Jonathan Leblang ('89)
Director, Product Management at Amazon
Class of ’89
I have been able to build on my engineering and computer science backgrounds throughout my career. I started my career at MITRE in northern Virginia, where I attended the (still very small) northern Virginia campus in the evenings for my master's. I worked on a variety of large, complex government systems, but always had an interest in the nascent Arpanet (my first email was email@example.com). A friend asked me to take a look at a site he was developing, and I became the first beta tester of (and found the first bug on) Amazon.com.
The dual perspective of my Virginia Tech background in electrical engineering and computer science and applications gave me the tools to look at complex problems from different perspectives and take a variety of approaches to find and solve problems. Electrical engineering is where I learned to look at things more at a low-level component level, while computer science is where I learned to look at the entirety of a system (including the humans).
For the past 22 years, I've been a Director of Product Management at Amazon. I've seen the company grow from about a 1,000 people to now over a million people, and from selling books to selling pretty much everything (including computer services). The first product I launched, Wishlist, is one of the most-used features on Amazon. Over the years I've been fortunate to have worked across the company on products as diverse as payments, search, Kindle, Alexa, and AWS. In January, I moved to customer trust and partner support, working to build a better shopping experience by protecting customers, brands, selling partners, and Amazon from fraud and abuse.
Personally, I’ve lived in Menlo Park, California, halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, for the past 20 years. My wife, and my two high school sons love to travel and we've visited more than 30 countries so far.
How did the department equip you for the ‘real world’...
My teachers really made me take a step back from the "micro" level and view things as systems that included the human element. Since many of the professors were also part-time, they could bring their real-world experience to life, and demonstrate where theory and practicality diverged.
Being a Virginia Tech alumnus means…
One of Amazon's leadership principles is "Learn and Be Curious." This is the one I most closely identify with, and I credit my time at Virginia Tech, since I was always encouraged, especially during my independent study classes, to go and discover things for myself.
My fondest memory from my time in the department is…
Late nights in the McBryde computer lab. I was part of the last freshman engineering class to do Fortran using punched cards. Aside from being able to say "In my day ..." to some of our newer programmers, it taught me to be careful and methodical, since you lost points each time you took your card deck to be run.
Working full time while completing my MS in computer science taught me…
Time management. Juggling a full-time job and a master’s degree honed my planning and negotiating skills (what happens when business requires you to be away for a week when your mid-term paper is due?)
I’m a 22-year veteran at Amazon because...
There are new challenges every day, and I get to work on things where I am constantly learning and inventing (I have more than 50 U.S. patents). Plus, I can see the impact of what I do, from a customer adding something to their Wishlist, to putting a gift message on a package, buying a Kindle at Best Buy, or saying "Alexa, start my meeting."