The agony, ecstasy, and miserable efficiency of big data at Amazon

August 17, 2015, 8:04 PM UTC

The tech world will be buzzing this week about The New York Times’s Pulitzer entry article in the Sunday paper, denouncing Amazon as a place to work. Titled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” the article suggests that Amazon (AMZN) is an inhumane, ruthless work environment where some employees nevertheless do some of the best work of their careers. (The long piece is heavy on the inhumane part and light on the best work part.) Particularly germane to a business-technology audience will be the paper’s attack on Amazon’s use of so-called big data to make its employees miserable. Efficient analysis, suggests The Times, makes workers efficient—and profoundly unhappy.

What grates about the Times’s reporting is its stinginess in crediting the many journalists who have plowed this ground before, most importantly Brad Stone, a former Times reporter, whose 2013 book, The Everything Store, is the definitive account of the agony and the ecstasy that is Amazon. In my review of Stone’s book, I pointed out the many similarities between Amazon and Apple (AAPL), another notoriously brutal workplace. In my year-earlier book, Inside Apple—catchy title, eh?—I also described Apple as a place where employees put up with seemingly impossible expectations in exchange for being touched by the genius of Steve Jobs and making world-beating products. Amazon is a singular company, but it is not the only tech giant to achieve greatness while pursuing a complicated compact with its employees.

Where I think The Times most effectively strikes a chord is in its description of how data tools can be used to mercilessly manage workers. “Big data,” like the Internet of Things, is a faddish description of how analysis can answer seemingly endless questions. The Times nods, for example, at how human-resources software maker Workday (WDAY) provides a tool that allows for near-instantaneous employee evaluation. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is an investor in Workday, The Times notes, and Amazon uses a similar evaluation technique. At Brainstorm Tech, Fortune’s annual tech-industry conference this past July, Workday CEO Aneel Bhusri discussed a tool that alerts managers that their employees have recently become more active on LinkedIn (LNKD). The purpose, he said, is to identify high performers who require extra attention. It’s just as likely a pernicious employer could use the tool to weed out the disloyal.

Is it okay for a company that bests the competition in a ruthless effort to serve customers to treat its employees shabbily? If that’s indeed what Amazon does, perhaps the safest conclusion is that such behavior won’t be sustainable. It hasn’t seemed to slow down Amazon yet.

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