If you haven’t read it by now, check out the New York Times’ article supposedly exposing Amazon’s tough practices towards white collar workers. Here are a few thoughts about it. Mainly: this is not news, for a handful of reasons. But it is good coverage, causing awareness and dialogue.
1. Those with connections to Amazon already knew about its culture. The article is getting wide play, but this has been common knowledge for years. Those of us living in Seattle, with many friends working there, know the info in the article is all true, not new, and not that interesting. I have some friends who have carved out happy spots there with reasonable hours for years and like their situation. I have had housemates who work 24/7, sleeping there at times. Some are paid very well, others not as well.
2. Burn and churn business models aren’t new. Ask anyone in law, finance, consulting… the bargain of long hours for experience and pay has been around for a long time. People get out, or burn out, or cope. I asked a friend who just left Amazon for a better ‘lifestyle’ company why this was making such a splash. He said because it is unusual in the tech sector. How great that is unusual, that this group of people with desirable skills have choices to jump ship to somewhere better. The article helped legitimize his decision to leave- he’d been miserable but hesitant to go, impacted by the culture. He is far happier now. Just like many of us who have left bad situations for better ones in other fields.
3. Amazon, like many powerful innovative companies, has plenty to like and to criticize. It offers impressive, disruptive, convenient services across a wide span of the personal economy. It is full of contradictions: nimble yet strict. Helps and hurts small businesses. I personally appreciate and value it a lot- not just for the ease of shopping as a busy working parent, but because it enabled me to publish a book, while doing those other things more core to my life. This is not something that was doable just a few years ago for independent, swamped people with limited time/money to invest in side projects. How great- thanks, Amazon.
4. Amazon, and most American workplaces, can do better by their staff, and should- yet still do great things. Hard work, frugality, nimble: all goodness. Intolerance of illness, parenthood, or any other common human constraint: bad. While employees have the choice to leave, we are not all 25-year old singles. I don’t know how many times I have asked Amazon friends: “Does anyone there have a child?” after hearing about yet another all-nighter, months on end of on-call work, or just the expected evening drinking events. It’s a business model. If it’s working well, they can and will do what they want- and won’t be the first or last demanding employer. But I’d prefer more choices for the majority of us who have life obligations beyond work. Are some Amazon employees contributing to the culture by egging each other on? Sure. Do they leave on average before 2 years? Yes. Luckily in tech, there are other places to go. It’s not just Amazon that works people like this- it’s just special because they are bucking the trends in their industry. And history should be on the side of those trends: parenting leave, healthy benefits, support for employees as whole people, not just producers of stuff.