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An Amazonian's Response to the NYT's “Inside Amazon” Article (linkedin.com)
75 points by nickc181 on Aug 16, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments



If we're comparing anecdotes, I know maybe eight people who work at Amazon or have worked there in the last few years. Here are some stats on those eight people:

- Two of them liked it. Six disliked it.

- The two that liked it said that their teams were unusual in that they worked a 40-hour work week.

- Everyone agreed that most people they interacted with were overworked, sometimes dramatically so. In most cases, the people themselves were overworked. Midnight emails are a thing.

- All of them left within 18 months, or plan to. Most left within one year. The ones that currently work there are biding their time.


This happened to me: October, we notice an issue when our boss gives us bad specs. Boss insists it came "directly from Bezos." We push back because we know it's wrong. Boss is a wimp and knows nothing about technology. We talk to peers of bosses boss and boss, and get word to Bezos who confirms he wants to make the change.

So we make the change.

The change exists on the site for weeks. Then the early hours of the day before Thanksgiving, at 2am I am awoken by a page. I check the ticket, Bezos discovered the change. He is livid. Thanksgiving is important. We much fix it. Right then. around 70 people are on the ticket, most of the management above my boss (who is asleep) is weight in and constantly making demands... which means fixing it is hard to do while being bombarded by these people with big titles (and no understanding of engineering. This is a retailer, not a tech company.)

Finally, after around 4 hours I push the fix to production. I managed to get to sleep at around 8:30am.

Then roll into work at 10:05am!

5 minutes late for the daily standup! (Which were always 30 minutes because some useless PM liked to drone on for 25 minutes telling us things we already knew. BTW, she became a rising star- because she was excellent at kissing ass and manipulating people, but I never saw her contribute anything of actual value.)[1]

The DAY before thanksgiving!

To get CHEWED OUT BY MY BOSS for being late!

Because I was up all night fixing something that I had raised as an issue months ago (whole team raised it) and Bezos had changed his mind.

I've been working as an engineer for 25+ years. Amazon was the worst job I ever had. Period. Full stop.

Absolutely incompetent management, and that went from my boss (Who was dealing drugs to employees in the pacmed parking garage on the side) to Bezos himself.

I sincerely hope Blue Origin's first flight ends in disaster and Bezos is aboard. I would consider that justice.

I don't feel that way about any other place I worked. I worked from some jerks, I worked for a lot fop people out of their element, and in a lot of startups that were poorly run... but circumstances. It's understandable.

Amazon is the only truly evil company I worked for, ever. (and that includes Microsoft in the 1990s!)

[1] And since I know we live in the age of SJWs, this isn't misogyny. Most of the women I worked with at Amazon were competent, including one with a significant handicap who was a fantastic engineer despite it.


Here's some data: Amazon has an ungodly high turnover rate despite employing tons of H1-Bs (who can't leave realistically without returning to their country).

If the article is not valid, then what is rotten about Amazon?


I found it intriguing that the experiences of the white collar employees speaking out in the NYT piece mirror the experiences[1] of the blue collar Amazon employees toiling away in their warehouses: Pushed to give as much as they can to the point of physical illness, burning out after just a few short years or even months in some cases.

And then along comes a dude who has been at Amazon for less than two years, and holds a management position higher than anyone interviewed for the NYT article, attempting to whitewash the story.

"Rotten" is an apt description.

[1] http://www.mcall.com/news/local/amazon/mc-allentown-amazon-c...


Amazon's culture, and this goes from the top and permeates the executive ranks and middle management, has absolutely zero respect for employees. Employees are seen as sheep to be herded and manipulated and as a cost center, not a valuable resource.

Amazon is run by retailers, not tech people. They literally see no difference between engineers and warehouse packers-- which would be good if they treated both well.


They can't get jobs at other companies in the US, doing similar work?


They can. But put yourself in the shoes of an immigrant. They are very afraid of losing their status. Also, if their boss likes them then the boss can apply to expedite the process. This is often dangled over immigrant workers.


Also, only the largest companies will do the legal work to transfer an H1-B - it is expensive and complicated. In Seattle, this leaves them with realistically only Microsoft as an option.


Amazon's turn over rate is barely worse than google's.


Source?

I did find this [0], but this seems to report on the median tenure of existing employees, rather than of the ones who have left, which is a big difference.

[0] http://www.payscale.com/data-packages/employee-loyalty/least...


