4 Ways To Boost Marketing Ops Productivity From Amazon Web Services’ Darrell Alfonso
Sean Lane: Hey everyone, Sean here. Before we kick off the show, a quick special announcement for listeners to the Operations Podcast. Hypergrowth London for 2020 is already around the corner, believe it or not. We are super excited to be returning to London for the second year in a row. There will be an amazing lineup. May 6th in London will be the kickoff to Hypergrowth of 2020. And of course I wanted to put something special together for the people who listened to the Operations Podcasts. So if you listen to this show and you want to go to Hypergrowth London on May 6th, you can use the promo code OPS, O- P- S, to get a discounted ticket. The discounted ticket is only 59 pounds. I don't know what the translation of that is for dollars, just bear with me, 59 pounds. The general admission normally is 499 pounds. So use the promo code OPS, O- P- S, to get your tickets and enjoy Hypergrowth. Now, on with the show. Hey, everyone. Welcome to Operations, the show where we look under the hood of companies in hypergrowth. My name is Sean Lane. One of my favorite parts of this show is that no matter who we talk to, from the tiny, super scrappy startup team that's just hitting its stride, to the much bigger, more established operators from companies like Salesforce and Marketo and Eventbrite, there are always lessons to be found in these conversations that we can take back to our day- to- day roles. And we talk about looking under the hood of companies and hypergrowth on this show, well, today we're looking under the hood of a Maserati. Better yet, we're looking under the hood of a fleet of Maseratis, Porsches, Ferraris, you name it, because this week we're going inside of Amazon. Yes, Amazon. And more specifically, we're going inside of Amazon Web Services, or AWS. If you haven't heard of AWS, this is Amazon's outrageously successful cloud computing division. So many of the apps we all use every day like Netflix and Instagram run on AWS. If you're listening to this podcast and you work for a high growth software company, chances are your company runs on AWS too. To give you some numbers, in Q4 of 2019, AWS generated nearly$ 10 billion in revenue. More impressively, of the nearly$ 3. 9 billion in operating income that Amazon captured in Q4 of 2019, 2. 6 billion of it came from only AWS alone. So our guide inside of this behemoth today is going to be Darrell Alfonso, the global marketing operations manager at AWS. In addition to all of the impressive numbers I just said about the company, under the hood, where we care about, there's some pretty crazy numbers too, like the fact that they have one of the largest implementations of Marketo of any company. They have 1500 Marketo users inside of AWS alone. So I wanted to explore what it takes to be a part of a marketing ops organization that's supporting that size and scope and scale. And in our conversation, Darrell's going to give us the scoop on what it looks like to be hiring with Amazon's leadership principles inside of marketing ops, or some of the lessons he's learned about boosting your operations teams productivity. And he's going to explain what the elusive title of email bar raiser means at AWS. To start, for people like me who haven't even sniffed companies the size of Amazon, I wanted to start with what does marketing ops even look like inside of Amazon, and more specifically, inside of AWS?
Darrell Alfonso: Yeah, absolutely. This is a dream job for me as a marketing operations person. The scale and size and sort of resources that we have is second to none, and I think about that every day in comparison to the other roles that I've had. At AWS, which is we're cloud computing company under Amazon, I'm part of the central marketing operations team. And we're a Marketo and Salesforce shop, so Marketo is our centralized platform of record for marketing and there's a team of about 10 administrators that have control over the various different parts of the system, everything from system performance to database hygiene, and specifically, there's a great functional role called training, and they're focused on training. And the reason why we have to focus so much on training is we have a really large decentralized model in terms of marketers using Marketo. I think it's one of the largest in the world. We have over 1500 Marketo users all around the globe logging in and building their campaigns and deploying it in a decentralized way. AWS has multiple instances of Marketo, and within all of those instances, they're broken up into different workspaces and different partitions. It's doing marketing operations at incredible scale, and it's really challenging and fun. And the types of problems are really different than what I used to do, which was run marketing operations at small to medium- sized enterprises and startups.
