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Data Sheet—Monday, August 17, 2015

Hello, Data Sheet readers. Amazon has a remarkably grueling workplace. E-commerce competition threatens Alibaba. And AT&T has had extremely close ties to another (more secretive) three-letter organization.

Your regular host Heather Clancy is away on vacation, BASE jumping in the Azores. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here, subbing in. You can reach me on Twitter (@rhhackett) or email robert.hackett@fortune.com.

Here, in the meanwhile, are some thoughts from Adam Lashinsky, Fortune’s assistant managing editor for technology coverage, who will be writing a daily introductory essay for Data Sheet this week. He welcomes your feedback.

 

TOP OF MIND

Surviving Amazonia. 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 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, 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 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. 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.

Adam Lashinsky

@adamlashinsky

adam_lashinsky@fortune.com

TRENDING

GE is expected to win approval from the European Union for its takeover of French peer Alstom’s power business. If the deal closes, it will be GE’s largest ever at $14 billion. (Reuters)

AT&T has had an extremely cozy relationship with the National Security Agency. The latest salvo from Edward Snowden’s cache of leaked NSA documents singles out the telecom provider as a very close partner to the spy agency. (New York Times, Fortune)

Apple is scoping out testing sites for its self-driving car project. Here’s a peek at the 5,000-acre decommissioned naval base an Apple engineer visited. (Fortune)

Alibaba must watch its back. Rivals such as JD.com could unseat China’s e-commerce giant. (Wall Street Journal)

Norway’s $870 billion sovereign wealth fund cites environmental reasons for passing over four of Asia’s biggest companies. The divestment involves Indonesian palm oil plantations. (Financial Times)

Comcast takes aim at YouTube. After losing its bid to take over Time Warner Cable earlier this year, the U.S.’s largest pay-TV company is reportedly building a video channel. (Fortune)

IBM is building mainframes that run Linux. There will be two varieties of computer, each named after species of penguin.  (Tech Crunch)

Is SolarCity’s new manufacturing plant based in Buffalo, N.Y., sustainable? Solar power is still far too expensive without tax breaks. (MIT Technology Review)

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THE DOWNLOAD

Fortune contributor Clay Dillow explains why the F-35 fighter jet, America’s new trillion-dollar aerial weapon, has come under fire again.

It’s tough being the world’s most expensive weapon system. Years behind schedule and billions over-budget, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has had to absorb its fair share of critiques. Over the past several years, it’s been described as too complex, too reliant on high-tech sensors and software, and—at $400 billion for development and procurement—far too costly.

A spate of recent program milestones—including being declared operational by the U.S. Marine Corps last month—seemed to suggest the program might be turning a corner this summer. But a scathing report published Monday by a D.C.-based think tank indicates otherwise. To paraphrase analysts at the progressive National Security Network (NSN): The F-35 Lightning II fighter jet will perform horrendously against “near-peer” enemies, and the Department of Defense should rethink its proposed buy of nearly 2,500 F-35s.

“The F-35 will find itself outmaneuvered, outgunned, out of range, and visible to enemy sensors,” the NSN report reads. “Going forward, full investment in the F-35 would be to place a bad trillion-dollar bet on the future of airpower based on flawed assumptions and an underperforming aircraft. To avoid such a catastrophic outcome, Congress and DOD should begin the process of considering alternatives to a large-scale commitment to the F-35.”

Read more on Fortune.com.

ALSO WORTH SHARING

‘Straight Outta Compton’ has whopping $56 million box office debut. Fresh off selling music venture Beats to Apple, hip-hop artist Dr. Dre continues to outperform. (Entertainment Weekly)

Whatever happened to ‘Bring your own device’—and do we need to worry? It may be time to reevaluate these programs’ successes. (ZDNet)

Star Wars theme parks are coming to Disney World and Disneyland. May the amusement be with you. (Fortune)

This is what the world looks like if you scale countries by population. Canada and Australia evaporate. (Vox)

The network is hostile. A cryptographer recaps and reflects on the past couple of years of NSA revelations. (A Few Thoughts on Cryptographic Engineering)

We’re fighting killer robots the wrong way. Once the technology becomes cheap enough, bad actors will surely abuse it. (Wall Street Journal)

 

MY FORTUNE BOOKMARKS

Michelle Phan explains how she went from YouTube star to beauty mogul by Kristen Bellstrom

This video app personalizes sales messages, tracks who watches by Heather Clancy

How do hackers actually get paid for their services? by Peter Suciu

ONE MORE THING

When did leisure time die? Jeff Bezos isn’t the only one waging war on work-life balance. (Brain Pickings)

FINAL THOUGHT…

“I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

Jeff Bezos, writing a letter to Amazon staffers that refutes the New York Times‘ damning account of life at the company. Other employees have jumped to the company’s defense as well. (Recode, Fortune)