Also, there is a difference between turning over in Silicon Valley and turning over in Seattle. The options are very different.


The reason people leave Amazon is... after two years at Amazon, you can do any job and solve any problem in software engineering anywhere on the planet. You command the most desirable skill set on the planet.


And Amazon should have more than enough money and/or options to keep you around.


I didnt leave for money or options.


The data that I keep coming back to is this: the median employee tenure at Amazon is one year (2013 data). This must mean something is seriously, chronically wrong. A LOT of people are leaving after just months of work.


This does sound bad.

Does this include warehouse employees? (seasonal work, and generally shorter length than desk jobs?) Do you have this data separated to warehouse and desk jobs? (Are there other distinctly different job types in Amazon?)

Do you have such a number for comparable jobs?


Is it still that bad?


I feel that the NYT article may have probably cherry-picked support for their arguments due to the fact that it seemed fairly one-sided. It would have been nice to see more balance in the story. Who knows, maybe they actually are very accurate about what it's like to work there.

On the other hand I've worked for big companies in the past and there are some tells about what they described that are familiar. The concept of having stack ranking and "managing out" the X% of the bottom performers. A tacit expectation of answering emails and texts outside of normal working hours. Lots of politics and unsolicited feedback going on.

The way this rebuttal goes it's a lot of "I've never seen this so it's obviously not true" and "If it is true then shame on that manager". What I suspect that's going on here is that he's only been there for 1.5 years and that's not enough time to evaluate the culture of a big company. There are lots of times when I heard how things were run in a different part of the company and I thought "Do we work at the same place?"

I say we ask him his opinion again in 5 years. If he's around for that long.


Coming up on 4 years at amazon here and I agree far more with the NYT article than this one, even though I agree it is a bit cherry picked. There is a saying that goes around quite a bit here: Amazon hires intelligent people, and they retain the sociopaths. You don't acquire colloquialisms like that without some sort of truth behind it.

Some people get lucky and find a reasonable team/org right away, and some people get unlucky and get the sociopaths right away. Either way, as people stay longer, they become more alienated and broken down, or they become more sociopathic themselves. I don't find it surprising that there are plenty of amazonians defending the culture...they are probably the ones that thrive in it. Everybody else will slowly find themselves under a manager that gives them stress-induced kidney stones (like I did), and will either move teams (like I did, and I quite enjoy my team) or quit altogether (like the other 90%).


> he's only been there for 1.5 years and that's not enough time to evaluate the culture of a big company

It's also questionable to what extent giant companies "have" a culture. Different parts of these vast organizations can have very different cultures.


For what its worth, it is accepted in academia that large companies do have cultures. I would think aspects of those cultures cross geographic boundaries.

The US Army and US Navy might have different cultures, being two very large and very different sub-organizations, but they retain many aspects of the same overarching culture.

I worked for one company that had two vastly different workforces, non-unionized white collar and highly unionized blue collar. Despite the head office (where the white collars worked) being a different parts of the city and country as where the blue collars worked, the same rotten, thieving and sexist culture was evident in both.


I don't disagree that large organizations have distinct cultures. I'm saying that there can also be substantial variations within them.

My experience at Google was possibly extreme, but my team and other teams I knew people at were very different.


Disappointing. He asserts in the beginning of the blog post that he'll debunk the original piece using "data," and then proceeds to provide mostly personal anecdotes.

Much of his so-called rebuttal goes along the lines of "The original article claims many employees experienced X or heard Y, but I have never experienced X or heard Y in my team!"


I agree. I read the entire thing looking for data and found none. He repeatedly produced quotes from certain internal pages, but there is no way for any reader to verify them, nor does that make it data.


Quoting the official text is data. Summarizing internal data sources is data. In contrast to the interpretive dance that were the quotes from third-parties, this was dripping with data.


Non-anonymous ex-employees are not exactly third parties.


Both are primary sources of data for an article.


This author is a primary source.


The NYT piece was also anecdotal. Maybe he didn't mean by "data" what you thought he meant. To dismiss an entire article because of one word seems uncharitable.


Data has a definition. The author didn't use any data to back up his antecdotal claims. Seems pretty clear cut to me.


Speaking of data, (to nitpick):

"I’ve been at Amazon since March 24, 2014, which means I have 18 months of data to draw from..."

Um, that's less than 17 months, unless my calendar is broken. They should given their Engineering Leads better calendars.


