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Amazon: Dystopian nightmare, or just another successful tech company?

August 17, 2015, 6:13 PM UTC

If you’ve been following the technology press over the past few days, you will have seen some of the fallout from a New York Times piece on the workplace culture at Amazon (AMZN), which portrayed the company as an inhuman meritocracy, where people are thrown under the wheels of commerce if they show even the slightest weakness. In an internal memo he sent out on the weekend, Jeff Bezos said that he didn’t recognize the “soulless, dystopian workplace” described in the newspaper’s story.

Some Amazon employees have also written about their experiences at the company, and many have taken issue with the description of its culture. Head of infrastructure Nick Ciubotariu wrote a piece at Medium in which he said the NYT story was “blatantly incorrect,” and veteran software engineer Tim Bray also wrote a blog post saying his experience at Amazon was nothing like what the paper described.

At the same time, however, a number of former Amazon staffers have said certain parts of the New York Times story rang true, including the pressure to work long hours, the focus on performance above all else, and in some cases a culture of back-stabbing fueled by the company’s anonymous Anytime Feedback Tool.

So which is the real Amazon? The one that is cruel and inhuman, or the one that Jeff Bezos says involves “having fun with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future?”

I’ve never worked at Amazon, but I know a number of people who have—both at lower levels and in more senior positions—and I would be willing to bet that the company fits both of these profiles at the same time. For some, it is probably a cruel place where they feel unwelcome, and their performance is judged more harshly than they would like, but for others I expect it is a challenging environment that makes them do things they might not have even thought they were capable of.

That may not make for a great story, but I think it’s probably a lot closer to reality. I have no doubt that there are people at Amazon who mis-use the internal feedback tool, or drive their employees too hard, or are unsympathetic when it comes to personal issues and needs. Every company has those people. But is this hard-wired into Amazon culture? I doubt it.

What I think is hard-wired into the company’s culture, based on conversations with former Amazon employees, is a desire to do great work—even if that requires some level of personal sacrifice — and a feeling that the company is doing something worthwhile, perhaps even revolutionary. You can dismiss this idea if you want, but it seems to be true.

This is the same general principle that applies to many people who work for other technology companies you’ve probably heard of, including Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB) and (in its day) Microsoft (MSFT). It’s why these companies are often described as being cult-like: Because many who work there believe that they aren’t just doing a job, they are working on something that is larger than themselves, something worthwhile, something that requires an extra level of commitment.

To take just one example, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ treatment of his staff makes anything that Amazon has done (or likely ever will do) seem like a day at the beach. He routinely told employees that they “should hate each other” for doing poor work, and when fellow executives like Jony Ive questioned his harshness he said sugar-coating it wouldn’t help anyone—including the employees who were under-performing.

Former Apple employee Ben Thompson, who now runs a subscription-based technology analysis service called Stratechery, recalls in his most recent update how he was criticized harshly by a superior and wound up crying at his desk. But after he stopped feeling sorry for himself, he turned the project he was criticized for into something much better that is still in use today: “I hunkered down, started from the beginning, and at some point over the next few days or weeks had a real conceptual breakthrough,” he says. “And I knew it was some of my best work ever.”

I think part of the reason that Amazon gets singled out is that it is seen as just a retailer, not a company like Apple that is making magical products to improve people’s lives or fill them with joy. This tone runs throughout the New York Times piece, which talks about how employees are subjected to inhuman treatment “with words like ‘mission’ used to describe lightning-quick delivery of Cocoa Krispies or selfie sticks.” The implication is that selling things somehow isn’t a worthwhile goal.

I don’t personally think that shipping Frozen dolls to customers a few seconds faster is something I want to devote my life to, but I believe that Jeff Bezos and his senior staff see what they are doing as revolutionary to some extent. I think they see Amazon as being a completely different type of retailer—a much more efficient, and data-driven, and customer-focused one—and they are as fanatical about that as Steve Jobs was about iPhone icons and color schemes.

Whenever you have a company that is trying to not only grow rapidly and disrupt existing industries, but to reinvent how something works on such a fundamental level, you are going to have fanatical behavior. The kind of thing that the New York Times describes would not surprise anyone who has worked on Wall Street, or in any large company involved in a hyper-competitive industry.

That’s not meant to justify any of the behavior that is detailed in the NYT story, whether it’s poor treatment of pregnant or cancer-stricken employees, or any of the other criticisms of Amazon’s practices involving warehouse workers and so on. I just think the story of Amazon’s culture is a lot more complex than the “Amazon is an evil empire” narrative that the Times chose to give us.