Amazon isn’t known for being a laid-back employer. In fact, the tech giant is famous, and in some cases infamous, for its hard-driving work culture.
But in an effort to compete for talent and create a reputation for a flexible work environment, the company is experimenting with part-time tech teams, raising interesting questions about what the initiative may accomplish, and just how much these employees will actually work.
On this week’s GeekWire podcast, Kerry Van Voris, previously head of executive recruiting at Amazon Web Services and now director of talent at Madrona Venture Group, said she thinks the idea holds promise. She described it as a sign of Amazon’s experimental and entrepreneurial nature.
“Amazon is always pushing the envelope,” Van Voris said, and the company is always “trying to innovate and think differently about things.” She added, “I love what they’re doing because it’s going to attract a different kind of employee who needs different things.”
While Amazon’s work culture isn’t for everyone, Van Voris said those who thrive in highly driven work environments will do well at the company. This experimental program creates a space for those who want to work in this environment, but need more flexibility in their schedule, she said.
GeekWire editor John Cook wasn’t so sure that employees will get such a good deal. He asked Van Voris, “Is Amazon doing this just to pay people at the 30 hour-a-week rate, knowing they’re going to get 60, 70 hours out of them?”
Van Voris doesn’t think so. “I think Amazon will pay really close attention to running this experiment in a good way with boundaries,” she said, adding that having part-time managers will be important to moderating work hours.
However, Van Voris did agree that the approach is different for the company. She said that, at Amazon, “you find really passionate people who are excited about the problems they’re solving, and that sometimes generates this desire to work more.” She also referenced a quote from Jeff Bezos’ 1997 letter to shareholders: “You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three.” This isn’t exactly the case for the new part-time teams, where employees will be scheduled for just 30 hours per week.
The discussion about Amazon’s part-time experiment was part of a larger conversation with Van Voris about the state of tech recruiting and the job market. Listen to the conversation starting at 8:50 in the audio player below, and continue reading for an edited transcript.
Todd Bishop: There is this perception out there among the general population that tech employees have it easy. You ride by the Google office on the Burke-Gilman Trail, you see they’re sitting out there.
John Cook: Massages, the kayaks. Free food.
TB: Exactly. Eating their buffet food out of their metal tins. You have this sense that it’s just the lap of luxury, and maybe you don’t see the inside and all the hard work that’s going on. Give us a sense for the state of what it’s like to be a tech executive or a tech employee these days in this industry.
Kerry Van Voris: I think, first off, it has to do with the problems that all of these people are trying to solve. Even though they may have these cushy offices or great lunches or amazing perks, ultimately they are solving huge problems that are changing our lives. … They’re the ones that are coding late into the night. They’re the ones that are thinking really creatively about being super innovative and how to change things for us. I see it as more flexible work for some of our tech workers, which is what they want and how they’re going to thrive, instead of being a job that they’re working 9 to 5. They want to be able to work on Saturdays, but they also probably want to be able to take the afternoon off and go for a hike. And this area in particular really supports that because Seattle workers accommodate that flexibility a lot more. But it’s a work-hard, play-hard place.
TB: So what is the state of the tech economy, if you look at it through the perspective of technology jobs? Because the perception out there is that engineers basically could do anything they want.
Van Voris: Engineering talent is still in such high demand. Not just in Seattle, in the Valley, in New York, in Austin. And great engineers can really find jobs in a lot of interesting places, and that’s what makes it so competitive for companies out there, from startups to the big companies. I had a friend of mine who when I ask him how business is going, he tells me, “Just look outside and count the number of cranes in the air, Kerry.” When I keep seeing all these cranes and growth, what’s fueling that growth, be it Amazon, Google, it’s pretty amazing.
JC: As director of talent at Madrona, you help startups find great talent, and I think that’s a different job right now than it was maybe five, ten years ago, especially as you mentioned those cranes in Seattle, a lot of them are building campuses for Amazon or Google or Facebook or these big tech titans that are really sucking the oxygen out of the room as it relates to the startup community. It must make your job incredibly difficult to try to place engineers who are in high demand —
TB: Or executives, too.
