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Amazon Web Services CEO dishes on Boston’s AI scene — and Harvard Square pizza

‘It’s one important place,’ AWS head Adam Selipsky said of the Boston area

Amazon Web Services chief executive Adam Selipsky (right) offered career advice and insight into Amazon's strategy during an appearance at Harvard Business School on Feb. 4. He was interviewed by HBS professor Bharat Anand.isabela rosa

Adam Selipsky, chief executive of Amazon’s multibillion-dollar cloud computing business, has good news and bad news about the emerging sector in Massachusetts focused on artificial intelligence.

The double Harvard grad — college and business school — praises the region’s strong tech workforce and academic research community.

“AI talent has been coming out of the universities these days,” Selipsky said in an interview Sunday after speaking at Harvard Business School in Allston. “And needless to say, Boston has a plethora of amazing universities and therefore research in AI and machine learning and also adjacent fields.”

From Amazon’s perspective, of course, “Boston is not the only place but it’s one important place,” he added, pointing also to the San Francisco Bay Area and Amazon’s home base in Seattle.

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Amazon has many people in Boston and Cambridge working on AI, including Rohit Prasad, senior vice president and head scientist for artificial general intelligence, and Raj Aggarwal, general manager of GenAI at AWS. But the area was also hit by deep layoffs in the company’s Alexa division last year.

Selipsky wouldn’t go into detail about Amazon’s activities in the Boston area but said AI is at the center of many projects at the cloud business, Amazon Web Services, that he oversees.

Amazon is developing its own large language models, which can power apps like smart chatbots, under the “Titan” brand. Those models may compete with projects from Google, OpenAI (backed by Microsoft), and others. At the same time, Amazon is offering its cloud computing customers the ability to access competing models from some rivals. And the company has its own business-oriented digital assistant, dubbed “Q.”

“The goal is to make it as easy as possible for customers and to bring the power of generative AI to all knowledge workers eventually, not just technical people,” Selipsky said.

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Selipsky spent a few years after business school as a management consultant in Boston before heading west to Seattle to work for online audio pioneer RealNetworks. He joined the initial team at Amazon developing the cloud business in 2005 and rose up the ranks until 2016 when he left to take the chief executive job at data software company Tableau. But after Salesforce acquired Tableau for almost $16 billion in 2021, Selipsky returned to Amazon.

Then-AWS boss Andy Jassy had been tapped to replace Jeff Bezos as chief executive of all of Amazon and brought Selipsky back to run the cloud unit.

This weekend, Selipsky returned to Harvard Business School as the keynote speaker at the conference put on by the student-run Tech Club. Students and faculty packed the 1,000-seat auditorium at the school’s Klarman Hall to hear from the chief executive, dressed semi-casually in jeans, a black turtleneck, and a sports jacket.

“It’s not every day that someone goes from business school to becoming CEO of a big tech company like AWS,” HBS professor Bharat Anand, who interviewed Selipsky, noted at the event.

Afterward, Selipsky reminisced a bit about his student days at Harvard in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “I’ll just sound old when I say that most of the places in Harvard Square I remember are gone,” he said. One favorite, sandwich shop legend Elsie’s, closed decades ago. But pizza parlor Pinocchio’s is still serving New York-style slices until 1 a.m. most nights. (Mark Zuckerberg and the late Tony Hsieh were also big fans of the joint.)

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“It’s really fun that, you know, the kids are still going to go to Pinocchio’s,” he said.


Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him @ampressman.