Tech: Here’s where Amazon’s first 21 employees are now (AMZN)

An old photo of Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos.

Meet the people who built Amazon.

When Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, started driving northwest from Texas in 1994, they were setting off on a journey to create one of the biggest e-commerce sites in the United States, based in Seattle.

Although they took that first long road trip alone, it didn’t take Bezos — with his grand vision and boisterous laugh — long to start pulling in talent.

Brad Stone’s book “The Everything Store” plus a conversation with early employees Tom Schonhoff and Mike Hanlon helped us figure out the names of some of Amazon’s first critical employees. (The first 10 employees are listed in the order they were hired, though the others are not. If you know someone else who was there in the earliest days, let us know).

Some early Amazon employees have since become entrepreneurs. Others went on to other major companies. A few are happily retired. Here’s what they’re all doing now, more than two decades after Amazon got its start.

Jillian D’Onfro contributed to an earlier version of this story.

Eric Benson and his wife, Susan, joined Amazon together.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 — 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Engineer

What he’s doing now: Benson is now retired.

Benson joined the company as an engineer. He and Susan, his wife, would always bring their dog Rufus to work with them because of the long hours. The corgi fast became something of a fixture at the company.

One of the many things Benson worked on was the site’s “Similarities” system, which recommended books based on what users had already read. He completed the preliminary version in only two weeks.

The Bensons are still together today, living in Washington.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 — 2001

What she’s doing now: Susan Benson served as a board member at Town Hall Seattle, a nonprofit devoted to arts and education, until 2016.

Benson was part of Amazon’s editorial staff (employees wrote all the first reviews) and she would eventually win the title of editor in chief. She told Stone that, in the early days, the assumption was that employees wouldn’t even take a weekend day off of work.

She and the rest of the editorial team were responsible for crafting witty messages for site visitors, recommending new products that they might be interested in, a job that became nearly obsolete when Amazon built an algorithm called Amabot that automatically generated recommendations in a standard format.

According to Amazon’s first employee, Shel Kaphan, Benson was the one who got Amazon on Netscape’s “What’s New’ and “What’s Cool” pages when she worked there.

“…because the name started with an A, it was above the fold so lots of people saw it,” Kaphan said in an interview with the Y Combinator blog. “That was, in my opinion, a super important connection for us. It might have happened without the personal connection, but who knows, maybe not.”

Nick Strauss did a little bit of everything at Amazon.

Date worked for Amazon: July 1996 — 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Catalog specialist

What he’s doing now: Strauss is a business intelligence training developer at T-Mobile.

Strauss had a variety of jobs at Amazon, including answering customer service calls, writing code, packing books, giving presentations, and “anything else you can imagine.”

Eric Knapp is retired and living in Oregon.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 — at least 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Warehouse

What he’s doing now: Knapp is now retired.

Doug McDonald now teaches language arts.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 — 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Editor, Books division

What he’s doing now: McDonald works as a high school teacher in Oregon.

Barrie Trinkle was a National Spelling Bee champion before she joined the company in 1996.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 — 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Site merchandiser/editor

What she’s doing now: Trinkle is a writer, editor, investor, and volunteer.

Trinkle won the National Spelling Bee in 1973 with the word “vouchesafe” and has served on the Bee’s Word Panel since 1996, the same year she joined Amazon. After graduating from MIT, she spent more than a decade at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab before joining Amazon.

Rebecca Allen was an early Amazon engineer. She’s now a writer living on the East Coast.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 — 1998

Most recent Amazon title: Software engineer

What she’s doing now: Often writing about tech on her blog.

Software engineer Ellen Ratajak worked on Amazon’s early IT.

Date worked for Amazon: 1996 — 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Director of IT

What she’s doing now: She’s a board member of Organically Grown Company, an organic produce wholesaler, and an independent IT consultant.

She and Shel Kaphan, Amazon’s first employee, shared an office and would sometimes blast rockabilly music as they hacked away on the site, even late on Friday nights.

She’s admitted that Bezos could be a “royal a**hole” with “irrational stubbornness,” but that it all came from his unrelenting desire to delight customers.

Scott Northrop was Amazon’s “Unix Shaman.”

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 — 2000

Most recent Amazon title: Unix Shaman

What he’s doing now: Owner of Stark Raving Foods, which makes gluten-free frozen pizza.

When Northrop joined Amazon way back in 1995, employees were allowed to put whatever they wanted on their business cards, so he chose Shaman.

“‘Wizard'” was way too old school, ‘Jedi’ wasn’t yet in vogue,” he jokes on LinkedIn. He wrote the code that did the automatic layout of Amazon’s packing slips and built the site’s payment system, which he notes scaled from “300 sales on a big day” to $1 billion a year while he worked on it.

Tod Nelson now mentors student entrepreneurs.

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 — 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Editor, Music and Video

What he’s doing now: Nelson now serves as executive director of CalPoly’s Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

In the early days, Nelson used to be in charge of churning out book reviews for Amazon.com. He also worked as operations manager and eventually helped launch Amazon’s German site.

Jonathan Kochmer now works for a nonprofit and plays in a band called Two Loons For Tea.

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 — 2000

Most recent Amazon title: Information architect

What he’s doing now: Director of research and development at nonprofit Earth Economics. He’s also in a band called Two Loons For Tea.

While at Amazon, Kochmer helped develop the browse system for books and worked within the teams that developed the company-wide data infrastructures. He also did “stealth online promotion” and vendor negotiation.

Knute Sears and Fred Eiden were Amazon’s ninth and tenth employees.