> Last year, during all-hands, a very high ranking Executive said

> My mentor, an Executive

> most Amazonians and especially Executives

Who capitalizes "Executive" in the middle of a sentence? A middle manager who idolizes Executives, apparently.

It reads like the author has drunk the company kool-aid.


My comments

First, thanks for taking the time to read the article.

1) No - no one asked me to write it. I wrote it because the NYT article is a complete hatchet piece full of false assertions, and the record needed to be set straight 2) All the data I provided is 100% true and above reproach 3) So much of the NYT article is junk it's laughable. A company that doesn't reimburse travel expenses, for instance -how do people even make this stuff up? 4) If Amazon was a fraction of what this article described, no one would work here, myself included 5) What you got from the LinkedIn article is what actually happens at Amazon. It doesn't sell as well as sensationalism. Sorry to disappoint

I appreciate your time in reading the article, as well as your opinions. I make it a point not to "argue on the Internet" - you have my apologies for not responding to you personally

Respectfully,

-Nick


"I receive anytime feedback, both positive and constructive, for the folks that work for me."

It saddens me that you can't say "negative" here as the obvious counter-point to positive, instead opting for kool-aid management speak. Up to this point I hadn't looked at your job title, but this sentence made me do just that as it reeked of feigned management behavior. Suspicion confirmed.


> A company that doesn't reimburse travel expenses

I've had that happen and i live in a country with massively stronger employee protection laws than the USA.

> All the data I provided is 100% true and above reproach

You claim it is. That does not make it so. The very fact that you feel the need to say it, and say it in a fashion that is highly ignorant of reality, makes what you say even more suspect.

At the end of the day, what we have here is two parties, who're both highly motivated to spin a story their way.

Btw, out of sheer curiosity:

>> If you get an answer wrong because you disagree with the principle itself, then maybe we need to reconsider our way of thinking.

Has Amazon ever reconsidered its way of thinking in the matter referenced there? Please provide examples.


Saying that you "don't understand" allegations of sexism at Amazon, as a white man, is going to be tough for folks to accept. You've likely never experienced the sexism. As a fellow white man, I've never really dealt with racism directed at me in general society. Does that mean I should assume it doesn't exist outside my personal experience?


"How would adhering to this work against a specific gender? How could being an attentive, respective leader, who is vocally self-critical and candid be a bad thing?? Even if this could logically happen based on gender, of all things (and I can't for the life of me rationalize how) HR is in the room for promotion and review discussions to ensure that what Jodi and David refer to doesn't happen."

Clearly you have no empathy for gender issues. Discrimination is usually NOT logical, and as a man working in a leadership role, being a bit more humble about other gender's experiences and feelings would make you more credible. At all credible.


The NYT article calls out what everyone in the tech industry in Seattle knows full well - that Amazon chews up its people and spits them out. The Seattle tech community is only so big - we've hired numerous people from Amazon, and the stories we hear align pretty well with the NYT article. The rebuttal doesn't really do much to change any of this.


AMZN PR is having a bad day. Headline in the Seattle Times print edition is the lack of diversity among professional ranks.

http://www.seattletimes.com/business/amazon/amazon-more-dive...


Isn't that true universally? Why is this "news"?


I am not a fan of Amazon, but this article is straight yellow journalism.


It's not journalism. This guy is writing a personal account. He is not a paid writer, and this work was unsanctioned.


Unsanctioned by Amazon? You'd get in serious trouble for that.


Well, he's not.


Not a convincing article. Although the writer of the post is in good standing, I doubt the motives.


I agree. He manages other managers and so has a vested interest in maintaining the content of his employees.

What really struck me as cool-aidy is that he tosses out statements like "Amazon is, without question, the most innovative technology company in the world. The hardest problems in technology, bar none, are solved at Amazon." That's a cool-aidy statement for any company (google, tesla, amazon) and pretty much irrelevant to the main topic.


Maybe the engineering culture is less like what was described then the marketing and executive cultures?

I'd also appreciate a female Amazon employee's perspective on gender, since they are more likely to notice issues that Nick wouldn't see, or have experiences Nick wouldn't have.


Stories like these point to a need for a union for workers of such companies, both blue collar and white collar. This is exactly the sort of thing unions have addressed in the past. Most bozos understood not to do these sort of things because they would lead to unionizing actions.


