My Amazon experience
Wow — is Amazon ever a hot topic these days! From the New York Times article, to the epic rebuttal by a glass half-full employee, to Jeff Bezos’ uncharacteristic memo—people are coming out of the woodwork to give their two cents on the Amazon experience. As Amazon is riding high on Wall Street, everyone wants to take a shot at dethroning the king.
Even though I’m no longer working in Amazon, I want to add my experience to the mix. I don’t feel any need to “defend” Amazon (as if a corporate entity needed defending, anyway). Nor do I feel the need to sing praises of worship. I simply want to provide my perspective on things, both good and bad.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t leave because someone made me cry, or because I had to work 200 hours a week. I left because there was a better opportunity elsewhere, where I could play a bigger role and still live in China, which is my current preference. Despite all the gripes you’re going to read below, I remain adamant that Amazon taught me more about being a product manager than anywhere else I’ve worked in. So please leave your popcorn at the door!
I worked in Amazon China for about a year as a product manager in mobile shopping. Though I was based in the Middle Kingdom, I started my role there reporting into a Seattle team. I also interacted a lot with the mothership, including travel to Washington on at least 3–4 occasions. As a Canadian, I grew up in Vancouver and feel closely connected to Seattle, which is just a 2.5 hour drive away. Lots of my friends are now working for Amazon Seattle, to boot. Therefore, I feel somewhat qualified to speak about the American experience.
The usual caveats will apply. This is my experience, and everyone has a different experience based on their team, who their manager is, and so forth.
Here are the positives:
Critical thinking, and preparation, is rewarded. Amazon places a premium on reading and writing. This is a refreshing breath of fresh air. No Powerpoint presentations are allowed, because everyone at a meeting is expected to follow the thesis of the meeting at their own pace. The first part of important meetings is typically spent in silence, while participants read the document which provides the basis for the meeting. Discussion follows, and it’s assumed that the chairperson has taken the time to prepare his or her arguments in advance.
Maybe it’s because I like writing, but I value this process of putting the onus on the chairperson to present his or her thoughts clearly, in document form. Meetings feel less sales-pitchy and more substantial.
The employee hiring bar is held at a high level. It’s true that attrition is high at Amazon. But getting in isn’t easy, either. Candidates go through a lot of scrutiny to ensure that the right person is being hired. Just as important as soft skills is how well the candidate fits the “leadership principles.” Interviewers dedicate a lot of time in documenting and discussing how well the candidate fits the team, from a cultural perspective.
I loved this, both as somebody coming in and someone who played a role in hiring others. When you know the bar is held high, it makes you feel like your coworkers really belong. A-players want to work with A-players.
Unfortunately, as far as China goes, recruiters and hiring managers take shortcuts in hiring candidates. As Amazon is an American company, lots of Chinese people just don’t cut it in terms of English communication, or understanding the value systems of a multinational company. To operate at an effective level, these are musts.
In short, the people in China are too local to be effective. Many of the Chinese Amazonians I worked with have no real idea as to how to work with others. They apply their Chinese concepts to a Western situation. They don’t ask questions, they incorrectly assume things, and quite frankly don’t live up to the principles that the company expects them to have.
What goes around, comes around. American Amazonians also fail to understand the Chinese market, and how Chinese people operate. That’s a contributing factor to Amazon’s under-performance in China. I spent a lot of time spreading awareness of market differences to our partner teams. Besides, it’s hard to blame people for being too local. They are based in China, after all. And honestly, why would top performers join a company that doesn’t even pay as well as the local companies?
TL;DR version: Don’t blame the player — blame the game.
Therein lies the rub — to work for Amazon, you have to really believe in the company. Believing in the cause of working for the world’s most innovative company is a must. There will be bumps and bruises along the way, but you have to buy into the system. Too many people join for the wrong reasons, and leave in short order.
Horizontal/lateral movement is encouraged. After working in a particular team for a year, employees have free reign to seek new roles on different teams. When employees want to try something else, or want to follow their previous managers to a new team, the opportunity is always there. Generally speaking, there isn’t much the current manager can do to block the move so long as the new team wants the candidate. Even an internal move goes through a hiring loop process, complete with interviews. This is a pretty common thing, so it’s rare to find someone working for one team total if they’ve been at Amazon for several years.
