The Amazon Factor – a look at the Amazon work culture

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Once again, Amazon is hitting the headlines. Nothing new about that. There are constant success stories reported in the media all year round. Then every so often a story gets highlighted about poor working conditions, particularly in the warehouses, and people are outraged. Some even resolve to boycott the retail giant. Yet the Amazon behemoth keeps trundling on, barely registering the furore. When financial reports are due, share prices may dip for a little, then continue to climb onwards and upwards towards a bright shiny future.  The vast army of employees continue to come and go, churning out new innovative ideas. They deliver products to our doors in better and faster ways. They keep the infinite army of cloud computing servers (mostly) up and running to provide services we don’t even know are hosted on Amazon hardware. And ultimately, they earn a big amount of money for the company that employs them.

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Recently for a change, it’s revelations about the Amazon work culture across the company that are making big waves. Not just the lower level warehouses, but the modern corporate offices across the world. There’s talk about the super-high hiring bar. The dog-eat-dog office politics. The excruciating performance review process. It’s interesting to see it all laid bare. It’s not a pretty sight. And the reports aren’t inaccurate, though are definitely biased towards the viewpoint of those that have left the company because the environment did not suit them. Amazon is either the best employer in the world, or the worst. Your opinion will vary a lot depending on your personality and which part of the company you experience. I can say that with confidence having been there and done that. The work culture in Amazon was unlike any other I’d encountered before. In short, Amazon is a great company to be a customer of, or have shares in, not so great a company to work for unless you match a very particular profile (in which case Amazon is totally the employer for you!).

Amazon grew from very humble beginnings in a simple shed, all the way into a seemingly unstoppable force. That can happen due to hard work and pure luck. It doesn’t remain the case for this many years without a whole lot extra going on behind the scenes. The seemingly odd combination of retail plus cloud computing services has proven incredibly successful. The formula for achieving this kind of success is proven, and repeating this every year to keep being bigger and better is what Amazon strives to continue to do. In IT circles Amazon is a very big plus to add to your CV. The hiring process is gruelling. A phone screen followed by an entire day of interviews where you’re grilled both technically and mentally to see if you’re made of ‘the right stuff’. And I mean grilled. It’s relentless. Designed to put a potential employee under every kind of stress and test to see how the candidate will perform when pushed to their limits. A full panel of interviewers decide on new hires, under the watchful eye of a ‘bar raiser’. It’s quite an accomplishment to just get in the door. What happens after that isn’t something a potential employee considers quite as carefully as those hiring them will.

 

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On the plus side – you’ll work with colleagues of an incredibly high calibre. You’ll work on cloud computing at one of the highest levels possible. You will be pushed to be the best and excel in every possible area. You don’t specialise in Amazon – you’re a jack-of-all-trades. Apart from the basic technical skills you usually need for an IT job, you’ll be a software developer, an engineer, a project manager, a customer support superstar, and many other roles. You could end up working on absolutely anything and will be expected to adapt. It’s literally impossible not to grow and learn to work at a higher level and a faster pace than ever before. The first year is often compared to being at the receiving end of a fireman’s hose turned on full force. You’ll hear the tales of how it all began. The fascinating war stories of Q4’s past (the fourth quarter where the thanksgiving retail craziness hits hard). Time moves so much faster here than in other companies. It can be the opportunity of a lifetime. That could mean a lengthy Amazon career, or a stepping stone to roles that you would otherwise have been unqualified for. There are so many ways in which Amazon is an amazing company to work for, with cutting edge projects and a chance to compete against some of the best who will push you to be the best too.

 

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But there’s a flip side. A big one. To succeed in Amazon you don’t just have to excel at everything, you also have to buy into the culture. Invention and innovation are fostered and encouraged. But there’s a very strict definition of what the ‘ideal employee’ embodies. The one who leads others to greatness, who over-delivers on every task, who is somehow available for more hours than there are in the day. A superhero without a weakness to exploit. There isn’t any wiggle-room in the performance process to allow for the quirks and eccentricities of all those who walk in the door. Someone who would clearly stand out as the best of the best in another company will be held up to a spotlight and examined until minor weaknesses are magnified into major flaws. If you thought the hiring process was tough, it’s nothing compared to the yearly performance reviews as the ‘bar’ keeps being raised higher and higher into the sky. Absolutely everything is data-driven. No excuses accepted.

I’ve heard the first year being described as one where they ‘break your spirit’. Some employees will be moulded and carefully grown into bigger, better versions of themselves. Others will weather the storm for a period before deciding to shuffle back off to a ‘normal’ job with lower expectations. Sometimes you have to admire this all-or-nothing process which generates the perfect Amazon employees… and snuffs out all those who fail to be what the company wants them to be. Staff are pushed to excel their limits, and many do. Some absolutely thrive in the environment. And ultimately, in the relatively well-paid IT industry, it’s your own choice whether to work for the company or not. At the moment anyway, there are other jobs out there.