> As I cracked open my laptop to write this article, people were already discussing its existence on certain email distribution lists, and the expressions were mostly of disbelief at how uninformed the article was

Company email lists? Why would those do anything but praise Amazon?

or you know, people would complain and someone would shut down the discussion. "Let's take it offline" was a pretty common trick. "This isn't the right forum" is another.

> I sit on the floor, in a desk, not an office, because I like to be close to my folks

Also because you aren't a high enough level to be given an office.

> which means I’m part of a select group of people at Amazon who not only has visibility into our hiring standards and practices, but has the direct responsibility of ensuring they are always met.

True, and you can give insight into how the process works. Consider though, can you actually give good insight into how and why candidates might think it is broken?

> As long as Amazon is around, and I’m here, we’ll continue to be customer-obsessed

I really can't go into details, but Amazon is at best inconsistent with this ideal. They do a lot of things right, especially in retail, but they get a lot wrong. I have seen decisions made that were decidedly anti-customer.

This also cuts the other way, if something doesn't have customer impact it becomes hard to get it done. Shortsighted engineering practices.

> No one, I repeat, no one is encouraged to “toil long and late.” As a matter of fact, I’ll take a bit of time to expand on this:

of course not, you just get a deadline dropped on you instead.

> Yes. Amazon is, without question, the most innovative technology company in the world. The hardest problems in technology, bar none, are solved at Amazon.

okay.

> Our cafeterias are subsidized,

you mean the ones that serve mediocre sandwiches at mediocre prices?

> Executive mandates don’t fly around here

we had so many "drop everything and do this" moments because some exec found a problem. Sometimes it was justified. Sometimes it would not have happened if it was anyone but the boss.

Besides, the situation would probably go something like this for a mandate...

Manager: We are doing X Engineer 1: I think X is a bad idea because of Y. Engineer 2: I agree, and I wonder if we should do Z instead. Manager: Lets discuss this offline.

Then nothing happens.

> I’ve never been called an Amhole, and I’m completely certain this is made up, as I’ve never heard anyone say this, and as an insult, it wouldn’t make a very good one, in my opinion.

It's used by people complaining about Amazon "ruining" seattle.

> I won’t discuss Organizational Level Ranking, or OLR. Some companies, such as Microsoft and Accenture, no longer use it

Gee, I wonder why. The defender of the company won't discuss one of their more criticized practices. Despite being in a good position to do so.

> To assert otherwise without a single shred of data is irresponsible and just plain wrong.

So he said/she said basically. Both sides have bias, but considering what you hear about the process while inside the company I'd go with the idea that it is pretty harsh.

> I have seen Amazon do more to encourage diversity than any other company I’ve worked for.

Like having a joke of a maternity leave policy and refusing to discuss diversity figures for engineering roles?

> How could being an attentive, respective leader, who is vocally self-critical and candid be a bad thing??

It's not really an amazon issue, but data shows that women who are more vocal and disagree (i.e. disagree and commit) tend to get labelled as more difficult to work with, relative to males who do the same. That's a tough issue since it probably involves unconscious bias.

> This part of the articlea deals with attrition

Unlike you who immediately pivots to how people want to work at amazon and how innovative and awesome the company is. Fact is, attrition is a known problem at Amazon and from personal experience it doesn't seem to be one that is dealt with well. Excuses are made, new people are hired, everything continues as normal.


One of the pull quotes in the article states that Amazon reminds the customer if they've purchased the same book twice. Oddly enough, about an hour prior to reading the article, I repurchased a book deliberately. I'd given one as a gift, and I wanted to read it myself. There was about a 4 day interval between the two purchases.

I wondered if Amazon would alert me about it, because that's how I'd design the system. They didn't.

Does that have any implications for the article's accuracy?


Took it as referring to the text box that appears at the top of the item page on the site that says something like "you purchased this item on <date>."


Also, to the extent that this article exists and people hear about working at Amazon being punishing and stressful or horrible warehouse jobs, if things have really changed, Amazon has a marketing/PR problem.


Anyone bothered by how all companies are using Pride commercially?


You're bothered that Amazon employees (I'm assuming that they are not paid actors) that were celebrating pride were captured in a photo, and that photo shared?


I believe a lot of employees participate in Pride because we are celebrating the gay rights movement. But I am more skeptical when official twitter accounts, high level managers, recruiting, etc use these photos.

Edit: here's a prime example: https://twitter.com/WhiteHouse

Obama never voiced support until half of the nation polled in favor of gay marriage.




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