Hacking through Amazon’s jungle of coverage

https://www.flickr.com/photos/pokerbrit/14846494975

The New York Times exposé of working conditions at Amazon lacks two key attributes: context and — I can’t quite believe I’m saying this — balance.

Like everyone in my feeds, I read the story with something verging on horror. Since then, I’ve seen many tweets presenting another perspective and just read a point-by-point rebuttal by an Amazonian.

Where’s the truth? in the mix. Except as a reader, I had to go search for that mix.

First, context: Last night on Twitter, I half-joked that Amazon sounded like many newspaper newsrooms:

Jay Rosen later responded:

You get the point: Where is the context about work as a whole? Is every office as wonderful as Google and Facebook are supposed to be? No, of course not. We all know that. So to what standard is Amazon being held? Is it better or worse than comparable and realistic (read: unGoogle) workplaces? That’s not in the piece. It needs to be.

Now to balance. Nick Ciubotariu, an engineer and executive at Amazon, wrote a very long rebuttal on LinkedIn, which I found only thanks to a Dan Gillmor link. Amid some amusing techcospeak (an issue “gets actioned”) are clear and sincere explanations for much of what The Times thinks it has exposed. For example, the orientation at any company, taken out of context, might sound like brainwashing; that’s normal. He says that the cases of how employees with pregnancies and health and family issues were allegedly mistreated are appalling and the company must address them. He acknowledges that Amazon might have changed between its founding and his hiring 18 months ago. But he likes working there. He, like many colleagues, is attracted to tackling huge problems — and that is obviously not easy work.

The Times talked with some Amazon employees but makes a point of saying that they were offered up by the company and so they are presumed to be like North Korean media handlers; they are to be discounted. Most of what The Times garnered from unofficial sources was negative. Most of what Ciubotariu says is positive.

We, the readers, are left to balance these accounts ourselves. And that’s my problem. The Times should have presented enough of that conflicting evidence so that we could weigh evidence and decide for ourselves whether Amazon is hell in Seattle.

But The Times decided that for us. It wanted to expose Amazon’s working conditions. It devoted two reporters for six months to do just that (who would devote such resource to finding out that it’s an OK place to work, if you have to work?).

The Times had an agenda. Well, some of you might remind me: Haven’t you, Jarvis, argued that journalism is by definition advocacy? Yes, and it’s clear The Times wanted to tackle the issues that arise from such demanding work. But as a journalistic institution, The Times is still required to exhibit the intellectual honesty to credibly and fairly present evidence that counters its worldview. It is still required to give us in the public the respect and trust to make our own decisions about what it presents.

But that’s not what The Times did. I am not doubting the truth of what The Times presented, only the selection. I am also not saying that after balancing all this, I would want to work at Amazon. I can’t stand the idea of a culture that enables an anonymous feedback system, which The Times exposes and its employee defends; I sure as hell won’t want to see that trend spread to other workplaces. I worry about a culture that can allow the cases of cold-hearted lack of empathy for employees’ lives that The Times presents, even if they are just anecdotal. On the other hand, I admire greatly the commercial and logistical miracle that Amazon has built. I love the idea of working side-by-side with people as smart, accomplished, dedicated, and passionate as the people who have built Amazon. I also read the piece worried that all this publicity would lead — Gawkerlike — to unionization, and I think that could jeopardize its growth.

On that last point, you may think I sound like an owner. I am. I have long held a few shares in Amazon. So you should judge what I say here with that conflict of interest well in mind. You’re probably scolding me right now for not saying it at the top of this piece. You’d be right. And that is how I illustrate my last point: The Times did not say until halfway down its very long piece that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which some say is closing in on The Times.

The problem at a moment like this is that once one starts to believe The Times might have an agenda, one is left trying to suss out what it might be: against Amazon and its owner, Bezos, who is a competitor; against technology, a direction too much of media is taking (you should see the latest from Der Spiegel; its technopanic should be printed in purple ink); in favor of big labor? I wouldn’t be wondering that if The Times had given me greater context and balance and sufficient information to let me decide about Amazon for myself rather than having it decided for me. And that’s too bad. There is much good reporting here. There are important issues and modern-day phenomenon that deserve discussion. Instead, we’re starting to discuss The Times.

LATER: I think I’m clear about this but let me be extra clear: I am not saying The Times has a competitive agenda against the Post and thus Bezos. I am saying that it will open itself up to such questioning by not being sufficiently transparent and not exhibiting intellectual honesty by providing sufficient balance to make clear that in the end the judgment is the reader’s.

