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NYT Correspondent / Author of The Obamas
My NYT story “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” was released last Saturday. I'll be happy to answer your questions about it!
This Q&A took place between 8/15/15 and 8/20/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
9 questions
Thanks for the interesting read.

Do you believe Amazon's management strategies are responsible for the company's growth over the past decade?

Do you believe their strategies are sustainable over the next decade?

Lastly, would you buy Amazon stock?
NYT Correspondent / Author of The Obamas
Thanks, Naguib. On the first: they have absolutely played a role. Amazon has figured out how to get a great deal out of its employees, who as you saw from our story, are often dedicated beyond belief.

Your second question is excellent. I can't predict the future, but think about it this way: can Jeff Bezos form a 200k or 300k workforce of people willing to play by his stringent rules? Doesn't a company that large need to accommodate a wider range of work styles? And yet if Amazonians slowed down, if Bezos sanded the edges off the system, wouldn't it slow the company down-- the last thing he wants?

The third answer's the easiest. It would be odd, and possibly unethical, for me to buy a big pile of stock in a company I'm writing about. But the point is moot because my husband, NY Times "Your Money" columnist Ron Lieber, only allows us to invest in index funds-- picking individual stocks, he says, is basically just gambling.
Wharton professor, author of GIVE AND TAKE and ORIGINALS
We have decades of evidence that how companies treat their employees spills over to affect customers. As Ben Schneider first demonstrated, when employees are miserable, their attitudes leak to reduce customer satisfaction. So far, Amazon has avoided this trap-- but is it sustainable? Can the company continue to deliver superb customer experiences in the face of poor quality of work life?
NYT Correspondent / Author of The Obamas
Adam, it's lovely to hear from you. (Public service announcement for everyone else: here's a great profile of Adam by Susan Dominus, one of my closest partners in crime: nytimes.com/2013/03/31/ma...-ahead) OK, to your question. One of the many things that's fascinating about Amazon is that they seem to pit serving customers against serving employees. A not uncommon refrain around the Amazon campus is: if only we were treated as well as the customers are. When Amazon explains why it doesn't offer some of the perks and benefits that some companies do, and why even top execs fly coach, the answer is: we'd rather invest everything in the customer, not ourselves (and our real reward isn't free lunch: it's grants of a soaring stock.) I wonder if Schneider's rule was based on more traditional industries, like a restaurant, where an exhausted server can mean a topsy turvy meal. At Amazon, the contact between employees and customers is attenuated and digital in nature.

OK, given your work on social relationships, I have a question for you: what did you make of our description of Bezos' philosophy about social cohesion in the workplace? In other words, his idea that too much consensus can lead to bad results?
Wharton professor, author of GIVE AND TAKE and ORIGINALS
Jodi, you have a real gift for bringing organizational challenges to light, and maintaining a balanced perspective in doing so.

(On the profile: I continue to marvel at Susan’s thoughtfulness and quality standards. She invested more effort into reporting that piece than many authors do in writing entire books.)

I think you’re right that due to the limited contact between customers and employees, the standard spillover effect might not happen. Over time, it’s still hard to imagine that the difficulties attracting, motivating, and retaining a talented workforce won’t pose problems for the company. After all, we have plenty of data pointing to the long-term performance benefits of caring about employees. One of my favorites is by Kamal Birdi and colleagues, who studied [1] over 300 companies across 22 years, finding that empowerment and good training, coupled with teamwork, made a big difference for organizations—whereas a range of manufacturing and operations practices did not. Also, Alex Edmans demonstrated [2] that the Fortune 100 best places to work generated 2.3 to 3.8% higher annual stock returns than peer companies for more than a quarter century.

On your question, I wholeheartedly agree with Bezos that too much consensus is disastrous. There’s a wealth of research spearheaded by Charlan Nemeth showing [3] that dissenting opinions—even when wrong—improve decisions. I spent a chapter on this in my forthcoming book, looking at what causes groupthink and how we can prevent it, and I’d say Amazon is on the right track here. One caveat: if you’re not careful, what starts as a healthy disagreement can become personal and emotional, and spiral downward. One of the simplest and most powerful steps we can take, according to new data from Corinne Bendersky, is to frame differences of opinion in terms of debate.

[1] onlinelibrary.wiley.com/d...stract
[2] amp.aom.org/content/26/4/....short
[3] innovationresource.com/wp...re.pdf
Associate Dean, Columbia U- Graduate School of Journalism
Thank you for taking our questions. My first is to ask you how Amazon has reacted to the finished piece? Are they concerned that there could be negative consequences to being known as a punishing place to work? I also wonder how difficult a piece this was to report given how many people did not want to be identified and that the company cleared only a limited number of people to speak on the record.
NYT Correspondent / Author of The Obamas
Hi Melanie-- You saw the Bezos response, I'm sure, which has raised fascinating questions: as the architect of this system, he's saying that the troubling elements of our reporting are news to him? Or has the company really grown so large that he really does have little sense of what his ideas have wrought? (Even though Amazon's culture prizes directness, I'm not sure we should underestimate the extent to which those who report to Bezos show him what they want him to see.)

