Gosh, it seems that my employer’s at-work culture is the talk of the Internet. Don’t know if I should share on the topic, but I feel the urge and bloggers with the urge gotta blog.

Tl;dr · 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 outweigh the differences.

Disclosures · Long-ish; Sorry about this but it’s essential.

  • I am an employee of Amazon.

  • I am not a shareholder, but will be if I go on working here.

  • I could retire tomorrow and be financially comfortable; I’m at this job because it’s fun and it’s something — an anchor tenant — that my hometown needs.

  • I’m not working at head office in Seattle, but I work every day with people who are, and I’m there often.

  • I’m in AWS, not the big retail operation.

  • I have an extremely senior position, which buys me extra privileges but also extra pressure; I’m not sure whether this gives me a rosier or grimmer view.

  • I’ve only been here for nine months.

  • I have joined in hiring and promotion and employee-evaluation meetings.

  • Nobody asked me to write this, nor did I ask anyone’s permission. It’s the weekend and I’m at my cottage.

What I didn’t see ·

  • Anyone crying at work.

  • Anyone dumped inappropriately. The one unceremonious exit I have seen was a manager whose employees kept quitting.

  • Super-extended hours. I arrive between eight and nine and leave between five and six. The junior geeks tend to drift in bleary-eyed at ten or later and often work till correspondingly later. Sometimes I get online in the evening, sometimes not. There’ve been weekends when I haven’t opened my work computer.

    Email on weekends is desultory, sporadic; no big design decisions seem to happen.

    Right now, we’re running up to re:Invent and I’m working on a couple of big things that are supposed to launch, and I’m putting in more evening and weekend time, and so’s my team. Which is unsurprising in high-tech life.

  • The “Anytime Feedback” tool used maliciously. Actually, I don’t see it get used much at all.

  • An unusual proportion of Type-A assholes. I mean, this is a large, sprawling business, and there is politics, and there are people who piss me off sometimes. But it’s not, in my experience, worse than anywhere else I’ve worked.

  • People not expensing travel.

  • Horrible working conditions. Well, I guess I’m speaking relatively, because I personally hate the open-concept desks-in-a-row Internet-biz office style, and the data is on my side, but Amazon’s is about industry standard, and the “door desks” are actually pretty pleasing to the eye.

    (Actually, my own door desk is a motorized sit/stand thing and it’s totally wonderful, I should write about it.)

Diversity · Amazon sucks at gender diversity. The industry sucks at gender diversity. I don’t think we’re doing enough to address the problem. I don’t think the industry is doing enough to address the problem. I bash away a little bit myself, but frankly it’s discouraging.

Those “Leadership Principles” · Read ’em here. I’m probably the wrong guy to ask; too old and cynical and unimpressed by abstractions. People bandy them about in everyday conversation but I mostly don’t. To me, they read like an unexceptional list of anodyne “good ideas for running a business”.

The “frugality” principle is, I guess, a little outside the mainstream. It’s also pretty essential to doing useful cloud computing.

And then there’s that first principle, “Customer Obsession”. Yep; the number of discussions about what to do and where to go that don’t include frequent recourse to “what’s-gonna-be-best-for-customers” is about zero.

Which reminds me of something. Let me see, somewhere I used to work…

Amazon and Google · The differences between Amazon and Google practices and cultures are fascinating, and I could write ten thousand words on them, but I’d have to totally violate my confidentiality agreements with both employers, so I won’t (mostly).

But: If you take all the Amazon rhetoric I hear about customers and did a cut/paste of “user” for “customer” you’d get more or less exactly what I heard at Google. Go check out the first of Google’s Ten things we know to be true.

And: In the big picture, the similarities totally outweigh the differences. Yeah, Google is lavish and Amazon is stingy. But when you’re making competitive Silly-Valley salaries, as at both, the deltas are pretty well at the margin. (Also, the real money is in the stock options, not the salaries.)

The hiring and evaluation and promotion processes differ, and in ways that matter, but an outside observer might not see them as dramatic.

So what happened? · I mean, how is it that The Times portrays a hell on earth, a culture that would drive me to quitting in about fifteen minutes? I don’t really need the money and certainly don’t need the grief. I was really shaken by that piece.

