Workforce in progress
Amazon exec is laying the groundwork to hire 25,000 workers for HQ2
After a long, successful tech career working as an executive for companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Intel Corp., Ardine Williams was entitled to rest on her laurels.
It didn’t last long.
Five months into her 2014 retirement, Williams was recruited by Amazon.com Inc. to run global talent acquisition for Amazon Web Services, overseeing the hiring of 23,000 employees for the e-tailer’s rapidly growing cloud computing subsidiary.
She’s now Amazon’s vice president of workforce development for HQ2, responsible for building the 25,000-person workforce the company will need during the next decade at its $2.5 billion East Coast headquarters currently under development in Arlington.
Williams is clearly a true believer in Amazon: Two of her three grown children — her daughter and one of her twin sons — work at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.
Since Amazon’s late 2018 announcement that it was locating HQ2 in Virginia, Williams has become a recognizable figure in the commonwealth, representing Amazon at a variety of events, including a Southwest Virginia listening tour held with Gov. Ralph Northam to promote workforce development. Last September, she offered advice to a crowd of thousands of hopeful job seekers at an outdoor career fair Amazon held in Arlington, counseling applicants to become familiar with Amazon’s leadership principles, which include thinking big, earning trust and delivering results. And in November, she delivered the keynote address at George Mason University’s Annual Symposium of the Journal of Law, Economics & Policy, discussing the gig economy.
Virginia Business spoke with Williams in December about Amazon’s collaborations to strengthen Virginia’s tech-talent pipeline and her journey from Army Signal Corps veteran to high-profile executive in charge of workforce development for what state officials have called the largest economic development project in the nation.
Virginia Business: You’ve really been the public face of HQ2. Did you know the job was going to be this visible?
Ardine Williams: I would say I’m one of many faces. There’s an awful lot of folks involved. I think that my work on workforce has had some visibility because we are adding, over the next 10 to 12 years, 25,000 [employees] but I would say there are certainly lots of other folks engaged in the effort.
VB: What sort of jobs will these HQ2 employees be performing?
Williams: We expect that this site will reflect a true headquarters-type population. What we mean by that is a couple of things: One is, the split in Seattle, as well as at our larger sites, tends to be about half tech [workers], half non-tech [workers]. The second piece is that we expect that we will have entire teams here rather than being a hub, if you will, where people choose to work. … This will be entire teams. The Alexa Skills Team that’s here is a great example. There’s a vice president running that business and he’s growing his team here. What that means is you [can] afford employees at the site greater career opportunities because there’s a richer variety of jobs at different levels.
VB: The state government has offered additional incentives for Amazon to deliver 12,000 more HQ2 jobs during the 2030s, for a total of more than 37,000. Is that something that’s on your radar?
Williams: It’s included in the agreement, and so, as the business grows, we’ll see where we are as we progress.
VB: Who have you been engaging on your listening tours and what have you been hearing?
Williams: The conversations have been with a wide range of folks, from state and local officials, school superintendents, chambers of commerce, not-for-profit organizations, so really the gamut of folks. … I think what we’re hearing has confirmed, No. 1, that the reason we came to Virginia was the talent. It’s very clear that this is a state that has a rich talent pipeline and is very much committed to continuing to grow and develop that pipeline. Then, the second piece is that there’s a great collaborative effort on the ground in a lot of locations between high schools, community colleges and four-year institutions. That’s really important because that collaboration is really what helps to ensure that students are getting exposure to emerging skills and getting the education they need to be job-competitive.
VB: How will Amazon be working with higher education to produce that skilled workforce?
Williams: Between 80% and 85% of the hires that we make have technical degrees, primarily computer science and computer science engineering. I think that that’s an important context to have because it informs a lot of the work that we do at the school level. As we engage with both two- and four-year schools, we look at a number of things. One is to help them understand where we’re seeing technology going. We have a program, for example, called AWS Educate, which is focused very specifically on cloud computing. … Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University have a full cloud-computing degree, and that’s actually going to be more widely adopted across the state. Those are examples of where we take the expertise that we have, which is on the technical side in emerging technology, and then partner with experts and pedagogies who already have robust programs, and help create and craft programs that really prepare students for those leading-edge technology jobs.
VB: Will Amazon have input in crafting curricula at some of the universities?
Williams: Yes, and it isn’t just Amazon; it’s a collaborative partnership. One of the things I would say is really exciting about the region is the level of collaboration that already exists. The Greater Washington Partnership, for example, is a great convener. And through that partnership, a number of four-year institutions and two- and four-year higher-ed institutions have gotten together under a subset called the [Capital] CoLAB and built credentials. For example, there’s one now for data analytics. Businesses got together, and [former Northrop Grumman CEO] Wes Bush … actually chaired the group. We sat down and said, “OK, everyone needs data analysts. What are the knowledge, skills and abilities, or KSAs, that we need?” And we had a lot of debate because I want tomato, you want to-mah-to, and at the end of the day, it’s really tough for schools to respond if everybody wants something a little different. It was great because we got together, as a collaborative group, and said, ‘‘This is what’s important.’’ The schools then were able to take that input and look at the coursework that they already had. Some have chosen to do it as electives. For some, it’s a minor. For others, it’s embedded in existing curriculum. Then, the businesses have agreed that those students who attain those credentials will be fast-tracked for a résumé review and interview for internships with our company. Then, we have the opportunity based on how those candidates perform … to provide that feedback to continue to improve the certificate program.