BEZOS RESPONSE: The letter Bezos sent to Amazon staff:

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu

Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at [email protected] Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

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.

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

Thank you,

Jeff

  • http://www.lexalexander.net lexalexander

    I agree with your assessment that the piece, long as it was, needed to provide a better basis for readers to make up their own minds. That said, I’m a lot more troubled by the overly invasive dominance of workers’ personal lives than you seem to be, because it seems to be not isolated but internalized. And once it is internalized, it takes much longer to root out. I think you gave that problem unduly short shrift.

  • PopularSentiment

    Nice post. There’s an excellent discussion over at Hacker News, with many current and former Amazon engineers sharing their perspectives. Overall themes: there are some genuine core issues/problems that the NYT is right to raise. That said, a lot of people at Amazon have more joy and less pain than the NYT’s portrayal suggests. And some of the story’s Orwellian imagery is comically wrong.

    Within about two weeks, we’ll have a pretty good, fully rounded-out portrayal of what Amazon is like as a workplace. In an ideal world, the Times would provide a digital version of Expose 2.0, making additions and amendments as needed. Archivists could still find Expose 1.0. But going forward, job candidates, etc. would benefit from being able to get a fuller picture from the updated version, which would pass the Jarvis Test.

    How many months, years or decades away do you think we are from seeing legacy publications treat their big stories as living, ongoing projects, rather than untouchable sculptures?

  • Noel Comment

    Hard to believe there would be this must concern about balance if this story was about General Motors or Walmart. Appreciate one manager stepped forward to defend his employer, but it doesn’t mean what The Times reported is incorrect.

  • paulwallbank

    I didn’t think piece was unbalanced. Having covered Amazon of years there’s was little there that’s new about a company notorious for its brutal work culture. A read of Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store would give a bit more context to the NY Times piece.

    • Phil Chacko

      Thanks for bringing up that book. The article quoted an anecdote from it about the young Bezos calculating how many years smoking had taken off of his grandmother’s life. She broke down in tears. The NYT stopped there. The book goes on to say Bezos took a lesson from that, in that intelligence does not equal kindness. Both matter. Prime example of the blatant cherry-picking in the piece.

      I’m a proud NYT subscriber, but I’m reconsidering. There has been a noticeable decline in quality over the past year or two.

      • Kevin T. Keith

        Bezos’s defenders point to the kicker in the smoking piece: that after he drove his grandmother to tears with his “data-driven” analysis of her behavior, his grandfather told him it was easier to be clever than to be kind. Apparently this is supposed to humanize him. But he’s still doing the same thing, this time to tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods are in his hands. There’s no evidence (I’m sorry . . . “data”) that he learned anything from the episode except that telling pathetic stories about his childhood will make people believe he has a heart, so he can continue treating them any way he likes.

        • Phil Chacko

          Nevertheless it’s a key piece of context a “balanced” piece would include.

          Amazon is a company with 150k+ employees. It is more complex than what the publishing industry might tell you, what the unions might tell you, etc. No place with that many employees can be a utopian place to work. But that doesn’t necessarily make every arm of it dystopian. It’s a big place with many stories to tell, and not unlike other employers of that size.

          From a technology perspective, the market for talent is ridiculous right now. To think an employer could be that universally oppressive to its people and remain a world-class tech company is absurd.

    • J. R. Tomlin

      It would have been more impressive had the NYT admitted that it was in effect attacking a competitor from the top of the article.

  • amysterling

    My objection to Nick’s (very long) article, which I also read, is that it’s very little “data-driven.” And also, all the information in the world on current or past customer behavior, no matter how sophisticated your algorithms, will help little to attract and keep new customers, much less anticipate customer needs or desires of the future. The brutality described is hardly “lean” also … That level of turnover, which Nick states he truly does not know (i.e. does not know retention or turnover rates), is not good for any known business. Amazon is not that special. The “clown car” aspect of their landing pages and overly complex systems … nobody’s look at that, eh? Not with such success. They unexpectedly did NOT lose money this past quarter. Mr. Bezos cashed approx. 5% of his shares 10 days prior to this article publishing. But then who am I? I have only about 1300 Twitter followers. I have an average income. My company has published only 3 titles so far this year. I am no one. I know nothing.

  • MD

    I’m glad to hear you’re reading the NYT story with eyes open & asking questions about what it presents? But I think about how many thousands of NYT readers are taking the story in with zero skepticism about severe & universal Amazon’s problems are. How many readers have no doubts at all about the Times or ever think about a possible agenda?

