Disruption or human lives? Amazon story shows we'll soon have to pick a side
Once upon this weekend, the New York Times published a story about Amazon that was really, secretly a magic box containing several stories about Amazon.
One of the stories within the story decried the company as a “bruising” workplace where people sob openly and universally, sabotage each other in sanctioned anonymity, and, if they are prudent, pray they don't get cancer. Another painted an idyllic campus where people who love a challenge are intoxicated by “wrestling big ideas.” One where Amazon was a place where people couldn't wait to leave. One where people lined up like lottery holders outside a chocolate factory.
Once it hit the social networks, the Times story predictably splintered into a kaleidoscope of contradictory – yet weirdly dovetailed – stories about this vast and mythical corporate rainforest named Amazon. One story documented a white-collar sweatshop that sucked the days and works out of talented folk. One depicted a cult where brainwashed staff accepted abuse as career nirvana.
Some readers vowed to cancel their Prime memberships. Still others kicked a story that lacked sufficient balance or took things out of context. Several VCs and insiders clicked on a story link and found themselves appalled the Times would take down a company where human stress and fatigue were merely the exhaust fumes of a splendid machine. Amazon is a success, dammit! It's winning and innovating! You can almost hear the fingertips tapping each other, Burns-like, at the thought of Amazon guzzling pain to micturate disruption.
Then there were those of us who saw a mere depiction of a corporate culture inside tech that we always knew existed. Who read the story with more interest in the reported details than surprise at the overall message – we understood the more severe anecdotes had been highlighted for effect, to be sure, but amply balanced with the culture's positive aspects. Corporations are often, if not always, potentially brutal organizations where power struggles seethe in the quest of a goal – and where the path to that goal is almost never certain.
This same dynamic affects tech corporations too, but often to an exponential power and with a few unique twists. Companies like Amazon have always placed big ideas before big profits, generating top-line growth by connecting with customers. Profit-obsessed companies, conversely, will shrug off customer needs if they can somehow make shareholders happier with a big fat bottom line.
The end result for worker well-being and longevity may well be the same in both cases, despite the separate roads taken there. While employees at a profit-obsessed company know they may be laid off any day if it serves shareholder needs, workers at Amazon must know they can face equally uncertain tenures – depending on which big head can shepherd their Big Idea into Bezos' laughter that month. Savage cultures may honor different rituals, but the act of slitting a throat is always the same.
And this is where I think the Times story on Amazon's workplace culture gets fascinating. It's a Rorschach test not so much on how we feel about Amazon, but about the direction the tech world is hurtling us – we workers, consumers, investors, even us languid observers - into. Which Amazon do you see in that messy blot of a story, because there are at least two, and they are moving apart.
There has long been a disconnect between non-tech companies that hold shareholders over all, and their workers, or even the average consumer. The SEC's recent mandate to disclose the gap between CEO and worker pay is aimed at highlighting that disconnect. And there is now a different but similar disconnect in the tech world between the obsession with growth, disruption and innovation that insiders proclaim and the way the typical consumer outside of tech sees the costs of this obsession.
I'm not arguing right now that one side is right and the other wrong. Things would be simpler if that were the case. In fact both views are valid, as long as someone doesn't push them to extremes. I'm trying to point out the disconnect emerging between these two sides. And that, as I read the opposing reactions to the Times story this weekend, this gap is starting to grow wider. No matter how you read the Amazon story, this disconnect matters.
The Times seemed to acknowledge the blowback from tech insiders and backpedaled as imperceptibly as it could. By Sunday morning, the headline on the print version of the Sunday Times – still, in this digital age, the closest the newspaper has to a version for posterity – the editors had settled on the more balanced, if sadomasochistic “Amazon's Bruising, Thrilling Workplace.” Aw, it's just a rough-and-tumble playground up there on the South Lake Union campus – and what's a playground without the bullying?
My own take as I read the story was this wasn't a place I'd enjoy working, but that the stress and backbiting is part and parcel of many high-intensity workplaces. That doesn't mean I think it's okay for workers to be in tears at their desks. It means I've seen it more than I think is right, but enough that I am not surprised tales of tear-stained keypads aren't uncommon inside a driven culture like Amazon's. (I did find it unfair they truncated a heartless anecdote Jeff Bezos told about his grandmother, when the whole point of the anecdote was that he learned from this mistake.)
More disturbing were the anecdotes that workers battling cancer or needing family leave were sidelined. One self-described Amazonian said the company has taken steps to soften its practices in this area, and I hope so from a humane as well as an investment standpoint. Given the shift among tech companies to manage employee work-life balances, shareholders should regard as a red flag any company showing signs of being a holdout. Netflix is on the right side of this shift. Tim Armstrong is not.
Even as Amazon's stock enters unexplored altitude and finds new ways to delight its customers, there is a separate narrative emerging about the company. Amazon has inspired gripes and grumbles almost from the start, but they were usually drowned out by the collective sound of loyal customers clicking on the golden “buy now” button.
This narrative, starting around four years ago, is increasingly painting Amazon as a heartless company. One that skimped on local charity. One that opted to pay for ambulances over air conditioning during heat waves. One whose CEO casually (and banally) insulted employees in meetings. One that practiced dehumanizing labor conditions in warehouses that should make white-collar workers feel relieved (and also ashamed). One that drove old-school publishers to treat creative works as commodities. And then angered many of its self-published authors.
This narrative seems to have gained a lot of momentum this weekend. Amazon has used its commitment to the customer, its data-driven practices and its drive for innovation as so many insignias on a shield it uses to advance its way into the future. Sure, a lot of outrage the Times story inspired will fade in a day or two. But as with earlier outrages, a little bit will accrete onto the image of Amazon as a heartless company.
And then? Last month, Amazon supplanted Walmart as the highest-valued retailer in the world. Part of that had to do with Amazon's strong earnings and part with Walmart's enduring ineptitude. Another piece – the most overlooked, perhaps the most important – is that Amazon has been giving Walmart a run for its money as the ruthless retailer fixated on low, low costs. Walmart stumbled because its old-school endgame - profit growth - has played out. Amazon's growth game has a longer time frame, but that just means it's taking longer for its exploitation of suppliers and workers to be seen more clearly as abuse.
Today, when we talk about Amazon, we talk about two of them. Amazon is successful but bloodless like Walmart. Amazon is disruptive but it's also making things hard for a lot of people. Amazon is asking a lot from its employees, and its vendors, and its shareholders, and even in some ways its customers – but that it's all to be expected because disruption is messy, and innovation means creation, and creation is destructive, and so on.
For Amazon and tech in general, that is all fine for right now, but here's what's changing: As the disconnect widens, we'll have to choose a side. We may have started this decision this weekend. Are we all for disruption and innovation at any costs, or do we start pulling back because we are starting to see the costs in terms of human lives? This isn't just a question about Amazon. It's a question about where we want the tech industry to navigate in coming years.
Which side of the disconnect would I choose, if I had to? A day after I read the Times story, my wife – who does not work in tech and knows Amazon only as a longtime customer - came to me and asked if I read it. I said yes, explaining a lot of what I said above about my reaction. She listened carefully, and then shook her head. “This is a shitty company,” she said. “I was about to sign up for Amazon Prime, but there is no way now.” And I haven't found an argument against that yet.