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.
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.
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.