JC: Or executives, at smaller companies. How are you balancing that, what are you finding? Are people still interested in going the startup route or are the high salaries of these tech giants really sucking up most of the talent?
Van Voris: It depends. I think there’s always a place for top talent. That’s something that I always keep in mind. Not everyone is going to be interested in going to a startup. So even though it’s difficult to recruit on the salary level or even sometimes on the perks level, we really look for individuals who have the DNA of a startup employee, who have the tolerance for risk, who are thinking longer-term about equity, who are looking at solving a problem that really is groundbreaking and disrupting things, versus going into a big company and perhaps getting lost in some of the layers. … It’s different at a startup. Not everyone wants to take the risk.
JC: I think that’s true. My own personal perception having watched the startup community here for a long time in the Seattle area is that it has been hindered and damaged by the arrival of these big tech companies. At least in the short term. I think long term, this is going to be a real benefit to the region, that it’s diversified the economy here, and that you do have Facebook and Google and Twitter and Dropbox and the list of 80-plus engineering centers.
Van Voris: AirbnB, Uber.
JC: Yeah, it keeps going on. I think that’s great that they’re setting up shop here, but I think short term I personally haven’t seen as much enthusiasm in the startup ranks and just frankly startup creation as you would think. Especially as compared to the Valley. So I’m a little concerned about this, short term, that the startup community might not be revving on all cylinders, largely because of this talent issue that we’re talking about today.
TB: What about overall demand for technology workers? Is there any sign that the economy is cooling off at this point? Are you seeing any indication that things are starting to turn down?
Van Voris: I don’t see it, Todd. I don’t see things cooling down. There’s such a demand for hiring, again, in big companies and in our startups. … I think in the short term, while having the larger companies have satellite engineering offices up here and really be that sucking sound for hiring, in the long term for the Pacific Northwest it’s just going to fuel the fire for our startup scene.
JC: Yeah, I think long term that’ll happen. So what’s the dream resume that comes across your desk for a startup that has $5 million in venture capital and needs to hire its engineering department and grow that out? What’s on their resume?
TB: Something that makes your eyes light up when you see it.
Van Voris: Having great fundamental technical skills is going to be something that first and foremost I’m going to look for. A lot of those fundamental skills, they occur at some of the larger shops. Where some startup CEOs may look at having been at a larger shop as a downfall sometimes, I think having one of those big fundamental companies on the resume is a really good thing. I also like to see an example of the person pivoting and taking more of a risk because what that’s going to say to me is that this person can operate in different environments, can be in a more ambiguous, scrappy, roll-up-your-sleeves environment and therefore they may be a better fit for one of our emerging companies. At the end of the day, if they want to work with smart people on meaningful work and complex problems, that’s what you can’t necessarily get from the resume.
JC: I’m sure you’re talking to a lot of CTOs and CIOs that are trying to hire for these jobs that are coming in. Is there a specific skillset or computing language that they’re really interested in?
Van Voris: We’re seeing a lot of demand for data science and machine learning right now. That’s a big— that is in high demand right now.
JC: We should say one of Madrona’s companies in the machine learning space just got acquired, Turi, by Apple for about $200 million dollars. They’re doing OK. They were able to hire some good folks I guess.
TB: One of [the companies you’ve worked at], Amazon, is trying a new experiment. They are creating teams consisting entirely of part-time technical workers. Specific teams that have nothing but folks who are working essentially 30 hours a week altogether.
JC: Managers too, correct?
TB: Exactly. This is an experiment that Amazon is trying. It’s a little bit different and it goes against this perception, at least, of Amazon’s hard-driving culture — 70-hour, 80-hour work weeks. Kerry, you led executive recruiting for AWS, which is obviously a very specific niche as it relates to Amazon Web Services and the company. That said, I’m sure that position gave you lots of insights into Amazon’s culture. What do you think of this move by Amazon?
