James Hamilton, MMath '97

VP and Distinguished Engineer, Amazon Web Services

James and Jennifer Hamilton on Table Mountain above Cape Town

“You can’t work in hardware or software anywhere in the world and not respect the University of Waterloo."

At Amazon Web Services, James is focused on infrastructure efficiency, reliability, and scaling. He graduated from the University of Waterloo in 1997 with a Master of Mathematics, Computer Science. When we caught up with them, James and his wife Jennifer, also a graduate of Waterloo's MMath program, were in Cape Town, South Africa, part of the way through their long-term goal of cruising around the world in a private boat.

When he left high school in 1974, a university education, much less a graduate degree, was neither a goal nor really an option. He first worked as an auto mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership in Ottawa. Eventually, he found himself at Eurocar in Victoria, where he worked on exotic Italian cars such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo. During this period, he developed an interest in computers and computer programming that led him to return to university to earn a computer science degree from the University of Victoria.

Post-graduation, he was appointed manager of the team that produced the world’s second C++ compiler, at IBM in Toronto. He moved to the database group and held various roles over the years, eventually becoming lead architect for the DB2 Database Engine. While at IBM, James completed his master’s degree at the University of Waterloo with advisor Dr. Jacob Slonim.

After 10 years at IBM, James joined the Microsoft SQL Server unit where he led most of the core engine development teams including service as development manager of the Relational Engine Team and general manager of the Webdata Team. After nearly a decade in SQL Server, James moved to become the general manager of Microsoft Exchange Hosted Services. This was his first role in cloud services and, in many ways, this role set the direction for his subsequent career. 

Continuing in cloud services, James joined Amazon Web Services (AWS) several years ago and remains there today. At AWS, James has worked on data center power distribution reliability, cooling system efficiency, and the custom networking equipment and software that connects all the servers used in the Amazon Web Services fleet.

Q: Why did you choose the University of Waterloo?

A: You can’t work in hardware or software anywhere in the world and not respect the University of Waterloo. It remains a key recruiting school for Microsoft, Amazon and many others. More than anything, Waterloo opens doors. When potential employers see “Waterloo” they know you were part of a high quality academic program that graduates builders. Waterloo graduates engineers who know the research but can also create systems that really work.

Q: What would you do differently?

A: It was a great experience and I wouldn’t give it up my time at Waterloo for the world. It helped prepare me for each step that followed.  My only advice would be to consider doing it full time. At the time, I felt that I couldn’t afford to take time off work.  So I participated in the master’s program part time over 4 years. I ended up finding it quite a challenge to do both at the same time and I think I could have done a better job at both with more focus.

Q: What achievements are you most proud of since graduating from Waterloo?

A: When I look back, the things I’m most proud of are large engineering projects. Big projects are done by teams of engineers, so I can’t point to much that I did alone.  But there are many that I look back on and feel lucky to have been part of the team.  I was proud to be part of the team that took SQL Server from just over $100M per year, to a multiple billion dollar per year product. It’s not the revenue that excites me.  It’s the number of people and businesses that depend upon the product to run their businesses. I’m also excited to have been part of Amazon Web Services as it grew from a small business with only a few services, to the leader in cloud computing. It’s exciting to see the spectrum of customers from massive businesses to small startups, all built using AWS infrastructure. I’m perhaps most proud of the fact that even classic Amazon competitors trust AWS to support their businesses and chose to be fully dependent upon AWS.

A smaller example but one that is still important to me: years ago I was co-author of a lightly read paper that summarized some of innovation hidden in commercial database engines. Architecture of a Database System was a massive project that ended up approaching the size of a book but it was good to see the material documented and I really enjoyed collaborating with Joe Hellerstein and Mike Stonebraker.

I’m proud to have been part of the project at Amazon that deployed custom designed networking hardware with our own systems software stack. These custom routers now connect every one of the 50,000 to 80,000 servers in an average Amazon Web Services data center. It’s no surprise that this equipment has proven to be far less expensive but, what I find even more exciting is the network is now more reliable and better instrumented than it ever was when we used commercial routers. I love projects that reduce costs while increasing reliability.

Overall, I feel lucky to have become interested in computer science and, even after having seen 30 years of massive innovation, it’s pretty exciting to look forward and know that the next 10 years we will almost certainly deliver more new ideas than the last 30, as exciting as they were.

November 2015

Affiliation: 
Amazon Web Services

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