Given the heated competition for talent in tech, yes, it's likely that Amazon is concerned about recruitment, though of course I can't speak for them. But this is a company at which there are already "LinkedIn parties" at which employees are supposed to turn over all their contacts to recruiters.

Getting people to talk was really tough in one way, and easier than I'd thought in another. As we reported, everyone at Amazon signs a long NDA, and many ex-employees feel bound by them too. It's hard to quote a current employee by name (other than those authorized to speak), because s/he could be fired. We had to rely at least a little on anonymous reporting-- I realize that some people follow a "no anonymity ever" rule, but to me, that would mean never reporting on secretive organizations, which of course are often the most important ones to delve into.

But here's what helped: I came to find that Amazon employees, current and former, have spent a great deal of mental energy processing their time there, grappling with what can often be a punishing system, figuring out if the potential rewards are worth the costs. With some stories, you ask people a question, and they respond with some variation on "what do you mean by that?" or "I'm not even sure what you're talking about." That never happened with this story. Ask an Amazon veteran "what was your experience of the culture?" or "what was best/worst about the culture for you?" and they are likely to talk and talk and talk. Often I would just let them go on for long periods, trying not to interrupt too much-- they knew exactly what they wanted to say.
Jodi, thanks for shedding light on this topic and starting a conversation. I was wondering what you think about Nick's response to your piece: linkedin.com/pulse/amazon...otariu

I have worked at both Amazon and Google and there's clearly a huge difference in the corporate culture, which is why your piece struck a chord and I could relate to.

That being said, Amazon works with razor thin margins while Google enjoys nice 50%+ gross margins. It's easier to indulge the employees when you are as massively profitable as Google. But of course that's no excuse for some of the incidents you referred to around sickness and personal commitments.

Amazon is portraying the examples you found as "rare" and "isolated". In a workforce of 150,000+ you can pretty much find all kinds of "rare and isolated" incidents -- abuse, racism, discrimination, etc. if you look hard enough. And perhaps Amazon has more of that than it's peers. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the entire company is like that.

So the question for you is what was your threshold in terms of incidents you found to back your hypothesis (vs. counter examples) to write this piece? I.e. in a workforce of 150K+ what's a statistically significant number for you to write a broad strokes article about the entire company?

I very much respect NYT's reporting so I am curious to understand how you guys make editorial decisions. Just because something is sensational doesn't mean it should be reported if it's not accurate. I am sure you guys struggle with this regularly so I'd love to get your thoughts.

Thanks!
NYT Correspondent / Author of The Obamas
Gaurav, thanks for your great questions. In order:

I was not surprised to read that Nick Ciubotariu praised his experience at Amazon; as we stipulated in the story, there is a great deal that people love about working there, from the customer focus to the ability to launch projects quickly and at scale, and plenty of employees don't experience Amazon's pressures in an extreme way. Some engineers there-- not all-- say that they have it easier than folks in other divisions. However, I was very surprised that Amazon public relations-- and Bezos personally-- circulated a response that was so full of errors. The post says there are no annual cullings at Amazon (wrong; the company confirmed for us that every year they target a different percentage of people to be managed out.) Mr. Ciubotariu says we made up the term "Amholes," even though it's common Seattle slang. (Google it.) He also says, laughably, that no one has to work late and long, even though a heavy workload is a signature Amazon experience. Also, a lot of the women at the company were upset that he was so dismissive about gender concerns. I can understand why an employee might whip off an un-fact-checked, heated response, but what does it tell us that Amazon circulated something they knew was wrong?

To your question about the employees who were managed out during periods of health or family crisis: to me, this story is about limits. We all understand that building a great business requires huge, sustained effort. We all know that we're living through an era when it's harder to detach from work than ever. But is there any boundary beyond which you cannot push people? Where do, where should, the new lines of fair/not fair lie in the workplace? We didn't include these people in the story because we believe that Amazon is on a diabolical mission to root out the ill. We included them because they pose the question: what are the consequences of working this way? Are there any backstops? How much pressure are managers under than they feel they have to shed people who can't deliver? In an era when employees come and go quickly, where the data on your performance is instantly available, what happens to those who can't deliver, and how deep are Amazon's relationships with its employees?
Thanks for this fascinating piece. My question: Why do most of these employees stay? We had a long debate on Twitter about this. The vesting schedule, signing bonuses, not having good choices and getting wrapped up in the culture all came up. It doesn't sound like most people are very highly paid either. What makes people stay in a 85-hour a week, no vacation job where they cry at their desks and cannot take time to grieve stillborn children? twitter.com/zeynep/status...759360
NYT Correspondent / Author of The Obamas
Lots of people don't. (The real numbers, as you can read in the story, are secret-- Amazon won't disclose them.) But our sources named lots of reasons to stay. The stock grants, which can add up to an extra salary. The ability to launch new products at scale. The customer focus and high caliber of colleagues. The fast pace and high expectations, which some people thrive on. And as I stipulated above, not everyone experiences the most severe of Amazon's pressures. Finally, and most interestingly, many Amazonians say they become almost addicted to working there, that they feel an enormous desire to please a company that can feel like an insatiable taskmaster.
Your excellent article outlines what many of us who live in or near Amazonia have noted: huge numbers of employees (mostly young or youngish) with badges going into and out of locked buildings, living in small and expensive apartments nearby (that are also mushrooming), and drinking hard in large groups at the end of the day. What we cannot see is what their working conditions are inside those locked office buildings. Thanks for opening the doors and our eyes.

