Amazon's Autodidact Streak

In her job as the director of learning sciences, Candace Thille has found a way to make a job out of the thing she is most passionate about.

An illustration of Candace Thille
Tim Larson Photography / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Candace Thille’s mother, who had an undergraduate degree in physics and a master’s degree in mathematics, always told her that all work is honorable work, as long as you set a high standard for yourself. Her father, an electrical engineer, was the one who emphasized the importance of education: “The most important thing you can learn,” he’d tell her, “is how to teach yourself new things.”

When Thille was 11, her father quit his job working in missiles and space at Lockheed. Her parents were pacifists, and her father realized he was building systems that were being used in war. “So everybody in the family started working doing all kinds of different things to help financially support the family,” she said.

Thille has worked at Stanford University and is now Amazon’s director of learning services. I recently spoke to Thille about creating macramé plant hangers, following one’s passion while paying the bills, and lifelong learning. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Lola Fadulu: What sort of work did you start doing when your father quit his job?

Candace Thille: I started doing house cleaning and babysitting. And then I was 15 when I got my first real job, which was working in retail at an arts-and-crafts store. In the arts-and-crafts store, I also learned started teaching macramé classes. Macramé is essentially the art of knot-tying to create artwork. A real popular thing was to create macramé plant hangers. I actually started my own business when I was 15, creating macramé plant hangers and selling them through the local plant shops. In building these macramé plant hangers, the knotting was fine with me, but cutting hundreds of pieces of yarn for each plant hanger was really tedious. So I built a wheel whose circumference was exactly the length of the yarn piece that I needed. I could quickly put the yarn on this wheel, spin it around, and then make a single cut off one side of the wheel. So then I'd have my hundreds of pieces of yarn, at the length I needed to build my plant hangers.

Fadulu: Were you drawn to that job because you had a passion for crafts and arts?

Thille: No, that job was because it was a job.

Fadulu: Could you tell me about one or two jobs you worked in college that were the most memorable?

Thille: One of them was I worked in the library in the government documents division. What was memorable about that was that it was so boring. Figuring out how to make something that is so fundamentally tedious and boring tolerable, because I needed the job. That was one.

And then the other extreme was I also had a job as peer sex educator, which was through Cal Hospital on campus at Berkeley. My job was to go out into the dorms and other student-living situations and hold value-clarification conversations about sexuality and decision-making about sexuality. And that job was a blast because you're a teenager or in your twenties and you're out there talking with people about sex, but also helping.

Fadulu: After college what did you do?

Thille: I graduated from UC Berkeley, and I actually immediately moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, because I was following my then-boyfriend who was in medical school in Pittsburgh. I was in a position where I was in a new place, and I needed to get a job to help financially support myself.

My first job out of college was working at a bakery and retail. I wore a pink polyester dress and my hair up, and most of the other people who worked in the bakery were 60 or 70, little old ladies. I did that, though, because we needed income.

But then I also volunteered at the local rape crisis center called Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. The reason is that I was and am a feminist, and was very much into empowering women. I started volunteering there, and shortly after I started volunteering there, their education program coordinator went out on maternity leave, and so I stepped in as the education program coordinator. Then she decided not to come back, so it was my job.

Then I totally expanded the program, and I developed trainings for hospital staff on how to do evidence collection and how to support a person who's been sexually assaulted. I developed and conducted trainings for the local police, and then the county, and then the state police, on how to interview and support people who had been sexually assaulted. Then I developed and delivered education programs kindergarten through high school in schools all over Allegheny County on child sexual abuse. So I had to redirect people’s attention away from the stranger-danger stuff that they were teaching to help getting children skills around the fact that there’s a higher probability that they might be sexually abused by people that they know.

Fadulu: How did you go from those positions to Amazon?

Thille: When I was still in my early 20s, I moved back to the Bay Area and took a temp job as a bookkeeper. I taught myself bookkeeping because the temp rate for bookkeepers was better than the temp jobs for receptionist—but I would take any temp job that came up. I started as a half day temp receptionist fill-in at a small management consulting company that focused on leadership development and worked at that company for 18 years, starting as the half day receptionist and working my way up to vice-president and managing partner.  It was at that company where I first designed a blended e-learning experience on coaching. I saw the potential for using technology and the affordances of the science of human learning to accelerate human learning, which ultimately has become my field of research and practice and passion. Following that passion did not come without a cost. The first year I worked at Carnegie Mellon, where I founded and directed the Open Learning Initiative (OLI), my total annual income was less than what I had paid in federal income tax the year before as a VP and partner in a corporate consulting firm.

Fadulu: You now have experience in both higher education, having worked at Stanford, and the business side, as the director of learning sciences at Amazon. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what's important for young people to know about the skills they'll need for the future?

Thille: I think there's a lot of pressure on young people who feel they have to be perfect immediately. Nobody is. I think the world would actually be a lot better if we were all a lot more humble and didn't feel like we have to present as perfect all the time. What's interesting is how the world of work is being changed by technology. We used to think about computers or technology only doing things that we would directly instruct the computer to do, just faster. The sort of work that we are always imagining being displaced by technology would be predictive, repetitive work. But now with machine learning, I think a challenge in our time is to continuously examine how we use machines and the large amounts of data to augment human decision-making—really exploring where the boundaries are between when a machine and when a human makes decisions.