after all, and how many designers are truly great at all the skills within the design tool kit? But even the most skeptical design managers agreed this was a worthy experiment that, if successful, would help the intern program scale. So they did what we do at amazon, disagreed but committed to moving forward. All in. 100%!
As all the nuances of a new kind of recruiting and evaluation process were unfolding, pandemic struck. And questions emerged. So many questions. But like any other design problem, we broke big things into smaller things and pressed on. Remote equipment deployment and provisioning? Check. Remote on-boarding? Check. Remote collaboration? Check. Remote critiques? Check. 100% remote work? Sure thing. No problem.
Summer always seems to go by too fast, but this year made prior summers seem sluggish as time raced by like a rocket powered bobsled skating on lightning bolts. And somehow, in spite of a pandemic and distancing and civil unrest and raging fires ... every week a fresh group of culminating interns presented a spectacular array of highlights from nearly every corner of the business. By any objective measure this season was a success, far outpacing our most optimistic expectations. But given this year's ludicrous array of confounding variables, this cohort (and let's not forget their host team, managers, and mentors) would be enshrined in some sort of Interns Hall of Fame (if there was such a thing). The students’ drive, their incredible commitment to learning and being curious, and their ability to innovate under extreme constraints inspired their teams well beyond the exceptional design output.
Interns, we hardly knew ya.
But let’s make up for that. I got a chance to chat with a few as they returned to school and I’m happy to share excerpts from our collective chat. Allow me to introduce Leila, Kasey, and Elena who come to us from the University of Michigan School of Information and Carnegie Melon University.
So, how did you discover design in the first place? What inspired you to pursue a design degree?
Leila: I was inspired to pursue design once I realized there was an entire industry for what I loved to do in my everyday interactions with technology. Growing up in the Bay Area, I often participated in usability studies with neighboring tech companies. I would always offer prescriptive solutions to problems instead of providing my experience as the interviewers asked. The natural inclination to critique and improve digital interfaces sparked my interest in studying Information Science, allowing me to improve my design knowledge continuously.
Elena: I’ve always loved the process of conveying thoughts and emotions through visual communication. Going into high school, I started looking for a way to bridge my love for fine arts with my childhood wish to touch the lives of people. I always thought I would positively influence people’s lives through the visuals I create, but I didn’t know the medium of that communication until I began to take weekend classes at Art Center College of Design. Through their introductory product design courses, I found that I could touch the lives of people through the products I design, and since then I’ve been hooked on designing experiences that inspire delight./
Kasey: When I was in middle school, I was really interested in social media and blogging. This led me to downloading Photoshop on my parents’ laptop, and I would stay up all night making designs and photo edits. This then turned into me doing publicity and marketing work for clubs in high school and college, which I really enjoyed, but didn’t know how to make a career out of. I was going back and forth between like three different majors when my sister’s boyfriend told me that I should just be a designer if I like doing it so much, and it turned out that the University of Michigan had its own UX Design program! I was lucky enough to transfer into it my junior year and have been on this track since.
Did you have to do anything special to get buy-in from your family? Like, did someone ever say, “Oh heavens no. Do something sensible and go to business school” or something like that?
Leila: Explaining information science has always been a challenge. The title “experience designer” didn’t make much sense to my family outside of the industry. Early on, my parents only understood that I use the word “interface” all the time when talking about my design work. However, over time, I’ve included them in the design process and shared how a positive interaction with technology looks and feels. After interviewing them for class projects and sharing my design process, they show almost as much excitement for my job as I do. Funny enough, my mom now sends me UX Design Tiktoks to help me learn new tricks and tips.
Elena: My parents came to the States with nothing but a few hundred in their pockets, and so since then they’ve always carried the methodology that any work is valuable and needed. They had some hesitancy with pursuing a degree in fine arts, but they’ve always supported my choices and known that design was what I was meant to do.
Kasey: Luckily both my parents are pretty familiar with software, as my mom’s a front-end developer. When I told her I was applying to this program, she said as long as it’s a B.S. degree, it was fine.
What was the coolest thing you learned from your time at Amazon? The biggest surprise?
Leila: The coolest thing I learned during my internship was how Amazon Designers research, discover, and innovate for emerging technologies and new tech mediums. The highlight of my experience was the intern learning sessions, where we were given a behind-the-scenes look into the many design areas, including research, sound, and visuals. The biggest surprise during my internship was the opportunity to explore animation through my project. I took a risk to take the time to learn a new animation software and ended up thoroughly enjoying learning the principles of motion and how to apply them to my solution.
