Socially Constructed Reality of Amazon’s Inner Working

The immediate responses to the lengthy New York Times’ article on the inner workings of white collar professionals at Amazon.com were almost as intense as article’s content. The 5,800+ readers’ comments are by far the most any New York Times’ article has ever elicited. The very next day, a post on LinkedIn provided a detailed rebuttal by Nick Ciubotariu, one of the system engineers/managers from Amazon. He emphasized that he wrote the piece totally on his own initiative. Amazon’s owner/CEO, Jeff Bezos, in addition to directing the employees to read Mr. Ciubotariu’s article, issued a public statement with the basic gist that the Times’ image of Amazon isn’t what he recognizes, and that all employees who ever witness the ugly stuff portrayed in the article should email him directly. (I wonder how many such emails he will actually receive? I don’t wonder that we’ll never know.)

I am not at all surprised that plenty of Amazon insiders would defend the company – otherwise cognitive dissonance would drive an employee crazy if she didn’t leave the company – nor am I surprised at the chorus of ex-Amazonians’ concurring with New York Times’ narrative of the company’s brutal working culture. What surprised me, sadly only a little, was how many people seemed to think that Amazon’s demanding working culture is unique to Amazon. Have they forgotten how Walmart locked in workers overnight? Do they not know the grueling hours medical interns (and sometimes doctors too) have to undertake? Of course, some people have pointed out that professionals in law, finance, or high tech also work 80+ hours a week, spending ½ of their vacation time chasing emails and fulfilling scheduled conference calls, or springing right back to work after a not-so-major surgery. Gee, is that supposed to make us feel better?!

What’s really depressing is that it doesn’t matter even when (some) companies offer generous policies for employees to take time off. If the organizational structure is such that people feel they have to stay competitive, most of them will forgo the offerings from such policies.

A little whimsical visual provides some counterbalance to this article.

A little whimsical visual provides some counterbalance to this article.

What angers me most is the category of response that goes something like this: Work is not a child’s play; it’s hard. Deal with it. You shouldn’t expect a country club environment. Implicitly implied in the “country club environment” jab is that such a “cushy environment” would dull your mental state and lure you into shirking even more. This either-or dichotomous worldview is simply detrimental, full stop. Google, Apple, a few other tech giants, as well as some major players from other industries, are known for offering their employees a “country club” work environment or benefits, and we don’t hear, at least we haven’t heard, that their employees are just lazing about and taking advantages of their companies.

A second category of response that drives me batty is “data management.” While I am totally on the side of using evidence and data whenever possible, I object to the implied notion that as long as managers use data, all’s well and forgiven. Data is just information, which can be distorted. Decision, on the other hand, requires thinking, knowledge, wisdom and courage. Hiding behind data doesn’t justify pitting employees against each other, normalizing 80+ hours work weeks, and data definitely do not lend sympathy to those who suffer physically and emotionally at work and outside of work. Context gets lost in data. If data can dictate everything, let’s eliminate management.

I applaud Bezos’ efforts of making his “leadership principles” actionable; it is especially remarkable that he seemingly has instilled in most of his employees the desire to also act on those principles. However, how sustainable is the intensity of Amazon’s work culture? Put it another way, can Bezo’s goal of “perpetual start-up spirit” at his company go on and on? The image comes to mind is stretching an elastic band. I said that I don’t know the answer to this question in the previous post. I still don’t. However, drawing analogies from the laws of thermodynamics, continuous improvement (link) of anything, productivity, safety and security, competition, or perpetual growth requires an infinity of resources just to fuel it, and another infinity of resources to combat entropic deterioration. Yes, Amazon can afford to have a high turnover rate, because despite its reputed hypercompetitive environment, there are always people who thrive in that kind of atmosphere, or people who just need a job. For now. However, it cannot go on in perpetuity. What remain unanswerable for me are:

  • Is this high octane work environment what we will face all over the workplace in the not-so-distant future? One factor against this, is that a good portion of the millennial generation is rejecting such notion. But that’s just one factor.
  • What would Amazon be like in 10 years?

Next time, I will ponder on the consumer angle of “working inside of Amazon.” Till then,

 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

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