I dunno, maybe some parts of Amazon have culture problems and some don’t? Maybe things are different from the way they used to be? Maybe Kontor and Streitfeld ended up with an unrepresentative sample of interviewees?

Maybe (but I don’t think so) everything really sucks here and I’m just too dense to see it.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: MURATA (Aug 16 2015, at 15:57)

It's nice to hear that you are now at Amazon. I have been involved in EPUB development at IDPF. In particular, I lead a sub-group for internationalization of EPUB3. I am looking forward to working with Amazon in the EPUB area.


From: Simone Brunozzi (Aug 16 2015, at 17:44)


I was at AWS for 6 years, from 2008 to 2014.

I like your "let's not make a big fuss about it" attitude. Really.

However, the sole fact that you wrote this, and PR is not knocking at your cottage's door and/or screaming at you, means that you are WAY more privileged than most people at Amazon, or AWS.

Or, perhaps, you are discovering the nicest things about Amazon's PR just now :)


From: Chris Simmons (Aug 16 2015, at 18:59)

There have been "Amazon is hell on earth" pieces for years now. When I joined 3.5 years ago, people thought I was crazy. After all, I had a 3 month old - why would I want to work 80 hour weeks?

Of course, over three years in and I've had nothing but considerate management, fair yearly review meetings, and an excellent work life balance. To me, that means occasionally I'll take an extra long lunch with my kids, or catching up on email at home while Netflix is on. I doubt I've worked a single 50+ hour week. I've had exactly 2 people resign in 3.5 years (of the ~15 who have reported to me), and one of those was someone who wanted to move back to his country of origin for personal reasons.

There are enough stories that I'm sure there are some bad parts. But this is a company that's likely nearing 200k employees. As long as we're trying to improve, I dont understand the focused hate.


From: a human (Aug 17 2015, at 01:43)

Thank you for sharing your insight into working at The Zon.


From: Hellblazer (Aug 17 2015, at 06:41)

Tim, I think you're suffering from the fallacy of the biased sample. That is, your position is almost certainly not representative as a whole. As they say, the plural of anecdotes are not data.

I'll just name one. You're a name. A big name. Companies don't hire you. They court you. And when they hire you, you're going to be treated very special. Your experience in that company is going to be a rarified.

So, I'm sure your observations are valid. I just sincerely doubt that they're in any way representative for people who aren't named Tim Bray or Verner Vogels.


From: SDE 1 (Aug 17 2015, at 07:14)

Do you do on-call at Amazon? You don't even mention on-call, the (unpaid) on-call when you're paged outside business hours to fix operational issues, and this can happen anytime: weekends, holidays, nights. Does this happen at Google?


From: Arby's (Aug 17 2015, at 12:29)

Hellblazer, I love it here, and I'm a lower level nobody in a different group from Tim. If you have hundreds of thousands of previous employees, not everyone is going to say nice things. The sensationalist article focuses on a handful of anecdotal negative experiences to make their point without really providing data to support it. I have seen extremely low attrition rates here compared to any other company I have worked at, and the vast majority of people around me enjoy being here. Oh, and let's not forget, my being here is voluntary, especially considering the number of recruitment emails I get. To which I reply, "Thank you, but I am happy where I am and don't plan on leaving any time soon."


From: Amazon Slave Apparently (Aug 17 2015, at 17:25)

"Do you do on-call at Amazon? You don't even mention on-call, the (unpaid) on-call when you're paged outside business hours to fix operational issues, and this can happen anytime: weekends, holidays, nights. Does this happen at Google?"

Yes. It does. It also happens in any other firm that runs a web service.


From: Justin (Aug 20 2015, at 11:48)

I've been pretty active on various social media talking about my own experiences in my 2.5 years at Amazon. I've never done so before, frankly because I never saw a need to, but this NYT article bothered me so much that I felt it was time to speak up. I took a lot of issue with the NYT bending the truth to fit a narrative.

I don't doubt that some of the things described by the NYT happened, but they seem to be a function of bad managers, not one of a bad culture at Amazon. And everything I've seen at Amazon seems to show that bad managers don't tend to last very long here. If anything, the leadership principles and most of the processes that we do have in place have had a lot of thought put into them by very smart people to prevent exactly these kinds of things from happening.


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