For anyone that isn’t expecting the roller-coaster ride though, it’s an experience that can literally break someone. Absolutely shred their self-image and confidence. It’s hard not to buy into the culture that surrounds you and somehow feel a total failure if you think deep down that maybe this way of life just isn’t for you. To ‘be the best’ employee for a company isn’t necessarily in any way compatible with being the best you. Being constantly under scrutiny for evidence that you can deliver not some, but all of the leadership principles is a special kind of stress, or hell on earth for some. Especially if circumstances outside of your control mean you don’t have the opportunity to display everything you know you’re capable of doing.

My least favourite (ok, most despised) aspect of the performance reviews was the realisation that someone on every team must always come bottom. And that’s just not a good enough performance in Amazon, regardless of what level you all reached. The person at the bottom will be hauled over the coals. Because someone must be designated last, but everything must be data-driven, it leads to questionable evidence being produced. Regardless of whether allowances might be made for personal issues during a particular year – the data is going to put you at the bottom of the pile and there’s no way to offset that. Yes, the guy beside you stays up half the night coding because he has no family and enjoys it. That’s still X number of extra hours of work he’s put in that you haven’t because you were ill, or pregnant, or [insert perfectly valid reason here]. How do you compete with that when performance is purely based on data of what both of you did or didn’t do for the company?

Despite the transparentness and fact-based premise of the performance review, it will ultimately come down to who is your manager, and how well you manage your relationship with them. Just like every other company. Because the odds are stacked in favour of your manager. When it comes to your review, it’s not innocent until proven guilty, it’s guilty of not being good enough at everything unless you can prove otherwise. Not so easy to do when applied to more esoteric qualities rather than concrete technical ability. Even more difficult when you submit your performance review and your manager has ample time to go through everything with a fine toothcomb and search for the evidence that suits their case. Or potentially to decide how to generate the desired verdict based on the strength of the case you already made. You might have evidence you didn’t commit murder, but you weren’t expecting a charge of larceny. In theory you can challenge something, in practise it’s hard to argue against ‘anonymous feedback’, or produce evidence in your favour that you didn’t know you needed to collect throughout the year. “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics“.

And then there’s the fact that the knowledge someone on the team must be sacrificed, will lead any bright person to the conclusion that it’s in their best interests if they succeed AND other team members don’t. Because that’s the only way to guarantee being top of the pile. Some teams seem to manage to rotate the dubious honour around fairly amicably. Take a hit for the team one year, benefit from some good karma another year when promotion may be on the horizon. Other teams can fall apart around performance review time. After being bound together over a tough year and a fiery black Friday endurance test… people become disillusioned when all the hard work done is being rated and they’re still found wanting months later. They start to snipe and complain, knowing that some on their team have provided the criticism that’s being held up as ‘evidence’ of their poor rating in some particular area. Of course every good employee is expected to provide peer feedback. And it’s an obvious flaw in your own character if you’re not providing a balanced opinion, so some negative feedback is a necessity. After struggling to think of some small thing a colleague you love working with could possibly do better, it’s tough knowing that a stray comment of yours may have been used against them in a way you would never have intended. Even worse if the feedback is copied out of context and in a way that makes it easy to tell where it came from.

Ultimately, like many other companies with a very American work culture – Amazon does some great things you couldn’t possibly do elsewhere, but can also be a horrible environment to work in. A lot of it is down to luck. What team you’re on. Which country you’re in. Who your manager is. What kind of teammates you have. How a particular project is going. How highly you value a work/life balance versus your career. The reputation of a company that espouses frugality and constantly raising the hiring bar deters many from even interviewing. The work culture isn’t even dressed up with fancy perks and privileges like Google or Facebook. It’s a brutally honest approach. Yet if all employees felt as the NYT article describes, then there wouldn’t be (m)any staff working in all those offices worldwide. Nor would there be fierce competition to get a job there. But it’s also true that Amazon loses out on a vast number of highly skilled and brilliant people because the work culture and performance review process is skewed towards a particular type of employee. The kind that not all of us can, or want to be.

These kinds of media articles focus on one ‘bad’ company, but the reality is that this a wider conversation about the kind of company people want to work for, and the choices that aren’t available. There is room for an Amazon work culture where some excel and are inspired to do amazing things, but it’s a terribly harsh environment for many to endure. As more people look for a better work-life balance, we need better options for excellent employees that don’t fit the Amazon ideals. Sadly there aren’t a lot of choices out there for those who want to do great things, but not at what would be a great personal cost for them. Education, location, gender, race, childcare, illness, finances, long working hours and many other problems hold people back from finding or creating the jobs they could thrive in. The Amazon factor is just one of many things that will suit a select few, but are totally wrong for others. We can’t, and shouldn’t, ‘fix’ the Amazon work culture. We need better job alternatives for everyone that wants a different kind of work culture. That’s something Amazon can’t deliver to our door (at least not yet).

