When we heard Amazon was planning to offer tours of its Seattle headquarters, we had to sign up. And apparently so did everyone else. The free tours, which began this month, are fully-booked through the end of the year, and Amazon plans to add more dates to meet demand.
While you wait for your turn, GeekWire got a chance to experience the tour today. It was an hour-long deep dive into all things Amazon — exploring the company’s culture, quirky building names, and effect on the surrounding neighborhood. The scale may not match the famous Boeing factory tour, but it gives people insight into how Amazon works on a day-to-day basis.
For example, pointing to a display of Amazon project posters, our tour guide explained the company’s classic “two-pizza” rule, meant to keep teams small enough to feed with two pizzas. Many buildings take their monikers from code names for important products — one example being Fiona, code name for the Kindle, which had various models of the eReader adorning the walls of the lobby — and important company values. The Day 1 North building, where the tour began, goes back to one of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ key ethos for the company.
“(Bezos) believes every day here at Amazon is Day 1,” explained Allison Flicker, Amazon community specialist and leader of our tour. “What he means by that is every day you come to work there is something new to experiment, to innovate, to invent. Never on any single day are you going to be doing the same thing over and over again.”
Amazon already offers tours of six fulfillment centers across the country, but the headquarters tours are a new step for a tech giant that places a premium on security and secrecy.
The tour showcased outdoor areas, like the rooftop of the Nessie building. There employees can have lunch, and bleachers are used for team meetings and gatherings. That spot gave us a view of Amazon’s Denny Triangle campus. Employees will start moving into the second block of that campus in November, and the famous orbs on that block are set to open in 2018.
Overall, the company has more than 20,000 employees in Seattle spread across more than 30 buildings in downtown and South Lake Union, Flicker said.
The company’s rapid growth has become a source of tension at times in the city, putting new stress on the transportation infrastructure and the housing market, but the tour highlighted the positive implications of Amazon’s decision to expand in Seattle rather than the suburbs.
“It’s great for this community; we’ve really helped to develop South Lake Union,” Flicker said. “You see a lot of restaurants, a lot of retail, a lot of stuff to do around all of our buildings. This is very much now a neighborhood that people want to come to and hang out, instead of just driving through real fast.”
The campus also includes subtle nods to Amazon’s history and that of the surrounding neighborhood. One building is named Wainwright, after the company’s first customer. Another building, Van Vorst, is named for a mattress factory on the site in the mid 1900s.
At the Brazil building, each floor represents a different nation. The Brazil floor shown on our tour includes a depiction of the currency near the elevator entrances and lists of popular items ordered in Brazil. It also has a reading room, where the company has put out excess books from publishers that employees are free to take.
And then of course there’s Rufus, the building named for a dog that a few early Amazon employees brought to work. Flicker said they used to pick up Rufus, a small corgi, and use the pup’s paws to click and launch parts of the website. Amazon is famous for its affinity for dogs, and Flicker said there are more than 2,000 dogs registered with employees.
Amazon says the tours are attracting out-of-town tourists and locals looking for an inside view of the technology giant. Our tour included a family whose dad recently landed a job at the company.
“I like the way everything is incorporated with the neighborhood,” said Gina Corpening of Everett, Wash., after taking the tour with her family Wednesday morning. “It’s not a big corporation taking over. They’re integrating with the neighborhood.”
Her daughter, Sofia Corpening, 10 said she liked the fact that Amazon didn’t just tout its accomplishments but also talked about the importance of learning from failure. For example, the tour includes a bear skeleton that was purchased on Amazon Auctions, a failed initiative that led to the more successful Amazon Marketplace for third-party sellers.
“They didn’t try to hide it,” Sofia said.
Others said the tour made Amazon feel more approachable as a company and a workplace.
“It felt personal,” said Aidan McKeage, 13, of Renton, Wash. “They take people’s input. It’s a fun office atmosphere.”
His brother, 10-year-old Finnegan, gave the tour a thumbs up, as well.
“It feels like there’s a real team spirit,” agreed their mom, Kara McKeage.