Sean Lane: The other thing I think is super interesting is that you mentioned that you have this centralized marketing ops team, but a decentralized model in terms of all of your frontline folks, these 1500 Marketo users, there's a nice balance there, but one of the things I would imagine is challenging is having 1500 people who have access, right? I think a lot of folks who are proponents of centralized operations teams or people that we've had on this show before would say one of the pros of that is the fact that that team owns that system and has control over that system and can understand the ripple effects of changes within it. But how do you manage that consideration with 1500 different users?
Darrell Alfonso: Yeah, that's a great point. And when I've spoken to colleagues at some other large enterprises and big tech companies, a lot of them do have a centralized model. Actually, I would say most of them do because of the control that you can and the governance that you can employ to the system and to the users. But we have a decentralized model and there's different benefits to that. And one of the benefits is it allows us to move really, really quickly, especially with small teams that are focusing on one of our single products or services, especially the new ones. They can move really, really quickly and leverage all the resources of a fully developed Marketo instance and all the things that go with it. The mechanism that we really use to govern this army of Marketo users is training and different levels of certification within the organization. So this is our own internal certification system different than the Marketo certified expert. We have three different levels, one of which is basically you get access to the system. Another one is a campaign builder certification, and that's after you've gone through online training, and then the most rigorous or highest level of certification is something that we call email bar raiser, or EBR. That's a very time intensive and challenging certification, both in terms of subject material. So you really have to be a subject matter expert, as well as you have to put in time to shadow people, pre- build campaigns. And the final part is actually a live practical exam where you're literally being evaluated over your shoulder as you go through Marketo.
Sean Lane: It's kind of fun to peek under the hood of a company that is so ever present in our lives as Amazon is. Unless you're in this particular type of work, you probably don't even consider the massive scope of what just sending emails is at AWS, but Darrell's giving us a sense. 1500 Marketo users, one of the largest instances of Marketo, and at the crux of all of it is this certification program mentored quite literally raise the bar on email sends. Darrell, I should mention, has some pretty impressive credentials on his own outside of AWS. He's a Marketo champion, a Marketo certified expert, and a member of the Marketo Fearless 50, and even he told me that the internal AWS test to become a email bar raiser is harder than the Marketo certified expert exam. In fact, he said that of the 1500 Marketo users, only a small fraction reach that email bar raiser level. So I asked him to break down those different levels of certification for me.
Darrell Alfonso: The great majority are going to be at level at the campaign builder that I was talking to you about, less than 10%. and I think that this is one of the key parts of the way that we can actually institute governance and maintain things like brand consistency and guidelines and really maintain a level of excellence that's required. And in that step, less than 10% are actually the email bar raisers. If there's anything that we need to change, if there's anything that we need to, for example, stop it's those 90 or so experts, sort of like ambassadors of the email channel, that we communicate with and that work to do that. This is interesting. You can lose that certification if the work that you do is not up to standard. If you make mistakes, you can lose it. And it's been done before.
Sean Lane: And what does it mean to be up to standard? How are you measuring that?
Darrell Alfonso: Internal benchmarks are an important one. And then we also have recurring recertifications, so sessions where you come in, learn the latest about the tools and technologies that we're using with email and then just with Marketo as a whole. And then we require a recertification exam. I think it's every year, I'll have to confirm that, but yeah, every year, you actually have to sit for another exam.
Sean Lane: At Drift. We've always pointed to Amazon as a role model in our goal of being curious learning machines within the company. And it's really reassuring to hear that this principle is actively practiced within AWS. I love this idea of recertification exams and constantly pushing the team to learn new tools. And Darrell, through his work at both AWS and previous companies, has found that the work of being in operations ultimately comes down to one common theme, productivity. And Darrell taught me that productivity can come in many forms and there are some core lessons to be had whether you are the first marketing ops hire on a really small team or you're one of 1500 Marketo users at AWS.