Van Voris: I think it’s great. Amazon is always pushing the envelope and it’s one of the best things about Amazon, in trying to innovate and think differently about things. This is just another example. I think it sets the stage to be really beneficial to employees that need a more flexible schedule and to work less hours. It’s interesting because one of Jeff’s more famous quotes was, “You have to work smart, you have to work long, you have to work hard here, and you can’t choose two out of three.”
TB: Yeah, that’s kind of like the old quote about startup life. It’s completely flexible— you get to pick which 21 hours of the day that you work.
Van Voris: And all that being said, that to me was one of the aspects that just made Amazon such an exciting place to work, and such a good place for me to work. I love what they’re doing because it’s going to attract a different kind of employee who needs different things.
JC: I have my own theory here. Now I’m going to put a little bit of a Machiavellian spin on this. … Is Amazon doing this just to pay people at the thirty hour a week rate, knowing they’re going to get sixty, seventy hours out of them?
TB: Oh boy.
JC: It’s not about work-life balance. It’s about their frugal nature, which is also part of their DNA. … You would think, let’s think of the psychology here a little bit. “Gosh, I get to go and I’m only going to have to work thirty hours a week at this job,” but you know they’re going to feel this passion to make the products great and they’re going to put in more hours because of that.
TB: Here’s how they describe this program. They say, “although this is new for technical job families at Amazon, the concept of part-time employment is not new. There are many people at Amazon who currently work a reduced 30-hour per week schedule. What is novel for Amazon is the creation of teams that are entirely comprised of part-time employees, including managers.” So that’s the nuance here and the interesting part. The entire team is part-time.
JC: And I think that’s interesting. My contention is they won’t be part-time. In effect. They’ll work more hours. It’s the same idea as the dogs being allowed at Amazon.”Oh, what a nice culture at Amazon, they allow your dogs to be there. Kerry, we all know the reason why they allow the dogs, right?
TB: So you don’t have to go home.
JC: So don’t have to go to let the dog out to go to the bathroom, and you can stay at your desk and work longer. Isn’t this the culture of Amazon?
Van Voris: I don’t know. I don’t agree with that.
TB: You don’t? Tell us. Debunk it. Tell us, because you’ve been inside. Tell us the reality.
Van Voris: Amazon’s a place that’s not for everyone, right? Just like other cultures out there. Startups aren’t for everyone. Microsoft isn’t, Google isn’t. And so, I think the type of people that Amazon attracts are the ones that really like the culture and are going to thrive there. I hadn’t thought about the whole dogs …
JC: I’ve got some theories here, I’ve got some theories.
Van Voris: It sounds like you do. It is nice to have the dogs around for sure.
TB: Do you think those people will end up working more than thirty hours a week?
Van Voris: I don’t, I don’t because I think Amazon will pay really close attention to running this experiment in a good way with boundaries. I love the fact that the managers are part-time too because they’re going to be working the same hours. At Amazon you find really passionate people who are excited about the problems they’re solving, and that sometimes generates this desire to work more.
JC: Okay, I’ll take my Machiavellian hat off here a little bit. My capitalist mentality. The cool thing about this, a couple thoughts: We have kids. Todd and I, we have kids. You know you have to really balance your life in order to do the jobs that we do. It is possibly going to allow people to have a more flexible schedule, because they’re at a reduced time. The other thing I’m really interested to watch is whether the productivity is actually higher because they are at a lower-hour rate for the week, and we all know that you can work so much that you become unproductive. I think that’s going to be interesting to watch and what specific products come out of it. It’s going to be interesting. What are your thoughts on that?
Van Voris: I guarantee Amazon will be tracking productivity because of this experiment. They’re going to be looking at all angles to see how successful it’s going to be, in Amazon style. If it works, they’ll keep it, and if it doesn’t work, they won’t.
TB: They say that the teams will work core hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with “flex work hours throughout the week.” So that’s where your theory comes into play, John, but I could see if this works, then I think we’ll hear a lot more about it. If not, then it’s going to be on us, for our team of reporters to dig into this and figure it out, because they are not going to want to talk about it not working if it doesn’t work.