VB: What’s your background? How did you go from being a U.S. Army Signal Corps captain to where you are now?
Williams: It’s probably a beer conversation [laughs]. I had the distinct privilege of working in technology in the Signal Corps. I came on active duty just a couple of years after the Women’s Army Corps was integrated. The Signal Corps, at the time, there weren’t a lot of women, but I had the opportunity to do a lot of training at Fort Gordon, and I ended up being attached to DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. I worked on operational tests and evaluation of these really leading-edge systems called “Global Positioning System,” something called “Mobile Subscriber Equipment,” which was a 50-pound cell phone, and spread spectrum radio. I had some tech training in my undergrad degree, I knew how to program, but that exposure early on to technology really helped me a lot because, in spite of a liberal arts degree, it really opened roles for me that might not have otherwise been opened. I worked in a wide variety of things, from technical writing to engineering, project management, marketing management, IP acquisition, in corporate venture capital, M&A, and then, on a leadership development role, I was rotated into HR. I’ve done a wide range of roles in HR. And then I retired.
VB: So how did you end up at Amazon?
Williams: I was in Palm Springs, California, sitting on my patio and I got a call from a headhunter who said, “Hey, I want to talk to you about this job.” I always think it’s good karma to talk to headhunters. … I tell people, I trade a day of my life every day I come to work, and the math has to work by and large, and so, it’s always good to have those conversations. I said, “You know what? I’m sitting on my patio, I’m looking at the San Jacinto Mountains, I’m sipping a martini, I’m not going back to work.” And she said, “Before you tell me no, I think we should talk.” I said, “You know, I’ll share my Rolodex with you.” And she said, “It’s Amazon Web Services.”
I’ll be honest with you: I set down my glass because I knew that Amazon Web Services was fundamentally changing the equation for business because it was shifting capital to expense. And when you shift capital to expense, particularly in startups, it’s liberating. Because now, instead of taking a significant amount of hard-earned investment dollars and putting it toward capital, which, it gets frozen in capital, they have the opportunity to leverage an IT infrastructure and applications to build out their business and conserve capital.
And so, I went up to Seattle on a lark and I interviewed. I was sure there was no way that I was going to get hired because it was probably one of the toughest interviews I had ever done. And then I called my husband after the second day and I said, “Hey, they’re not going to hire me, but if they do make me an offer, we’re going to have to talk about it because this place is really pretty amazing.”
And here I am.
VB: How did you get the gig for HQ2?
Williams: I started out leading talent acquisition for AWS. Then, I moved over to our operations team, which is basically — if you think about from clicks to doorstep when you order on our website, that’s our operations business. I was doing a lot of back-office work, so really building HR reporting capability. I led our Career Choice program and a variety of other pieces. And a colleague called me up after the [HQ2] announcement, and I was actually on my way to Europe, and [they] said, “Hey, we’re going to New York, and it’s important that we have somebody that’s well-versed in workforce and upskilling. Do you think you could come and cover a couple of meetings for us?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it on my way back from Europe.” And I went to a couple of meetings, and they said, “Hey, can we borrow you for a week?” And then, “Can we borrow you for a month?” And then, “Can we borrow you for three months?” And then I talked to my boss and said, “I’m not doing anybody any favors by having my feet in both jobs. … We probably need to make a decision here.”
So the couple of meetings turned into the job, basically.
VB: In this low-unemployment market, a lot of businesses say it is very difficult to find good workers at the moment. Is Amazon also concerned about that?
Williams: I think anybody who’s not worrying about it right now is probably either telling you a story or not really thinking about it. We have the luxury of having, I think, brand recognition and being a large employer. Just to give you an example, we hire, on average, more than 300 people each day [globally], but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult. It’s a very competitive market. It’s a great market right now for people who are looking for work because they have choices and they have opportunity. That means that as we engage with people, we need to make it very clear what it’s like to work here, what Amazon has to offer.
Our career day that we held two months ago was a great example of that. It was an opportunity for people to come and really learn about the company, to meet with other employees, to meet with recruiters, to understand just what Amazon is about. It’s things like that that help us continue to engage with candidates and help them understand why Amazon is an exciting place to work.
VB: You’ve also encouraged Amazon to hire military veterans, correct?
Williams: One of the things that I’m personally most proud of that I’ve done at Amazon was I built our apprenticeship program. When I was in Amazon Web Services, one of the things that we found was that veterans were an incredibly good cultural fit, but really didn’t meet the technical bar. …. We started with a pilot [apprenticeship program with the Department of Labor] in 2017, a cohort of 15. And last month, we welcomed our 600th apprentice into the program. … They’re in areas like cloud computing, data center operations, advanced manufacturing, the kinds of things that you wouldn’t typically associate with an apprenticeship. When you say “apprenticeship” to people, particularly in the U.S., they tend to think about the skilled trades, but we did an apprenticeship in software development engineering, for example, and cloud support associate solutions architect. They’re really focused on leveraging the best of that program … and taking folks who are a great fit for Amazon culture and giving them that technical uplift that they need in order to become really strong, contributing employees.