What Current and Former Amazon Employees Really Think About the Company’s Culture

(Photo: Zhao/Flickr)
(Photo: Zhao/Flickr)

This piece originally appeared on Quora: What do current and former Amazon employees think about the NY Times article about the company’s work culture?

I worked in retail buying, merchandising, and marketing for Amazon for 2.5 years from 2011-2013, and I actually wrote on this exact subject less than a year after I left. I won’t repeat what I said there, but the tl;dr is I think Amazon was an incredibly rewarding experience and I would do it again, no questions asked. Do keep the time period in mind, though — I haven’t worked at Amazon in nearly two years and the Seattle office has roughly 150% more employees now. I am positive some things have gotten better, and I am positive some things have gotten worse.
I think the varied, polar responses from current and former employees show how much a person’s Amazon experience can vary by team, role, level, time period, etc. I know plenty of people who are happy at Amazon, even people who work 40-45 hour weeks and have been doing so for longer than I’ve been out of college. I was a gung-ho, kool-aid chugging Amazonian while I was there and I still love the company now.

But I and many of my former coworkers read the NYT article and thought it was mostly accurate, though as others have mentioned, the author makes some leading and reader-bait-ish characterizations. I also felt that the rebuttal circulating was accurate on many points (especially the ones combating the aforementioned characterizations), but made some denials that didn’t jibe with my experience.

These are some of the observations I can validate.

“You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face … nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

Exaggerated, but people cried, and some of it was in public, and some of it was at a desk. I’d guess I saw maybe a dozen people cry in thirty-three months. Some of this was absolutely related to work — I helped dry enough tears to confirm. But quite a bit of it was not related to work, not directly anyway. I bought my first home in 2012 and nearly lost it (and our earnest money) due to a major lender screwup and I nearly had several panic attacks dealing with it … at the office. I watched several marriages end, and no, I have no idea whether it was because of the job. My point is that a byproduct of spending 80-100 hours a week at work means you are in the office 2-2.5x as much as a normal full-time worker and it’s therefore logical (if questionably desirable) that you’ll observe more of life happening.

But yeah, those 80-100 hour work weeks were real. Not every week — I’m not sure I’d believe anyone not named Jeff Wilke claiming to do this every week, and maybe not even then — but the retail side of the business is notorious for long hours during peak holiday seasonal periods. You might not eat Thanksgiving dinner with your laptop on, but you’ll be awake and online as sales start and in the office bright and early on Black Friday, and probably work a shift that Saturday or Sunday too. That’s not negotiable and a real gripe; Thanksgiving travel is extremely difficult or impossible for many. (This was my one big complaint about Nick Ciubotariu’s solid response. When I read that he never worked a weekend and nobody told him to work nights, I had a smug little chuckle and thought, “this guy obviously is not in retail.” The engineers are all pretty little princesses that get real monitors and prioritized ETL access and…)

I think the article’s author wants you to believe that those 80-100 hour work weeks are required by management. I’m sure they are in some cases — every big company has some abusive managers — and there were some abusive practices, like scheduling required midnight meetings followed by required 8am meetings, infrequent-but-required meetings and emails while on vacation.

But I think a lot of the people who put in crazy hours are partly doing it to themselves. I saw some do it. I did it sometimes. How does that happen? It may ultimately be Amazon’s fault, even partly by design.

On my second day at the company, I asked my skip manager a lame question (“what’s the single piece of advice you would give me?”) and he gave me a much better answer than I deserved. I paraphrase it all the time because I think it is the most important thing that anyone starting or considering a job at Amazon can understand about the place.

At any given time, you will have 100 things to do. 20 of those things will be really important, valuable things that will move the needle for our business.You will have time for 5. There’s no extra time next week, there’s 100 new things to do. Nobody else has spare time, they have their own 100 things. So to survive at Amazon you must get good at two things. You must get good at picking those five things and justifying your choices, and you must get even better at letting go of the other 95.

I helped onboard and mentor a lot of new college hires into Amazon’s retail business. It was especially critical for them to hear this message, since many of them were stellar students used to completing everything to a high standard. That approach would burn them out at Amazon, and it did several. I wonder how many of them heard this message; I wonder how many of their managers heard it.

There is one time it’s bad at Amazon and most other companies: when someone leaves, and you have to backfill their position. I think this is a lot worse at Amazon for two reasons. First, because the company runs famously “two-pizza” lean; a person leaving can mean a 50% reduction in a function’s headcount. That’s a lot of slack for someone to pick up, for any amount of time. Second, because Amazon’s ever-rising hiring bar means backfills take longer more often at Amazon than I’ve seen elsewhere. At one point I lacked a real manager for six months; I reported to my category leader, and I was my department. Puts the whole 80-100 hour thing in perspective.

