How AWS' Outcome Driven Engineering team approaches digital transformation

In a conversation, Sarah Cooper, general manager of Outcome Driven Engineering at AWS, outlines how her group navigates the intersection of digitization, industries and innovation.

Dr. Sarah Cooper, general manager of Outcome Driven Engineering at Amazon Web Services, has a fun gig. Her teams drop into industries looking to digitize and do mind melds with domain experts.

The mashup often results technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, analytics and Internet of things revamping industries previously in the digitization slow lane.

I caught up with Cooper to talk digital transformation, how AWS approaches innovation and spots trends. Here are the highlights of our talk.

The goal of AWS Outcome Driven Engineering. Cooper said the aim of her unit is to work with customers to build "industry specific products in new areas that unblock digitization." That goal means that AWS Outcome Driven Engineering often drops in on industries that have struggled with digital transformation.

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Sarah Cooper, general manager of Outcome Driven Engineering at AWS.

AWS has built an industrial cloud with Volkswagen with Siemens as an integration partner. VW is building directly on AWS technologies and linking interfaces with Siemens systems. "VW and Siemens have the domain experience and what you learn is that no two plants are alike," said Cooper.

Vector, a New Zealand utility, is another AWS customer that has worked with the Outcome Driven Engineering team. Cooper said that project revolves around creating a power grid that's flexible, dynamic and can be optimized for various renewable energy sources. "There are changing dynamics of the power grid going from centralized to distributed," explained Cooper. "The grid has to be more flexible."

Do these co-innovation projects become AWS products? Cooper said some of her team's projects can become products but they are often custom systems for customers. "We're looking to transform the broader industry, but there are pieces that emerge that can be valuable," explained Cooper. "There is value for co-development and the broader industry by bringing out products."

What AWS brings to the table. Cooper said Outcome Driven Engineering brings field teams, service organizations and expertise from Amazon. For instance, Amazon is in multiple businesses. AWS brings its innovation playbooks and talent and then aims to combine that knowhow with domain expertise.

"The premise of co-innovation for us is that at AWS we have some mechanisms about how we innovate," she said. "Partners don't have to take our practices but some want to try it. Some industries have suffered from taking too small of a slice."

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Cooper's group pulls talent from across Amazon because there are problems that need more expertise than what AWS has. "We have a multi-disciplined team. Our customers are the domain experts, but we can bring more diverse voices. We have teams working on almost everything. We have trains, planes and automobiles."

Some of those experts stay in her group permanently, but many go back to their units. "I would be unpopular if we were siphoning off talent from all over Amazon," she quipped.

How AWS picks Outcome Driven Engineering projects. Cooper said that projects often intersect with Internet of things, data and industrial use cases. She breaks down focus areas like this:

  • Industries with urgent, big and durable trends. "The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened stress on the supply chain and automotive due to product cycles," she said. "Clean energy as well as smart infrastructure are areas due to sustainability."
  • Next-tier industries that have durable trends driving transformation today, but the temperature dial isn't turned up. Cooper said industries that fall into this category include life sciences, oil and gas and manufacturing. "In those industries there is a massive transformation of business models and an openness to rethinking them," she said.
  • The third category of industries have business opportunities in digital transformation but lack urgency. Agriculture falls into this category with climate change, but there are multiple issues to solve beyond digitization, said Cooper, who noted land use, water rights and regulation are factors to consider.

Staying on the transformation track. Cooper said digital transformation projects start with a business outcome. For instance, VW wanted a 30% productivity enhancement. That goal was the company's North Star.

"We have to be stubborn on vision, but flexible on the details," said Cooper. "There are projects that align to the North Star, but if a project isn't square in the middle toward those end goals, we deprioritize it."

But here's the big takeaway. Just because an idea doesn't fit at a specific point in time doesn't mean its shelved forever, said Cooper. "We have a parking lot full of ideas that might fit further down the road," said Cooper, who noted that digitization projects build over time and have various dependencies. "We don't want to throw away great ideas."