  • B. Scheuert

    Unionization is evil and must be prevented at any cost? Seems lile Mr. Jarvis is invested in Amazon and/or is addicted to its cheap and so-convenient offerings. Almost funny how the clichés about US self-exploitation come to real life again. I wonder if all these people will once murmur on their deathbed: “Damn, I could have reduced the delivery time by 5 more minutes if I had skipped the kids!” Pathetic.

    • http://buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Save us from the literal-minded. Don’t you see the union line was a transition to the next one?

  • Steve Shapero

    Caveat: I am a former Amazon employee from 2005-2008. I guess I don’t share your concern about the slant of the NYT coverage, because I’m not a journalist, I’m a software engineering manager.

    The article fails to mention something even more sinister, which is what I called the “Green Card indentured servants” — there are large numbers of H1-B staff at Amazon who toil in the coal mines so that Amazon will sponsor them for their green cards, thereby allowing them to bring their families over from back home (China, India, etc). This system was outright disgusting and crassly exploitative the way the railroads were in the 1850s. Amazon is a paragon of white male domination over women and minorities. It is not just a place with too many assholes who lack empathy, it is actually a sweatshop.

    I think the point of the article was that this is one possible future for too many businesses, and we should all be afraid, as it represents a powerful tool for the further Mexico-ization of the US, where a tiny elite group of 5 or 10,000 business executives dominate the rest of the population for their personal enrichment through a campaign of brutally savage work environments, the removal of any and all social safety net, and the wholesale consumption of our political system through overwhelming cash.

    On the one hand, employees agree to the conditions and have the right to leave at any time — but Jeff, you make a good allusion above — the reality is that Facebook and Google aren’t much better, they just pay lip service to being nicer. They too are white male dominated cauldrons of “nerd jocks” bullying one another and obsessed with the hierarchy of who is smarter than whom. They are shark tanks, subjecting people to mental conditions as grueling as a Marine sniper… so that you can get an Elsa doll in less time, so that you can “like” Taylor Swifts page on Facebook, so you can search for illegal massage parlors in your locale more effectively. I.e. these companies all subject people to an extreme working environment for outcomes that are either totally devoid of social value or meaning (other than creating more jobs for more of the haute bourgeoise like me and other H1-B green car applicant hopefuls), or that perhaps actively corrode our society and its values.

    I found the characterization of what it is like to work there spot on. It made my career to work there. I delivered projects, often with just 1-2 other colleagues, that literally made 10’s of millions of dollars, if not more over time, for the company. I embraced “radical responsibility” for knowing how everything worked, etc etc. I’ve never worked in an environment where you could get so much done with so little bullshit since — other than getting paged constantly throughout the day and night for operational issues.

    Over time I understood that Amazon didn’t care about me as a person, and that it was not a technology business, it was a logistics business. Software was merely a means to an end but not the end itself. New college grads will continue to want jobs there, and they will be better software engineers as a result – but not necessarily better people. While I was amazed at what heartless, ruthless assholes some of my colleagues were, Amazon and I both got a good deal out of my time there. I think the NYT makes this setup pretty clear. What I thought they were alluding to as sinister was the draconian brutality of the place as a possible north star for other businesses (get better results by turning the asshole knob to 11), and the fact that it is so obviously a male-ego, male-dominated institution that takes discussions of gender equality back to 1950.

    The fact is that different strategies can work for business success, but as long as business is largely staffed at the C-level with overwhelming majority white males and women who act like them, work will continue to be driven by ego, fear, and a lot of wasted time and pointless suffering.

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      Thanks for your insight, Steve.

      • Paul Thompson

        “Thanks for your insight, Steve.”

        … So Jeff are you actually processing any of this information here? Or are you employing niceties in the comments section of your website?

        Perhaps you could use your influence and experience as a writer to dive deeper into these practices ? Clearly you have a vested interest in Amazon as a “major” sales channel for your work, especially your ‘Kindle only’ material. Therefore input from you should be preceded with full disclosure as you are essentially profiteering from Amazon’s internal practices such as exploiting H1-B workers.

        I have worked with many H1-B individuals myself as an American through naturalization and can testify of the true nature of fear they bear daily from losing their employment and returning to India, China, Russia etc. I have seen them work without sleep and do whatever the company asks of them all in fear. This isn’t unique to Amazon but certainly from the NYTimes expose it seems they know exactly how to leverage this psychological pressure to drive productivity; human labor as a capital investment. This is in direct violation of the ‘At-Will’ employment contract since there is much more at stake than simply finding a new job, there is likely family including childrens welfare at direct risk.