‘But workers are expected to embrace “frugality” (No. 9), from the bare-bones desks to the cellphones and travel expenses that they often pay themselves. (No daily free food buffets or regular snack supplies, either.)’

True again. I actually loved my desk and I modeled my home office setup after its simplicity. I did see some people pay travel expenses and cell phone bills out of pocket. I think the article’s author wants you to assume the worst, that Amazon is requiring or even encouraging this. I don’t think that’s the case, and I never once felt like the company or my manager pressured me to forgo an expense report. The company is famously frugal and often “frupid” about what it won’t pay for, but I always knew in advance and could decide not to incur the expense.

What I do think, though, is that Amazon explicitly encourages thinking and acting like an owner, gives you a ton of stock so you feel like an owner, then hammers home that frugality is really important. I saw some folks consciously decide not to report a meal or two on a trip. But I also saw some folks (i.e. me) not file a cell phone expense report out of laziness, so who knows.

‘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.’

True. The atmosphere at a lot of Amazon meetings seemed normal to me by the time I left, but I think a lot of people would find them jarring. On my first day as a new hire, I spent the morning in new hire orientation, ate a hurried lunch, and then went straight into a business review meeting with my whole team — one of the infamous weekly business reviews the article mentions, with 50 to 60 page printouts. (Ours were closer to 20, duplex.) I was pretty intimidated. The questions from managers came quickly and to specific people, in a way that seemed aggressive to me.

However, I also noticed that those people had informed-sounding responses, referencing the data we were looking at. People had clearly been given the opportunity to prepare, and contrary to what the article suggested leadership was mostly satisfied with their answers, even if the answer had to be “I’ll follow up on that.”

That said, I witnessed some very public, loud fights. They were rare, but they happened, and almost always between people more senior than me. Someone once even got into a fight going to bat for me; I was in a meeting and missed it but heard the story later from a dozen onlookers.

‘“One time I didn’t sleep for four days straight,” said Dina Vaccari…“These businesses were my babies, and I did whatever I could to make them successful.”’

I never did anything like not sleep for four or even two days straight for Amazon, but I empathize deeply with the sentiment that your business is your baby. I nurtured, cared for, thought and worried about, planned a future for my business — on a level that my wife is grateful was second to our marriage. I went to competing stores to watch how people interacted with displays, see which products were popular and which attracted attention but were put back, etc. I was constantly pricing in my head, doing cost and profit estimates. How are they getting that product down to that price? Am I leaving money on the table somewhere or are they taking a bath? There was an album on my phone dedicated to photos of merchandising displays and prices. I plugged my own sales in every way I felt honest about. I compulsively monitored my products and stores, and would often notice problems before another alert could reach me.

And again, I have to emphasize: in my case, at least, this was largely self-inflicted. I was proud of my business. And I was, admittedly, proud to be actively perpetuating the stereotype that Amazonians are crazy hard workers. I think a lot of people are a little proud when they overdo it, especially when there are good results.

“Many women at Amazon attribute its gender gap — unlike Facebook, Google or Walmart, it does not currently have a single woman on its top leadership team — to its competition-and-elimination system.”

I don’t know whether this is accurate or not at scale, but I will say: when I left Amazon, I reported to a woman (Sr. Manager), who reported to a woman (Category Leader), who reported to a woman (Director), who had until recently reported to a woman (Vice President), a situation I have not encountered since. One of those women had a child during that time, took months off, and returned to her position. Two others had children under five. I think all of them would have loved more time with their families, but their families and Amazon were able to coexist.

This turned into a novella when I had no intention of writing one. That’s the power of Amazon with current and former Amazonians: we can’t shut up about it if two or more of us are together. It’s one of the reasons we are sometimes justly called “amholes,” whether it’s yelled at our faces, muttered in passing, or printed on flyers posted around the city.

One last thing, I guess. I think this quote nails it:

‘“If you can build an organization with zero deadwood, why wouldn’t you do it?” he asked. “But I don’t know how sustainable it is. You’d have to have a never-ending two-mile line around the block of very qualified people who want to work for you.”’

And, well, Amazon has figured out how to create that never-ending two-mile line, while paying less and offering worse perks and worse work/life balance than the companies it is usually compared to. I think that’s part of the reason we’re so fascinated with Amazon’s culture, and part of the reason some fear it: creating that line takes immense power.

Related Links:

What do current and former Amazon employees think about the NY Times article about the company’s work culture?

What has Jeff Bezos done with the Washington Post since acquiring it in 2013?

If the culture at Amazon (company) is so cut-throat, why do so many people still choose to work there?

Andrew Hamada is a marketer with a design & UX pedigree. He’s also a Quora contributor. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. What Current and Former Amazon Employees Really Think About the Company’s Culture