Geek Culture
Published in

Geek Culture

My Amazon Reptilian Brain

How Amazon (the company, not the jungle) imprints their culture

Back in the 60s, neuroscientist Paul MacLean put forth the theory that we all have a reptilian brain: the primitive, instinctual and animalistic part of our brain, controlling all the life-sustaining functions of our body. On top of that, the limbic brain controls the emotional responses, and on top of that, the neocortex controls rational thinking. But at our core, and despite millions of years of evolution, we’re very simple animals driven by the instinct of our dinosaur brains.

And, have you ever seen a baby bird imprinting on its mom? Imprintingis a form of learning in which an animal gains its sense of species identification. Birds do not automatically know what they are when they hatch — they visually imprint on their parents during a critical period of development. After imprinting, they will identify with that species for life.”

I worked at Microsoft for 11 years (1997–2009), Amazon for 11 years (2009–2020) and have been working at Google for 2. Out of the 3 companies, Amazon imprinted its culture so much into me that I often joke that I still have an amazon reptilian brain. Most Amazon ex-pats still have so much of amazon’s culture in them: “you can take a person out of Amazon, but you cannot take Amazon out of a person,” we quip. Why? How?

What’s really fascinating to me is that I can run into an amazonian or ex-amazonian at any random place like a grocery store, and we immediately have a shared lexicon, even if we don’t know each other. Even when I talk to an ex-amazonian working at Google today, we often end up reverting to amazon-style communication in 1:1s out of habit. I’ll compare it to a different aspect of my life. I was born and raised in Argentina, but have lived in the USA for the last 30 years. I became a citizen, married a nice American girl, and I proudly call Seattle my home. I have fully embraced the culture in the US. Yet something happens when I visit Argentina, the minute the plane lands in Buenos Aires I revert to when I was a kid. All of a sudden I have a thicker Spanish accent when I speak English. It goes away a few days after landing back in Seattle. That’s when I realize the dichotomy of who I am, as I have two very different cultures somewhat taking turns or co-existing in my psyche. Being an ex-amazonian is a lot like that.

The primary reason that Amazon is so effective at imprinting its culture is because it has a set of 14 Leadership Principles (“LPs”), crisply defined, that codify every important aspect of its culture.

Here’s the Amazon LP, explained by executives:

[Bezos added 2 more on his way out in 2021, but I personally don’t think they fit]

When I was getting ready for my interview loop back in 2009, the recruiter sent me a link to the LPs so that I could do some prep work. I read it with a healthy amount of skepticism then promptly ignored it. All companies have “values”, I told myself. Enron’s company values were painted on the wall and proudly displayed in their annual report, just as they were defrauding investors and employees.

Once I joined Amazon I realized the company truly embraced its LPs. They weren’t a feel-good marketing gimmick. Jeff (Bezos) believed in them and he made sure others around him did too. They were ubiquitously used in every aspect of daily life.

LPs are used in recruiting. Easiest way to make sure your employees embrace your culture is to use the interview process to probe for situations where they exhibited those behaviors in their past. Then, they join the company with these traits already a proven part of their personality! Every interviewer was responsible for asking behavioral questions to probe 2 or 3 LPs (plus some coding & design, for software engineers), so with 5 interviewers we generally got data points on 10 LPs. I conducted 813 interviews while at Amazon. During debrief, we made a matrix with all the LPs and a score for each LP, which gave us a multi-dimensional view of the candidate and how “amazonian” they were, and a framework for discussing the case during debrief.

LPs were imprinted on your first day. Today, Amazon’s New Employee Orientation (“NEO”) is a polished multi-week affair to ramp you up into the company. But when I started in 2009, NEO was a 2-hr meeting where we listened to a Jeff Bezos video talking about LPs and then handed a laminated wallet-size copy of the LPs. I carried that laminated copy along my work badge in the lanyard I hung around my neck for over a decade and often referred back to it during perilous times in my career.

LPs are used in performance reviews and to promote and fire people. When I was asked if I endorsed a candidate for promotion, I first looked at technical contributions and impact. If those were good, I then made a matrix with all the LPs to get a sense of which were strengths and which were gaps. My endorsement writeup was often framed in terms of LPs. On the other side of the spectrum, the vast majority of times I saw individuals getting performance improvement plans, then subsequently fired, it came down to a career-limiting gap in multiple LPs.

LPs are used in everyday meeting lingo. LPs were casually dropped in hallway conversations. It is a common shared vocabulary that all amazonians use to understand each other — almost an abstraction layer. They’re a powerful framework for framing problems and solutions. One of the interesting things about LPs is that they’re in tension — and this is intentional. For example, Deliver Results and Bias for Action are in tension with Dive Deep and Insist on the Highest Standards. You can spend too much time diving deep and end up with analysis paralysis and not actually deliver anything. Or you can insist on the highest standards by requiring every piece of code to be beautiful, elegant and have 100% test coverage, but by the time you get to market you’re too late. On the other hand, you can be in such a hurry to deliver anything that you cut corners and deliver a low quality thing that is a nightmare to maintain, or you fail to dive sufficiently deep then deliver the wrong thing (which incidentally gets into Is Right a Lot territory).

LPs are consistently used by leaders. Leaders are role models. They’re highly visible so whatever they say and do gets emulated and amplified by thousands of people. Jeff Bezos, Jeff Wilke, Andy Jassy, Dave Limp, and armies of VPs and Directors under them would unwaveringly formulate their opinions using LPs, reinforcing the message: these things are important. You too should care and use them.

What makes Amazon’s LPs so much stronger than Enron’s LPs is the total buyin from the entire culture. You understood, on day one, that these things were critical. You had been hired based on them, your next promotion was going to be determined by how strongly you exemplified them, and you heard them mentioned in every meeting, both from executives and from peers. You made business decisions after applying LPs as a thought framework.