Darrell Alfonso: Productivity, especially within operations, I've been fascinated with and have really put a lot of time to think about, and then just sort of evaluated my own experience as I'm going through these projects and also looking back, what made the biggest differences. And I think that there are a few key things that make a really big difference when it comes to productivity, and I'll list it out because I've really been thinking about it, and these are automating and templatizing your workflows as much as possible, upgrading your team and making sure you have the right talent in place, and when I mean upgrading, not just upgrading and bringing in new team members, but also your existing members, building your programs and processes with a training mindset, I'll get into that a little bit later, and then picking and prioritizing your goals correctly. I'll get into that too. It's having a balanced approach about your priorities.
Sean Lane: Okay. So let's take the time to unpack each of the four lessons Darrell just outlined. Number one, automating and templatizing your workflows.
Darrell Alfonso: So when we think about templates, I think especially within marketing operations, a lot of it is campaign templates, which can do wonders for improving your productivity. One of my good friends who worked at an events company templatized their entire year's worth of event campaigns and literally saved the entire team 50% of their time. I think that you can go way beyond just templatizing things like campaigns. I mean, it could be your projects. It could be all of your data normalization campaigns or standardization campaigns. It could be automated health checks of your system, anything where you feel... I think a good way to look at this is if you feel like you're doing something over and over again in like a repetitive sort of manual way, it's a perfect time to think about automating it or putting it into a template.
Sean Lane: And when you say, for someone who's just starting out and maybe they are the first marketing ops hire at their company, when you say templatizing a campaign, what are the components of that that you think are fundamental?
Darrell Alfonso: Talking specifically about Marketo, I feel the other marketing automation systems will probably be similar, is you have the creative assets which are going to be very similar. A lot of the makeup is going to be the same, and then the campaigns or the workflows within Marketo are going to be similar because for an event, for example, you have a very similar process where you're inviting people to come. You're seeing if they register. You're reminding them of all of the details about the events and what to bring. And then after the event, you are following up with them, thanking them for coming, and then passing them on to sales, the qualified leads to sales. So that doesn't really change. Templatizing something like that can do wonders. If it takes you two hours or more to build that very meaty type of campaign, if you have a template and then just fill out the things that are different from the prior event, it saves two hours that year. And then one of the keys about productivity operations, the larger your team is, the more time that you save because it multiplies. Like if you save two hours for yourself and then that cascades and saves two hours for each of your team members, I mean, multiply it by a hundred if you have a team of a hundred, right? That's just crazy to think about.
Sean Lane: I think that's the right way to think about it too. And I think so often, operators have a hard time translating their work into value or assigning a dollar amount to the work that we're doing. And I think that time is a great kind of proxy for that. And I think it's also one of those things that feels like a lot upfront, right? But you have to make that investment at the beginning. Because building that template and documenting the process and things like that, that is work at the front end, but to your point, it is going to yield hopefully time- savings for both you and others in the long run.
Darrell Alfonso: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, and this is kind of a little bit of a philosophical way to think about it, but all we really have is time. So if you're spending 50% of your time building and doing repetitive processes, that's 50% of the time that's gone from things like strategic thinking and creative thinking and trying to find new ways to bring value to the business or to improve the customer experience. That's valuable time.
Sean Lane: All right. So that was number one, automating and templatizing your workflows. Number two you mentioned is upgrading your team.
Darrell Alfonso: This one, I think specifically what I remember about this is bringing on the right people, and it could even be the right person. I remember, and this was in the past, building a marketing operations team and actually going through a couple of candidates who either moved on to a different role or just didn't work out. I used to really hire based on enthusiasm and attitude, which I still do, not as much on the technical skills because I think that I thought it could be easily learned and picked up, and then just also on talent. And it might sound a little bit bad, but just clear thinking or intelligence, not really intelligent, but more of clear thinking. The difference that I've found in bringing on a person that was, the only way I can describe it was smarter than I was and better than I was in terms of technical marketing, the difference was night and day. And it's almost like bringing on another of yourself. I think that that, it really elevates your game and just raises the level of how you do marketing and how you do work when you have the right talent in place. But I will say that it's not all just based on hiring people. I think that you need to have a very regular habit and discipline about making sure that each of your team members is constantly learning new tools, new skills, and that especially applies to yourself.