 

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Last Modified on April 22, 2016
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12 thoughts on “The Amazon Factor – a look at the Amazon work culture

  1. Fascinating article to read.

    Reading all that insider detail, I assume Amazon know exactly what they’re at? That they’re very specifically hiring “that personality” to achieve business goals. I can see how they’d be missing out on a lot of talent but when things are going so well for them I’m sure they think they have the formula right.

    I, for one, couldn’t imagine working in that environment. While I’m happy to give work everything I’ve got, I need to get something back too and it’s really hard to see what that might be in Amazon. Loads of cash is useless when you’ve no life to spend it on. Happy to leave them at it!

    • stuffandnothing

      Thanks for your comment! They’re not necessarily only hiring that personality, but definitely winnowing out anyone who isn’t good with pressure and looking for people that they hope will fit in well with the culture. Which is fair enough, hiring is a massive time sync!

      Based on what I saw, they must know what they’re doing or they’d worry more about talent walking out the door when it happens so often. They seem happy enough to have a high turnover with lots of fresh young graduates to keep things going, and there are definitely plenty of ‘lifers’ who seem to have figured out how to work within the system comfortably. In between those are the people who duck out after a shorter than normal amount of time (compared to typical IT jobs) because they don’t like what they have to do/become to stay there. Working in Seattle is a bit different to here though, because it’s the centre of the Amazon universe with different pros and cons.

      Unsurprisingly, there was a very low ratio of females working there! Earlier in my career it would have been a better fit for me. I couldn’t contemplate working there with a young family at all now though. Complete opposite of family-friendly. I’d hope it’s improved a bit since I finished there, but I wouldn’t return. I’d prefer a different kind of work challenge too where I get something back. I don’t perform at my best under constant pressure!

  2. Pat

    all the noise about amazon being tough and amazing and yet some how “good”, is a LIE.

    I know it is a lie because there are no women executives at Amazon.

    There is no diversity in amazons management ranks. So apparently, only white makes have such drive to survive at Amazon

    • stuffandnothing

      I believe there is currently one female executive (though I’m open to correction). There are definitely a smaller proportion of females working the traditional IT roles, and of those, an even smaller number would be willing to make the kind of sacrifices required to be promoted that far up the food chain. I don’t think Amazon is necessarily much different to all the other large companies out there though. The low number of women in IT is a whole other discussion, though work culture plays a big part in that. There was diversity in the management ranks in my particular department while I was there.

  3. ExAmazonSurvivor

    As a former Amazon employee (though not in IT), I have to agree with your entire article. The OLR (annual review) process is brutal. I should also note that when your peers ask for feedback, the feedback review form has fields for Positive Feedback and Negative Feedback…and you can’t submit the form unless you include responses for both. From what I understand, the negative feedback is then used as a bludgeon against anyone seen (justly or unjustly) as an underperformer. “See, I told you this employee was bad! Look at all this negative feedback!” So managers cherry-pick the positive feedback for employees they like, and magnify negative feedback for employees they don’t like. So technically it’s “data-driven,” but the data chosen is very selective.

    Here’s an example: I was asked to verify a bug for another team, so I verified and closed it. But since I wanted to be thorough, I checked a few other things, and discovered that the bug had not actually been fixed. So I added my additional information and reopened the bug.

    So how did this show up on my review? “Employee does not pay attention to detail.” I pressed my manager on the issue, and she said, “Apparently you close and reopen bugs a lot of the time.” I continued to ask for specifics, and she named the one instance where that happened. So when doing a favor for another team, a single mistake (which I caught and corrected myself) got generalized and magnified to “Employee does not pay attention to detail.” Based on one specific feedback regarding one event. And for all I know, the employee who reported this was required to submit negative feedback, and so she said, “Oh yeah, there was this one minor incident. I’ll just mention that.”

    That’s what working at Amazon is like, only multiplied by a thousand for all the various activities you participate in during the year. Want to take on an additional project to get some kudos? Better make sure you’re checking email late at night, or you may get dinged with “Employee does not respond fast enough about critical projects”, and an overall negative on your review. Delegating work to someone else who has free time and is more qualified to do the work? “Employee does not take ownership of his areas.” Doing all the work yourself so you’re barely keeping your head above water? “Employee does not Dive Deep and come up with new innovations.”

