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Amazon’s Work Culture

Jeff Bezos and Amazon's Work CultureAmazon has been hit lately with some bad press surrounding its work culture. The spate of articles was kicked off by the New York Times article describing the “brutal” work culture in Amazon followed up by other publishers’ smaller articles commenting on an aspect of the main article. The NY Times article was pretty damning with its reportage of current and former employees describing the culture as brutal. The main points I came away with are:

– There is a ten commandments, which in itself doesn’t sound bad;

– They work about 80 hours a week;

– If you get a seriously ill or have some personal crisis, that’s too bad because you still have to be committed to those long hours, never mind if you have cancer or an ailing parent;

– If you get pregnant, maybe you should get a job elsewhere because Amazon wants fully committed people;

– There’s a concept of frugality which on the surface of it may not be bad but when combined with those insane hours…;

– There’s an inbox system that is perfect for “throwing under the bus” your boss or coworkers; and

– People apparently get in your face to harshly criticize your ideas or work.

All in all, Amazon sounds like a horrid place to work and its high turnover appears to validate the NY Times reporting. Another article came out with employees contradicting the main thesis of the NY Times articles, saying they don’t recognize its description. Jeff Bezos came out and said he didn’t recognize the place and if it was true, he wouldn’t stay around.

[divider] But here’s the thing: the whole entrepreneurial culture in technology is based on the concept of insanely hard work.[/divider]

The start-up culture consists of long hours for survival and success. Also, in order to get good at anything, you have to put in the long hours –  the 10,000 hours concept. So the long hours is typically not the problem, but combine the hours with the backbiting, the insensitivity to your needs or situation or the relative “frugality” compared to your competitors, the long hours start to become hard to stomach. In addition, in a start-up, you are striving toward the possibility for some form of payday for those long hours.  In a large public firm such as Amazon, your payday, if you are “chosen”, is a position as an executive reaping good pay. But very few get that payoff, if you think about it in terms of the odds. In the extreme view, the money accruing from the long hours flows only to the executives and shareholders, especially if the frugal atmosphere extends to salaries and wages. (There are some hints that the pay is not as good as the competitors’ but those hints are not very strong.)

But there is a drawback to working those kind of insane hours: your work deteriorates. You start to make a lot of mistakes and your judgment declines. You become unproductive. Your health could be in danger. In Japan, where the culture for insane work hours is most strong, some youngsters have died from heart attack due to the long hours.

Why am I on this topic of long hours? Because some folks in finance and accounting, especially in Wall Street, subscribe to the male swagger of long hours. They can lose sight of the concept of the “materiality factor”. They go down this perfectionist rabbit hole in search of the perfect spreadsheet. Or they are driven by the Tarzan concept of beating their chests and crowing how strong they are. Whatever their psychological needs are, they forget that the extra hours beyond 9 pm (just as an example, it could be 7 pm) do not really lead to productive work. Instead, there is likely to be some kind of error lurking in those spreadsheets. Whenever I find that I’m working beyond 9 pm and stuck on something, I usually stop and leave the work for the following morning. In the freshness of the morning, I usually solve the problem very quickly. There is something to be said for letting problems percolate overnight.

There will be times when you have to work long hours, say you have to close the books, but they should be rare occurrences and last only one night. Much beyond that and you are risking poor judgment and errors.

So to close this post, whether Amazon really has such an atrocious work environment remains to be seen, but the preponderance of articles suggest yes.

[divider]Jeff Bezos used to work for Wall Street. Ahhh, that explains everything.[/divider]


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