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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