Geek of the Week

The science of getting you your stuff: Amazon’s Salal Humair fills a essential function within the provide chain

Salal Humair joined Amazon from the Harvard School of Public Health. (Photo courtesy of Salal Humair)

If you’ve ever stopped to think about the journey your Amazon order made from your online cart to your doorstep at home, consider the work of Salal Humair, a senior principal scientist with the tech giant’s Supply Chain Optimization Technologies / Inventory Planning and Control team.

Even Humair’s mind wanders when he’s shopping online and is greeted with a “Get it Tomorrow” promise.

“I wonder about which system decided the selection for Seattle and which system bought and placed the inventory close-by,” said our latest Geek of the Week. “It is satisfying to experience first-hand how our systems contribute to delighting customers.”

Long before he was developing the optimization models that squeeze maximum efficiency out of Amazon’s massive supply chain, Humair’s career was pointed in a couple different directions.

He did undergrad studies in civil engineering in Pakistan and graduate degrees in civil engineering and operations research at MIT. In 2000, Humair started at supply chain startup Optiant, Inc., now part of Logility, Inc., which was founded by two friends from MIT.

“I learned about inventory optimization for multi-echelon supply chains and coded the optimization algorithms at the heart of the company’s software,” Humair said.

During his years with Optiant, he also got deeply engaged as a volunteer with Lahore University of Management Sciences, a private university in Pakistan, that was looking to set up a new School of Science and Engineering. he worked with LUMS for about three years from Boston before moving to Pakistan in 2007 to work full time to help launch the school.

In 2009, Humair pivoted again toward a new research area and ended up at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“I did mathematical modeling to investigate policy questions in global health for five years,” he said. “And then, just as I was considering whether to make global health research my longterm trajectory, ended up at Amazon by chance, back to doing supply chain research.”

Humair has been at Amazon in Seattle for about 5 1/2 years.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Salal Humair:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I develop optimization models for planning decisions in Amazon’s supply chain. My team (IPC) builds and operates what is arguably the world’s most technologically advanced supply chain. Our automated systems make many of the most consequential decisions in Amazon’s supply chain — like how much of each product to buy, where to place it and reposition it, how much to remove, how to manage capacity constraints, etc.

These decisions impact the experience of millions of customers and sellers, and allow Amazon to offer Earth’s widest selection of goods economically. Squeezing efficiency from the supply chain to maintain costs while guaranteeing fast promises to customers is virtually impossible at our scale, without the science and technology we have built. Why I do it is because of the opportunity for impact. Our systems give us huge leverage so the optimization models we build can and do improve customers’ experience worldwide.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Depends a little on what you consider my field. I work in Supply Chain Management, but my field is Operations Research (OR), which has a much broader application, from healthcare and humanitarian logistics to finance, manufacturing and marketing. I think the one thing to know about OR is that it is an extremely useful field, because its focus is to apply mathematical models for decision making, but not many people know how closely it overlaps with fields like AI, machine learning (ML), and computer science. Many of OR’s methods and tools get used in AI and ML a lot, but most people have never even heard of OR.

Where do you find your inspiration? I don’t really know if there is a single source of inspiration. It can come from many sources: my colleagues, our customers, or my family. At times, I am inspired because I notice an opportunity where a scientific solution can have a long-term impact. At other times, I am seized by a complex problem where I know we need a better solution.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Espresso machine, because I need my four shots of espresso around 4 a.m. I carry it around whenever I can when traveling.

(Photo courtesy of Salal Humair)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I have a nice office with a glass wall that gives a lot of light, and many of the walls and glass also function as a whiteboard, so there is a lot of real estate to scrawl math on. I am surrounded by several people from our research team and in close proximity to our software teams. This close proximity really helps us work together as a team and solve problems. There’s also a lot of great places all around Seattle that we can work from if we need a change of scenery to feel more inspired. For example, the Spheres downtown are a great place to camp out for a few hours or even the common areas where teams can get together and brainstorm on a topic.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I’d say stay focused on the long term and make sure you have a long-term goal you believe is worth striving for. Short-term stresses and setbacks will all seem worthwhile if your long-term effort is headed in the right direction. If your long-term goal is not correctly mapped out, even if you get short-term successes, you may feel unsatisfied in the end.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Picard, hands down. Unmatched stoicism; peerless delivery.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Cloak of invisibility.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Start working manically to shortlist ideas that have the best chance of creating value from the $1 million.

I once waited in line for … Hot chocolate at the Burdick’s Coffee Shop in Harvard Square.

Your role models: Nelson Mandela, the only leader I have seen in my life who has been that long-suffering, that loved, had that much power, and let it go. He was incorruptible in power, and taught his people by example how not to be vindictive, in spite of the great injustices they had faced.

Greatest game in history: The 2019 Cricket World Cup Final between England and New Zealand. Never happened before in Cricket history, and unlikely to ever happen again – that a World Cup final went to extra overs, and then to extra balls, and then was decided on runs from an overthrow.

Best gadget ever: Cell phones. It is hard to remember, but less than 25 years ago, it was hard to reach people unless they were near a physical phone, particularly across the world.

First computer: Worked on: DEC workstations. Bought: IBM ThinkPad.

Current phone: Sadly, still an iPhone 7.

Favorite app: I don’t use many apps, except maybe the standard ones on my phone: email, Safari, weather, etc.

Favorite cause: Education.

Most important technology of 2020: Difficult to pick a clear winner. Technologies like quantum computing, 3D printing, and voice recognition have all made significant strides.

Most important technology of 2022: Haven’t the faintest idea. I have never been good at reading the tea leaves. But technologies like the ones I mentioned above all have the potential to become very important if we can iron out the major kinks in their application.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Leverage your science and technology training but do not let it limit you. By that I mean that the scientific way of thinking is an asset, but in the 21st century, to realize your true potential, you also need to broaden your skills. There are many forms of knowledge and self-knowledge, and formal and non-formal reasoning, from the philosophical and legal to the mathematical and scientific to the business and entrepreneurial. Learn whatever you can, from wherever you can, so you can connect the dots across your work and personal life and achieve your long-term aims.

Website: Amazon pioneers 

LinkedIn: Salal Humair

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