A Johnson MBA Student on What It’s Like to Intern at Amazon
A native of Israel who spent three years performing audits for PwC—mostly on pharmaceutical firms and hedge funds—Ran Rabinowitch was really looking for a change. “I knew I wanted to go work for one of the tech companies, and most are headquartered in the United States, so I began looking at U.S. MBA programs,” he says. Married, he wanted a school known for its community and smaller class size—where he thought his wife would fit in well. “I was also a little afraid that at schools in large cities, all the Americans would just maintain existing friendships, so it would be harder to find community,” he says. Cornell’s S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management appealed on all those fronts, and its strong finance program and the new Cornell Tech campus in New York City sealed the deal.
Not Laser-Focused on Amazon to Start
In terms of which technology firms to target, Rabinowitch came in with a pretty open mind. “Google, Autodesk, Amazon—I was generating a list of companies that I knew I would love to go to,” he says. Bottom line, he wanted a company where he would feel challenged, but also a company positioned to remain a leader in the future. The more he learned about Amazon, the more he liked. “Amazon is one of the ones I think will stay because of its customer obsession, which makes employees think long term,” he says.
He also really liked Amazon’s leadership principles. “I think it shows a lot about the company—and I notice that here in the United States, companies actually follow those values, whereas at a lot of companies in Israel they are just values printed on the wall.” This true adherence to stated principles, he says, made it a lot easier to understand the position of the different companies he was considering.
He went through internship recruiting, some on campus and some off. “Off-campus recruiting is tough—you never know if what you are doing actually works,” he says. “You network with a lot of people, but you’re never really sure if it actually helped you get your foot in the door.” On-campus recruiting—when the companies come to you, is a lot easier, he says.
Amazon does on-campus recruiting at Johnson, and it consisted of two rounds of interviews. “They are very fast,” stresses Rabinowitch. His first interview was in January. “The first round was on a Thursday and consisted of two 30-minute interviews, mostly behavioral but with a few mini cases thrown in,” he recalls. “I did it in the morning, and the same night they invited me to the second round, which was the next day.” The second round consisted of two 45-minute interviews and an Excel assignment to complete in between them.
Rabinowitch thinks his background helped him get the first interview, but that once you get to the first round, everything is keyed to Amazon’s leadership principles. “They are trying to see if you meet them—and if they have concerns about one of them, they would ask more than once,” he says. As an example, he shares that he was asked to provide a pricing strategy for Prime, Amazon’s membership program that provides access to streaming video, free shipping and other benefits for an annual fee. “I think what they are looking for is someone to answer saying, ‘First of all, let’s look at the customer. Do they care about pricing or other features?’” In this way, the Amazon interviewer is looking for how well the interviewee grasps the firm’s customer obsession principle.
What Helped Him Feel Most Prepared for the Amazon Interview
Rabinowitch took advantage of every available opportunity at Johnson to prepare for internship recruiting, including participating in a career work group, forming a second group made up of people interested in the specific companies he was, becoming a member of the Hi-Tech Club and taking part in its events, and making use of the various resources provided through the Career Management Center (CMC).
The career work groups were great because they provided a trusted forum in which classmates could focus on preparing for individual companies, practice answering questions they might face to get feedback from the group on what worked and what didn’t, and just grow more comfortable and confident in the process. The Hi-Tech Club arranged a speaker series, bringing in guests to talk about the industry and trends within it, which gave students more ground to cover in their actual interviews with companies. The Hi-Tech Club also helped members refine the PAR strategy—describe a Problem you faced, the Action you took and the Result that action had—to effectively answer interview questions. The CMC, meanwhile, offered one-on-one meetings in which advisors helped students refine their recruiting goals, connect with alumni at target companies and strengthen their LinkedIn profiles. The CMC also encouraged students to network as much as possible with alumni and others working at different firms to help determine which might be the best for them, Rabinowitch says.
Advice for Students Approaching the Interview
It is important to learn about the company and know the company principles, advises Rabinowitch when asked how he would advise current students preparing to interview with Amazon. “It’s important to talk to people to really get to understand the leadership principles—this will allow you to better understand how you would interact in the company,” he says.
Also, know your resume inside and out and be prepared to explain clearly how actions you took led to results. “They always choose something on the resume and dive deep—everything on your resume is fair game,” he says.
Excel wizardry is not as critical, he adds, even though the interview process involves an Excel case. “People shouldn’t spend lots of time learning Excel—pivot tables and lookup functions, those are the only two things you really need. I wouldn’t spend time worrying about Excel.” And in terms of approaching the mini-cases, Rabinowitch’s advice is to keep it simple. “I would search for a very simple solution to the case,” he encourages. “I would care that everything is presented well, to present the assumption, to present the strategy behind the solution—but not to worry if the solution itself is simple.”
So What’s It Like to Intern at Amazon?
Rabinowitch’s own extensive prep paid off, and he received an offer to participate in Amazon’s Finance Leadership Development Program internship as part of Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company’s cloud computing infrastructure business unit. “What I basically did was forecasting. I would evaluate whether or not a project was needed, evaluate cost, revenue impact, cash flow impact,” he says. “I really had a great fit and a great time at Amazon.”
Amazon’s is a very unique, very strong culture, he continues. “I don’t think it is going to be a fit for every student, and I really recommend that any student thinking about Amazon speak to as many people as they can to understand whether they will be a good fit.”
Topping the list of things that made Amazon the right place for Rabinowitch was the ownership employees receive over projects, even as interns. “You get a project during the internship that is a real problem—nobody knows the solution,” he says. “Two weeks into the internship, you are probably the one who know the most about that problem in the entire company.”
You are asked to take the lead, determine next steps, figure out a solution, he continues. “No one is going to do that for you. It is not teamwork—it is individual work.” Employees can definitely bring concerns to weekly team meetings and get feedback and advice, but you won’t fine a team brainstorming the entire idea like you might at other companies, he says.
Amazon’s is also very much a white paper culture, Rabinowitch shares. “People at Amazon present data to leadership through a narrative that they call white papers,” he says. Most meetings start with everyone in the room taking 20 minutes to read the white paper, and only then do they ask questions. “The process really helps everyone understand your idea before they interact, and it also leaves documentation,” he says. Given this focus on white papers, an ability to communicate effectively in writing is key. “I think it is crucial for success at Amazon,” Rabinowitch says, adding that he is taking a writing course now that he’s back at Johnson to strengthen his skills for exactly this reason.
In addition to having top-notch writing skills, Rabinowitch also encourages prospective applicants to Amazon to brush up on their SQL. “At Amazon today, it doesn’t matter if you go into finance or another function, you need to use SQL,” he says. The company will assign someone to help if you don’t have strong SQL skills, but having them going in is an asset.
Rabinowitch received an offer to return to Amazon full time after graduation on the final day of his internship—and he promptly accepted it. (The company does give interns until December 4th to make a decision on offers, in keeping with CMC requirements.) But Rabinowitch didn’t need to think twice. “I had a great time over the summer and know that it is a great fit for what I want to do.”