Two very different pictures of Amazon emerged this weekend: One from the New York Times’ story depicting Amazon’s company culture, and another from CEO Jeff Bezos’ response to that article. So which is accurate? GeekWire spoke this morning with a wide range of current and former employees to get their take on the story and their insights into the company.
RELATED POST: Full memo: Jeff Bezos responds to brutal NYT story, says it doesn’t represent the Amazon he leads
On Amazon’s South Lake Union campus, you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who hasn’t read the New York Times article by now. Even a woman waiting for a bus on her way to first day orientation had at least heard about it. Most employees knew better than to talk to the media, avoiding eye contact as they walked by with their blue badges swinging around their necks. Even those who did stop to talk usually admitted they shouldn’t be.
“When it says, ‘Work hard, have fun,’ working hard is fun for me,” said one employee who declined to provide her name.
She did say she has a friend she recommended for a job at Amazon who has run into problems like the New York Times article described. It hasn’t been her experience, but there is a “small subset” of teams that were accurately portrayed. The employee said it all depends on who your boss is, and if your boss’ boss will listen to your complaints.
She said she enjoys the culture that pushes her to work harder. It takes a certain temperament to be successful at Amazon, and those who don’t have it, well “maybe they should go work at Microsoft.”
“I like that this company tries harder,” the employee said. “I think people are just different. Some people don’t belong here, maybe.”
We could hear the customer-obsessed culture coming through during our conversation. The woman said users expect things to work perfectly when they order a gift on Black Friday, but “they just don’t want to see the dirty laundry of what it took to get it there.”
Another employee echoed a similar sentiment, calling the article “ludicrously comical” and adding, “Some people like to work, some don’t.”
Others said some of what the company is being criticized for just comes with the territory in the technology industry.
The New York Times piece — based interviews with more than 100 current and former Amazon employees — cited several cases of alleged employee mistreatment, depicting managers who were unsympathetic to employees even when they were faced with illnesses or family issues. Reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld describe a hard-charging environment at Amazon, with stories about employees reduced to tears at their desks.
Everyone we spoke with on the Amazon campus today said they had never seen a co-worker cry in the office. However, there was one part of the NYT article that everyone could agree on: there are no snacks in the office.
Different views from former employees
We also asked former Amazon employees to weigh in on the disconnect between the story and Bezos’ response.
“The reality is somewhere in between,” said Sandi Lin, the co-founder and CEO of startup Skilljar, who started as an MBA intern at Amazon in 2008, and worked full-time at the company from 2009 to 2013. She was promoted to senior manager and was a “bar raiser” — the elite class of interviewers who weigh in on potential recruits.
“Any large company will have bad apples in terms of management,” Lin said via email. “I thought the NYT piece was grounded in reality, but put a very negative spin on the company’s practices. In addition, I can think of two cases where I saw Amazon provide a great deal of flexibility for employees going through major health issues.”
She added, “Amazon has a unique culture and prioritizes customer obsession. I personally relate more to the hard-working culture depicted in the NYT article, than the fun and empathetic culture in Jeff’s memo. I had great managers and enjoyed the strive for excellence, so it was a good fit for me personally.”
Liz Pearce, the CEO of LiquidPlanner, worked at Amazon from 2003 to 2005 and was quoted in the New York Times story saying, in part, “The pressure to deliver far surpasses any other metric … I would see people practically combust.”
Speaking with GeekWire via phone this morning, Pearce said she was interviewed by the New York Times for two hours. She said she was quoted accurately, and her experience with the reporter was good.
“I could tell the piece was thoroughly researched. Some of the themes in there are true and good,” she said of the story. “There are a lot of positives in the article that I think are being overlooked due to some of the stories that are more dramatic. There’s a little sensationalism that’s going on in the reaction.”
She added, “I would describe the culture as intense, hard and valuable. All of those things are true.”
Asked if she would ever return to Amazon, if the opportunity arose, Pearce said, “When I first left, I didn’t think i would go back. Now, later in my career, I think there’s more of a chance that I would, because I think I’m stronger. ”
Aakhil Fardeen, co-founder and CEO of startup Lish, worked previously at Amazon for five years, in the company’s retail division and Kindle, and has worked directly with some of the people referenced in the New York Times article.
Fardeen described the portrayal in the Times as “mostly factually accurate but I would not call it fair.”
“Amazon is a demanding place to work. The expectation is to work long, hard and smart,” he said via email. “There is also a very deliberate attempt to hire and retain the best. People who don’t meet the Amazon bar are actively managed out. This was never a secret. Anyone who has friends at Amazon knows this. To be a bit quantitative on what ‘working hard’ means: I rarely worked weekends, and the office does get deserted after 6pm. I probably averaged 50-60 hours/week which was perfect for me.”
He continued, “Amazon has a culture that is quite self-selective. People who are a ‘culture fit’ thrive there. I absolutely enjoyed my time at Amazon. I worked with some of the most talented people and learnt a ton from them. I was there for 5 years because I was working on some of the most interesting things and I was constantly being challenged. There is an incredible focus on the customer, that is energizing.
“I’m glad that Jeff responded to the article and solicited feedback. I also agree with Jeff that it’s easy to paint a negative picture with isolated anecdotes. The article was definitely more sensational to drive clicks and was not a balanced story on the Amazon culture. If Amazon was such a toxic place to work people would not work there. I know of very few people who left Amazon because of its culture.”
“In my current startup, Lish, my cofounder and I actively try to recreate the Amazon culture,” he said. “If we hated it, we wouldn’t be doing this to ourselves.”
Amazon and the New York Times
A past article on Amazon and the e-book market by one the New York Times reporters, David Streitfeld, was scrutinized by the New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who concluded that the story should have been more balanced.
“The Times has given a lot of ink to one side and — in story choice, tone and display — helped to portray the retailer as a literature-killing bully instead of a hard-nosed business,” wrote Sullivan about that story. “I would like to see more unemotional exploration of the economic issues; more critical questioning of the statements of big-name publishing players; and greater representation of those who think Amazon may be a boon to a book-loving culture, not its killer.”
Another of the New York Times reporters, Jodi Kantor, appeared on CBS This Morning today, recounting anecdotes from employees including the mother of a stillborn child who, upon returning to work, was told that her job performance was under review.
“It does reflect the future of the workplace,” Kantor said of Amazon’s culture. “More efficiency, more data. … The question is, how far is too far? Are there limits on how hard employees can work?”
Jay Carney, the former White House press secretary who joined Amazon as an executive earlier this year, also spoke with the CBS news program. “This is an incredibly compelling place to work,” he said. “A place where people are excited to come to work. I think the fundamental flaw in the story is the suggestion that any company that had the kind of culture that the New York Times wrote about … could survive and thrive in today’s marketplace.”
One area where Amazon does appear to be reconsidering its practices is its parental leave policy, which doesn’t provide paternity leave. Carney said on that topic, “I think that a lot of companies in the tech sector and around the country are looking at their policies on maternity leave and paternity leave and evaluating them. We sure are.”