An Amazon Veteran Wants to Reinvent Himself. At Microsoft.

Date:

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In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about the people they turn to for advice, and how those people have shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. Previous installments from the series are here.

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Charlie Bell

spent a decade and a half helping

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Amazon.

com Inc. become the dominant provider of remote computing power to large multinational companies. In October he crossed town to oversee security for his longtime Seattle-area rival,

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Microsoft Corp.

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The turning point for the 64-year-old executive was the 2021 retirement of Amazon founder and Chief Executive

Jeff Bezos.

“Jeff said he was retiring and it was like, ‘Okay, what is this world going to look like?’” Mr. Bell said.

Bio Bits

  • Age: 64
  • Education: California State University, Fullerton
  • Family: His wife, Nadia Shouraboura, whom he calls “the greatest advisor to me in life.” The two met at Amazon and served on its executive team together. One daughter, Caroline.
  • First job: Working at Lion Country Safari animal park as a cook
  • Recent book he’s read: Nicole Perlroth’s “This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends.”
  • Hobby: Camping in Washington state’s national parks

Mr. Bell said he became interested in solving an emerging problem for companies: cyberattacks. He discussed the idea with his wife

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Nadia Shouraboura,

an ex-Amazon executive, and she introduced him to Microsoft CEO

Satya Nadella.

When the two met, Mr. Bell said Mr. Nadella brought up the subject of security before he could raise it himself. Mr. Bell then became head of a new 10,000-person security engineering and compliance group at Microsoft that helps companies and governments deal with everything from digital fraud to ransomware attacks.

There was a time when Mr. Bell was more interested in playing music than resolving problems for companies. While growing up in southern California, one of his passions was the trombone. In fact, he majored in music during his first few years of school at a local community college before transferring to California State University, Fullerton, to study management information systems.

That decision altered his trajectory. He got an internship at

Rockwell International’s

space division that paid “a whopping $7 per hour writing code,” allowing him to quit a minimum-wage job at a liquor store that had been paying his way through school. Then he landed a full-time job after graduation and stayed in the aerospace industry for nearly a decade.

He later worked for

Oracle Corp.

in Seattle and founded his own ecommerce transaction software company that Amazon purchased in 1998. At Amazon, where Mr. Bell would spend 23 years, he became part of a team that helped build cloud-computing unit Amazon Web Services, known as AWS, into the dominant provider of data storage to large multinationals. Its biggest competitor was Microsoft, located roughly 15 miles from Amazon’s headquarters.

Here are four of his most trusted advisers:

Rick Dalzell

Former senior vice president, Amazon

The first time Mr. Bell met Mr. Dalzell was in his car. Mr. Bell’s start up was consulting for Amazon, and Mr. Bell needed to have a meeting with the executive, who was then Amazon’s chief information officer. Mr. Dalzell’s secretary said that Mr. Dalzell’s car was in the shop and that he needed a ride to work in the morning. Mr. Bell volunteered to drive him. A month later, Mr. Bell was working for Amazon.

Mr. Bell says he learned the importance of speed from Mr. Dalzell, who snapped into action during crises, as well as getting close to the customer.

During his first month at Amazon, he got a phone call from Mr. Dalzell at 7:30 a.m. alerting him to a customer service outage. He told him to get to the customer service center immediately. Mr. Bell spent the day helping the representatives answering the phones during the outage. Another time, there was an outage where Mr. Dalzell had a number of Amazon white collar employees go to the warehouse and package items up for customers until 2 a.m.

Teresa Carlson

Former vice president of worldwide public sector and industries at AWS

The first time Mr. Bell met Ms. Carlson was in 2010 while interviewing her at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters for a position at AWS. Ms. Carlson worked with government, nonprofit and public sector clients globally, helping them make the decision to migrate to the cloud—and in the early years explaining what the cloud was.

“Teresa really convinced me of having empathy for where customers really are,” said Mr. Bell. “Teresa had this idea that it’s bigger than the company, like you’re there to solve a problem for humanity.”

Mr. Bell remembers an example of how Ms. Carlson would view a problem through the lens of a client. When she returned from a trip to see Middle Eastern officials grappling with what might happen once their supply of oil had been exhausted, she advocated for AWS to invest alongside the government in building out the country’s cloud capacity.

Mr. Bell said he tried to take such an approach in recent meetings with government officials abroad.

John Przelenski

Former Oracle executive

Mr. Bell met Mr. Przelenski when the two men worked at Oracle. They later were colleagues at Mr. Bell’s startup and AWS.

At Oracle, Mr. Przelenski’s client was

Boeing,

which was Oracle’s second-largest account at the time. Mr. Bell learned how to listen to customers from Mr. Przelenski. “He wanted to solve really big problems for Boeing,” recalls Mr. Bell, who remembers the executive saying “we’re going to hunt wooly mammoths, we aren’t going to chase rabbits,” meaning that their mission was to solve the biggest problems for clients by working together as a team.

Mr. Przelenski’s example was important for Mr. Bell when he made the transition to Microsoft. “I met with a lot of customers here when I first came in, and spent a lot of time doing that—listening. What are their problems? What are they trying to do?”

Marco Argenti

Co-CIO of Goldman Sachs, former Amazon executive

Mr. Bell met Mr. Argenti in 2013 when the executive was interviewing at AWS, and the way he answered one of the interview questions always stuck with him, he said. Mr. Bell asked how Mr. Argenti knew as a senior leader that engineers were building the right things, he recalls. Mr. Argenti said he wrote code against application programming interfaces, or APIs, to see how it performed.

Mr. Argenti’s answer demonstrated a willingness to roll up his sleeves in a way that most senior leaders don’t, said Mr Bell. He was impressed by the answer and hired him. He’s applied that attitude to his own management, he says. “I still use that to this day,” said Mr. Bell. “I go look at the APIs and write code. It’s all fun, and it tells you a lot about how things are really working.”

Over the years, the two men became friends, and Mr. Bell even had Mr. Argenti’s Seattle 90s alternative rock tribute band perform a concert for his team.

Write to Dana Mattioli at dana.mattioli@wsj.com

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