Sean Lane: Yeah, so I'd love to dig in deeper there, just because you mentioned how important training and development is for the marketing ops team inside of AWS. So first, on your first point about bringing in the right talent, is there anything unique about the way that Amazon screens or interviews for specific talents that you're looking for inside of marketing ops that you think is helping you now to put the right talent in place based on the lessons you've learned?
Darrell Alfonso: So, at Amazon, we hire for something called the leadership principles, and this is public information on our website. There's a variety of different things, and there's actually 12, but two that I'll specifically call out are dive deep and ownership. I think that dive deep, even for our leaders and the variety of people across the organization, we value people to be extremely detail- oriented and not just knowing the big picture stuff. We want them to be able to deep dive into problems, be curious about how things work, and be subject matter experts of whatever their role is. And then the ownership piece, which I specifically admire and, in the past, have really kind of looked for is that idea that you're responsible for solving problems and making things better. And that attitude and mindset makes a really big difference. It's something where you're not just like," I'm going to build this campaign. If it doesn't work, then it doesn't work," or," We're going to try this and it's not my fault that the company is not doing well." We want people to take ownership and dive deep and figure it out and keep on trying until something works.
Sean Lane: Yeah, we actually, we have inaudible, borrowed and outright stolen the leadership principles concept from Amazon here at Drift. So we have eight, not 12, but very similar kind of outlook on the fact that yes, we want to obviously find people who are going to be talented in the role, but also people who are going to embody and practice those leadership principles every single day as a part of the role. And ours are just slightly different flavors of some of the ones you mentioned with diving deep and ownership, but I too have found that if you are looking for those things inside of your interview process and you can identify them, a lot of the other stuff you can teach. And that's ultimately I think what you're getting at too about, for the folks that are on your team, whether they're brand new or they've been there forever, you are also bringing that long- term ongoing learning and training to the team as well it sounds like.
Darrell Alfonso: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, it's a big part of the governance piece, but also I think that it's great business strategy to include training and development as part of it. I'm definitely a big fan of Drift and the way that you guys approach business. And I can definitely see, just from my work with you and some of the other folks over there, I can definitely see those leadership principles coming through.
Sean Lane: If you haven't heard of Amazon's concept of leadership principles, we'll include them in the show notes for you, or take a minute, Google them, or even Google Drift's leadership principles. At both companies, they aren't just this list of empty platitudes that you can put on your website or put up on the wall, but rather, they're guides for decision- making or standards that you can aspire to within the organization. And certainly, as Darrell points out, having an ops team that is aligned around the leadership principles is going to boost that team's productivity in the long run, which brings us to our next lesson, number three, building programs and processes with a training mindset.
Darrell Alfonso: I think oftentimes, especially for ops folks, when you build something, especially if you've been doing it, maybe you are a lean team or maybe you're the only one that has that subject matter expertise to build workflows or processes to either support marketing or sales, a lot of times you'll build something that only you will know how to execute and you will know how to adjust. And you can think of it as writing notes to yourself, right? You're writing in abbreviations and your handwriting's messy. And if there's a part where you know that you'll remember, you won't even write it down, right? So the thing that I've found really boosts productivity is building programs and processes with the idea that, and the knowledge that you're going to teach this to someone else. I think it does a couple things. It really saves a lot of the time in terms of explaining it to the other person, And it also helps you build clearer and simplify what you're doing. It's sort of like a test, almost like a litmus test or just sort of gauge of did you build this in the most elegant way that you can, right? Or did you build it haphazardly and sort of throw things together? So that's a big one. And I have a great example of this. Earlier on in my career, I inherited a really complex exclusion list program, and that's something where you're, within Marketo, you're suppressing certain records from being mailed. And in order to have a meeting with different stakeholders, it took 15 minutes to explain how the program worked, what it was doing and what was the purpose and what were some of the flaws of it. And even after that, if we were writing out the problem on a whiteboard, it became very to follow and think through it. And I felt it was such a massive improvement once I simplified that program, labeled everything in a way where if even a new person looked at it, they would quickly understand it. It was just such a massive time save. When you do things like that and when you simplify, it is yet another part of elevating your game and elevating your productivity level.
