Monday, August 17, 2015

Amazon and the Borg vs. Shabbos and the People

Over the weekend I read two articles in the NYTimes that struck up a peculiar resonance in my mind. One of them, Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace, is a long article about life inside the retailing behemoth. You may recall that a year or two ago there were articles about the punishing work life of the gofers who cruise through Amazon warehouses fulfilling orders. This article is about white collar workers, mostly tech people and managers at various levels. It describes a highly competitive environment that pretty much asks employees to give their soul to the company and is merciless in its intrusion into their private lives.

The other is a somewhat different article by Oliver Sacks, Sabbath, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew in London. He described Shabbos as it was for him back then, how it was differentiated from every other day of the week in many different ways, and then notes that he became an adult as he was growing up. Then, late in his life, after he’d been diagnosed with cancer, he travels to Israel to visit a cousin and describes once again experiencing Shabbos.

I juxtapose these two articles because they exemplify two very different ways of being in the world, the way of humans, Shabbos, and the way of the Borg, Amazon. In the rest of this post I present, first, a bunch of passages from the Amazon piece, with a bit of commentary here and there, and then two passages from Sacks’ meditation on the Sabbath. I conclude with some observations.
Added Note: Bezos has replied to the NYTimes article, saying, "The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR." 
8.18.15: A piece in Slate by a programmer who's worked at Microsoft and Google suggesting that Amazon is no worse (for software people) than those two people. But it's really hard on the blue-collar people running around in the warehouses.
The Borg:

Here’s the opening of the Amazon piece (by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld):
On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an orientation intended to catapult them into Amazon’s singular way of working.

They are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)
In defense:
“This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” said Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter. “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”
A secret fortress:
Tens of millions of Americans know Amazon as customers, but life inside its corporate offices is largely a mystery. Secrecy is required; even low-level employees sign a lengthy confidentiality agreement. The company authorized only a handful of senior managers to talk to reporters for this article, declining requests for interviews with Mr. Bezos and his top leaders.

However, more than 100 current and former Amazonians — members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch — described how they tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with what many called its thrilling power to create.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this. For one thing, I have little sense of standard corporate practice. The confidentiality agreements for low level employees strike me as excessive. I assume we’re told about the strictly limited access because the reporters thought it unusual. Every company has business secrets, of course, but this seems to go beyond this. I couldn’t help but think of the Church of Scientology. Are we dealing with a company as a quasi-religious cult?

This is the sort of thing that invites comparison with the nefarious Borg collective of Star Trek: The Next Generation:
Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives them to drive themselves. “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.

In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour. (Amazon came under fire in 2011 when workers in an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside, taking away laborers as they fell. After an investigation by the local newspaper, the company installed air-conditioning.)

But in its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. “The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff,” said Amy Michaels, a former Kindle marketer.
Here an employee uses her own money to pay for company business:
“One time I didn’t sleep for four days straight,” said Dina Vaccari, who joined in 2008 to sell Amazon gift cards to other companies and once used her own money, without asking for approval, to pay a freelancer in India to enter data so she could get more done. “These businesses were my babies, and I did whatever I could to make them successful.”

She and other workers had no shortage of career options but said they had internalized Amazon’s priorities. One ex-employee’s fiancé became so concerned about her nonstop working night after night that he would drive to the Amazon campus at 10 p.m. and dial her cellphone until she agreed to come home. When they took a vacation to Florida, she spent every day at Starbucks using the wireless connection to get work done.

“That’s when the ulcer started,” she said. (Like several other former workers, the woman requested that her name not be used because her current company does business with Amazon. Some current employees were reluctant to be identified because they were barred from speaking with reporters.)
Here we see the company intruding on private life as though it simply doesn’t exist.
Molly Jay, an early member of the Kindle team, said she received high ratings for years. But when she began traveling to care for her father, who was suffering from cancer, and cut back working on nights and weekends, her status changed. She was blocked from transferring to a less pressure-filled job, she said, and her boss told her she was “a problem.” As her father was dying, she took unpaid leave to care for him and never returned to Amazon.

“When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” she said.

A woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. She says her manager explained that while she was out, her peers were accomplishing a great deal. Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery.
Such devotion is not, however, company policy:
Mr. Berman, the spokesman, said such responses to employees’ crises were “not
our policy or practice.” He added, “If we were to become aware of anything like that, we would take swift action to correct it.” Amazon also made Ms. Harker, the top recruiter, available to describe the leadership team’s strong support over the last two years as her husband battled a rare cancer. “It took my breath away,” she said.
There’s no reason to think that Berman is being disingenuous here, but official written policy is one thing, informal (and all but obligatory) company culture is another. And why shouldn’t the company be supportive of the personal crisis of a high-level employee? They company has a lot invested in her and such people are rare. It makes sense for the company to support her in a way that it wouldn’t support lower-level employees.
Amazon retains new workers in part by requiring them to repay a part of their signing bonus if they leave within a year, and a portion of their hefty relocation fees if they leave within two years. Several fathers said they left or were considering quitting because of pressure from bosses or peers to spend less time with their families. (Many tech companies are racing to top one another’s family leave policies — Netflix just began offering up to a year of paid parental leave. Amazon, though, offers no paid paternity leave.)
Hire them, work them, lose them:
Amazon insists its reputation for high attrition is misleading. A 2013 survey by PayScale, a salary analysis firm, put the median employee tenure at one year, among the briefest in the Fortune 500. Amazon officials insisted tenure was low because hiring was so robust, adding that only 15 percent of employees had been at the company more than five years. Turnover is consistent with others in the technology industry, they said, but declined to disclose any data.