        As a supporter of your work I trust you are taking these issues seriously.

    • thespacecowboyx

      Steve, I fail to understand your references to some kind of exploitation. The H1-B workers come to the US of their own volition, presumably with the hope of a better life for them and their family.

      The green card process is not set by Amazon – its set by USCIS who dictate the ‘priority dates’ – i.e. how long a particular worker has to wait until their green card can be approved. For many in countries like India and China, this can be years. This is designed to balance protecting the American worker vs ensuring companies can hire talent to drive their business. By a long way I’m not sure they get it right, but this is hardly Amazon’s fault.

      Now, if Amazon restrict people in applying for Green cards that’s a different story. However a skilled worker can get an H1-B at another employer and move there should they wish. That may have an impact on their priority date for a green card, but it means they are not restricted by Amazon in this regard.

      • Mary Hodder

        It’s very difficult to leave an H1-B visa sponsored job, if you have one. Interview a few people who are here working because of them. Also, those folks are paid between 40 and 25% less for the same work an American will make, if they work directly for the company.. or check this out.. Disney was letting their American staff go to hire a contract company to provide the same services that were going to pay even less to the H1-B visa people they would then staff at Disney. It was only after bad press, and the threat of senate hearings, that they changed up that plan. Read this to find out more: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-disney-technology-h1b-20150617-story.html

        • thespacecowboyx

          Prevailing wage rates are there to ensure workers are paid fairly and appropriately, and USCIS does frequent audits to check this is the case.

          Do you have a source for the fact these people are paid 25%-40% less than their equivalents? That’s absolutely not the case at the high tech companies I work for and others that I know of. Sure, there are companies who do some pretty underhand things. But you’re assuming Amazon is one of them based on no evidence?

          I’m not here to defend Amazon, but people need to back up their assertions with data not hearsay.

        • Steve Shapero

          Space cowboy, USCIS is kind of like the SEC here. The regulations are clear, but adherence to them is rare. Talk to some HR managers at tech companies to get the real story.

        • thespacecowboyx

          I am HR at a large tech company. I’m well aware of the rules.

      • http://anna.balasi.com/ AnnaB

        I think Steve’s main point with the H1-B worker is the managers’, not necessarily the company’s, as a whole, tendency to overwork said workers. The manager by no means “forces” them, since this is, after all, a free country, and since these workers are paid, whatever their rates may be, but the problem, you understand, is that managers know very well what these H1-B visas mean to these workers, and they can, with very little effort, push an H1-B worker to work 10x harder than Green Card holders or Citizens. H1-B workers are well aware of the fact that their employment opportunities are limited–they can’t just resign from an H1-B sponsored job. They bring with them the hopes and dreams of their family and they will sacrifice EVERYTHING to keep that H1-B visa. This isn’t outright slavery, no laws are broken, no whip is employed, but H1-B workers will work to 10PM at the office when other people leave at 5, they will stay at a company that offers them no raise for years on end, when everyone around them is getting raises or leaving to get higher pay, they will not go on vacation, they will not take sick days if they can help it, they will break their backs willingly. When you have A LOT in a company, you can be sure that those H1-B workers will fight tooth and nail and the Management will reap the benefits. I understand what you mean when you say you follow the law. ALL the big companies do, but the reality is bleaker than that. I say all this because I’ve seen this happen to many of my friends. There is no recourse for complaint or open dialogue. There is none. As far as these H1-B workers know, they EXPECT this, and complaining will only get them in trouble because the company is following the letter of the law. It doesn’t, however, make it any more humane.

    • John Zemler

      Steve, since you gave no characterization about your knowledge of USMC Snipers, please leave that particular hyperbole at home.
      If you do, then Semper Fi!
      If you don’t, well… please, just don’t.
      Semper Pax

      • Steve Shapero

        John – fair enough, my knowledge only comes from the extensive reading I’ve done, I did not serve myself. The image of a sniper sitting in a spot for days on end, not moving even for bowel movements or other bodily needs and functions, was the image that came to mind. The physical demands of military service and the threat to one’s life are obviously in no way comparable to a desk job, and you’re right, it is hyperbole. My point was that employees of tech companies often display a similar level of mental toughness and fortitude (commander’s intent, inspect and adapt, mission success against all odds, etc), but their weapon of choice is the keyboard and not a rifle, and the work is much safer. Amazon staff have been known to stay up for over 24 hours at a time staring at log files to ensure that a product launch or holiday rush goes well.

  • trog69

    “…to unionization, and I think that could jeopardize its growth.”

