Company Culture · Amazon

Is Amazon's culture pivotal to it's success?

Jessica Alter Entrepreneur & Advisor

August 17th, 2015

By now you've read the NY Times article on Amazon - Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas In a Bruising Workplace (pls read before you comment)  It talks simultaneously of anecdotes from former employees saying there was little to no work/life balance and where the lowest performers are culled and  also a place that's managed to become the most valuable retailer in the world, that encourages speaking up and an emphasis on customers first. I wouldn't defend making people cry or callous practices, but I'm curious to hear if most of what they do is a) really that rare b) really part and parcel to their success.  I'd especially like to hear from people who do or have worked there or in the Seattle community.
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Tal

August 17th, 2015

I worked at Amazon (AWS specifically) and am in Seattle. I learned a lot and am very proud of what my teams accomplished at Amazon.

To the specific question around this thread - there's a lot of discussion online including this discussion of the Amazon "Leadership Principles" (amazon.jobs/principles)

I was an Amazon bar raiser like the post above as well as a Microsoft "As Appropriate" interviewer which is the Microsoft equivalent. Bar raisers are intended to ensure that candidates are a good cultural fit in terms of the leadership principles as well as meeting the job requirements. The leadership principles are very much pivotal to Amazon's success in my opinion.

I would add that different parts of Amazon have subcultures in terms of AWS and Kindle being somewhat different from each other and each certainly different than the old core book business and broader retail business. In my opinion each SVP had a sub-culture some of which is called out in elements of the NYT story. So while this is painted as Amazon overall I don't think that part of the NYT story is accurate as it overly generalizes individual managers and individual anecdotes as the company overall -- painting a harsh picture of Amazon. Some people do really love working at Amazon ad figure out a way to make Amazon a great place to work as long as they elect to be there. There are many options for talented people and elements of Amazon can be quite attractive for instance getting a lot done and having compelling work.

Also managers have a lot of autonomy so who you work with and for matters as with most companies and jobs. There are good managers in most companies. And there are bad managers everywhere who show poor judgment and act inappropriately. I'm not making excuses just calling out a reality that a story or stories could be written about any number of companies where managers take actions that no one would want to read about in the NYT or elsewhere. For instance plenty of articles have been written about the Microsoft stack ranking system, which I won't go into any detail about here. (See:http://www.forbes.com/sites/petercohan/2012/07/13/why-stack-ranking-worked-better-at-ge-than-microsoft )

I would agree with the earlier post here that Amazon is not a country club, is very frugal, has tremendous customer focus and is extremely analytical. Amazon also hires smart, committed leaders who it entrusts to work with autonomy which is also a core element of the company's success and culture. You can also read the rest of the principles above as they guide a lot of the day-to-day at Amazon. You'll note with all the positives there are no Amazon principles around taking care of their own teams. As a comparison I was really surprised to observe how John Chambers of Cisco led and talked about the "Cisco family" which has its own set of positives and negatives and is very different from Amazon on this element of culture. (See: inc.com/john-chambers/treat-employees-like-family.html)

And the attrition while "in line" with the industry according to Jay Carney isn't for everyone and certainly doesn't treat employees as well as Google, Netflix or some other employers (See:businessinsider.com/jay-carney-defends-amazon-this-is-an-incredibly-compelling-place-to-work-2015-8?ncid=newsltushpmg00000003). I wouldn't expect to see Amazon match many of the benefits of other companies. For instance, many engineers on my Amazon teams bought their own extra monitors, SSD hard drives, etc. As a matter of fact, so did I. It was the first and only employer I worked for where I bought computer gear to use everyday at work with my own money and paid for the cell phone I needed to do my job etc. So the discussion of "entitlement" is accurate if you expect an employer to provide all of the tools needed to be effective in your day-to-day role. You certainly don't have to do any of those things but many people do and did that at Amazon. That is different than other tech companies and I'm not clear everything in Amazon's culture is a net positive.

