In a long piece titled "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace" and based on interviews with more than 100 former and current Amazon employees, the New York Times yesterday outlined the company's corporate culture in grim detail. Among striking sections of the article:
"At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another's ideas in meetings, toil long and late (e-mails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are 'unreasonably high.' The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another's bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: 'I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.')"
"The company's winners dream up innovations that they roll out to a quarter-billion customers and accrue small fortunes in soaring stock. Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff--'purposeful Darwinism,' one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover."
"Bo Olson... lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. 'You walk out of a conference room and you'll see a grown man covering his face,' he said. 'Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.' "
The Times quoted many unhappy Amazon veterans and former employees, but obviously some people thrive in this work environment, with its unrelenting emphasis on the customer experience and data, as well as the call to perform beyond levels employees thought were manageable. Many also cited the challenges of solving huge technical problems on a global scale and, chillingly, the opportunity "to reinvent the world." Strikingly, many of those who sounded most satisfied were ex-Amazon employees who felt that some of the lessons they learned at Amazon made them better employees in their new jobs.
The Times story jibes with accounts in memoirs by former Amazon employees and most notably in The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone.
Still, several Amazonians, including founder and CEO Jeff Bezos himself, criticized the story. In a company-wide memo posted by GeekWire, Bezos wrote, in part, "The article doesn't describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at email@example.com. Even if it's rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero."
The article, Bezos continued, "claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don't recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don't, either. More broadly, I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.
"I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company."
Bezos, known for his honking, odd-timed laughs, concluded: "But hopefully, you don't recognize the company described. Hopefully, you're having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way."
And in a widely shared LinkedIn post, Amazon executive Nick Ciubotariu wrote in part about the Times story:
"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."
Concerning "the headline itself, and subsequent 'experiment' references," he wrote, "There is no 'little-known experiment.' That's just silly. No one at Amazon has time for this, least of all Jeff Bezos. We've got our hands full with reinventing the world."
"During my 18 months at Amazon, I've never worked a single weekend when I didn't want to. No one tells me to work nights. No one makes me answer e-mails at night. No one texts me to ask me why e-mails aren't answered. I don't have these expectations of the managers that work for me, and if they were to do this to their Engineers, I would rectify that myself, immediately. And if these expectations were in place, and enforced upon me, I would leave."
Perhaps John Rossman, an ex-Amazonian who wrote The Amazon Way, described Amazon corporate culture the best, when he said to the Times, "A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It's the greatest place I hate to work.'"