    So? How much do you think giving the workers a voice would curtail that growth, and why would that be a bad thing?

  • dev_slash_null

    This reads more like a hit piece against NYT than anything. It’s constituted mostly of vague hand-waving and gesturing, without any real substantive information of it’s own. Of course, it’s an opinion piece and not an investigative article so we shouldn’t expect any rigour, right?.

    Here’s the thing, and why I would never work for Amazon or a place like Amazon. I don’t exist to be ground into employee pulp for the sake of your bottom line. I work solely so that I can live the way I want to live. Nothing that Amazon could offer me would justify the enduring that kind of work life. Ever. I don’t care if it WOULD make me more productive. They train soldiers not to think so it makes the better at killing, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them.

  • Mark Stencel

    The Times reporting echoed what I’ve heard and seen reported elsewhere, but some of the reporting gave me pause anyway. Looking at a 2013 Payscale survey of turnover at Fortune 500 companies, I see Amazon was near the bottom of the average tenure list. But it has good company down there — landing on the list very close to Google, actually, which also had similar numbers on job satisfaction. (http://bit.ly/1EwqL0Y) I’m sure there are better sources for that kind of data. Would like to have seen that, rather than just reputational comparisons.

    Something else seemed off to me in the Times report. In particular I wondered why the reporting about disturbing family and health issues was concentrated in the last third of the story. That seemed indisputably important and newsy to be that far down, if the pattern is as consistent as the story suggests — and that made me wonder if it was that far down for a reason.

    Amazon’s role in so many marketplaces certainly makes it worthy of scrutiny. A story this long and prominent deserves scrutiny too.

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      In both cases, data would indeed be much better than anecdote — as an Amazonian would say.

  • Andrew

    I agree with Jeff re balance, and I think this was demonstrated by two snarky asides in the article:
    “said Ms. Landry, who was authorized by the company to speak, still sounding exhilarated months later about providing “Frozen” dolls in record time.”
    and
    “For all of the employees who are edged out, many others flee, exhausted or unwilling to further endure the hardships for the cause of delivering swim goggles and rolls of Scotch tape to customers just a little quicker.”

    Why should we scorn an employee for being proud of her accomplishment? And why is Amazon’s entire enterprise (which includes cloud computing, content creation, and advertising) reduced to its simplest parts?

    Like others, I agree that the truth is somewhere in between the Times piece and the rebuttal, and, like any company of scale, there are different divisions with different cultures. From my own daily dealings with Amazon as a manufacturer, their employees are consistently driven with varying politeness, and some talented people don’t succeed there.

    • Kevin T. Keith

      Well, Amazon’s “enterprise” is what it does. And what it does is essentially provide convenience in obtaining things that aren’t very important. The fact that that’s a complicated business doesn’t mean it’s an important business, or that its accomplishments justify their human toll.

      • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

        Who is to say that the things people get there are not important? Amazon is changing huge industries: retail, logistics, cloud computing. They are doing big things. Whether you like the way they do it is another question. But pooh-poohing it as delivering swim goggles is just snarky nonsense. And, BTW, when your kid is on the swim team, those goggles can be damned important to her.

      • Phil Chacko

        I suppose Facebook isn’t a very important business. It just lets people post cat pictures and meaningless hashtags like #blacklivesmatter, how silly. I suppose Twitter isn’t important either. It just lets protesters across the Middle East coordinate around what they had for breakfast that day.

      • VictorErimita

        Things that aren’t important. I see. Like increasingly everything people want to buy and use in their lives. I buy some kinds of food from Amazon that I can’t find in the stores. Ditto over the counter pharmaceuticals, toiletries, all manner of things. I found the last copy of a vintage sheet music arrangement of Stella By Starlight on Amazon that I couldn’t find elsewhere. It was sorta important to me.

        But perhaps your post is a statement against the dreaded consumer culture, which we all know is shallow and meaningless and draws our attention from the really important things in life, like…moral posturing about the consumer culture.

      • Anthony Pero

        Amazon provides mission-critical server infrastructure to the US Government… that’s not an important business?

  • General Maxwell Smart

    A thoughtful piece, Jeff, but the major flaw in your reasoning is the idea that the NYT (or any media) should have “presented enough … conflicting evidence so that we could weigh evidence and decide for ourselves”.

    No, that could never work. It is dangerous to rely on a single source for a balanced picture. Read Reuters, AP or Bloomberg for factual reporting. Read NYT long-form pieces only if the subject really interests you and if you are willing to invest the time to look elsewhere for a balancing view.

