Posts about amazon

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

Jeff’s Post problem

One issue I’m surprised I haven’t seen discussed regarding Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post is what his tenure will mean to local advertisers.

They don’t like him. He’s helping putting them out of business.

Haven’t you seen: retail is in the tank. Stores have become showrooms for Amazon’s sales. Looking at the golf club? Go to the pro shop and try it out and learn about it and get advice about it, then go to Amazon and buy it for a better price.

Amazon is going into local markets with experiments in same-day delivery. He will do that in competition with local merchants.

eBay, on the other hand, says it will serve local merchants and help them with same-day delivery and online sales. Google is looking to test same-day local delivery and I would imagine it, too, would work with local businesses, who are its advertisers as well.

The New Republic wondered whether Bezos wants The Washington Post’s delivery trucks. I doubt that. Though as I remember, the Post was one of the first papers in the country to shift from large-scale delivery to small-scale (trucks to station wagons), the system is still not set up to do what a UPS truck does.

So how will Bezos finesse this? He’s not big on finesse, Jeff. He could come and find ways to reassure local advertisers. He could involve them in his local delivery scheme, just as he handed over his sales and technology platforms to more merchants. He could shrug and not worry about retail advertising since he’s killing retail anyway.

As with all speculation about the Bezos era in journalism, we’ll just have to wait and wonder.

Taxes are an obligation, not a moral choice

In its tax fight with Google, Starbucks, and Amazon, the UK has in essence been demanding that they tax themselves: that they pay more tax than they are legally obligated to because lawmakers, in their hectoring, say that would be the “moral” thing to do.

Now see this discussion by Reuters’ brilliant Chrystia Freeland about the notion of plutocrats self-taxing. She says, quite rightly, that the concept of self-taxation is a challenge to the authority of governments: rich people are saying they can better spend their money to benefit society than society’s representatives in government can.

The irony, then: The UK’s lawmakers are undermining their own authority when they demand that Google et al meet different — perhaps higher — demands than their own laws’. They are abdicating their responsibility to write good tax laws and to negotiate tax treaties with other nations, which are attracting business and thus tax revenue from these multinational companies by offering them better deals than other countries (it’s called competition).

And therein lies another challenge to the authority of national governments: that multinational corporations can indeed play states against each other to get the best deal in minimizing taxes and thus maximizing profits (which, let’s remember, is their fiduciary raison d’etre: maximizing shareholder value). This is especially true in the digital economy, when companies can operate anywhere, even apparently nowhere (across distributed, virtual networks), and also find customers anywhere (that’s the subject of a Guardian story today lamenting the VAT taxes it loses to multinationals selling products directly to consumers, offering lower tax rates and thus better prices … which usually is seen as a good thing for consumers).

Taxation is not a moral question. It is a legal obligation. It is the role of government to write and enforce equitable tax laws for the benefit of society. In the current fight over taxes in the U.S. — which, of course, is what the fiscal cliff is all about — we see various sectors predictably acting in their own self-interest: the middle class wanting to tax the rich, the rich hoping to at least minimize that change. In the end, after much needless pain and struggle, Congress will have to pass a tax law and we will pay our taxes as is our legal duty. I would agree that is a moral duty: to serve and protect the rest of society, to give us services and to help those in need.

But if government makes taxation a matter of moral choice, then what of the law? Where is the certainty that both companies and individuals require to plan their lives if we are held to some unwritten standard? Where is the certainty of government revenue to do its work if taxes are a matter of taxpayers’ judgment?

In an age when borders are increasingly meaningless, when citizens can organize themselves, and when new and stateless armies of hackers bear new but damaging weapons, the authority of governments is being challenged on many fronts. Here governments challenge even their own authority.

Gutenberg the Geek: A Kindle Single

I’ve just published Gutenberg the Geek, arguing that the inventor of printing was our first geek, the original technology entrepreneur. I find wonderful parallels in the challenges and opportunities he faced and those that face Silicon Valley (or entrepreneurial journalism) startups today. So I retell his story from an entrepreneurial perspective, examining how he overcame technology hurdles, how he operated with the secrecy of a Steve Jobs but then shifted to openness, how he raised capital and mitigated risk, and how, in the end, his cash flow and equity structure did him in. This is also the inspiring story of a great disruptor. That is why I say Gutenberg is the patron saint of entrepreneurs.

The Kindle Single came out of my obsession with Gutenberg that developed while I researched Public Parts. I also wanted to learn how Kindle Singles work (more on that later) -… and prove that I have nothing against charging for content! But I’m not charging much, only 99 cents (free in the Amazon lending library).

Tomorrow, I’ll link to an excerpt from the piece. I’d be honored if you bought the piece and said what you think here or at the Amazon page.

Kindle?

I’m not getting Kindle in both senses of the verb — not buying and not understanding, both as a device and as a model.

I was approached to add BuzzMachine to the blog available for sale on the device but didn’t pursue it because I don’t see the sense in selling this blog when it’s available on the web for free. Oh, I’d love to think that I could sell it — nothing against money; though I’m often accused of it, I’m not arguing that content should be free but that it just is. But if this content is available here for free, why would and should someone buy it on a different device? Why shouldn’t that device just bring me the internet? The iPhone does.

Of course, that’s because the business model is different: Amazon created a device through which it could sell content; it is charging for the content instead of the access. But I have to believe that the Kindle will feel imprisoned when I want to get other content that I know is out there on the web. And I wonder about the economics of paying for all that access if people don’t buy enough content. The alternative to that is to sell a subscription to content but who wants another monthly bill? I do prefer the a la carte nature of iTunes over subscription movie services.

If the Kindle enabled me to pay for access so I could get the entire web, would I get it? I doubt it, because it appears to be a limited device. The iPhone is more powerful. It gives me the ability to both buy content and see the world of content. It’s a connected computer. Am I going to lug around a device just to read books and a limited set of blog and newspaper content without the ability to fully interact with it? No.

I’ve said often that I don’t believe re-creating an old media form electronically is the salvation of that form. The salvation of the content within that form is to take advantage of the new opportunities afforded by electronics and connectivity. I haven’t touched a Kindle yet, so I don’t know what it adds but those additions would be more valuable to me than its homage to the size and feel of the book.

(Disclosure: I own Amazon stock.)

: Update and correction: Tom Evslin and Aaron Pressman in the comments say that you can, indeed, surf the web from the Kindle, though with some limitations. So now I’m triply confused: Why try to charge for blogs? I’m also doubly glad I said no.

Amaziki

The Customer Evangelists report that Amazon is experimenting with product-information wikis (more here) so we the customers can share and update information on products for sale. Damned smart. The evangelists also make some good suggestions.

: Rob Hof has more.