Richard Harshman, AWS ASEAN Head

Richard Harshman, AWS ASEAN Head

When it comes to startups, few tools are as useful as cloud computing.

This technology allows startups to do all the computing, data storage, analysis and whatever else without actually owning a single server. This has meant that startups are able to scale their business and reach markets with a speed unheard of just a decade ago.

A simple click on a web interface and boom, you have just doubled your computing power without actually have to buy and maintain expensive computer hardware.

Currently, one of the biggest cloud service providers is Amazon Web Services (AWS). At its recent AWS Summit event in Singapore, e27 sat down with AWS’ Southeast Asian Head Richard Harshman to talk about cloud technology in this part of the world and how startups can best make use of it and operators like AWS to help their businesses.

Southeast Asian businesses know how to use the cloud!

Harshman begins by saying, “Cloud usage across the board — be it startups, SMEs or enterprise — in this region has been very strong.”

He shares that the startups here have really made the most use of the cloud and AWS since day one and it is a trend that he hopes will continue.

Startups, it seems, are leading the way in the adoption of cloud technology.

“It really is an exciting space,” he says, “look at how much investment you see from VCs, from accelerators, from government funds here in Singapore and across SEA. North America is a strong market, but look at the attention SEA has from investors. I think that SEA is one of the fastest growing startup markets in the world. It’s not going to be as big as silicon valley in terms of the numbers, but it’s definitely up there and I think it is going to continue.”

He believes that one of the main drivers of this success is the rise of e-commerce and its ability to quickly be democratised.

Another reason for the positive growth of startups here, according to Harshman, is the community. “One of the things that impress me the most about Singapore is the ways things have evolved over the last five years because of people like JFDI and Launchpad. You have this real community going on.”

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When it comes to actually making the best use of the cloud though, Harshman wants to focus on education, saying, “There is a need for continued training and enablement.”

According to him, in the last year alone, AWS added 560 new features to its cloud platform. Companies need to keep abreast of these changes and figure out how to leverage the constantly evolving cloud and its ever increasing system integration.

Not all cloud is created equal

However, it’s not always such a rosy picture. In countries like Singapore, the Internet infrastructure is fantastic with wide-spread broadband and fiber penetration, hence, the cloud makes sense because data can be stored and retrieved easily and quickly.

In less developed nations like Vietnam and the Philippines, however, this isn’t the case, with good Internet connections being expensive and hard to obtain.

In regards to this last mile infrastructure sort of situation, Harshman admits that there is not much AWS can do, though he does say, “We work closely with network providers to ensure that we are providing the best service that we can.”

But companies in such nations still need the cloud to succeed.

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To that extent, he believes that AWS’ method of “commonality” is very important. This basically means that accessing the cloud in one place should be the same as accessing it in another. There is a democratisation of data, of services, which will lead to greater efficiency and productivity.

This shift to the cloud has also allowed for brand new verticals to be born that no one would have expected 10 or 15 years ago.

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“Machine learning is big,” Harshman says. He believes that this hunt for greater data insights will bring the next generation of the cloud.

“The lifeblood of any startup is data, how quickly they can analyse data, know user preferences and how they can improve the UX. It’s data analytics that will drive that,” he says.

Customer obsession

If there is a word AWS’ staff tells me that describes the company best, it is ‘customer obsessed’.

“Everything focusses on the customer,” Harshman says.

“When we introduce a new service, before a single line of code is written, the product team writes a press release with a headline that explains discreetly, so that anyone is able to understand, what the product is and what it can do.”

“On top of that they (the product team) will write an FAQ to answer the most asked questions people will have. Then, they look at it, and if they don’t feel that this is answering the customers need, they won’t start writing the code,” he adds.

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What AWS does is have ‘pizza teams’.

Yes, as in pizza like the delicious, cheesy treat.

Basically, in the company, a team is big enough if two pizzas are enough to feed it.

Agility, Harshman believes is the strength of a company that adopts the cloud. “A small team gives autonomy, gives the ability to quickly come out with services. If you have big teams, you will have bureaucracy.”

The future of AWS in the region

For the foreseeable future though, educating companies is a top priority. “We need to provide additional enablement and training, so we have been running training courses in the office and online. There are courses and instructions from the most basic levels. Activate (AWS’ startup incubation programme) will continue to evolve and innovate,” Harshman explains.

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He also reveals that it is continuing to expand its staff and listening to customers as to where they would like the company to open a new office.

“We realise that there are hundreds of millions of people here (SEA) and we want to enable to next big startup. The level of creativity has been going through the roof. People have kind of woken up to the idea of experimentation and trying new things. Culturally, there has been a massive shift and that is awesome to see.”

Harshman predicts that over the next five to 10 years, there will only be a few companies that will have the requirements for actual data centers, most companies will be fully on the cloud.

To startups in the region, he says, “Don’t be afraid to experiment. The cloud allows you to fail fast and fail cheap. If and when you succeed, it allows you to scale infinitely and go global in minutes.”

“Focus on things that are your core. Infrastructure is not core to a lot of startups; focus on what makes you unique as a startup,” he concludes.

Image Credits:, The Guardian, AWS