    Do not make the mistake of trusting a single source to be a fair and balanced provider of news and background. I prefer an article that lays out its biases over one that tries to hide them by pretending to be “fair and balanced”.

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      I could not disagree more strongly. In the end, it is not up to journalists to decide for us. It is up to journalists to inform us so we may better decide. Always been. Always will be. That’s one of the eternal verities.

      • General Maxwell Smart

        “… not up to journalists to decide for us” Yes, agree 100%. Where did I say otherwise?

        ” … up to journalists to inform us so we may better decide” Yes, agree 100%. Where did I say otherwise.

        Our disagreement, as far as I can tell, concerns something else. You, if I’m not mistaken, believe that a single media such as the NYT could, by “presenting enough conflicting evidence” on a complex issue like working conditions in a billion-dollar enterprise spread over many locations across the globe, a company that I’ve never worked for and know hardly anything about, give enough information that we the readers can “weigh evidence and decide for ourselves”.

        I do not believe that is possible, even with the highest professionalism. At best, a well-researched and written article can spur me to want to find out more about a subject.

  • Pingback: Amazon - Die zwei Seiten des Konzernriesen - Rushlake Media GmbH

  • Kevin T. Keith

    I read both pieces and come away convinced that the Times pulled its punches.

    Regarding “balance,” the original piece makes clear that the Times all but begged Amazon to provide information, and the company refused to let them speak to top management or to any ordinary workers. The fact that only a few official spokespeople were allowed to give the company’s side of the story is precisely the reason for the lack of input from inside the company, but what the Times did not say, and should have, is that that reflects the company’s values as much as its other policies. If Amazon believes it cannot allow its employees to speak freely about working conditions, that tells us everything about their working conditions.

    In many cases, Ciubotariu denies or waves away issues that are explicitly confirmed in his own denials. (“No one is ‘quizzed’ – the quiz is totally, 100% voluntary . . . you’re told during orientation that it’s an easy way to get your first phone tool icon (some people go as far as collecting these icons).” So . . . there’s a quiz? And people take it? And the result is recorded? Somehow it’s better because the result is stupid?) In the case of the most abusive labor practice – the “rank and yank” evaluation system – he first refuses to discuss it, then categorically denies any abuses occur, then complains that the criticisms were not based on “data”. (His denial contains no factual information at all; the criticisms were taken directly from employees who experienced the process.)

    Many of the other issues raised are matters of interpretation. The orientation program may sound creepy to some, or normal to others. The anonymous denunciation program may seem abusive to some, or others may insist it is only used for good. But it is notable that it is an upper-upper-level manager (with less than 1 1/2 years’ experience) who tells us everything is great, and multiple workers who complain of abuse. When the company’s own defender repeatedly states it is “not easy to work here,” it seems obvious that the complaints are justified, and his defense amounts to nothing more than “some people like it, and I’m one of them, so these complaints are unjustified”. The clear implication of the Times’s piece – that some people do thrive there, but many feel abused and overwhelmed – seems proven, not undercut.

    Much of the response piece is that way: this top manager repeatedly tells us that he personally has not seen the things that other workers insist are commonplace. He explicitly admits that things described in the article were true, maybe way, way back in the distant past of, say . . . 2014, when he was hired, but it’s all different now. (“That Amazon no longer exists.”) We have only his word for this. He claims that it is only disgruntled ex-workers who complain (wouldn’t that make sense?), but, again, the company refuses to allow current workers – reportedly ecstatically happy with their joyful and empowering work environment – to actually talk to the reporters. For a guy who uses the word “data” so robotically, it’s interesting that the defense of the company rests largely on a refusal to credit the existing data, and a refusal to provide any other.

    Aside from specific factual details, one of the most damning things about the piece is its simple weirdness. Nothing proves the cult-like atmosphere of the company more than they fact that one of its top managers seems unable to talk about it – or, seemingly, talk at all – without immediately falling into jargon-filled corporate gibberish (including pseudo-verbs like “actioned,” and “benchmark”) insider passwords (“every day is Day One,” “Bar Raiser,” “that is not Frugal” – all emphatically capitalized). The company principles he defends so aggressively are filled with creepy personality-molding and weird slogans. (“Leaders have conviction and are tenacious.” “Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume.”) He denies that employees are pressured to subsume their personal lives to the company, but calls himself and coworkers “Amazonians” (did they all grow up in the Brazilian river basin? – somehow I doubt it). He constantly uses the word “data” as if it were somehow better than just saying he knows something; everything gets elevated to a pseudo-technical plane as a kind of smug rebuttal to anyone who believes things he doesn’t agree with. His “data” refuting claims against the company consist entirely of saying that those things didn’t happen to him personally; apparently he’s been drilled on the importance of “data” without ever hearing the adage about “anecdotes”.

