Why NY Times Amazon article is worse than pro-Putin propaganda

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By now you have probably heard of NY Times article about Amazon, telling their readers how allegedly badly Amazon employees are treated, how everyone there is confrontational, sick, scared, overworked, jealous and malicious – all at the same time.

If you follow the story, it appears that Amazon corporate culture is a self-fulfilling pathology, where employees absolutely lack moral compass, brainwashed all the time, have no personal life to speak of, and if they don’t leave soon enough, they will probably get cancer, or burnout, or both.

I worked at Amazon European Headquarters in Luxembourg for three years and those were the happiest, most fulfilling, elevating and energizing years of my life. I left to accelerate my career path, but never stopped respecting and admiring both Amazon’s corporate culture and especially people who work there.

What’s most disturbing about that article is not even the amount of lies, nonsense and “facts” so terribly twisted they can’t be anything but deliberate deception, but how willingly so many people were ready to believe it.

The authors wanted their 15 minutes of fame, I get it. But why the hell did it resonate?

The obvious answer is people believed it, because they wanted to believe it, because there was something appealing they needed to hear again and again. What was it? Why so many readers {probably decent and well-meaning people who want to be fair} want to hear such horror stories?

It got me thinking.

It’s no secret that people in Russia have been repeatedly told horror stories about “the West”. According to Russian mainstream propaganda, everyone and everything in Europe is degrading and decomposing. Gays are evil and dangerous to be around. Traditional family values are practically destroyed and tolerance means supporting pedophiles. Europeans are so lazy and spoiled by stillness and soothing luxury, worse than late Roman emperors, they cannot even think straight. European youngsters lack stimulation and discipline (entitled brats) nobody is forcing them to go to school or learn how to read, no wonder they become gays, addicts or get recruited by ISIS. With such total lack of drive, brain or initiative, no surprise why nobody in Europe sees why Crimea belongs to Russia, or what a great leader Putin is, or how Americans are taking over the world. (I am afraid, I might not be exaggerating, by the way).

Why Russian propaganda actually works? – It returns national pride and a sense of dignity to an average person. People are not idiots – they notice inflation, increasing prices, corrupted officials, unequipped understaffed hospitals, and suddenly disappearing neighbors. However, if Europe is really as bad as they say on the TV, Russia is not the end of the world by comparison. Far from it, actually. At least, in Russia we aren’t spoiled, we live in the real world with real difficulties, we preserve family values, we respect power and discipline, we have a sense of purpose protecting our national interests in Crimea, the world is (FINALLY!!!) afraid of Russia and nobody tells us how to live our lives. Nobody must teach us learn foreign languages or tolerate gays.

Mediocrity does not need the truth. Mediocrity thrives on lies, it needs deception to feel better about itself and its current circumstances. This is what NY Times did for them.

Amazon hiring bar is unbelievably high, to get here you should be peculiar. Which does not mean you need to be a maniac or an asshole. Actually, it would be a very bad idea. To be successful at Amazon you need to deliver results fast. You must have bright ideas and you need to articulate them well. At the same time, you need to recognize other people brilliant ideas, because nobody is perfect and nobody knows everything. Amazon culture is actually the most forgiving and civilized place I have seen on earth, because it promotes taking risks and trying new things. It is absolutely OK at Amazon to speak up about whatever crazy idea you have. You should not be afraid to fail. When people are scared to loose their job or credibility, they hedge, scale back and don’t take risks. Amazon expects you to be brave and bring new ideas to the table every day: if they work – great, if they don’t – no big deal, next time – keep trying.

You come to the meeting and somebody tells you that “this crap isn’t gonna work”. It’s not personal and it’s not rude. It’s what your colleague really thinks right now (and don’t tell me you never felt that way, please). We are all adults here and we must react as adults. If your proposal’s just being called “crap”, you are expected to ask “why?” and listen. And if you are the one telling that someone else’s crap is not going to work, you better have a good answer ready. This is how it works.

