InsideAmazon Wrestling big ideas in a bruising workplace
The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push
white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.
By JODI KANTOR and DAVID STREITFELDAUG. 15, 2015
SEATTLE On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an
orientation intended to catapult them into Amazons singular way of
They are told to forget the poor habits they learned at previous jobs, one
employee recalled. When they hit the wall from the unrelenting pace,
there is only one solution: Climb the wall, others reported. To be the
best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership
principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed
days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming,
Im Peculiar the companys proud phrase for overturning workplace
At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one anothers ideas in
meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text
messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that
the company boasts are unreasonably high. The internal phone directory
instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one anothers
bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool
offers sample texts, including this: I felt concerned about his inflexibility
and openly complaining about minor tasks.)
Many of the newcomers filing in on Mondays may not be there in a few
years. The companys winners dream up innovations that they roll out to a
quarter-billion customers and accrue small fortunes in soaring stock.
Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff purposeful
Darwinism, one former Amazon human resources director said. Some
workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises
said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time
Even as the company tests delivery by drone and ways to restock toilet
paper at the push of a bathroom button, it is conducting a little-known
experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the
boundaries of what is acceptable. The company, founded and still run by
Jeff Bezos, rejects many of the popular management bromides that other
corporations at least pay lip service to and has instead designed what
many workers call an intricate machine propelling them to achieve Mr.
Bezos ever-expanding ambitions. This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative,
groundbreaking things, and those things arent easy, said Susan Harker,
Amazons top recruiter. When youre shooting for the moon, the nature
of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesnt work.
Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book
marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people
weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. You walk out
of a conference room and youll see a grown man covering his face, he
said. Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.
Thanks in part to its ability to extract the most from employees, Amazon
is stronger than ever. Its swelling campus is transforming a swath of this
city, a 10-million-square-foot bet that tens of thousands of new workers
will be able to sell everything to everyone everywhere. Last month, it
eclipsed Walmart as the most valuable retailer in the country, with a
market valuation of $250 billion, and Forbes deemed Mr. Bezos the fifth-
wealthiest person on earth.
Tens of millions of Americans know Amazon as customers, but life inside
its corporate offices is largely a mystery. Secrecy is required; even low-
level employees sign a lengthy confidentiality agreement. The company
authorized only a handful of senior managers to talk to reporters for this
article, declining requests for interviews with Mr. Bezos and his top
Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.
Bo Olson, worked in books marketing
However, more than 100 current and former Amazonians members of
the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail
specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to
grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch described how they
tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with
what many called its thrilling power to create.
In interviews, some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it
pushed them past what they thought were their limits. Many employees
are motivated by thinking big and knowing that we havent scratched the
surface on whats out there to invent, said Elisabeth Rommel, a retail
executive who was one of those permitted to speak.
Others who cycled in and out of the company said that what they learned
in their brief stints helped their careers take off. And more than a few who
fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazons way of
working. A lot of people who work there feel this tension: Its the greatest place I
hate to work, said John Rossman, a former executive there who
published a book, The Amazon Way.
It would certainly be much easier and socially cohesive to just compromise and not
debate, but that may lead to the wrong decision.
Tony Galbato, Amazon vice president for human resources
Amazon may be singular but perhaps not quite as peculiar as it claims. It
has just been quicker in responding to changes that the rest of the work
world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be
measured continuously, come-and-go relationships between employers
and employees, and global competition in which empires rise and fall
overnight. Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take
the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less
Organizations are turning up the dial, pushing their teams to do more for
less money, either to keep up with the competition or just stay ahead of
the executioners blade, said Clay Parker Jones, a consultant who helps
old-line businesses become more responsive to change.
On a recent morning, as Amazons new hires waited to begin orientation,
few of them seemed to appreciate the experiment in which they had
enrolled. Only one, Keith Ketzle, a freckled Texan triathlete with an
M.B.A., lit up with recognition, explaining how he left his old, lumbering
company for a faster, grittier one.
Conflict brings about innovation, he said.
A PHILOSOPHY OF WORK
Jeff Bezos turned to data-driven management very early.
He wanted his grandmother to stop smoking, he recalled in a
2010graduation speech at Princeton. He didnt beg or appeal to sentiment.
He just did the math, calculating that every puff cost her a few minutes.
Youve taken nine years off your life! he told her. She burst into tears.
He was 10 at the time. Decades later, he created a technological and retail
giant by relying on some of the same impulses: eagerness to tell others
how to behave; an instinct for bluntness bordering on confrontation; and
an overarching confidence in the power of metrics, buoyed by his
experience in the early 1990s at D. E. Shaw, a financial firm that overturned Wall Street convention by using algorithms to get the most out
of every trade.
According to early executives and employees, Mr. Bezos was determined
almost from the moment he founded Amazon in 1994 to resist the forces
he thought sapped businesses over time bureaucracy, profligate
spending, lack of rigor. As the company grew, he wanted to codify his
ideas about the workplace, some of them proudly counterintuitive, into
instructions simple enough for a new worker to understand, general
enough to apply to the nearly limitless number of businesses he wanted to
enter and stringent enough to stave off the mediocrity he feared.
The result was the leadership principles, the articles of faith that describe
the way Amazonians should act. In contrast to companies where
declarations about their philosophy amount to vague platitudes, Amazon
has rules that are part of its daily language and rituals, used in hiring, cited
at meetings and quoted in food-truck lines at lunchtime. Some
Amazonians say they teach them to their children.
The guidelines conjure an empire of elite workers (principle No. 5: Hire
and develop the best) who hold one another to towering expectations and
are liberated from the forces red tape, office politics that keep them
from delivering their utmost. Employees are to exhibit ownership (No.
2), or mastery of every element of their businesses, and dive deep, (No.
12) or find the underlying ideas that can fix problems