    Worst of all, his defenses of some abusive practices consist entirely of tired old capitalist mantras: nobody could be abused there because “they would just leave”; the vicious employee ranking system that multiple employees describe can’t possibly exist because it would be bad for morale; there is no gender discrimination because “science is gender-neutral”. News flash: capitalism doesn’t work the way capitalists like to pretend. People are desperate for jobs and companies abuse them because they can. If any of his oblivious nonsense were true, it would be true for every company in the world. Every tech company uses “science”; every company of any kinds wants to hire the best employees it can, so there would be no gender gap in tech companies, there would be no abusive bosses, every worker would “just leave” any job they didn’t feel joyfully empowered by. The exact opposite is true, at every company everywhere – because it’s usually more profitable to take advantage of people than it is to treat them well – and his weird belief that capitalism somehow doesn’t work the way it actually works, only at Amazon, also calls into question his insistence that other testamented facts in the article just can’t be true because he doesn’t believe them. (Also, please refer to the well-documented conditions at Amazon’s warehouses – barely mentioned in the original piece – where Amazon is infamous for outsourcing employment to labor companies who, literally, driver workers to collapsing on the job, and hospitalization, while Amazon washes its hands of the whole thing. If this is how Amazon treats low-wage workers over whom it has almost complete power, why would be possibly believe it doesn’t use its power against the somewhat more privileged tech workers, when it can?)

    After reading this defense piece, I’m willing to believe that conditions for white-collar workers at Amazon’s main workplaces may be a bit better than described in the original article, for the workers who benefit from that system. There’s no reason to think they are not exactly as described for the thousands who are not three levels away from the company president, or who are churned out of the company every year. And the overall tone of the piece only convinces me that Amazon management is exactly as smug, self-absorbed, oblivious and indifferent as its victims describe.

    • SLNH

      “the Times all but begged Amazon to provide information”
      Last year, one of the authors of this article (David Streitfeld) wrote a series of articles regarding the Amazon/ Hachette negotiations that were so one sided that the NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote a piece “Publishing Battle should be covered not joined” in response to reader complaints that the reporting was distorted. So why should Amazon willingly open themselves to someone they already know has an agenda?

      • Kevin T. Keith

        To avoid looking secretive, manipulative, and defensive? To provide “data” instead of withholding it and then complaining that there wasn’t enough? To actually answer legitimate concerns about their company, rather than just attack the fact that there are concerns?

        • SLNH

          What. The Times discounted employees who spoke highly of Amazon. We have no idea of the methodology used by the times to find and interview those in the article. How long were the interviews? What types of questions were asked and were they slanted to get a certain type of response.? How did they determine what type of anecdotes to report and was it given in its entirety? I already now of two instances where they reported partial descriptions leaving off circumstances that changed the tone of the anecdote. When Brad Stone wrote his book, Bezos refused to be interviewed but gave access to employees. What is secretive about that? As for this article, Bezos did not attack it but encouraged employees to read it and provide feedback.

  • http://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu Jay Rosen

    The Times should do a second article, using the first to flush out more Amazonians and ex-workers, surveying the responses at Hacker News, the 3,0000 or so comments at the Times and discussions like this one, along with the LinkedIn posts and Bezos’s reply. The stated goal would be to add nuance and texture to the first piece.

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      Exactly. Seeing journalism as process, what you describe should be the goal: The first piece smokes out the second: “We hear this about working at Amazon. We found some of what we heard to be true. But we couldn’t hear from enough people. So we are putting this incomplete view out to learn more.”

    • http://buzzmachine.com/ Jeff Jarvis

      And The Times did a bit of that article the next day, saying that — hmmm — work sucks at many companies.

  • Pingback: Hacking through Amazon’s jungle of coverage | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing

  • http://bernoff.com Josh Bernoff

    The article was slanted but Bezos’ response was laughably weak. If he was my CEO I would be disappointed and frustrated. See http:// Wobs.co/BezosDenial

  • sunpen

    Let me add some info to this conversation that might help clear things up a bit. As a Seattle resident, I like many others have heard 1st hand stories like the ones in the NYT piece. It’s well known in Seattle that they operate this way. And tensions are rising against them locally. As much as the NYT appears to be one sided, there’s a dynamic at Amazon that could explain why they reported the story the way they did.