It’s become an inside joke in the company that if you ever want to find a new candidate to join the team, you look internally. The hiring bar is a lot more stringent for external hires, so teams often resort to internal hiring to fill a need. It can backfire when internal candidates suck, but they play the game well and have solid internal references, so they make the grade. But again — it’s hard to blame the game for how it’s being played.
Every person at Amazon, even executive leaders, is detail-oriented and digs into the details. Nobody at Amazon is a “talking head” or a “people manager.” I’ve been in reviews where an executive VP will question why a button on a web page is oriented in a certain way. When Jeff Bezos leads by example and goes into the details during review meetings, this extends to everyone in the organization. I like this — a lot. Diving deep into details is a hallmark at Amazon, and it’s the reason why the company has succeeded on several levels.
Mis-application of leadership principles. I didn’t like the Times article for one key reason — the abuses described at Amazon could basically apply to any large company. Statistically speaking, bad managers are everywhere. But absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there definitely is a fair share of power tripping and abuse at Amazon.
For a company that wears its value system proudly on its sleeve, the potential for abuse is greater. Too many people in the company pay lip service to leadership principles without going deeper into why it fits the situation. You hear principle name-drops like “bias for action, we have to get this done” or “this shows we care about the customer” when it fits certain people’s agendas. The smarter people will respectfully challenge such claims (because it’s also the Amazon thing to do). The non-critical thinkers will give way.
From my observations, this happens on a wider basis in China because employees just don’t understand what Amazon stands for. There’s also a cultural imperative to follow orders without question. But I’ve seen it happen in Seattle, too.
Hoarding talent, and letting them sit still. Much like Google, Amazon hires really smart people and lets them work on mundane things like maintaining a tiny part of a web page, or spend a whole year pitching ideas to others without any tangible result. It’s almost like a deliberate attempt to hire now, figure it out later — and hey, at least our competitors won’t have access to these guys! People with entrepreneurial spirits tend not to stay long because they are frustrated with the limited scope that they’re given.
Way too data driven. Everything that Amazon does is measured rigorously. Imagine building a car, and having to test for months/years whether every button on the car’s dashboard should be placed in a certain way, or whether the color of a blinking light should be red or yellow. Extend that mentality to the entire Amazon experience. This is why the shopping experience lacks personality, IMO. It’s almost a little too mechanical.
The frustrating thing about being data driven is that executives (including Jeff) will ignore the findings when it’s their pet project, like the Fire Phone. So you are taught to do things a certain way, but when a higher-up ignores it, that’s fine and they have a different set of rules.
Speed (or lack thereof). Amazon thinks long-term, to a fault. One of the primary reasons I left is because you spend a lot of time influencing people to align with you to just get basic things done. There are too many dependencies. As a product manager, this is normal, but this was particularly extreme for me at Amazon. My current job tells me that I can deliver the same results, product-wise, in 1/3 of the time I spent doing the same thing at Amazon.
Dealing with Jeff B escalations. Jeff personally causes a ton of lost productivity when he demands teams come up with answers to his questions. (the legendary question mark “?” emails) I’ve seen entire teams drop what they’re doing for days/weeks, scrambling to get a proper response. This totally kills business continuity.
Lack of accountability. Many senior leaders, especially long-tenured ones, lack accountability for their failures. They are too entrenched to be fired or moved to another role. It’s hard for me to be more specific than that without burning bridges, so I’ll just state this as diplomatically as possible.
As I write this, I remain more convinced than ever that Amazon has the right attributes to remain dominant. To put things into perspective, it’s awfully short-sighted to criticize a company’s practices when its stock price is riding at an all-time high. Besides, comparing Amazon to anywhere else is a bit like reading a book on Steve Jobs and then trying to be Steve Jobs. It’s great for me to read about Steve Jobs, but I’m not fucking Steve Jobs. Amazon anecdotes are fun, but what works at Amazon won’t work elsewhere, and vice versa.
There is only one Amazon in this world. And what works for Amazon won’t work for other companies. Long live Amazon.