Employees, human resources executives and recruiters describe a steady exodus. “The pattern of burn and churn at Amazon, resulting in a disproportionate number of candidates from Amazon showing at our doorstep, is clear and consistent,” Nimrod Hoofien, a director of engineering at Facebook and an Amazon veteran, said in a recent Facebook post.

Those departures are not a failure of the system, many current and former employees say, but rather the logical conclusion: mass intake of new workers, who help the Amazon machine spin and then wear out, leaving the most committed Amazonians to survive.

“Purposeful Darwinism,” Robin Andrulevich, a former top Amazon human resources executive who helped draft the Leadership Principles, posted in reply to Mr. Hoofien’s comment. “They never could have done what they’ve accomplished without that,” she said in an interview, referring to Amazon’s cycle of constantly hiring employees, driving them and cutting them.

“Amazon is O.K. with moving through a lot of people to identify and retain superstars,” said Vijay Ravindran, who worked at the retailer for seven years, the last two as the manager overseeing the checkout technology. “They keep the stars by offering a combination of incredible opportunities and incredible compensation. It’s like panning for gold.”
How long can the company keep this up? How large is the pool of people willing and perhaps eager to go through this? Does everyone who signs on think they’ll be one of those who survive to become an Amazon star?

In an odd way this strikes me as very “supportive”, though that’s not quite the word I want, hence the scare quotes. Imagine a person who’s having trouble ‘keeping it together’ – think a wet paper bag, full of stuff bursting through here and there, tied with string and tape. This kind of company is going to exert considerable pressure on the outside to keep the contraption together. This sounds like a place for people without a strong sense of inner direction. The company offers itself as a source of direction.

The People: Shabbos

Here’s how Sacks opens his piece:
Both my parents were very conscious of the Fourth Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”), and the Sabbath (Shabbos, as we called it in our Litvak way) was entirely different from the rest of the week. No work was allowed, no driving, no use of the telephone; it was forbidden to switch on a light or a stove. Being physicians, my parents made exceptions. They could not take the phone off the hook or completely avoid driving; they had to be available, if necessary, to see patients, or operate, or deliver babies.

We lived in a fairly Orthodox Jewish community in Cricklewood, in Northwest London — the butcher, the baker, the grocer, the greengrocer, the fishmonger, all closed their shops in good time for the Shabbos, and did not open their shutters till Sunday morning. All of them, and all our neighbors, we imagined, were celebrating Shabbos in much the same fashion as we did.

Around midday on Friday, my mother doffed her surgical identity and attire and devoted herself to making gefilte fish and other delicacies for Shabbos. Just before evening fell, she would light the ritual candles, cupping their flames with her hands, and murmuring a prayer. We would all put on clean, fresh Shabbos clothes, and gather for the first meal of the Sabbath, the evening meal. My father would lift his silver wine cup and chant the blessings and the Kiddush, and after the meal, he would lead us all in chanting the grace.
Notice in the first paragraph that Sacks’ parents would allow their working lives to occasionally intrude on the Sabbath. That’s because they are physicians and people’s well-being and lives depend upon them. Otherwise simply notice all the ways in which the Sabbath is kept different from the other days of the week. There’s no work, different food, different clothes; they spent time visiting with friends and relatives. The holiness of the day allowed them to devote time to one another, to their community.

Later in his life, on a trip to Israel:
I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy — my mother’s words still echoed in my mind — but Billy, too, was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.

The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?
Pay particular attention to the phrases, “a stopped world, a time outside time”. This is what I’ve called psychic home base in other contexts.

So What?

The logic of Amazon’s demanding and intrusive practices is to deny its employees a significant life outside the company. They are to be permitted no psychic home base other than the company. Home is a place to sleep and shower, services it provides to the company.

It’s one thing for Jeff Bezos to think this way. He started the company, it’s his baby. But to demand that his employees have the same loyalty and devolution to the company as he does […] well, it’s a free country, as they say. He’s welcome to do it. But it’s a rather frightening vision of the world.

Is that not the point of the Sabbath, to give people an anchor in the universe other than their work life, whatever that may be?


  1. Hi Bill:

    I just commented on this piece of yours and it's similarity to my own piece on Sacks (with Google rather than Amazon as my comparison) here:

  2. Compare the Times' account of Amazon with what we know of Scientology. It is far easier to leave Amazon, of course, but there seem to me to be many disquieting parallels. And of course Scientology is only the first to come to mind...

  3. Frightening culture at Amazon. What does "escalate to HR" even mean?