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. :)

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.

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.






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

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. 

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. 

Anonymous

August 17th, 2015

I've worked at plenty of SV startups that were intense: messaging on weekend midnights, people weeping at their desk, and so on. But the negative stuff in the NYT article is the exception at startups: mostly, it's intensive collaboration and cooperation among a close-knit team. It's not really work when you love what you do. And if Amazons and us in SV don't like it, there are plenty of easy jobs in other industries. yrs, andreas andreas.com

Steve Everhard All Things Startup

August 18th, 2015

I don't have a dog in this fight, or personal experience of Amazon but I can understand any company culture can be represented in any number of ways depending on your personal experience of similar situations and your degree of cynicism.

The overwhelmign impression I get from this article is the extreme degree of sarcasm in the tone of the article that seems to arise from the journalists managed access to current executives. It was naive to assume that anything other than that would be granted by any company these days. This sarcasm bleeds through so profoundly in places that it bleeds all over the article. Look beyond that and the data is impressive.

The management style does seem to have its origins in Jack Welch regimen at GE but it is ridiculous to imply that management practises at a fast paced company haven't changed in the time since a Bezos interview in 1997, as implied here.

I have no idea if Amazon is a great place or a bad place to work but enough people from Seattle, who are obviously well informed by ex employees, choose to get that experience every year. The training is clearly seen as valuable as other companies are quick to benefit by enticing away employees. It is also clear that for all their vitriol many of the employees quoted were veteran's by tech sector standards, having 5-7 years of service ostensibly in a company that they have serious criticism of, and with a Paycheck median of 1 year service they were old hands. Perhaps their very real issue was change in the workplace rather than fundamental disagreement with the company practises? 

In all I think this is a poorly presented argument whose bias is at odds with many of the facts it presents. The issues of support for employees undergoing health or personal issues does;t seen to have given rise to any legal redress, when a number of lawyers would chomp at the bit for such cases. Instead we get a lawyer quoted as saying "unfairness isn;t unlawful". And perhaps that is the nub. In a meritocracy disenfranchised employees are inevitable.

What is perhaps worse is Bezos response, which at best makes him sound out of touch. There was little to defend in the most part at the outset but he has almost given this article credibility through the "smoke and fire" idiom. Perhaps taking a day and gauging the pickup would have been a wiser choice...

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.