Alex Barnett blog


Platform Thinking

(am republishing this blog post as it automagically disappeared in a server upgrade I did recently, originally posted 13.10.2011)

Last night I came across a rant from a Google employee (that was accidentally made public via Google+...doh!,) that provided not only good popcorn munching material, but I thought had some pretty interesting insights around what it really means to be a "Platform" company, not just a "Product" company.

It's pretty dense stuff, but wanted to call out the snippet about the "mandate" that Jeff Bezos sent around the company back in 2002.

So one day Jeff Bezos issued a mandate. He’s doing that all the time, of course, and people scramble like ants being pounded with a rubber mallet whenever it happens. But on one occasion — back around 2002 I think, plus or minus a year — he issued a mandate that was so out there, so huge and eye-bulgingly ponderous, that it made all of his other mandates look like unsolicited peer bonuses.

His Big Mandate went something along these lines:

1) All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.

2) Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.

3) There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.

4) It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter. Bezos doesn’t care.

5) All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.

6) Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.

7) Thank you; have a nice day!

Ha, ha! You 150-odd ex-Amazon folks here will of course realize immediately that #7 was a little joke I threw in, because Bezos most definitely does not give a shit about your day.


Over the next couple of years, Amazon transformed internally into a service-oriented architecture. They learned a tremendous amount while effecting this transformation. There was lots of existing documentation and lore about SOAs, but at Amazon’s vast scale it was about as useful as telling Indiana Jones to look both ways before crossing the street.

...Organizing into services taught teams not to trust each other in most of the same ways they’re not supposed to trust external developers.

This effort was still underway when I left to join Google in mid-2005, but it was pretty far advanced. From the time Bezos issued his edict through the time I left, Amazon had transformed culturally into a company that thinks about everything in a services-first fashion. It is now fundamental to how they approach all designs, including internal designs for stuff that might never see the light of day externally.

At this point they don’t even do it out of fear of being fired. I mean, they’re still afraid of that; it’s pretty much part of daily life there, working for the Dread Pirate Bezos and all. But they do services because they’ve come to understand that it’s the Right Thing. There are without question pros and cons to the SOA approach, and some of the cons are pretty long. But overall it’s the right thing because SOA-driven design enables Platforms.

Nowadays, it might be considered conventional wisdom for "Platform Thinking", but to truly embracing this philosophy - and make it real - first requires the realization that in the long term, Platform companies beat Product companies every time. Realizing that, then Platform Thinking and Platform Doing should become second nature. The brilliance of Bezos was to realize this strategic insight long before web APIs became as popular as they have become.