Amazon’s Boston Expansion: Cloud, Kiva, Digital Product Jobs

The news that Amazon would finally bring its huge appetite for technical talent to the Boston area was a welcome year-end revelation for the local tech scene. But it also left plenty of room for speculation—namely, just what are they working on over there?

I didn’t get any comment from Amazon headquarters in Seattle, which is no big surprise—the company is famously tight-lipped with meaningful details, and in the middle of its most crucial retail season to boot.

But that’s OK, because there’s enough of a digital trail to get a very good idea of the work Amazon is looking to accomplish in its expanded Boston-area offices. We can also get a decent picture of some of the folks already working for the company in the region, and see where they’ve come from.

As of my last check on Thursday afternoon, Amazon had about 50 openings listed on its public job board, for locations in either Boston, Cambridge, or Woburn (the latter city is the source of jobs at Kiva Systems, the warehouse robotics company Amazon purchased earlier this year).

That could be just a down payment. In the recent announcement of a deal to have Amazon collect Massachusetts sales taxes in late 2013, the company said it planned to create “hundreds” of jobs in the state. The Boston Globe subsequently reported that Amazon had settled on some 105,000 square feet of office space in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, a footprint that could be large enough to hold around 500 workers.

So, according to the public job listings, here’s a look at the kind of talent Amazon hopes to find—and the projects its people will be tackling, once the new office really gets cooking.

Amazon Web Services, a pioneer of cloud computing services for the masses, is the business that kicked off a renaissance at Amazon. By some outside estimates, AWS could be a billion-dollar annual business—and it powers a huge share of Web traffic.

So it’s no surprise that AWS appears to be a big focus for an expanded Amazon office in the Boston area, especially with the region’s world-class university talent and established IT infrastructure and computing companies from which to recruit.

Almost every single one of these job listings refers to a “new storage initiative” being crafted by AWS, which is described as “forming a team to deliver an additional highly innovative scalable cloud storage service.” That includes a lead position: The head of software development and service operations.

This impossibly broad name actually fits the wide array of things that the company’s engineers and managers work on—the Kindle reader and tablet devices, and the websites, apps, digital media, and other goodies that Amazon relies upon to actually make money on its gadgets.

That includes services like Amazon Instant Video, Amazon MP3, the company’s Appstore for the Android operating system, and Audible, an audiobook download service. Along with several slots for engineers and development managers, Amazon is also advertising for senior speech scientists.

There are also openings for software developers to work on the user interface for the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s line of tablet computers that recently added a range of inexpensive, high-definition models to compete with the low-price end of the tablet market. There are also multiple development positions advertised at Audible itself.

Amazon is in the middle of a growth phase in several parts of the U.S., part of a complex series of business and political deals that revolve around sales tax policy and shipping logistics. Basically, it goes like this: In the past, Amazon has fought state attempts to deputize it as a tax collector, relying on federal law that pre-dates the Web. That became more difficult as the demands of Amazon’s growing e-commerce business called for additional shipping centers around the country.

In recent months, Amazon has pulled an about-face, preferring to cut sales-tax deals with local political leaders when it wants or needs to expand somewhere. In return, Amazon is building support for a new national policy on sales tax collection, which the company is pushing for at a federal level.

So, with a growing network of shipping warehouses, Amazon has sought to find efficiencies and drive costs down. One way it’s doing that is the acquisition of North Reading, MA-based Kiva Systems, which Amazon agreed to buy for about $775 million this spring.

And Kiva’s growing, with 16 jobs being advertised on the Amazon board, focused mostly on electrical, mechanical, and software engineers.

Even with well-documented troubles in the once smoking-hot daily deals market, Amazon is adding sales staff for AmazonLocal, its own branded service offering big consumer discounts at businesses large and small around the country.

Amazon has been advertising for eight of these positions in the Boston area.

Amazon has traditionally used LivingSocial, the No. 2 daily deal company behind Groupon, to supply the guts of its AmazonLocal offering. (Amazon’s also an investor in LivingSocial, giving the public an ability to track the smaller company’s performance through Amazon filings.)

Amazon had a small group in the area, working out of the Cambridge Innovation Center, before the recent announcement of plans for hundreds of new jobs in the region.

The office has grown already, according to several employee profiles on LinkedIn. The workers have come from the places you might expect: MIT, EMC, Microsoft, Nokia, Brightcove, iRobot, and more.

That includes people like Bill Barton, a Nokia alum listed as a director of software development for Amazon’s digital and mobile products; Wayne Duso, a longtime EMC employee now working as a general manager at AWS; and digital/mobile products principal engineer Simon Reavely, formerly of Nokia and Orange Labs.

And there’s at least some representation from the mothership: Michael Touloumtzis is listed as a director of software development at Amazon Cambridge. He’s held that job since January 2012, according to LinkedIn, having worked at Amazon in Seattle since 2003.

One last tidbit: A few folks, including development manager Loren Shih, say they’re now working with Amazon’s Lab126, the company’s electronics development subsidiary that produced the Kindle devices, from the basic e-ink reader up through the newest Kindle Fire models.

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