But this story isn't new you can read more in the Brad Stone book - (See: geekwire.com/2014/jeff-bezos-casts-intimidating-presence-prayed-heart-attack-rather-face-wrath )

Personally, I learned a lot, worked with committed, hard working peers who built great services but Amazon isn't the only place to work with top-notch people solving problems for customers in a way that builds real businesses. In many ways, elements of this more than anything else are why I decided to leave Amazon when I did.

Dick Hardt

August 17th, 2015

I just started working there last week, so I don't have that much direct experience, but I think this article is good to read to get a better sense.

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu

Amazon is not a country club. They are frugal. 
Amazon is not a company for people that feel entitled.

I like it so far. :)

Steve Grigory Self-starter specializing in new and disrupted markets

August 18th, 2015

There are two ways to look at this. 

1- Working at Amazon
At Amazon it's all about the manager (and their manager and their manager!). Granted, any place you work is manager-dependent, but at Amazon it's critical. And the stack ranking is definitely in place and I watched "Hero to zero" happen several times and happen very quickly. The usual trigger? New manager! 

If your VP is one of the lizards, then your entire group/division/etc. is a pit of mostly unhappy people running on the treadmill as fast as they can. The smart ones get out, either to another group or to another company. 

2- Competing with Amazon
Not that long ago, a mantra was "Don't compete with Microsoft." MS would clone your product, undercut you on price (or give it away) and bankrupt your company. So, the smart move was to make sure you stayed out of their way. They were ruthless at this and, it seemed at times, ruthless for the sake of ruthless. 

With Amazon, the reason you JUST REALLY, REALLY DON'T WANT TO COMPETE WITH THEM is most of what's in this article is true. It's a burn out center with very talented people who are all running at 100%. And they have a unique mindset. They will build something they need and once it's in place, sit back, look at it sideways and ask "What else can we do with this?" And they will do things with it that no other company would do, such as opening up their massive data centers to outsiders. The data centers were originally built to handle the massive holiday sales order volume, but Amazon took it in a new direction. No one else would do that. 

Trust me, competing with this is a nightmare unless you are equally focused (and um, perhaps equally miserable). 

3. Bonus Round
Jeff Bezos stating "This is not the Amazon I know" is complete BS. He knows enough to know. He likes what it produces and damn the consequences. Amazon HR will improve a few things such as "Let's not fire the cancer victims" and that will be that. 

Anubhav Kushwaha When was the last time you took charge of building a team from scratch? We are hiring software development leaders

August 18th, 2015

I will probably go on at length about this later but in short the NYT article is nothing but a lot of biased and imaginative writing. I have been working here (at Amazon in Seattle) for over 2 years now and I love it. Very close 2nd to doing a startup with my friends (Martjack). It is definitely hard work and I work with a ton of very smart people. At the end of most of my days I feel very satisfied. I feel like I accomplished something. It's a fast paced place and you can see progress, inventions and metric driven improvements all around you. That's probably the reason a lot of people love working here because it's not just a job - it's a career path - it's an endeavor. I agree that it's not for everyone. For people who are just looking for a job where they are not emotionally invested - this is not the place.

To understand Amazon's leadership principles you have to first read them up (http://www.amazon.jobs/principles). That's only 10% of the way to understanding them though. You have to observe a few Amazonian's go about their days. See how these are imbibed in the nature of taking decisions and doing things. These are not pin up principles. These represent how almost all Amazonian's act everyday at work.






Leena MBA Content & Publication Manager at NetApp

August 18th, 2015

I'm in Seattle looking for work right now, and have spoken to four people (friends of friends) who are all working there. Before I even get into a proper conversation with them, they all started complaining about how horrible it was. This was from a guy in AWS; an intern doing data work; my best friend's colleague who is a manager there, and someone else (whose department I don't remember). Suffice it to say that all four people were from completely different departments and at different stages of employment -- from the intern to the VP.

They all had a lot of vitriol about the place.  So, that's four for four right now. All are actively looking to jump ship and have warned me against working there. 

I'm still applying, nevertheless. Having worked in entertainment, I've gotten a thick skin.