Elena: The biggest surprise I got from working from Amazon is the diversity in talents and interests within my team. The variety of my coworkers’ backgrounds was so entirely refreshing–I’ve met people who before coming to Amazon have worked with toys for twenty years and people who have worked within tech their whole career. Not just that, but the scale of the org I was in, DDG, was astounding, and I still have so many talented people I have yet to meet!
Kasey: The coolest thing I learned while at Amazon was probably about Industrial IoT itself. My baseline familiarity with IoT was with smart homes and such, but it was so cool to see how much work goes into connectivity in industrial settings. The biggest surprise was definitely the huge array of products at AWS. I only really knew about DynamoDB and S3 before I began — I was not familiar with Industrial IoT (the team I worked on) at all until I started! But learning about the breadth and depth of AWS was truly impressive.
We love our leadership principles (LPs) at Amazon. Was there one LP you really identified with during your internship? If so, what was the LP, and can you give me an example of when you really embodied that principle?
Leila: The leadership principle I feel that I best embodied was “Bias for Action.” A couple of weeks into my internship, my computer completely crashed and left me without many of the design and communication tools I relied on to work for the early phases of my project. Instead of taking that time as a complete loss, I quickly pivoted my tasks offline and was still able to work on brainstorming and wireframing on paper. The flexibility I demonstrated helped me bounce back after losing my computer for two weeks. After getting my laptop back, my offline work allowed me to return on pace with my internship plan and still deliver my solutions on time.
Elena: During my internship the biggest leadership principle I really took in stride was Customer Obsession. In design school, we’re always taught to look to the user for feedback and input, and so when looking a the way that a huge company like Amazon designs, its inspiring to see a company that puts its needs aside and instead focuses wholeheartedly on customer needs. In the process of my project for this summer, I defined early on that I wanted to focus on the needs of families, thus identifying parents and children as my primary stakeholders. I heavily considered the product’s use throughout the day, so not just applying the product’s capabilities at a high level, but getting into real-world daily contexts of use, and telling an engaging story through the customer’s lens.
Kasey: The LP I really identified with during my internship was “Learn & Be Curious.” I learned so much during my internship about designing, UX, and IoT. I got the chance to talk to a lot of IoT Specialists who talked to me about their experiences working with the technology, UX researchers, PMs, and other designers. A lot of the conceptual stuff I learned during class really came to life during my internship.
How did you first hear about design internships at amazon?
Leila: I first heard about internships at Amazon through the University of Michigan School of Information’s alumni network. I was able to get an idea of the internship experience and how an internship at Amazon aligned with my career goals.
Elena: An alumni from CMU Design reached out to us and asked if any of us had considered applying to Amazon! I had always been interested in the smart home/AI assistant space, so I was excited at the prospect to work on Alexa.. and here we are! I had a lovely summer with the Alexa Core Team and learned so much. :-)
Kasey: I actually heard about it from an alumna from my program who spoke to my class about her experience working at Amazon as an intern, and now full-time. I got to speak to her on the phone afterwards and she told me a lot about UX and what she learned from her internship, which really inspired me to apply.
Any closing thoughts?
Leila: At the end of my summer-long internship at Amazon, I am walking away feeling incredibly proud of the work I created and inspired by the many amazing Amazonians I met along the way. While the virtual work environment presented unique and unprecedented challenges, my mentor, manager, team, and organization supported me every step of the way. As a UX/UI Design Intern, I had the chance to see into customer-obsessed innovations in areas beyond my organization including supply chain and operations, accessibility, and device design. The fun events and teaching sessions put on by student programs and fellow designers were the highlights of my experience as I learned so much in such a short amount of time. The collective effort made towards global impact and the willingness of Amazonians to lend a helping hand helped me grow as a designer, teammate, and young professional. I’m excited to take on a future in UX Design and couldn’t be more grateful for this opportunity to affirm that this is exactly what I love to do!
Elena: Even in the remote format, I still felt like every person I met at Amazon was always ready to help me at any point in my project. In the end, I worked on a project that I cared about and with the help of my amazing team, I was able to further develop and create an end product I felt like I could be proud of. If anyone is thinking about a design internship at Amazon, go for it–you’re bound for a fun experience!
Kasey: I didn't know about what UX was up until a year or two ago, and it felt like such a daunting task to get my foot in the door in the industry. But I was so lucky to have the opportunity to work with Amazon over the past summer because I truly learned so much (and UX feels a lot less scary now). Being able to take responsibility for projects and work on something so tangible really accelerated my interest in this field, and I'm excited to see what will come in the future.
You are all so inspiring. If I was wearing a hat, I'd take it off to you. Instead, I'll simply say thank you for bringing hope to such a grim and uncertain summer. Stay safe and I hope to see you next year!
illustration by Elena Deng