    Also, since you’re graded against your peers, you can’t say, “I’m overworked and doing too much,” because the response is, “Yeah, everyone is overworked and doing too much. What are you doing to stand out?” Stack ranking really is a horrible system. Amazon can’t say that the hire the best employees, while also maintaining that 20% of their workforce is substandard at any point in time. It’s a contradiction.

    • stuffandnothing

      I totally agree. I found the performance review process very negative compared to any other one I’ve been through. You can accept and move on from a generic rating you disagree with a whole lot easier than one that’s based on a lot of ‘data’ that you think is incorrect, or biased and out of context. It feels like a belief being presented as facts which is impossible not to take personally. It certainly does motivate people (with a stick) to work hard, but even positive feedback is tainted by the way the process works. Between the amount of time spent on the review process and the negative feeling it inspires in so many, I can’t see it as anything but a poor way of evaluating employees. I personally saw a lot of excellent people leave or feel pushed out that I would love to hire or work with again. Some employees are expert at managing the process in their favour, but I’d rather spend my time doing my actual job instead of jumping through hoops.

      The whole notion of the bar constantly being raised when there’s so much work to be done that doesn’t even need the ‘best of the best’ is also madness at a certain point.

      • ExAmazonSurvivor

        Yeah, the “bar raising” was particularly insidious. The idea was that Amazon would only hire candidates who “raised the bar,” meaning they were better than the average current employee. In theory, this would raise the quality of the company overall.

        The problem was, this idea of “employees should be better than the average” was extended to current employees, in situations where it didn’t apply. Basically, if an employee’s work performance was seen as well within the average for other employees (say, the number of bugs fixed), someone might say, “Well, you know what they say about average employees at Amazon!”, meaning that being “average” at Amazon was a sign that you were putting in sub-standard work, and you should get phased out.

        So instead of the Amazon company ideal that 20% of all employees were “underperformers,” you suddenly got this corporate ideal that “average” wasn’t good enough anymore. And if you know anything about mathematics, you know that by definition, you can’t have a group of employees who are all above average. But that was the prevailing attitude around Amazon.

      • ExAmazonSurvivor

        “The whole notion of the bar constantly being raised when there’s so much work to be done that doesn’t even need the ‘best of the best’ is also madness at a certain point.”

        I believe it was Marissa Mayer, when she was speaking out against stack ranking, who said, “There’s a lot of good work being done in companies every day by average employees.” I’ve worked in places where one guy had been in the same position for ten years, because he was reliable, knew how to do his job, and could be counted on to get things done when necessary. At Amazon, that would never fly. If you’re in the same position for three reviews in a row, they start to think there’s something wrong with you, and start looking for excuses to get rid of you.

        • stuffandnothing

          Yes, there’s a lot to be said for someone who is competent at doing exactly what’s needed for their particular job, and can be relied on during working hours. Plenty of employees who are content to do that and work to live, rather than live to work. It’s definitely not the model in Amazon though.

          • ExAmazonSurvivor

            And worse, there are plenty of employees (from my experience) who have no problem spending the majority of their time on high-profile projects, and are rarely available to do the normal daily work that needs to get done. Then when review time rolls around, the high-profile workers get praised for their high-profile work, and the workers who get the day-to-day work done are criticized for “not going over and above.”

  4. Great article…

    I’m always confused/frustrated by performance reviews. Even in companies that doesn’t have such hard processes, they always seem like badly designed, full of demotivating stuff and opportunities for petty grudges grow out of control.
    The concept of a “performance review” is flawed in thinking that professionals needs regular benchmarking to assess they are “performing as expected”, when the only sane way of making everyone give their best is to make them feel trusted and give quick feedback.
    In my experience, it’s way more required to grow self-esteem and appreciate people, and make them feel confortable with their capabilities than crush them under more pressure. The work is normally bad enough, and most people goes to great extents to cover their errors and make things work, which is the golden standard for engineering.
    If there are real problems, well, that’s a different situation and that shouldn’t wait for a year. If there are not, do you really need to find something to say?

    I don’t think I’ve been in any place where the process was as terrible (stack ranking is a horrible idea, and in long run it creates very toxic work environments without guaranteeing high performance, like Enron showed up)
    But as a process, even if it’s not that aggressive and done with the best of intentions, it’s too biased towards negativity…

    • stuffandnothing

      One of the things I liked most about doing contract work was that it cut the entire official performance review process out. End of contract time would roll round. Employer and contractor would both decide whether they wanted to renew or not. Done. No justification needed.

      I agree that regular feedback from both sides is far more useful. You want to know the work you’re doing is going in the direction your employer wants. And problems for either party are best raised quickly so there’s time to fix them while they’re still small issues.

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