Saturday, August 15, 2015 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace

Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld:

However, more than 100 current and former Amazonians — members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch — described how they tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with what many called its thrilling power to create.

In interviews, some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it pushed them past what they thought were their limits.

[…]

Of all of his management notions, perhaps the most distinctive is his belief that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace — that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas. Instead, Amazonians are instructed to “disagree and commit” (No. 13) — to rip into colleagues’ ideas, with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful, before lining up behind a decision.

“We always want to arrive at the right answer,” said Tony Galbato, vice president for human resources, in an email statement. “It would certainly be much easier and socially cohesive to just compromise and not debate, but that may lead to the wrong decision.”

[…]

Ms. Willet’s co-workers strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management. […] Because team members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year, it is in everyone’s interest to outperform everyone else.

Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman, said the tool was just another way to provide feedback, like sending an email or walking into a manager’s office. Most comments, he said, are positive.

However, many workers called it a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly.

[…]

Resources are sometimes hoarded. That includes promising job candidates, who are especially precious at a company with a high number of open positions. To get new team members, one veteran said, sometimes “you drown someone in the deep end of the pool,” then take his or her subordinates.

[…]

Those departures are not a failure of the system, many current and former employees say, but rather the logical conclusion: mass intake of new workers, who help the Amazon machine spin and then wear out, leaving the most committed Amazonians to survive.

Update (2015-08-16): Discussion on App.net (via John Gordon).

Nick Heer:

Privately snitching on colleagues is childish, and there’s an employee ranking system in place that’s awfully similar to Microsoft’s stack ranking system. But perhaps most shocking is the erosion of a balance between work and life.

[…]

The scariest thing about this article is the number of responses I’ve seen that say something along the lines of “it’s not just Amazon; you’ll probably hear similar stories from employees at other companies”.

Tim Bray:

First: I haven’t seen that stuff Kantor and Streitfeld write about. Not saying that never did happen, or isn’t happening somewhere, just that I haven’t seen it. Second: The similarities between Amazon and Google vastly out weigh the differences.

Update (2015-08-17): Michael O. Church (via David Magda):

Google, Yahoo, and Amazon have one thing in common with, probably, the majority of large, ethically-challenged software companies. They use stack-ranking, also known as top-grading, also known as rank-and-yank. By top-level mandate, some pre-ordained percentage of employees must fail. A much larger contingent of employees face the stigma of being labelled below-average or average, which not only blocks promotion but makes internal mobility difficult. Stack ranking is a nasty game that executives play against their own employees, forcing them to stab each other in the back.

[…]

In general, I think the way to go is to create guilds like Hollywood’s actors’ and writers’ guilds, which avoid interfering with meritocracy with seniority systems or compensation ceilings, but establish minimum terms of work, and provide representation and support in case of unfair treatment by management.

Nick Ciubotariu (comments: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5):

Amazon is a big company, and gets referenced often. I’ve read many articles that describe us. Some are more accurate than others. Sadly, this isn’t one of them. This particular article, has so many inaccuracies (some clearly deliberate), that, as an Amazonian, and a proud one at that, I feel compelled to respond.

[…]

There is no “culling of the staff” annually. That’s just not true.

David Streitfeld and Jodi Kantor:

Over all, The Times interviewed over 100 current and former Amazon employees, including many who spoke on the record and some who requested anonymity because they had signed agreements saying they would not speak to the press.

Mr. Bezos urged his 180,000 employees to give the Times article “a careful read” but said it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

[…]

Like many of the Amazon employees quoted in The Times article, Mr. Ciubotariu describes strengths of the workplace, including focus on customers and innovation. However, some of his assertions were incorrect, including a statement that the company does not cull employees on an annual basis. An Amazon spokesman previously confirmed that the company seeks to manage out a certain percentage of its work force every year; the size of the goal varies from year to year.

Update (2015-08-18): A Former Amazonian (via Jamie Zawinski):

The most horrifying moment of my employment at Amazon was the time I was using the toilet and a coworker began talking from the stall next to me. He asked me why I had not responded to his very pressing email. I closed my eyes and pretended this wasn’t happening. What email could be so important that it could not wait five minutes for me to use the bathroom? He began tapping on the wall between our stalls, asking why I wouldn’t respond, as if inter-stall conversation should be a totally normal, not disgusting means of communication.

He became more specific about what he needed—referencing a project I’d never heard of, nor would I ever have involvement in—and I realized he had misidentified me from my shoes.

David Heinemeier Hansson:

But the bottom line is that culture is what culture does. Culture isn’t what you intend it to be. It’s not what you hope or aspire for it to be. It’s what you do. There’s no way to discredit, deflect, or diffuse that basic truth.

Update (2015-08-20): Dave Winer:

I’m always leery of such obvious appeal to emotion. He made his grandmother cry. He must be a bad person. But he was just a kid. What’s significant is not what the 10-year-old Bezos said and did, he wasn’t running Amazon, rather what the adult Bezos said, which the Times left out of the story.

Update (2015-10-19): Nick Heer:

The “admission of fraud” refers to Bo Olson, who provided the quote that Carney deems “sensationalistic”. The PR team at Amazon decided to discredit his quote today by opening his employee file publicly to a claim that he was accused of fraud while at the company.

[…]

It’s hard to believe Carney, given that he is a PR guy at Amazon, and is therefore inclined to protect the interests of a public company. It’s also hard to believe that the Times would not correct such an egregious error.

Update (2015-10-22): Ben Thompson:

Carney responded to Baquet’s response here.

[…]

What is exciting about the Amazon story is that, at least according to Baquet, it came from embracing the nichification of The New York Times.

1 Comment

The abusive culture of Amazon is true. I know it based on my own experience.
http://www.churyumov.com/2019/02/02262019-hunger-strike_26.html

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