Amazon might be awful, and at the same time not

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 19, 2015, 11:41 PM | comments: 0

The New York Times published what someone might call a tear-down piece on the work culture of Amazon. It has been interesting to see how people react to it. Bezos responded by saying that it's not the company he knows, and I hope he's just saying that for the benefit of stockholders, because even if the piece is not representative of a big problem, it certainly isn't an anecdote either.

I worked for another gigantic technology company in Seattle, Microsoft, and it was not reasonable to make generalizations about it either. Especially during the time I was there, it was more fair to say it was really many small companies. Some of them were awesome, some not so much. My friends who have stayed or returned after working elsewhere have indicated that it's getting a lot better, too. Ironic, then, that the article quotes Bezos as saying that becoming more like Microsoft would cause the company to "die."

The thing about gigantic companies is that it's hard to generalize, and at the same time, you can't ignore negative generalizations. Good and bad culture aren't mutually exclusive in large companies. Heck, even where I work now, a small company by comparison, we spend a lot of time thinking about how our culture works as we grow, because we know that the reason for our success in part comes from the special sauce that is our culture.

Reading about Amazon in that piece reminds me of working at Microsoft in 2009, mostly hearing about other groups and reading the comments in the "Mini-Microsoft" blog. I liked the group I was in, and we delivered some great stuff despite our size. The influence of the negative parts of the company was there, but my manager at least largely worked in that context without making it toxic.

Amazon, for example, apparently does stack ranking. Microsoft, and even GE (which some business types say invented the practice) have stopped doing it. It's toxic, it kills collaboration, and frankly the return on investment for all of the time and money spent on it is probably negative. A friend of mine in another MSFT group described it first hand, as a manager, where people acted to achieve "visibility," not a better product. That's absurd.

I also wholly reject that you need to commit your life to a job for compensation, fulfillment or whatever. The loyalty is not bidirectional, money is not an intrinsic motivator, and believe it or not, a lot of really cool things happen outside of your job, starting with your family. I get the idea that you may put a lot of time into it when you like it. I know I've sat down at my computer at 7:30, and realized at 5:30 that I was going at it almost all day (that's a hazard when you work remotely). Still, there are fantastic things going on outside of my door and my window, and they're pretty much all things I'll remember longer than I will that last e-mail. Being switched on all of the time isn't sustainable. Unless you're a blogger who thinks work is everything.

Of course, some guys working there believe in the 100% opposite of the NYT piece, and that's fine. I happen to think that Nick's response is way more anecdotal than the NYT, but again, there's no reason why both situations can't be true in a company that large. I kind of know Nick through Facebook, because we apparently worked in the same group at MSFT at some point. I've never been shy about telling him he's a Kool-Aid drinker, and I think he puts too much faith in hierarchy and process. He took great offense at my suggestion that the things he looks for in developers are ridiculous, which I suspect doesn't play well to a "bar raiser" (are you kidding me?) at Amazon.

Here's the thing, even if the article is something of a hit piece, it sure seems like an opportunity. Executives in large companies are famously incapable of gauging the condition of their work force. I'm not talking about the data that so famously drives Amazon. I'm talking about the condition of the humans working there. It's a little self-righteous to believe they're changing the world by selling shit for cheap and getting it to customers as fast as they can (it's not space travel or curing Ebola). I'm a big fan of the company, but if you've got 4,000 open req's and you want to toss your bottom 5% every year, in a toxic system that drives people out, you probably have to do a little soul searching. No parental leave? Are you kidding?

I had the pleasure of meeting Les McKeown last year and read his book Predictable Success. He makes a solid observation about the curve that most every company makes, especially in the startup space. While I don't agree that a company can irreversibly head toward certain death (interestingly, he thinks Microsoft is in that phase), it's clear that companies can get into his "big rut" phase and not even realize it. DHH wrote an excellent post explaining that someone has to be in the right place to say, "Dude, we have some issues and we need to change." I think Amazon has been presented with that opportunity, and it's a gift it has received when it's in otherwise great shape. I hope the company takes it.


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