Amazon: Dystopian Nightmare, Or Just Another Successful Tech Company?

PC: Stephen Woods via Flickr Creative Commons

PC: Stephen Woods via Flickr Creative Commons

From Fortune:

A New York Times story about the company’s internal culture makes for a good read, but the truth is likely far less inflammatory.

What I think is hard-wired into the company’s culture, based on conversations with former Amazon employees, is a desire to do great work—even if that requires some level of personal sacrifice — and a feeling that the company is doing something worthwhile, perhaps even revolutionary. You can dismiss this idea if you want, but it seems to be true.

This is the same general principle that applies to many people who work for other technology companies you’ve probably heard of, including Apple AAPL -0.65% , Google GOOG 0.26% , Facebook FB -0.13% and (in its day) Microsoft MSFT -1.10% . It’s why these companies are often described as being cult-like: Because many who work there believe that they aren’t just doing a job, they are working on something that is larger than themselves, something worthwhile, something that requires an extra level of commitment.

To take just one example, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ treatment of his staff makes anything that Amazon has done (or likely ever will do) seem like a day at the beach. He routinely told employees that they “should hate each other” for doing poor work, and when fellow executives like Jony Ive questioned his harshness he said sugar-coating it wouldn’t help anyone—including the employees who were under-performing.

Former Apple employee Ben Thompson, who now runs a subscription-based technology analysis service called Stratechery, recalls in his most recent update how he was criticized harshly by a superior and wound up crying at his desk. But after he stopped feeling sorry for himself, he turned the project he was criticized for into something much better that is still in use today: “I hunkered down, started from the beginning, and at some point over the next few days or weeks had a real conceptual breakthrough,” he says. “And I knew it was some of my best work ever.”

I think part of the reason that Amazon gets singled out is that it is seen as just a retailer, not a company like Apple that is making magical products to improve people’s lives or fill them with joy. This tone runs throughout the New York Times piece, which talks about how employees are subjected to inhuman treatment “with words like ‘mission’ used to describe lightning-quick delivery of Cocoa Krispies or selfie sticks.” The implication is that selling things somehow isn’t a worthwhile goal.

Whenever you have a company that is trying to not only grow rapidly and disrupt existing industries, but to reinvent how something works on such a fundamental level, you are going to have fanatical behavior. The kind of thing that the New York Times describes would not surprise anyone who has worked on Wall Street, or in any large company involved in a hyper-competitive industry.

That’s not meant to justify any of the behavior that is detailed in the NYT story, whether it’s poor treatment of pregnant or cancer-stricken employees, or any of the other criticisms of Amazon’s practices involving warehouse workers and so on. I just think the story of Amazon’s culture is a lot more complex than the “Amazon is an evil empire” narrative that the Times chose to give us.

The full article at Fortune.

Didn’t I promise to be back with more news and views on the Amazon upheaval? So here I am, sneaking a few minutes before I subject myself to the unending thrills of a water-park.

This article on Fortune is what I think the whole issue truly is, and which I think the Times is fully cognizant of–Amazon is yet another flourishing tech company, where their dedicated soldiers march on relentless, not just because they are made to, but mostly because they love doing what they are doing. And yes, the pressure is sometimes unbearable, being part of the tech industry for almost two decades, I have known that myself only too well. But that is an issue across the industry and more.

If the NY Times had true gumption it likes to boast of having, it would tackle that broader issue and not take petty potshots at their favorite big bad.

S.G. Basu is an aspiring potentate of a galaxy or two. She plots and plans with wondrous machines, cybernetic robots, time travelers and telekinetic adventurers, some of whom escape into the pages of her books. Once upon a previous life on planet Earth, S.G. Basu trained to be an engineer, and her interest in science and her love of engineering shows up time and again in her books.

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Posted in industry news, publishing news

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