Kerry, there was that piece last year from the New York Times about Amazon’s culture. From what you’ve seen from the outside now, has that hurt their recruiting? Has it made it harder for them to attract quality employees?
Van Voris: I’m not on the inside of Amazon anymore. I have a lot of friends who are there and I actually don’t think it has hurt them very much. I think it’s probably helping them attract the types of people that are going to thrive in the Amazon culture. If anything, it may have helped …
TB: Weed people out?
Van Voris: Weed people out. I was thinking of a better way to say it.
TB: It’s kind of like full disclosure in form of an exposé in the New York Times.
Van Voris: I do think what was missing was a lot of the amazing things that go on at Amazon. It’s not the kind of company that is boastful, so you only hear the bad stuff.
TB: Why did you leave?
Van Voris: It was really hard actually. I loved what I was building at Amazon and AWS. Again, I’m biased, but I don’t think there’s a more exciting business to be part of right now. And the leadership team and AWS is incredible and so fun to work with. The interesting thing about my job at Madrona is there’s really only one job like it in town. It was such an opportunity to be with entrepreneurs and to be with startup employees and really help build that ecosystem here in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t think there’s a better perch to be on to be knowledgeable and learning about what’s going on in technology in our big companies, but more so what all of the emerging technologies and companies are doing.
TB: So it seems like there is just recruiting wars going on. John, you’ve probably heard stories.
JC: I actually met with a venture capitalist — not from Madrona, not from your firm — about two weeks ago and he was telling me this story about one of their portfolio companies and a star engineer they had hired there and then kept there for a number of years, who they loved, and one of these engineering centers came in and poached the guy. But the thing that just amazed me was the amount of money that was in exchange over one person. The person had already been making $150,000 annually, so a senior engineer, and was getting about a $50,000 annual bonus and was doing well. This company came in and matched the salary at $150,000, but then did a $180,000 signing bonus for the person, and then said there would be additional bonuses annually of another $150,000. And the VC just looked at me and said, “You can’t do anything about this. There’s no way to hang on to that type of person.”
TB: Wait, was the other company a big tech company versus a startup?
JC: Yes. As I understand it, yes, it was a big company, and as I understand, it was one of these engineering centers. It was a Dropbox or a Twitter, a Facebook or a Google, that has set up in Seattle in recent months and years.
TB: Does that sound legitimate? Have you seen things like that?
Van Voris: It sounds legitimate. I’m not surprised, and there is if— when those kind of dollars are thrown at someone, and especially engineers, companies are desperate for amazing engineers. And it is hard, I think, for some of those engineers to justify turning down that kind of money. And a lot of times when the large companies can offer some of the great things that startups offer — really smart people, interesting problems to solve, a way to have impact and growth — it’s hard.
JC: What are the tricks to woo somebody to a startup when you’re competing against that, because there are levers you can pull.
Van Voris: There are levers you can pull, and I think the biggest thing is looking for how someone’s wired. I always sit back when I’m recruiting someone and figure out what are they optimizing for and what problem do I need to solve. That can be a lot of different things. Some people optimize for learning and growth, some people optimize for money. Some people optimize for where they’re going to live. It depends, but people are usually optimizing for one or two things.
TB: So you have to figure out what those things are.
Van Voris: Always have to figure out, what problem am I trying to solve? And that’s how I really go after and try and recruit someone.
JC: What about the spouse? Do you ever try to get the spouse a job?
Van Voris: Well, a lot of times the spouse is the one making the decision. That’s the other thing, as far as being a recruiter, I think you have to recognize early on: Who’s the person making the decision? It’s not always the candidate.
TB: So do candidates, if they have the right experience, have the upper hand now? You hear about these rigorous interviewing processes at Microsoft and Amazon, and it’s just crazy, and there’s these legendary abstract questions that people have to answer. At this point, can the engineers just go in and say, “Hey, I can code. What’s my package? What am I going to get as a salary package?”
Van Voris: I’m laughing because I can never see someone walking in and doing that at a Google, Microsoft, or Amazon.