Sean Lane: You mentioned that building it in this way with this training mindset, which is a phrase I really like, is a nice litmus test. How do you actually gauge it? It's a litmus test for whether or not other people internally are going to be able to understand it, whether someone new is able to understand it. What is your process then for saying," Okay, I think that I have built this thing with a training mindset," but how do you confirm that?
Darrell Alfonso: Yeah, that's a good question. I think some of it's going to be subjective. The variety of things that you tackle in operations, I don't know that there's necessarily a checklist of things where you can say," Okay, this is built with a training mindset." But I think that a few ways that I do it is if I can explain what this program is about to another person in just a matter of minutes and they can understand it really quickly. I think that's a great way to do it. Another way that is more reactive is when you build a program and put it in place, and no one else can adjust it, no one else can make changes to it without consulting you, that's also a red flag of, okay, this is probably too complicated. At the very minimum, it's not organized and ordered in a way where someone can quickly pick up what's going on.
Sean Lane: Yeah, I think the other piece of that too is that ultimately for any of those processes or programs that you're building, if you ever as an operator want to grow in your career to the point where those are no longer your responsibilities, there's no way you're going to be able to pass that off without that level of simplicity or that level of training mindset inside of those programs, right? Like if I own a whole bunch of processes at the company and I've hoarded these processes in my own little domain, for me to grow, I can't give those things up without being able to clearly articulate to somebody else," Here's how this should work." And so, if you are spending all of your time explaining how those processes work, it's going to hinder your own growth and your own productivity as well, forget about the people.
Darrell Alfonso: Absolutely. Absolutely. I totally agree with that. And it's a good motivator too, trying to build programs with a training mindset, is keeping that in mind. Like if you're going to be moving upward and taking on bigger things or different things at least, you need someone to be able to do that. And I don't know if you want to keep this, but I also fear that when people build really complex programs that only they know how to fix, I feel that that's done out of a state or out of fear versus wanting to do what's best for the business and for the customer. What I mean by that is they're trying to make their job invaluable, but not a real way.
Sean Lane: I completely understand what you're saying. I completely understand what you're saying. If you're doing that because you want to be the one who can control it and want to be the only one who knows how to do it, that motivation is completely backwards. And I think the flip side of that and the coaching moment for anyone who is approaching their job or their projects in that way is exactly what we mentioned about it being a cement wall in the way of your growth, right? There's just no way you are going to expand your roles and responsibilities if you are building in that way. One, because nobody can possibly continue to retain all of that power and responsibility in a efficient or meaningful way, but two, just because of the growth stuff we were talking about. And so for anyone who is listening or is thinking about some of the processes that they're building, like you can't go on vacation because you're the only person who knows how to do something, something is wrong, right? Or if you can't explain it to somebody else in a way that they can run the process for you, something is wrong. We had a guest previously named Jason Holmes. He's the COO of a company called Showpad. And his general rule of thumb is he calls it the zoom in from Mars rule, where if you can't have a Martian zoom in from Mars and understand the processes that you've put in place with no context at all, you probably need to go back to the drawing board. And I think ever since he said that to us in an earlier episode, that's something that I use as my own internal litmus test on some of the stuff that we build and as we add new people to the team.
Darrell Alfonso: I love that. I love that. Yeah. I've also heard that concept called intelligent objectivity, where you look at it from the point of view of an outsider. It's awesome that that's a practice that you follow and I think just a different way to say building things with a training mindset. It's a great way to look at it too.
Sean Lane: I don't think this is where Darrell or I thought this conversation was going to go, but I do think this is such an important lesson to pause and reflect on. Yes, building with a training mindset will boost your productivity, and yes, your teams will scale more effectively as a result, but let's say you're super selfish and you don't even care about the positive impacts that this has on your company, this tactic, this idea of building with a training mindset is still in your own best interest. Building with this mindset is only going to open you up to further growth opportunities. If you hoard all of the knowledge and all the control just for yourself, you're only going to continue to be responsible for those same things forever. So doing it in this way is going to open you up to further opportunities. All right? That's number three, building programs and processes with a training mindset. All right, last one, we've reached number four on Darrell's list of ways to boost your team's productivity, number four, picking and prioritizing your goals. And just like most of the decisions we make every single day, Darrell explained to me that it all comes down to how you spend your time.