    As far as I can tell there are actually 2 Amazons, one is for people who work in the business/marketing groups and the other is for the engineers. When I had discussions with people over the years, I first heard one set of stories describing the place like hell from the business folks and then would hear another set from the engineer types making it sound like a cake walk.

    Over time the stories about the business groups have grown worse and worse to the point where they mirror the NYT piece. While on the other hand engineers who I’ve spoken to refer to Amazon as just like any other place to work.

    I myself went through periods where I thought the place was hell and others where I thought it was fine.

    So if you speak to one type of person you hear one set of stories and you talk to another person you hear a totally different set. My guess is that the NYT ended up talking mainly to the business/marketing folks and kept hearing the same stories.

    This problem appears to have been exasperated by what appears to be Amazon’s lack of cooperation in writing the piece.

    Note that the rebuttal to the NYT story came from an engineer.

    I would also add that Amazon can’t treat their engineers nearly as bad as the rest of their employees because engineering talent is a high value resource for all tech companies. If they treated them like this then they’d bail and go work somewhere else in a flash. I’ve seen this dynamic at other tech companies.

    But make no mistake, the local consensus is that the NYT piece is not nearly as exaggerated as people who don’t like the reporting style think. Seattle tech blog GeekWire had this to say:

    “Stories like the ones told in The New York Times are not uncommon for those who hang around Amazon, or know folks who work there. We’ve often heard the culture and work environment described in the same way — fast-moving, unforgiving and brutal.”

    http://www.geekwire.com/2015/inside-the-world-of-amholes-and-amabots-nyt-expose-digs-into-amazons-hard-charging-and-punishing-workplace-culture

  • iliketrees

    One little thing to keep in mind: current and former Amazonians cannot speak against the company for legal reasons. Their contracts contain nondisparagement clauses. My husband left the company after three years, agrees 100% with these various exposes that come out and remarked to me that if he so much as shared that NYT article on Facebook he’d be hearing from legal. Maybe folks should listen to what they’re not hearing and realize that it’s because there are people who would speak, but can’t.

  • John

    I have nothing against Nick Ciubotariu but there is one thing for sure: upper management is the least likely to know there is a problem. If he won’t take that into account, then he’s not a manager but a resource wizard.

  • Pingback: Is Amazon Eating Itself Alive? - Publishing Perspectives

  • http://www.tribetally.com TribeTally

    Who do you believe? NYTimes or Amazon? What do you think your team’s culture is? Find out now http://www.tribetally.com/tribes/amazon

  • Pingback: Américan way of life?!!.. | la "profondeur est dans la peau" (Paul Valéry)

  • Pingback: New York Times: We got it right on ‘culling’ the staff | Media Nation

  • tom

    this reads more like an asinine ‘comments’ post (like this one!) than a rebuttal. It literally FAILS to refute a single point from the original article! Read the NYT piece then this one. The brainwashed author above is like a sophomore who got a taste of ‘media literacy.’ The argument is that “all journalism is biased” and that’s it—completely unsophisticated and totally failing to deal with the real (and investigative) claims of the quite convincing article.

  • Pingback: Una storia di giornalismo: New York Times vs. Amazon » Giuseppe Granieri

  • http://www.smashwords.com/ MarkCoker

    The fallacy of balance: are you suggesting we should replace investigative journalists with pollsters? Rather than interviewing 100 current and former employees should NYT have polled 5,000 current and former employees? By giving all sides equal weighting when the truth is overwhelmingly on one side is to do a disservice to the truth. Nearly 100% of scientists believe in climate change, yet the media in its attempt to air both sides in the name of “balance” has created a public opinion that’s almost evenly split. Or recall the birther movement. Such “balance” does a disservice to the truth because it’s human nature to believe that when presented with two diametrically opposed but allegedly credible arguments that the truth is somewhere in the middle. The danger for the media giving each side equal weight is that arguments without credibility are then viewed as credible. Journalists have a responsibility to present the truth rather than lend credibility to crackpots and outliers.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Shock me that the libertarianish Tech 2.0 Jarvis would be anti-employee, and definitely anti-union. Hey, Jeff, let me give you your next colonoscopy.

  • Pingback: Game over, man. Game over. TR Dispatch v2n12 | TechReckoning

  • Pingback: アマゾンとニューヨーク・タイムズが、記事の信憑性めぐりブログ上で論争する | 新聞紙学的

  • Pingback: アマゾンとニューヨーク・タイムズが、記事の信憑性めぐりブログ上で論争する | 新聞紙学的