The next time one of your gadgets survives a fall from your desk or a dunk in your sink, don’t thank your lucky stars. Thank the people who tested your tech—and tested it again—before it went into production. And if you’ve got an Amazon device in your home or handbag, there’s a very good chance that one of those people was Rob Quarrato or Tin Pham.
As senior hardware reliability engineers at Amazon Lab126, the teams they lead are responsible for putting some of Amazon’s hardware products through the ringer (literally) before they reach consumers’ homes. Rob’s worked on products like the Fire TV and the Fire TV Stick, while Tin’s worked on the Kindle Oasis and Kindle Voyage, among others. They gave us an inside look at what it’s like to work at Lab126—and what it takes to build devices that can survive even the clumsiest owner.
Breaking Things for a Living
Inside the walls of a very modern seven-story building at the heart of Silicon Valley, some of the best minds in technology are hard at work designing, building, and testing the next generation of consumer hardware. In fact, they have produced some of the most high-profile devices of the last decade. Think: the original Kindle e-reader, Echo, the Fire tablet, and many others. But getting products like these out the door, onto shelves, and into homes requires years of research, design, and some very rigorous testing.
That’s where Rob and Tin come in.
“We’re always developing new products and trying to make our existing products better,” Rob said. “We put everything through an amount of testing that would probably surprise most people.”
“We don’t just want to break things,” Tin added. “We’re doing what’s known as ‘failure analysis.’ If something breaks, what specific parts broke? Why did thosee parts break? We’re going to trace the failure and figure out how to fix it.”
From rain chamber testing to drop and impact testing, Rob and Tin put each product through a punishing gauntlet of tests before they sign off. And they’re always coming up with new and innovative ways to challenge the survivability of Amazon’s devices.
“There’s a lot of off-the-cuff testing,” Tin noted. “We try to get into the mindset of the customers. For example, will they take their Kindle to the beach? If they do, what will happen if they drop it in the ocean? What happens if they get sand in it?”
“Our end goal is to make the most solid, reliable device possible,” Rob said.
Environment of Innovation
But Rob and Tin don’t operate in a vacuum. They collaborate with a wide variety of teams, and they’re involved in product development from the prototyping stage all the way to manufacturing.
“We’re working with a lot of cross-functional teams,” Rob said. “Everyone here is really willing to work together and build the best possible product.”
Both engineers stressed that the environment is overwhelmingly supportive, not just when it comes to working together, but also when new resources are required.
“There’s no shortage of tools available to us here,” Rob noted. “You need software? We’ll get you software.”
Tin added, “It’s never about ‘can we do it?’ Instead, it’s ‘here’s what we need in order to give the customer the best product possible.’ We’re really well supported in that area.”
How to Get There
Life at Lab126 sounds pretty sweet, but don’t forget that this is Amazon, and Amazon moves fast. Amazon is a massive company, but Lab126 runs more like a startup where employees have a lot of autonomy and are expected to be self-directed and hit deadlines and goals that might shock you if you’re used to the slow pace of more traditional companies.
“This place definitely keeps you on your toes,” Rob said.
If this sounds like a gig you can get into, we can’t blame you. Being hands-on with the latest tech and figuring out how to make it as dependable as possible sounds like a blast. But becoming a reliability engineer isn’t something you can do overnight. Here’s what you’ll need in order to become a reliability engineer at companies like Amazon:
- A bachelor’s degree in engineering (or a similar field)
- Hands-on experience working with hardware products
- Working knowledge of reliability prediction software like Weibull++
- Experience working with system reliability modeling tools like FMEA, Reliability Block Diagrams, and – Fault Tree Analysis
- Solid communication and presentation skills
- Bonus: if you’re really ambitious, you can get certified