Contrary to the NY Times horrible anti-Amazon spin, while working there (and always rated as high performer) I managed to publish a book, spent regular time blogging, had more time with my family than ever before, traveled every month somewhere nice – to art exhibitions, opera, or vineyards; took language classes, read extensively, started pro-bono teaching at my son’s school, regularly had lunches with friends and never got seriously sick. This experience was not unusual, it was actually the norm. Amazonians work hard and play hard, that’s who they are. Almost everyone has families, small kids, multiple hobbies and variety of interests. It’s true – sometimes there are deadlines, surprises or hiccups, and you do stay late, not because somebody tells you, but because YOU CARE. Then it’s over, you leave early, work from home or otherwise recharge. Because we are adults, and adults take care of themselves and their health and energy level, exercise, take a break when they need to, manage their stress level, negotiate deadlines and stay on the top of things.

There were very few colleagues who always looked stressed and worried, but, to my knowledge, nobody was pushing them, they simply could not properly organize themselves. They did not know when to stop researching, or did not know when to ask for help, or did not know when to trust their instincts and find the right answer (or all of the above). It’s not Amazon, it’s just poor judgment. Probably those people weren’t the best fit for the company and would be much better off someplace else. (And if you ask me, most likely, those could be the unhappy interviewees for the NY Times).

Amazon is very meritocratic, very transparent and very fair to its people. If you can do your job in 2 hours and deliver, feel free to spend the rest of your working time on Facebook, nobody’s watching.

When you need something to do your job or don’t know something – just ask. Nowhere else knowledge and skills are shared so easily and eagerly among colleagues.

One of my most cherished learnings from Amazon times – the value of professional feedback and how to use it productively. You may spend years and years at other companies without really knowing how you are doing, or what your management thinks of you, or what kind of mistakes you are unconsciously making, or what people value most about you. Feedback is a powerful tool and Amazonians are trained, ushered and encouraged to use this tool and be fair and honest while using it. It’s mandatory to evaluate your manager (it’s anonymous) and ask for feedback from many colleagues and stakeholders (also anonymous). Managers never evaluate based solely on their own judgment. Your feedback is received by your manager, who is expected to consolidate it, interpret it and during the annual performance review give you valuable advice on where you are doing well and what could be done better. Everyone has some strengths and weaknesses, everyone has subconscious bias and everyone has room to grow. In the vast majority of traditional companies it’s assumed that managers know better and employees aren’t supposed to judge their higher ups. Even if feedback exists, it’s not real: your manager might tell you that everything is going fine or that you might work further on your communication skills. In whole honesty, you would not really know what it means. At Amazon people are trained to provide feedback based on specific examples and within appropriate context, to make it meaningful and constructive. Because we are all adults, we appreciate constructive feedback, and we don’t hold grudges, but rather we learn from it to get better.

Working with smart, innovative and driven people and being free of lazy idiots who stay with the company because they are someone else’s cousin, or incompetent brownnoser or have been here forever, is actually a blessing and joy. And being paid well while enjoying it is a dream. The majority of mediocre people never experience this. NY Times helps mediocrity feel better by trashing Amazon and its wonderful people. This is what they are really saying:

a) happy jobs at successful companies never happen

b) if it happens, there is a high price to pay – long hours, stress and cancer

c) if it happens and you survived, you are probably a jerk, because good things don’t happen to good people without consequences.

And you know what – if you believe the story, you are probably mediocre. Hope they really made you feel better. Or, if you need a stronger cure, you can always move to Russia and learn how to burn and destroy food.

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One Response to Why NY Times Amazon article is worse than pro-Putin propaganda

  1. Peter says:

    Hi! Thanks for the post, good read. I think it is very possible though that culture in US and Europe in the same company can be quite different, and people in the US offices are just way more frustrated. It is cool that you had great time in Amazon, but probably not everyone could say the same. Amazon employs about 222,000 ppl, not all of them are high performer super stars, right? And I have heard a lot of negative feedback from folks who work at Seattle office.

    Look what Steve Ballmer is saying about Amazon – “I think they are a place that people don’t want to work. Anybody who ever left Microsoft, we could count on them coming back within a year or two.”

    You are saying things like “best I have seen on earth”, “nowhere else” etc – but you have not seen it all, right? Compared to old fashioned and very bureaucratic Deutsche Post or entirely corrupt Arcelor, Amazon might be a great place indeed, but still not necessarily best out there in the whole world? 🙂

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