The Amazon Factor – a look at the Amazon work culture

August 17, 2015 12 Comments

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 they 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 large amount of money for the company that employs them.


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. At least one 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.



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.



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 this is 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 the knowledge that 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).