Amy Vernon Audience Development. Community, content & product. Prize-winning journalist & writer. Connector of people & ideas.

August 18th, 2015

In all honesty, I didn't really see how Amazon is all that different from any other major corporation in America. Is everything in the article accurate? Probably. Is everything in the LinkedIn post accurate? Probably. There are always three sides to every story - in this case, the NYTimes, the LinkedIn post, and the truth, which is somewhere in the middle.

I thought this post was very illuminating:
http://motherboard.vice.com/read/at-amazon-employees-treat-the-bathroom-as-an-extension-of-the-office

Peter Johnston Businesses are composed of pixels, bytes & atoms. All 3 change constantly. I make that change +ve.

August 18th, 2015

This is a classic example of a hatchet job by a media publication which believes itself immune to comeback - perhaps one which is losing out to Washington Post.

In any large company there will be disaffected employees, usually because of poor job fit rather than a problem with the job itself. By attracting a few of these and doing what they call a VoxPop the publication can present a one-sided view as a balanced article and imply that all employees feel like that.

Irresponsible journalism.

So what do you do, if something like this wipes millions off your sales and billions off your share value overnight?

Well one way is to fight back, with a host of human interest stories of your own. Flood the media with complaints from employees about how they are being portrayed. Those should have been ready in advance - often part of a PR newsletter they simply rehash on demand.

PR Departments rehearse this sort of scenario. Amazon has proved itself naive.

But let's answer the question.

No.

In previous centuries the only way you scaled a company was by adding people. Those people came with a big overhead - more people to manage them, recruit them, motivate them etc.

Now you scale a company by adding data and systems. Amazon's systems are more human than most of the bricks and mortar competitors. These competitors hope that a pretty voice will cover for horrendously designed systems which necessitate a call to customer service in the first place. Amazon's ethos was to get those systems right in the first place, so the call was unnecessary.

It is a lesson we all could follow.

Alex Eckelberry CEO at Meros.io

August 17th, 2015

I really didn't buy all the NYT article. There really appeared to be quite a bias.

But whatever. It is not slave labour. Employees work hard and get paid well, with good benefits.  

I have never personally heard an Amazonian complain to me about working there. 

Try being an investment banker on Wall Street and tell me one wouldn't work harder. 

The whole thing is overblown to me. 

Joanan Hernandez CEO & Founder at Mollejuo

August 18th, 2015

Is Amazon's culture pivotal to it's success?

Yes! However, something gotta give, and in this case is high churn.

I think the NYT article made so much commotion because it implies: How a company so successful as Amazon, can be so cheap?

Personally, the NYT article is not the first one I read about the downsides of working for this company. I've read about it for years on many forums and many websites! So this is nothing new.

Regarding the stack system, I lived it, if a company hasn't never applied it, maybe it makes sense during a period, but to institutionalized it, it's another matter. It becomes quite damaging.

Last but not least, is this anecdote from Tel himself:

For instance, many engineers on my Amazon teams bought their own extra monitors, SSD hard drives, etc. As a matter of fact, so did I. It was the first and only employer I worked for where I bought computer gear to use everyday at work with my own money and paid for the cell phone I needed to do my job etc.

I might understand that a company doesn't want to incur in useless expenses, so not simplifying extra computer gear might be understandable (even though is a computing company at heart). However -call me old fashion-, but if my boss is calling me or sending me e-mails to my personal phone, and on top of that I have to acknowledge this communication, the least I expect is for the company to reimburse me the cel phone bill, or supply me one in case I object with using my personal phone for working issues.

Cheers!

Scott McGregor Advisor, co-founder, consultant and part time executive to Tech Start-ups. Based in Silicon Valley.

