The New York Times published a damning exposé on terrible working conditions at Amazon this weekend, one that described the company’s employees being driven to near-madness by draconian, Dickensian management and expectations. The white-collar workers there, the Times reported, are subject to grueling schedules and work conditions, with employees breaking down in tears, being berated for life crises out of their control, and generally working amid a climate of fear. The story was so scary that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos sent out a memo demanding that any abuse or callous practices be reported to him directly.
Here’s what a friend of mine who works at Amazon wrote to me Sunday: “I was hiking this weekend, but was called in to do an emergency response on social media to counter the absurd nonsense of the Times article. I pulled an all-nighter and my boss screamed at me.” Then he added, “Just kidding, I’m still hiking.”
I can’t speak firsthand about life inside Amazon, but I spent 10 years working as a software engineer for Microsoft and then Google, both known as fairly demanding, high-intensity workplaces. And at least as far as it relates to the experiences of engineers, the Times article gave me little reason to think that Amazon is much worse than the tech companies where I’ve been employed.
The Times interviewed 100 current and former employees, but we are left to assume that the horror stories of those it quotes are representative. It bemoans harsh “data-driven management” without acknowledging that such approaches have a hugemargin of error, and that most companies know this because they compare their results with reality and find large discrepancies. Grueling job interviews, for example, have only a loose relation to future performance, and due to the sheer variance in assessment criteria between and even within groups, internal metrics aren’t much better. (And quantitative metrics like lines of code are utterly worthless.) To cite these practices as indications of a harsh work culture is as much a mistake as trusting those practices to begin with. Nor are they unique to Amazon. The performance assessment the Times describes, in which Amazon employees are ranked against one another, seems closer to Microsoft’s cruel stack ranking than Google’s somewhat more benevolent system, but it’s hardly out of the ordinary. (This is borne out by the comments on this Facebook post about Amazon’s working conditions, which suggest the assessment is more similar to Microsoft than Google, but hardly a horror show.) None of this to say that the Times’ anecdotes aren’t true—just that I suspect the piece plays them up to a disproportionate extent.
Consider AOL’s blaming of its 401(k) rollback on having to provide for “distressed babies.” Outrages happen at every company, but they aren’t necessarily reflective of larger cultures there. You need statistics to show that. And the one statistic in the Times article, about the high attrition rate at Amazon, is misleading, because Amazon has far more blue-collar workers than most tech companies, and they, not the white-collar workers the Times focuses on, are likely responsible for much of the attrition. And the recruiting video the Times piece quotes at the end—“You either fit here or you don’t. You love it or you don’t. There is no middle ground”—is typical HR hyperbole that would elicit eye-rolls from most programmers.
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