My question: How do Amazon's working conditions and leadership demands compare with other companies of the new economy? Is Amazon so distinctive? I suspect it is in some ways but not in others. What can you tell us?

The CASBS Future of Work and Work series at psmag.com/work suggests that Amazon is, unfortunately perhaps, what work looks like today for a lot of folks.
NYT Correspondent / Author of The Obamas
Thanks so much for your question, Margaret. The thesis of the story is that yes, Amazon is a distinctive world-- the phrase they use is "peculiar"-- but also a harbinger of where the modern white collar workplace is going, with higher demands and efficiency, more emphasis on data, come and go relationships between employer/employee, etc. But here are some elements particular to Amazon: unlike Facebook and Google, which look for ways to sweeten life for employees (or wrap the tough standards and hours of the tech workplace in an appealing package of free meals, lush benefits etc) Amazon makes no pretense that catering to employees is a top priority. Unlike startups, which only demand mega-commitment from a relatively small number of employees, Amazon wants to apply its "unreasonably high" standards (their term) to over a hundred thousand employees. Unlike Big Law, which has evolved over decades, Amazon is a relatively new corporation, 20 years old, whose CEO and architect built his own system to get the most out of every employee.
How is Amazon influencing the rest of Seattle's corporate culture (known for consensus-building) and Seattle generally (known for its very polite populace?) Additionally, how does Amazon compare and contrast to other retail leaders from the region, notably Costco, Starbucks and Nordstrom?
NYT Correspondent / Author of The Obamas
Great question, Tiffany. Many sources-- Amazon veterans and especially recruiters-- described huge cultural differences between Amazon on the one hand and Nordstrom/Starbucks on the other. Some recruiters laughed at the very idea of going from Amazon to Starbucks-- that's how great the gap is, they said, and some Amazonians flame out in transitions like these, because they are so much harder-driving. Interestingly, a few ex Amazonians who work at these companies confessed that they find them boring compared to Amazon. The pace is too slow, they said. Takes too long to get anything done. And while consensus makes everyone feel good, they felt, it doesn't produce the best results.
VP, Global Integrated Content Solutions at The Economist
Jodi, Horror stories aside, the values the Amazon culture reinforces -- force, effort, and competitiveness -- would not seem to lead to innovation, creativity or even thoughtfulness. They do mirror many of Amazon's tactics in the marketplace. No coincidence, I'm sure. Here's my question: As a journalist, how do you think this value system might impact the Washington Post?
NYT Correspondent / Author of The Obamas
It's a great question, Jeff. I don't feel like I can speculate here-- I haven't done any reporting on Bezos-induced changes at the Washington Post. Newspapers are fast paced, demanding workplaces too. But newspaper culture as we know it-- unions, employment for decades upon decades, the legacy of family ownership-- is a far cry from the way Amazon is managed. So I don't have any answers, but I'm watching right along with you.
Interesting article. Do you think one possible explanation for Amazon's intense, no-frills, no-perks work environment is the fact that it's delivered break-even performance (at best) to its investors for the last fifteen years, unlike a google or a Microsoft? Or did you get the sense that it is such a deliberate cultural choice that there'll be no free food, massages, and haircuts even if/when the company starts generating huge profits? (I understand they've just had a great quarter, so maybe we'll see soon enough...)

I'd also be interested to hear how you think Amazon compares to some of the work environments we tend to think of as traditionally high powered and cutthroat -- Wall Street banking, Big Law, management consulting, some corners of DC policy making and lobbying, etc. Is there really something unique about Amazon relative to these places? Or does it only stand out so much because we naturally tend to compare it with the Silicon Valley ethos of some of its competitors, which is itself very much an exception rather than the rule...
NYT Correspondent / Author of The Obamas
John, you're on to something in your first question, but it has more to do with Amazon's role as a hybrid tech-retail company than it does stock performance. Amazon competes for talent with Google, Facebook, Netflix (with all that parental leave!) etc. But while it certainly is a technology company, it's also a retail company, with the low margins characteristic of that sector.

For your second, here's a smart post from Above the Law, a blog you certainly know, that makes some smart points: abovethelaw.com/2015/08/b...ungle/