TB: So not there yet?
Van Voris: No. Every company is still going to put their engineers through the paces. As they should, because they’re looking for the best ones, and not everyone is going to fit the certain type of culture at all of these companies. There’s usually a cultural aspect that they’re interviewing for. I think when you get down to the offer stage, you’ll find that top talent, there’s a place for them always, and a lot of times, there are three, four, five different offers that they might be entertaining at one time.
TB: There’s been, over the past few years, a real push to train women in engineering. Specific programs, Ada Developers Academy. All sorts of things along those lines. Have you seen an increase in women engineers coming through the pipeline yet?
Van Voris: We have seen an increase, but I think it’s two-fold. One, I think slowly but surely there are programs that are encouraging more females to be engineers, and that’s a really, really great thing. I also think, as you guys know, there’s been an incredible focus and push on diversity hiring. You hear it in every company. Everyone’s talking about it. There’s a focused approach on finding people.
JC: I think there was a story, and I might not … I’m not sure of the company, whether it was Intel or Facebook, which had made this big push, and in just the past couple weeks, they came out with some information saying they weren’t hitting the milestones.
TB: Right, it was Facebook.
Van Voris: It was Facebook.
TB: Despite this very conscious effort to increase their diversity, they did not.
Van Voris: I think it’s just a long-term game. It’s a numbers game, right? At the end of the day, there aren’t as many female engineers as there are males.
JC: We were talking about the salaries that are crazy. You see this with women in a lot of professions where the salaries have not kept pace with their male counterparts, but has the tide turned there because women engineers are so coveted that their salaries are starting to even surpass males? A hotshot female engineer at Google is so coveted that the pricing on her has increased to a certain level that she has more leverage? Have you seen that yet?
Van Voris: I haven’t necessarily seen that, and my view on that is you pay for the job. You pay for the job and it shouldn’t matter, male, female. You pay for the job and people should be compensated for what they’re bringing to the table. What I do find is that — and I found this early on in my recruiting — is that a lot of times females won’t ask for a lot of the same things that their male counterparts will, and from time to time, that impacts them.
TB: Your advice would be?
Van Voris: Negotiate. Ask.
TB: Figure out what you want and go for it.
Van Voris: Yeah.
TB: That’s good advice for anybody.
JC: So what company, and I know you’re dealing mostly on startups, but what are the big companies in Seattle right now that you’re seeing that are the most aggressive about hiring? Is it Google, is it Facebook, is it Microsoft, Amazon? Who is just going after it in a big way?
Van Voris: I think they all are. The growth numbers at Amazon are obviously pushing them to be super, super aggressive, but you have Google that’s going to show up in South Lake Union very soon.
JC: Right next door to Amazon.
Van Voris: And that is not by accident, and Google will be very aggressive. Then you have Facebook that has a different lure to some people here. And Microsoft, as much as a lot of individuals think “Microsoft may have lost its luster,” they are still super aggressive, grabbing top talent, and compensating them very well.
TB: Let me tell you, I’ve been inside that new Facebook office over there.
Van Voris: It’s awesome.
TB: It’s amazing. It’s probably the gold standard in terms of amenities and perks, and luxury out there on that rooftop deck. Last question here, Kerry, before we round out. Silicon Valley versus Seattle in terms of recruiting. Do Seattle companies have an edge if somebody’s coming from another part of the country now because of the residential housing markets? What kinds of trends are you seeing there?
Van Voris: The word that comes to mind is this “Valley fatigue” that I think a lot of individuals are feeling. Especially individuals that are in an inflection point in their personal life, where they might be getting married, starting a family, Seattle’s an easier place to live. And unlike five or ten years ago where we only had a couple games in town, just given the opportunity here in the technology market, if you come up for one of the bigger companies, if it’s not the right fit, we have a lot of other interesting companies to work for up here. That makes it easier for people to relocate to Seattle. Also it’s just a different vibe up here. Our egos aren’t as big, it’s certainly a work hard, play hard kind of place, and I think that is attractive to a lot of people in the Valley now.