Hokies at Amazon: Alumni bring diverse skills to retail giant
These Hokies work around the country and the globe, from Seattle to Europe.
May 30, 2019
Hokies are everywhere — including at the nation’s largest online retailer.
Hundreds of Virginia Tech alumni work for Amazon, and they’re not all computer science types. Their jobs cross many areas, from supply chain logistics and product management to public policy. You’ll find them working around the country and the globe, from Seattle to Europe.
With Amazon’s decision to locate its second headquarters in Arlington, Virginia Tech is making plans to launch a new campus in nearby Alexandria. This Innovation Campus would offer graduate programs in a variety of fields, focused largely on computer science and computer engineering. The university hopes that its new campus will fill some of Amazon’s future workforce needs and satisfy demands for technology talent throughout the state.
We caught up with several Amazon Hokies to find out what it’s like working for the online retail giant and how their education at Virginia Tech prepared them for a plethora of roles.
Samantha Phanthanousy '15,'17
Major: Packaging systems and design
Job at Amazon: Area manager for supply chain logistics (Kansas City, Kansas)
Samantha Phanthanousy sees a direct connection between her employer and her alma mater.
“[Virginia] Tech is very innovative, and they push you to think outside the box and just really go for it, which I really love, and Amazon is the same way,” said Phanthanousy.
Phanthanousy has worked for the online retail giant since graduating and is currently an area manager overseeing supply chain logistics at Amazon’s sorting center in Kansas City, Kansas.
“We sort all these packages that come in from our fulfillment center – about 120,000 packages a day – that have to be in the customer’s hands tomorrow,” she said.
Phanthanousy credits her time studying packaging systems and design at Virginia Tech with preparing her for her job, which requires a high level of organization and leadership.
“I feel like being at Virginia Tech you learn how to develop not only your analytical skills, but also your soft skills [attributes that allow a person to interact effectively and harmoniously with others], which are super important today,” she said. “I think Virginia Tech helped me a lot.”
She added that she felt excitement, and even a little jealousy, when she heard of Virginia Tech’s plans for its new Innovation Campus.
“I was like ‘Wow, that’s so awesome!’ I wish I was a student now,” Phanthanousy said. “I almost wish I could reverse my clock and go to Tech ... because I think it’s going to bring a lot of opportunities to students. I think they’re going to be able to do super awesome things and have a great perspective going into the real world."
Tom Taylor '84
Major: Mechanical engineering
Job at Amazon: Senior vice president, Alexa (Seattle)
Tom Taylor landed his job overseeing Amazon’s Alexa and Echo programs simply by raising his hand.
When he initially was hired by Amazon in 2002, Taylor, who majored in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, managed the online retailer’s European operations from London. Two years later, he returned to the United States to work with large retailers interested in using Amazon’s platform.
In 2016, Taylor asked to be involved with the Alexa and Echo programs, but there wasn’t an opening. Soon after, Alexa’s team leader left the company, paving the way for Taylor.
“Ut Prosim, to serve … I have lived that in wanting to help the world,” said Taylor, who as a student served on the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad. “I want to be a good leader, to help our employees have better lives. Alexa is about that, too, for customers. She was created to make life a little better, a little easier.”
Alexa’s personality was designed with three primary character traits in mind—she is humble, helpful, and quirky, Taylor said.
Alexa is named for the Library of Alexandria, which stored the knowledge of the ancient world. She has more than 50,000 skills, thanks to developers around the world. She also has received more than a half million marriage proposals.
Taylor said he’s excited about where Alexa may lead him. “If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned to enjoy the adventure,” he said. “You should never expect that where you start is where you will end up.”
Read more about Taylor in the Virginia Tech magazine.
Maria Saab '09
Major: International studies
Job at Amazon: Public policy manager (Seattle)
Maria Saab felt free to explore without judgment while at Virginia Tech.
“I just felt like I could be who I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do with a lot of opportunities,” said Saab, ’09. “What it did was it allowed me to thrive, but in a way that was personal to my own experience … free from judgement and free from this sort of pressure of competition with the student body.”
She used that freedom to earn a degree in international studies before heading to George Mason University to study law. Today, Saab is a public policy manager for Amazon Web Services Global Public Policy team in Seattle.
