The life at Amazon and Google

From an Amazonian to a Googler

Google is one of the most valuable companies by market capitalization and one of the best places to work in 2016 according Forbes. It is a giant who serves billions of users every day, from search, smartphones to experimental projects such as self-driving cars. On the other hand, Amazon is after Google’s throne by building the largest online retail empire and its dominating cloud business, Amazon Web Service. Both of them are great companies, as far as the consumers are concerned. However, stories are different for employees.

Here is a brief background about myself. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, I joined Amazon as a software engineer, working at AWS Cloud Computing in Seattle. After two years of many gloomy and rainy days, I joined Google at Mountain View to embrace the sunshine in California. I worked at Google Ads previously, and currently am working at Google Play Analytics.

Frugal vs. frivolous

Amazon is a retail company. By the nature of a retail business, frugality is the key to getting ahead of cutthroat competition. This kind of frugal spirit is no exception for the perks for its employees. At the time when I was working at Amazon, Amazon did not offer any free food or snacks. Yes, there were teas and simply brewed coffee with unknown brands and beans. There were vending machines at the micro-kitchen selling $1 cokes, snacks and instant noodles for the same price as in grocery stores. Above all, there was no free Amazon Prime accounts for employees. I still paid for the Prime account like everybody else did.

One of the best perks from Amazon is the package shipping. Since Amazon has a strong transportation network allied with many delivery companies, it offers all employees a significant discount for personal package delivery, domestically and internationally.

As for Google, it is famous for its free food environment, from fancy cafeterias, all-you-can-eat snacks and salad bars, to professional in-house baristas. I start my morning with a free latte from one of the many barista stands. There are also food trucks serving dim sum and eggs benedict.

If I feel tired at work or simply need a place to relax, I can make a reservation for a free massage. On weekends, I can spend some time at the gyms, playing tennis, playing guitar in the music practice room. Other perks start with annual gifts and educational sponsorship.

Google offers shuttles equipped with Wi-Fi for people to work while commuting. This is a huge benefit for the crazy traffic in the Bay Area.

Precisely calculated vs. overly spoiled.

The latest, most expensive model of laptop is not an option at Amazon. I had a slightly outdated model of the Macbook Pro for work back then. Despite complaints from its employees, Amazon keeps its discipline of precise cost control.

Office desks in Amazon are widely known as “door desks.” A door desk is a low-cost desk composed with a big rectangle of wood attached with four legs. One of my colleagues had to present the medical proof for his spine problem to order a new desk with different height. Some “built” their adjustable height desks by stacking boxes to lift monitors to eye level.

During my first year at Amazon, the company was hiring at lightning speed. The company tore down cubicle walls to fill more seats in the already-crowded space until the new buildings are completed within the next two years.

At Google, the great news is: height adjustable desks are standard equipment. Laptop models are much newer if not the latest. Employees can apply for corporate phones, tablets, smart watches for work purposes. Tech equipment cabinets supply all types of cords, earphones, mice for free.

The common areas such as micro-kitchens, cafeterias, and fun patios occupy most of the spaces at Google. The office space is as crowded as Amazon’s. Desks are placed side-by-side, and meeting rooms are always full.

High-stress battlefield at Amazon

There are many negative stories regarding Amazon’s high-stress culture and poor working conditions. However, it is true that working at Amazon can be moderately stressful. As a retail company, being ahead even with a single percentage point of the market share is a must. As a software engineer, it means providing the products used by hundreds of thousands of companies. Even one second of the system breakdown could cause loss of millions of dollars.

Amazon’s methodology of training new hires is “doing by learning”. Similar to the military, the company sends their soldiers to the battlefield by the second day they enlist. Those who survive from the battle gets promoted. Indeed, Amazon is a good place to learn and gain hands-on experience in a short period. To some extent, it feels like working at a startup.

Engineers take on-call shifts and standby 24/7 to make sure everything works correctly. It is pretty standard to be woken up by pagers at 3 AM. Yes, the pagers that only doctors and Amazon engineers carry presently. I usually stayed up until 6 AM fixing issues, then woke up again at 9 AM for work. There is no work-life balance in Amazon’s battlefield.

Working with the smartest people at Google

You can picture the life at Google as in the movie The Internship. It is open, young and full of smart people. There is no doubt that engineers in Amazon are smart too. However, these smart kids at Google are different. They came from top schools in the world, passed the high hiring bar and joined one of the greatest companies in Silicon Valley. You feel their pride. Interestingly, this pride leads people to push the limits of unprecedented innovation.

At Google, people think big. Most projects at Google have great potential to impact billions of users. These projects can be created by a small team with less than ten people. The degree of scalability encourages people to explore all possibilities. There is a common saying: “This is Google, why can’t we do it?”

Nevertheless, not everyone is lucky enough to work on cutting-edge projects. As a company, there is still regular work such as maintenance and routines. Many friends of mine were not happy about what they were doing at Google. They were smart but worked on something that they are overqualified for. In the end, they chose to leave the company or create their own.

Even though Google dominates many areas like search, Gmail, maps, and smartphones, there are still many strong competitors out there ‒ the rise of Facebook, Apple’s latest iPhone, or Tesla’s autopilot feature in their latest Model 3. The stable profit from advertising eliminates the preoccupation of the competition. That is why this company continuously sponsors all sorts of experimental cash-burning projects.

Working at Google may feel like living in the future. However, it may turn into a nightmare when a wrong project assigned to the wrong person.

Simply a choice of life.

There are both positive and negative factors among these two companies. It is hard to make a conclusion that one is better than the other. Amazon gave me priceless hands-on experience, which benefited my career afterward. At Google, I have a better work-life balance for learning and participating in side projects. For newly graduated students looking for challenges, I would recommend Amazon as a great starting point in a career. If the goal is to chase a cozy and all-you-can-eat cafeterias, Google would be an ideal place.