By Leena Rao
August 17, 2015

One of the most interesting parts of my reporting a recent profile of Andy Jassy, a longtime Amazon executive who now leads its massive cloud computing business, was learning about the company’s unique and often criticized corporate culture.

In light of a The New York Times’ exposé about Amazon’s sweatshop-like workplace culture this weekend, I thought it would make sense to share some of the details about how employees are treated that I learned during my research.

“Amazon will work you to death, either you are gone after two years, or you stay forever because you love working that hard,” one former employee of Amazon’s (AMZN) cloud business, AWS, told me.

AWS is, by many accounts, a very tough place to work. Employees work long hours, on weekends, and are expected to be on email 24-7. Although the company is no longer a startup, many employees are still compensated in mostly stock rather than large salaries. “Amazon is not a place of whimsy or fun,” said Lydia Leong, an analyst who covers the company from the research firm Gartner in an interview in April.

Interestingly, however, in nearly a dozen interviews with current and past employees, most didn’t have a negative view of the hard work they did. They admitted that there was a lot of pressure, and that work was a grind, but there was a fondness in the way many characterized their time at Amazon.

I spoke with Leong today about the Times piece, and her feelings remain the same.

“Amazon is a culture of self-driven workaholics,” she said. “There is a culture of frugality, and unlike many recent companies in Silicon Valley, you are not compensated for it with an array of free services.”

Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB) have long been known to offer employee benefits that go above and beyond the standard at other companies. For example, Google offers three months of paternity leave for new fathers, and Facebook will subsidize some of the costs for women to freeze their eggs or undergo other fertility treatments.

Leong compares the ideal Amazon employee to a soldier, someone who thrives on the adrenaline rush of high stress and demanding work.

Multiple current and former employers shared examples with me. In 2011, just prior to Easter weekend in April, Amazon suffered a massive outage at one of its U.S. data centers. Netflix, one of AWS’ most visible customers, crashed. It happened around 4 am, and within a half hour, AWS’ leader Andy Jassy was in a war room figuring out how to get the infrastructure back up.

For much of its history, AWS required all general managers, operational leaders, and engineers on call to wear pagers so they could be reached if there was a critical outage or problem. Cell phones were not as ubiquitous, and pagers guaranteed 24-7 reliability, similar to the way some doctors still carry pagers in case of emergencies.

As Charlie Bell, an early Amazon engineer who leads infrastructure technology for all of AWS, recalled in an interview, “we lived in a conference room for a week and drained all of the vending machines.”

But Leong says that she’s observed a slight change in the past few years in how Amazon’s workplace culture has shifted. She says that Amazon realized it can’t burn out senior engineering talent and is forced to be more tolerant of them not being available 24-7 (and being able to do things like leaving work to pick up their children from school).

Perhaps the irony of the Times account, is that when I talked to Amazon employees, most of them spoke with pride about the company’s culture — dictated by 14 leadership principles that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos outlined when he created the company, including that every employee should be relentlessly focused on customers.

Of course, this isn’t a defense of any of the awful behavior towards employees outlined in the Times piece. But as my colleague Mathew Ingram wrote earlier today, there is another angle to this story besides the Amazon is Evil narrative. And it’s worth noting, my reporting applied to employees at AWS, not Amazon as a whole.

 

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