“I help manage the cross-functional and cross geographical strategy for our AWS Public Policy organization,” Saab said. “When issues arise that affect more than one geographic location or issues that necessitate bringing in members from different business teams, I oversee that.”
She added that watching her alma mater and company connect through the plans for HQ2 and Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus filled her with pride and excitement.
“I know just working at Amazon there have been a number of times where I’ve heard Virginia Tech’s name come up in conversation and it’s always a prideful moment for me,” Saab said. “I’m happy that together we can bring Virginia Tech to the forefront in a way that it deserves and help it continue to grow.”
Sarah Magee '13
Major: Marketing management and entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology management
Job at Amazon: Senior operations manager, oversees remote delivery operations (Tempe, Arizona)
Virginia Tech helped put Sarah Magee on Amazon’s radar.
During her senior year, the 2013 graduate had an on-campus interview with the online retail giant. Ultimately, she took a job with a different company, but more than a year after receiving her degree — a dual major in marketing management and entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology management — Amazon reached out to Magee about a position working with top secret products.
Magee scored the job, and today she is one of two senior operations managers who oversee remote delivery operations, such as Prime Now, Fresh, and Whole Foods in Tempe, Arizona.
“That basically houses all the ultra-fast, same-day delivery,” Magee said.
She said the ability and the encouragement to creatively solve problems was her favorite part of working for Amazon.
“Having the license to create and think big and challenge ourselves and ultimately, to have the resources to put those things into motion is really exciting,” Magee said. “Every day is a new puzzle with new problems to solve, so it never gets boring.”
Jonathan Leblang '86, '89
Major: Electrical engineering (bachelor's degree), computer science (master's degree)
Job at Amazon: Director of product management for Amazon Web Services (San Francisco)
A lesson Jonathan Leblang learned early on at Virginia Tech has been true through his work with Amazon.
“I remember in my first engineering class at Tech we learned that an engineer is a people-oriented problem-solver, and that is exactly what I do,” said Leblang.
Today, Leblang is director of product management for Amazon Web Services in San Francisco.
“I just hit the 20-year mark at Amazon. I started in Seattle, when Amazon was only in Seattle, and was the first Amazon employee to come to California in 2001,” Leblang said. “During my time here, I’ve had the chance to work on a multitude of projects that I can see being used — from Amazon Wish List to gift cards on wrapped presents and making a better search experience, to making it easy for customers in stores to try out a Kindle or Fire Tablet.”
Currently, Leblang is working on Alexa for Business, which allows businesses, schools, and other large organizations to deploy and manage Alexa devices at scale.
While he doesn’t do work with a direct connection the field that he studied — electrical engineering — Leblang has found he regularly utilizes the skills he picked up during the education process at Tech.
“I have used what I didn’t even realize I was learning,” Leblang. “How to work effectively with teams, either on a project or in a study group; figuring out what each person’s strength is and playing to it; how to quickly take in a large amount of data and figure out what is important; and how to be comfortable trying new things.”
He said he thought Northern Virginia was a natural fit for Amazon’s HQ2, and it was fitting that Virginia Tech helped the state to usher in the company and the opportunities that will accompany it.
“I was also proud that Virginia Tech, as the commonwealth’s land-grant university, is able to continue its mission to serve all the residents of Virginia, which it has done by helping to provide an environment conducive to Amazon’s HQ2,” Leblang said.
Holly Cuneo '09, '13
Major: Apparel design and merchandising management, MBA
Job at Amazon: Product manager for Kindle (Luxembourg)
Holly Cuneo believes her studies at Virginia Tech helped her get her foot in the door at Amazon.
“I think having a combination of a fashion undergrad/MBA really helped set me apart from the other candidates,” said Cuneo, who earned an undergraduate degree in apparel design and merchandising management.
Today, Cuneo is a product manager for Kindle in Luxembourg. She said the people and the pace of accomplishment are what she enjoys most about working for Amazon.
“You are never bored at Amazon, and it’s incredible to work with such smart people,” she said.
Cuneo said many people could have guessed her reaction to hearing Virginia Tech’s role in helping the state to land HQ2.
“My first reaction, of course, was ‘Go Hokies!’” she said. “I think it’s pretty incredible that Virginia Tech is opening the Innovation Campus.”
Written by Travis Williams