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The South African origins of Andy Jassy’s profitable Amazon division

Quartz/Mike Hutchings
AWS’s story is incomplete without acknowledging the legendary role of an independent team of engineers and developers in Cape Town.
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Amazon’s new chief executive, who took over the company on July 5, 2021, made his name by launching one of the retail behemoth’s most profitable businesses—from South Africa. Andy Jassy joined Amazon in 1997 as a technical assistant to Jeff Bezos, and started Amazon Web Services (AWS), of which he later became CEO. The web service business ushered in the era of cloud computing and now accounts for more than half of Amazon’s operating profit.

AWS’s story is incomplete without acknowledging the legendary role of an independent team of engineers and developers in Cape Town. This South African team was assembled and led by Chris Pinkham, a South African who had proposed a novel web infrastructure service for Amazon as the engineer in charge of its global infrastructure. Pinkham had gone on to found Amazon’s software development center in Cape Town. It would eventually become the birthplace of AWS cloud computing, after the team successfully built the original elastic compute cloud, known as EC2.

The EC2 is the technology at the very core of the AWS platform and allows users to effectively rent units of storage space, network connectivity, and computing power within the AWS global infrastructure. Before joining Amazon, Pinkham had founded South Africa’s first-ever internet service provider, Internet Africa in 1993. His later infrastructure software startup, Nimbula, was acquired by Oracle in 2013, and its technology is now the backbone of Oracle’s cloud systems. Pinkham also served as Twitter’s VP of engineering from 2015-2017.

In a 2018 press release announcing its plans for data centers in Africa, Jassy acknowledged the importance of the Cape Town team’s work. “Having built the original version of Amazon EC2 in our Cape Town development center 14 years ago, and with thousands of African companies using AWS for years, we’ve been able to witness first-hand the technical talent and potential in Africa,” he wrote.

The Cape Town team and center continued to play a key role in developing and running the majority of EC2’s core, while AWS expanded its presence in South Africa. The company has built several local teams, including solutions architects, account managers, partner managers, customer services representatives, and increased its permanent workforce in the country to 7,000 people as of June last year. It has also launched more services and expanded its infrastructure in the country, including several data centers that opened in the country last year.

“In many ways, Andy Jassy has been the CEO-in-waiting for many years. He built AWS into the world’s leading cloud services platform, starting almost from scratch, with a set of ideas,” says Arthur Goldstuck, the managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading South African technology market research organization. “It is precisely this kind of quality that characterizes the Amazon story, and he will follow neatly in Jeff Bezos’s footsteps.”

Some analysts in South Africa say Jassy’s appointment suggests Amazon will likely double down on connected services. “Jassy’s core focus has always been the expansion of AWS,” says Obadiah Jeshuren Naidoo, a cloud technology consultant in South Africa. “Satya Nadella led the Azure cloud computing path with Microsoft, and his appointment as CEO ensured the push of Azure with Microsoft. Similarly, my gut feelings are that Jassy will push the cloud stack with Amazon.”

Jon Tullett, research manager for IT services in Africa at IDC, a United State based market research group says the appointment shows Amazon is focusing on its strengths. “Connected services are a huge future for Amazon. Not just AWS, but artificial intelligence, connected lifestyle services, automation, and many other areas,” he said. “These are all areas Jassy has been actively cultivating.”

This story has been updated to reflect Jassy’s takeover as CEO. 

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