August 18th, 2015

I don't know any of the people involved in creating the NYT article, nor in an articulate response on LinkedIn Influencers by a current employee. I haven't worked at Amazon. But, I've worked in, and with many large and small high tech companies over 35 years. I'm sure that pretty much the same article could be written about every tech giant, and probably has. I am also sure that lots of employees and people familiar with any tech giant under such an attack would call such journalism a negative biased view by a few disgruntled employees. And they would be right too. None of that has anything to do with any ONE of those big companies, individually. It has everything to do with how big tech companies grew that fast, and the kinds of people they attract, and the kinds of people they burn out. It has to do with about how little the understand about probability, and how poor people are at recognizing click bait. It also has a lot to do with how little think about the difference between concrete things (like people) and abstract concepts (like companies). Let's unravel those things in reverse order. Confusing the Abstract Concept with the Concrete: First of all, keep in mind that when we someone says "XYZ makes its employees cry" what they are really just using short hand. What they REALLY mean is that "SOME managers at XYZ, upon SOME occasion, did/said SOME thing, that made SOME employee(s) cry." Because, let's be frank fold, companies don't do anything -- it is PEOPLE in those organizations that do things. And PEOPLE do stupid, thoughtless, and mean cruel things. Not all the time, but no honest adult can say that no one else has ever suffered hurt feelings because of what they said or do. The NYT can't say they have never published an article that hurt someone's feelings. Click bait: Short hands like saying "XYZ company" instead of the "managers of XYZ" makes for more concise writing. But it papers over all the SOME vs. ALL distinctions. Absolutes (like ALL and NONE) makes everything sound much more compelling. It makes small evils into absolute evils. And that makes for journalism people want to buy. Everyone wants to read "Company XYZ (that you thought EVERYONE wants to work for) actually mistreats ALL its employees, ALL of the time -- our investigative journalist has the proof. More news at 11! (or on page 2!, or if you click here!). That's the story you think you are reading with the headline "XYZ makes its employees cry." But there is no such EVERY manager, EVERY employee, EVERY time story -- investigative journalism finds anecdotes about SOME cases, SOME of the time. For us to assess its importance we need to know the actual probabilities. And most people don't really think about it. Misunderstanding Probability: Some people act callously more often than others. But no one is callous all the time. Some organizations (that is groups of PEOPLE) attract more of people who are more callous more often, and maybe even in doing so encourage that behavior, more often. But again, these are just PROBABILITIES. Some probabilities are exceedingly low for all individuals, even though for some individual they will be a certainty. When Tiger Woods hits a ball down the fairway, there are probably literally more than a million potential blades of grass that ball could wind up on (in a rectangle 1000 blades deep by 1000 blades wide). For any one particular blade the chance of the ball landing on them, is exceedingly low: one in a million! But we it is absolutely certain that it will land on some blade of grass. The thing is -- it doesn't matter if the probability is extremely rare (say 1 in 10,000 employees), if your manager mistreats you, and makes you cry, that's a certainty for you and a tragedy. You don't want that to happen to anyone else. And if you work at an organization where such things happen a lot, but it has never happened to you, you are fortunate but you may also well be oblivious. Amazon handles lots of goods, and supports lots of calls, and develops lots of things. It NEEDs to have tens of thousands of employees to do that. Turnover happens. It isn't long before the employee alumni pool is over 100,000 and climbing toward a million. That happened at Microsoft, Apple, HP, Cisco, Yahoo and Google. Its happening at Facebook now. People being people, the chance that there will be SOME manager who caused SOME employee to cry on SOME occasion, rapidly approaches and remains at 100%. But the frequency of that happening might actually be decreasing. (Mis)Understanding the maturation of high tech start-ups For an organization to succeed and grow it must get good at its core business. If that's delivering people from place to place like Uber, they need to be real good at attracting drivers who will arrive promptly, and deliver passengers safely and swiftly to their destinations. If that business is delivering most any consumer product you might buy to consumer's homes and offices as swiftly and inexpensively as possible, then you need people who can do pick and ship in warehouses cost effectively, drivers to deliver them, etc. If you are going to do a lot of deliveries efficiently you need to be really good at logistics, and computer algorithms to find optimal (or at least very good) solutions to constantly changing requirements very fast. So you need people who are good at producing those kinds of algorithms too. When you are just starting up, you are small. Your problems are smaller, your name isn't known and the number of people interested in working for you is a lot smaller. You are forced to work with the calibre of