Darrell Alfonso: You can have people, for example, working really hard and really productively on the wrong things. That is massively unproductive, right? Whereas the complete other side of the spectrum, if you have someone that is half working without even all of their effort on something that is really, really important, it could actually be more productive. So in that way, I think that picking your goals and priorities to align with both the business and both for stability is really important. So one of the challenges within operations is trying to tie your work with business results, right? Trying to tie it with revenue and things like that. So you have to do things that keep the lights on, right? And there are massive things that can go wrong if you're not prepared for it or you're not thinking about it in advance, things like GDPR, for example. So the way I like to think about it is rather than struggle to figure out what should our priorities be, I think you should split them up and you have half of your goals be tied to business impact, specifically revenue, lead performance, customer engagement, those types of metrics, and then half of your priorities be focused on stability and fortifying your existing systems and processes, with the goal of, like I said before, keeping the lights on and making sure that things are running efficiently.
Sean Lane: Before we go, at the end of each show, we're going to ask each guest the same lightning round of questions. Ready? Here we go. Best book you've read in the last six months?
Darrell Alfonso: I recently read The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger, and that is the CEO of Disney. And I thought that was fantastic. It's an autobiography.
Sean Lane: I just read that as well. It's awesome.
Darrell Alfonso: Nice.
Sean Lane: Really good stories. Really good stories. All right. Favorite part about working in ops?
Darrell Alfonso: So one of my favorite parts is being an administrator, so being a system admin. It's sort of like having, like if you're a gamer, it's sort of like having God mode on, which means, for those of you that aren't gamers, which means that you sort of have the power to do everything or anything that you want. So that ability I think is awesome. It feels like a superpower.
Sean Lane: I love that. I don't think we've had that one before. That's a good one. Least favorite part working in ops?
Darrell Alfonso: I also actually think it's being an admin, and here's the reason. So having that ability to govern things and create things, you always have, I think there's a stress that comes with it that you could have impact on something. So, for example, let's say you're not an admin and you're building campaigns and something on the other side of the world goes wrong, you can really sleep tight that night and not even worry about it and say like," Well, that's not my fault," but as an admin, you actually may be able to do something within the system or with that team, being a global admin, with that team to make the issue better or stop the bleeding or something like that. There's an incredible amount of stress that I think can come with that if you don't manage it right.
Sean Lane: With great power comes great responsibility type of thing.
Darrell Alfonso: Yep. That's it.
Sean Lane: Someone who impacted you getting the job you have today?
Darrell Alfonso: Let's see. So Joe Wrights, who's a good friend now. I met Joe through the Champion Program, the Marketo Champion Program. And he's like a five time champion, champion of the year. I met him through the program and he is actually the one that told me about this role. So the value of your network, definitely.
Sean Lane: Last one, one piece of advice for someone who wants to have your job someday?
Darrell Alfonso: I like this piece of advice because I've been thinking about it a lot, and also, I think it came from the book, The Ride of a Lifetime, is to focus on doing the best you can at the job you have now. What that means is even if you want to move up or move ahead or do something else, there's always going to be value in solving problems and improving what you're doing today. That value could come both in terms of business results, but I think there's a lot of value that comes personally to overcoming challenges that you can't really learn by doing anything else. So that would be my advice.
Sean Lane: So many great lessons from him and the team at AWS. And thank you to all of you for listening. If you took some lessons away from today, please make sure you subscribe to the podcast. If you clicked on this from LinkedIn or got referred to it from a friend or a coworker, click subscribe. We have new episodes every other Friday. They'll show up in your feed wherever you want to find your podcasts. Also, if you enjoy the show, please leave us a six star review on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people to find the show as well. Six star reviews only. That's going to do it for me. Thanks so much for listening. We'll see you next time.