In 2020, after 11+ years at Amazon, I was ready for a change, so I joined Google, where I’ve been since. One of the things that immediately jumped out at me was that, unlike Amazon, Google does not have a strongly codified culture. I packed my first month at Google with 1:1s with peers and leaders to get to know people, and I consistently asked them the same question: What does it mean to be ‘googley’? When I was at Amazon, if somebody had asked what What does it mean to be ‘amazonian’? I would have simply recited the 14 LPs from memory and advised: Do Those Things! But, at Google, the answers I got varied significantly. Everybody had a slightly different take on googleyness. I even googled how to be googley (pun intended). Found some good articles like this one. Or this other one, which gives the closest thing to an official definition (“Thrives in ambiguity, Values feedback, Effectively challenges the status quo, Puts the user first, Does the right thing, Cares about the team”).

It has taken me almost 2 years at Google to understand why googleyness is loosely defined. I don’t think it’s an oversight. I think it’s By Design. One of Google’s values, deeply embedded in the culture, is inclusiveness, and a commitment to removing bias and welcoming diversity. Google does this to an extent I never saw done in my two decades at Amazon and Microsoft, and it’s commendable. Diversity in many dimensions: race, gender, sexual identity, country of origin, of course, but also, more subtle aspects of diversity such as diversity of personalities. I finally understand one dark aspect of Amazon’s crystal clear crisp definition of culture. The more narrow that you define your values, the more people you exclude from your company. You end up missing out on perspectives that would have made your culture richer.

In 2015, the New York Times published a scathing article called Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace. I found the article infuriating. I LOVED working at Amazon. It was sloppy journalism going for a sensational headline. In a company that employs 100k people, they found a few disgruntled individuals and over-indexed on what they said without bothering to provide a balanced, objective view. The article’s interpretation of Amazon’s 14 LPs was misleading and had severe logic flaws, most of which, in my opinion, were simple laziness on the part of the authors, to not dive deeper. Regardless, there was some truth to the article. Amazon is not for everyone. Given how precise and specific the LPs were defined, there is a particular personality that thrives in the environment and other personalities that do not. I just happened to have the type of personality that thrives, so for 11 years I benefited from this, oblivious to the personalities that struggled (mostly because they didn’t last in the company, so all the long-lasting bonds I created were with individuals of my same personality type). Working at Google has opened my eyes to this, and here I’ve gotten to work with more diverse personality types and realized how enriching this is to a culture.

So, is Amazon wrong and Google right?

I don’t know. At the end of the day, what Amazon does works extremely well for Amazon, and what Google does works extremely well for Google. I am happy that I joined Google, because it has forced me to challenge a lot of assumptions that had been deeply baked into my amazon reptilian brain.

One very unique aspect of Amazon’s culture that has been deeply imprinted into my amazon reptilian brain is the expectation of high quality writing.

Amazon writing culture is legendary in the industry and second to none. In 2004, Jeff Bezos wrote a (now famous) memo banning powerpoint-style presentations among his executive team. Instead of flashy slides, he decreed, you will write proper sentences and focus on the substance, not the style, to convey your ideas. His executives promptly pushed the mandate down to their teams, and it eventually became a part of the culture. To this date, the sight of somebody presenting slides to a Director or VP is shocking to my amazon reptilian brain.

There’s many other quirky aspects to Amazon’s writing culture. I wrote about this in a lot more detail in this article, so if this is intriguing to you, you can learn more there!

Another way Amazon would imprint its culture and values onto employees was via jeffisms (“lessons, concepts and phrases repeatedly said by Jeff Bezos to his employees, partners, investors and the media”).

In public interviews, and in Q&A during internal company meetings, Jeff was extremely consistent in his responses. His message was unwavering. Things like

  • “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is Always Day 1.” I was there! At the 2017 Company Meeting, and I still remember how the crowd went wild and we gave him a standing ovation.
  • “Work Hard, Have Fun, Make History”
  • “We start with the Customer and then Work Backwards.”
  • “We are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”
  • “If you want to be inventive, you have to be willing to fail.”
  • “We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details….”
  • “I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not trying.”
  • “We are working to build something important, something that matters to our customers, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about. Such things aren’t meant to be easy. We are incredibly fortunate to have this group of dedicated employees whose sacrifices and passion built Amazon”

Jeff made damn sure that people around him bought into his views. Amazon is Jeff, and Jeff is Amazon. He offered a highly coveted position of Technical Advisor to CEO, or more informally “Jeff’s shadow” (good article, good video). As a consequence, he carbon-copied an army of Mini Jeffs reinforcing his message and beliefs. Andy Jassy, Amazon’s CEO now, was Jeff’s shadow for many years. It is a lesson in scaling a company culture.

I’m fascinated by the way company cultures evolve. Having spent over a decade at Microsoft and over a decade at Amazon has given me a deep insight into the DNA of these companies. I didn’t write about Microsoft today, but I have written extensively about Microsoft in past articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and there were most definitely three distinct Microsofts… Bill Gates’, Steve Ballmer’s, and Satya Nadella’s. They were as different from each other as day and night. And being at Google for the last 2 years has given me a taste of yet another culture (I still have so much to learn about Google, and I’m looking forward to many more years here!). The DNA of these companies is so radically different.

I leave you with a jeffism today.

“Cultures aren’t so much planned as they evolve from that early set of people.”

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Carlos Arguelles

Carlos Arguelles

Hi! I'm a Senior Staff Engineer at Google. Prior to Google, I spent 11+ years at Amazon. And prior to Amazon, I spent 11+ years at Microsoft.