people that are available to you. Some are there because you let them make a difference they can't make elsewhere. Some are less interested in being the best, and more interested in having a stable job that earns them enough for the lifestyle they want, and leaves them the time to enjoy it. As an organization becomes better known for doing what it does better than everyone else, it will attract people who want to work for the best and to learn what they are doing better than others. But you are also competing more vigorously for those best people with other best companies. The perks get better to compete agains those other companies. But you also attract more competitive people, those are the ones who consistently are driven BY INTERNAL REWARD SYSTEMS to over-achieve. These people have outcompeted most of the people they have known for most of their lives. If they are tech smart, they probably do well in high school and then go to a selective college or university. Suddenly there are a lot more smart people just like them, and to stand above the peers as they did before they work harder than the did before. The selectivity breeds this kind of competition and over-achievement, and keeps winnowing people out as they finish a bachelor's degree, masters degree, or Ph.D. Then they compete for position at the companies that are solving the most complex problems. These high achievers are willing (and more eager than you might imagine) to put lots of hours into their jobs -- after all, what they are doing is FUN, and out-performing others is how they feed their self-worth. When tech companies go through that rapid growth and becoming the "hot" new company that people want to join there is a transition. It isn't going to be comfortable for some of the earlier employees who never wanted to work quite that hard. And many of the managers won't be experienced enough and won't know how to handle the transition either. There won't be lots of good policies already written up, and training programs that teach everyone, and a smart HR staff to manage it all -- they'll have to build that all too. Under these circumstances there are going to be a lot of screw ups. A lot of people will find themselves in unexpected situations they can't cope with. People will cry. People will leave, becoming disgruntled ex-employees. The horror stories of the past will stick around for ever because they make great click bait. But over time the company will get better -- or it will blow up rapidly in one big scandal. Once you get over the one scandal kills the company risk, continuous improvement practices can work. The number of incidents where bad managers and bad policies survive AS a PERCENTAGE of ALL employee interactions goes down, often dramatically. Whether the ABSOLUTE number of incidents each year goes down is dependent on how fast the company is still growing. So again this brings us back to the recognition that some people behaving badly sometimes at a tech company that grew real big real fast, isn't really isn't a very surprising story at all. What would be shocking would be if it was even harder to find anecdotes like that. Technical people who are turned on by the most COMPLEX PROBLEMS that they can work on will still come to the big companies that have them. They'll still put in extra time and effort, not because it is demanded because they would rather do so than anything else. They like pitting themselves against hard problems and winning. For some, their peers at work become the social circle they WANT to spend time with, so the difference between work and play becomes blurred. And awareness of people not like them will also decline as the interact less and less with other people. This isn't limited to Tech people, it is just as true in the highest ranks of competitive team sports and the olympics. Most people would not want to spend the hours training that Mark Phelps spent in the pool to become the top olympic swimmer. Most people don't want a job where they have to come in and work a physically demanding job in pain, maybe with a broken bone, cracked rib or injured muscle, but NFL athletes do it all the time. People in those roles get emotional, and often say cruel things in the heat of the moment. NFL quarterback not a good job for you, if you don't want to hear fans say mean things about you, or if you don't want to feel like crying after a devastating loss. There are other jobs that are less stressful and less demanding. The technical people in these grew big tech companies may have little interaction with people who aren't doing similar jobs. A distributed algorithms programmer may have never spent a day doing a warehouse picker's job. A routing algorithm programmer may never have spent a week driving cars or trucks from here to there. They may have a hard time understanding how differently a picker or driver approaches their job. It is likely that the picker and driver also want to be working for the company where the best drivers and pickers are, and they may want to be among the best in their role, and get recognized for their excellence. So the high flyer tech employees might THINK everyone has the same internal drives they to. But any internal over achievement reward system in a driver, or warehouse picker is likely not present in the same way it is for the tech employees. What's actually interesting about the NYT discussion is how little thought is given to the fact that there are many small companies that lack many of the reward system, performance monitoring systems, etc. that can help create improvement in a company's work environment.