According to Mike Hanlon, Amazon’s seventh employee, Knute Sears and Fred Eiden were Amazon’s ninth and tenth employees, hired in 1995. Eiden was a software developer until 2000 and now designs customer furniture, a craft he took up after he left Amazon.

Amazon’s eighth employee, Laurel Canan, gave up coffee when he joined Amazon.

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 to at least 1998 (we weren’t able to find further information on Canan)

First job at Amazon: Operations

What he’s doing now: Unknown

Laurel Canan, Amazon’s eighth employee, was a 24-year-old carpenter who planned to return to school to become a Chaucer scholar. Instead, he joined Amazon, taking over operations in the company’s warehouse.

He completely gave up coffee soon after. “You can’t do a job like that on caffeine. You have to do it on carbs,” he told Brad Stone for Stone’s book on Amazon, “The Everything Store.”

Laurel Canan eventually married another early employee, Sara Jinks. She was Amazon’s receptionist.

Mike Hanlon brought his girlfriend to the warehouse and Bezos made her sign an NDA.

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 — 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Operations/Business development/Software development

What he’s doing now: Hanlon cofounded a company called Abett that uses data to help you make stressful decisions. The company’s first product identifies outfits from the clothes in users’ closets. He and his wife, Molly, now run The Hanlon Foundation.

Hanlon was Amazon’s seventh employee. According to his LinkedIn, Hanlon managed real estate operations and administrated UNIX and telecom systems from 1995 to 1997. From 1998 to 2001, he worked as a software engineer, developing finance and customer service applications at Amazon.

He shared this fun anecdote via email:

During Christmas 1995, the site really took off. Everyone was working long hours, and my girlfriend (now wife) Molly would come hang out in the warehouse in the evenings to help us pack up shipments. That was really the only chance that Molly and I had to see each other, and her help enabled us to get home earlier than we would have otherwise.

When Jeff Bezos realized that Molly was helping us in the warehouse, he came down and had her sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Nicholas Lovejoy joined Amazon as its sixth employee.

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 — 1998, September 2016 — Present

First Amazon title: Recruiting and Operations

What he’s doing now: “Principal TPM Middle Mile” at Amazon

Lovejoy worked with Bezos at D.E. Shaw, and was a high school math teacher in Seattle before moving to Amazon. Once he arrived, he made the suggestion to put packing tables in Amazon’s warehouse. To most it would seem obvious, but Bezos, who had suggested buying knee-pads to make packing on the ground easier, praised him for years for the completely “brilliant idea.”

All of Amazon’s desks were subsequently made out of doors.

He left the company in 1998 to go backpacking around the world with his girlfriend, but rejoined Amazon in September 2016 to help build Amazon Transportation Services.

Tom Schonhoff was Amazon’s fifth employee and built the customer service department from scratch.

Date worked for Amazon: 1995 — 2001

Most recent Amazon title: Technical program manager

What he’s doing now: He nows works as a program manager for Microsoft.

Schonhoff, Amazon’s fifth employee, had just earned a computer science degree at the University of Washington when Bezos brought him on board. He ran the whole customer service department for the first several months, working with Bezos to establish Amazon’s famous “it’s all about the customers” attitude.

He told Business Insider that he was often the one personally making sure packages made it to the post office by jamming them into his car to drop off at the end of his long workday.

Paul Davis led the back-end development of Amazon.com.

Date worked for Amazon: Fall 1994 — 1996

First Amazon job title: Developer

What he’s doing now: Founder of Linux Audio Systems.

Davis was Amazon’s fourth employee, joining before the company launched its website and working with Shel Kaphan to make Bezos’ dreams a reality. When he left his job at the University of Washington, his coworkers passed around a coffee can to collect a few dollars for him in case the risky venture failed.

Although he only stayed with Amazon for less than two years, he was absolutely critical to the development of the site, helping to create the entire backend. In his own words:

“I left, despite significant stock and other inducements to remain, because I am a technical person and had little interest in playing a role in the growth of the company. I was intimately involved with many aspects of getting this now-extremely successful company started.”

Shel Kaphan was Amazon’s first employee besides Bezos and his wife.

Date worked for Amazon: Fall 1994 — 1999

First Amazon job title: VP of Research and Development

Most recent Amazon title: CTO

What he’s doing now: Philanthropy at The Kaphan Foundation.

Although he’s not officially considered a cofounder, he and Bezos were discussing the company even before it was incorporated, and Bezos once referred to him as “the most important person ever in the history of Amazon.com.”

He decided to leave after Bezos hired two new tech managers and named him CTO, essentially taking him off the front lines and making him feel helpless to make any real change within the company. Bezos and Kaphan are no longer in touch.

MacKenzie and Jeff met at work.

MacKenzie Tuttle, a D.E. Shaw research associate, married Jeff Bezos in 1993 and the duo founded Amazon together. She became the fledgling company’s first accountant and, according to Brad Stone, was the one “handling the finances, writing the checks, and helping with hiring.”

She’s now a novelist.

Jeff Bezos has been the CEO of Amazon since the very beginning.

Since founding Amazon, Bezos has donated $42 million and part of his land in Texas to the construction of The Clock Of The Long Now, an underground clock designed to work for 10,000 years. In 2012, he donated $2.5 million to defend gay marriage in Washington. In August 2013, Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million. He funds a private space company called Blue Origin, which is working on developing technology for private space travel.

Bezos is now one of the most powerful figures in tech, with a net worth of roughly $82 billion.

Learn much more about his life here.

posted by ConnectMe

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