Tech vet Adam Bosworth directing mysterious Amazon Web Services project at crux of non-compete dispute

Adam Bosworth, VP, Amazon Web Services (Linkedin photo)
Adam Bosworth, VP, Amazon Web Services (Linkedin photo)

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the mysterious Amazon Web Services project that prompted the company to sue a former employee for breaching a non-compete agreement, but one interesting detail has emerged: Adam Bosworth appears to be leading the project.

Heavily-redacted court documents indicate that Bosworth, a well-known tech executive who made his mark at companies including Google and Microsoft, is the primary force behind the secretive AWS project at issue in the case. His involvement is notable in part because Bosworth himself was the target of a non-compete claim from Microsoft many years ago.

Amazon is claiming Gene Farrell, a former AWS executive, would have known the project competes with similar products developed by Bellevue, Wash.-based Smartsheet. For now, AWS has successfully prevented Farrell from working Smartsheet as vice president of product, after a judge granted a temporary restraining order based on an AWS suit claiming Farrell is in violation of his non-compete agreement.

Gene Farrell. (Smartsheet Photo)

In a response to the Amazon suit, Smartsheet filed a motion claiming that the redacted project at AWS was “nascent” and that Farrell was “three levels removed from the work” that was being done. The company said that Farrell was aware of the existence of the mystery project through a few conversations with Bosworth, and his attendance at a meeting during which it was discussed, but said that Farrell recalled the conversations as “very preliminary thinking,” a key factor in deciding whether or not a project has evolved enough to trigger the non-compete agreement.

Assuming AWS CEO Andy Jassy isn’t enforcing this non-compete purely out of spite (more on that in a second), it seems pretty clear that AWS is trying to beef up its WorkDocs suite of products to move more into the type of workplace collaboration technology that Smartsheet develops. Putting a product veteran like Bosworth at the forefront of the product is another sign of this project’s importance to AWS.

Bosworth joined AWS almost a year ago after stints at Salesforce, Google, and Microsoft. He’s built several products from scratch along the way, including Google Health and, way back in the day, the spreadsheet software Quattro while he was at Borland.

It seems like he was hired specifically to work on this project: a month after he joined AWS, Bosworth contacted Farrell to discuss his ideas over lunch, according to court documents.

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Another document filed alongside Smartsheet’s response sheds a little more light on how Amazon enforces non-compete agreements, which is confusing both internally and externally, as I reported last week. Farrell described his last two weeks at Amazon in a court filing, saying that his manager, Charlie Bell, “insisted that I speak with Andy Jassy, the CEO of AWS, before finalizing the decision to leave Amazon.”

Farrell and Jassy first had a brief conversation in which Jassy said he was concerned about Smartsheet as a competitor, but that he wanted to hear more about why Farrell wanted to leave in hopes of trying to find a way to convince Farrell to stay at Amazon, according to the court documents. Farrell then wrote Jassy and Bell an email (embedded below in its entirety) describing his reasons for wanting to move on to Smartsheet, and he planned to meet with Jassy the following day.

However, it appeared Jassy had made up his mind after reading the email — telling Farrell the next day that he intended to enforce the terms of the non-compete and that he enforces these agreements “on a case-by-case basis.”

Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy

Here’s how Farrell described the meeting in a declaration with the court:

Mr. Jassy began our scheduled meeting on May 17, 2017, by indicating that he had received my email and did not have anything to discuss other than that he intended to enforce the non-competition terms of the Agreement. I reiterated that Smartsheet was not competitive with anything that I had worked on. I also asked why Amazon would attempt to enforce the non-compete in this instance, when it chose not to enforce a non-compete against an Amazon employee who left to be CEO of a competitor company after that employee had approved and priced Amazon’s directly competing product. Mr. Jassy said only that he makes these decisions on a case-by-case basis and again threatened to enforce the non-compete if I did not stay at Amazon.

The reference to the AWS employee who left to be CEO of a competitor was likely Adam Selipsky, who became CEO of Seattle-based Tableau Software last year. Amazon launched its QuickSight business intelligence and data visualization service last year, competing with Tableau. But since Selipsky left, the Seattle-based company has started to expand into the public cloud as an AWS customer.

“Case by case” is exactly how several former AWS employees and others familiar with its non-compete strategies described the company’s approach to enforcement, underscoring how difficult it can be for Amazon employees to understand if a job they are taking for any number of reasons — from a promotion to a better commute — could subject them to litigation.

This might seem unusual to tech workers in California, where non-compete agreements have long been considered unenforceable. But they are more common in Washington state.

In fact, nearly 17 years ago, Bosworth himself was targeted by a huge Washington company seeking to enforce the terms of a non-compete agreement: Microsoft. Bosworth and two other ex-Microsoft employees founded a startup called Crossgain that drew the ire of then-CEO Bill Gates. Bosworth, co-founder Tod Nielsen, and other employees of the young startup were forced to stop working for Crossgain until their non-compete agreements expired a year later.

The experience left Bosworth and the other Crossgain employees “dumbfounded. They couldn’t understand how they competed, since Microsoft didn’t have a service to run software applications over the Web. And they couldn’t fathom how Microsoft, a company they worked so hard for, could be so punitive,” according to a Bloomberg story from 2001 about the ordeal.

Farrell’s email to Jassy about his decision to leave AWS follows below.

Amazon vs. Farrell: Email to Jassy by Todd Bishop on Scribd