The New York Times published an in-depth article on the business practices and corporate culture at Amazon this past Saturday. The piece, by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, shows a company attempting to take over the (retail) world by any (legal) means necessary. From hiring practices to employee reviews, Amazon relies on principles that seem intuitive from the outside but sound absolutely destructive to those employed by the web giant.
The old mantra was that a company’s most valuable resource was its employees. Amazon digs deeper than the employee – it’s the employee’s labor that drives the machine. In a data-driven or data-dependent (depending on your view) society, efficiency is the golden goose, the star in the sky that guides its followers. The equation posits that more efficient employees bring in more revenue for the company, which theoretically drives profits because operating and labor costs are flat. Amazon has basically refined workplace culture to a basic equation and has looked at making the slope as big as possible. If its employees are four times as efficient as a rival company’s, Amazon will make four times as much money at the same cost.
But it’s not the same “cost”. Amazon gets people to buy in for a variety of reasons, but few (if any) of them are altruistic or completely selfish. Amazon isn’t really in the business of helping those who actually need help – its basic goal is to be The Everything Store (there’s even a book by the same name!). The company wisely bet that customer service really doesn’t matter unless it’s absolutely terrible, people want their stuff as cheap and quickly as possible. Amazon rarely gets beat on price and now offers one-hour delivery in certain cities across the country. No other company of its size can compete with that.
So Amazon’s customers are happy, but its employees are miserable. The article is damning in its swaths of evidence – it could’ve been twice as long with testimonials of battered former employees finally seeing sunlight for the first time in ages. If labor is the fungible portion of the equation, its malleability ruins peoples’ lives. Employees are pushed and pushed to give more and more, eventually cracking under the pressure, the stress and the impossibility of it all, but their value has been harvested, so they’re sent out to pasture so a new younger, better employee can be milked for his or her potential. Amazon is a factory farm of talent, who wouldn’t want to work for the “largest (online) retailer in the world”? If you’re not working for yourself or for a better cause, Amazon might be the pinnacle of achievement. And this is so incredibly sad.
Amazon has prestige, so it can attract top talent. These people get indoctrinated into Amazon’s famous “culture”, which is probably akin to 21st century Marxism. Once they buy in, it’s over. They want to be better than everyone else and tell people at parties they work for Amazon and tweet out how great the company is for all the cool “perks” they offer. It’s all bullshit – every major company has guiding principles and benefits and thinks they’re the best. No one should need to “buy in” to be accepted and valued and treated with respect.
How does Amazon find and evaluate its employees? Data. From the article:
“Data creates a lot of clarity around decision-making,” said Sean Boyle, who runs the finance division of Amazon Web Services and was permitted by the company to speak. “Data is incredibly liberating.”
Take the quote and its context first. One of the people in charge of making Amazon money by using the internet as a virtual lock box likes that he has access to troves and troves of data. Figuring out how to sequence and manipulate and connect data together in order to package a service that generates revenue is literally this man’s job. He’s not terrible at it – Amazon Web Services is likely one of the company’s most profitable divisions and will scale to an unforeseen level in time due to its inevitable demand.
However, data analytics is at best a mixed bag and at worst a terrifying crutch. Boyle is correct in saying that data creates clarity around decision-making, but it also can eliminate the necessary human component. Incorporating data into a bigger picture can be extremely useful; relying mostly or solely on data all but eliminates any wiggle room or character considerations. Those who are the most efficient or best at their jobs may not be the best employees for Amazon’s future, but a data-dependent approach will gloss over the supposed mediocre in favor of the outliers.
Proponents of Amazon’s approach will cite its one major advantage: parity. No one is judged by their appearance, their age, their gender or political leanings – just their work. It’s utopian, Darwinian (an idea echoed by current and former employees in the piece). But everyone plays at some kind of disadvantage, whether it’s their home life, their manager, the work itself, an illness, a lack of motivation, etcetera. You can’t modify that component in the equation, there’s no 50% bonus for “working sick” that can be applied to an employee’s utility. The numbers are left to speak for themselves. Again, it should be a component, but by no means does it level the playing field. Instead, it strips away a company’s heart until it becomes nonexistent.
A common theme in the article was survival. It was like the reporters found everyone they talked to at self-help group for former Amazon employees, each sharing their horror stories as therapy. This is what Amazon leaves in its wake, burnt out people who thought they’d be joining an amazing company only to find out that it looks a lot better from the outside. This article will cause some changes, but Amazon has even greater aspirations than being the biggest kid on the ever-growing block. To reach its lofty goals, further sacrifices will be made and most of the people feeling those pinches likely won’t be around to reap the rewards.