There is much discussion about this weekend’s article in the NY Times regarding Amazon’s work practices. People seem polarized between, “that’s what it takes to succeed” to “I can’t believe what a heartless, intolerant and misogynistic company culture they’ve built.” I’ve heard the gamut from reading opinions online and even hearing the debate in circles of my close friends and family.
For anybody who has never worked in a hard-charging environment I can see how this article portrays a unidimensional view of Amazon but it isn’t one I believe tells the complete story. The basic premise of the article is that Amazon breeds a culture where it’s work hard, sacrifice personal life, succeed and climb ahead or be tossed aside. It’s best encapsulated in a famous Jeff Bezos quote,
“You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three,”
The truth is that if you examines the most successful organizations and people in the world you’ll find similar cultures to those outlines in the article.
Try working at Goldman Sachs, the exceptionally successful investment bank where its employees regularly work evenings and weekends and travel at a moment’s notice to client meetings in far corners of the country or world. You travel at the pleasure of your boss. You think it’s different at any of the top consulting firms? McKinsey? Bain? BCG? Accenture?
You see organizations like these thrive on large pools of some of the country’s best and brightest graduates that trade off 2-5 years of work experience under extreme pressure in exchange for skills, experiences and relationships that will last a lifetime. Everybody who signs up knows the trade they’re making and frankly if they don’t enjoy it there are hundreds of other places they would work that don’t have this lifestyle choice. All of them are up-or-out and they are rigorously capitalistic and at times that may even mean unfair because by definition people make subjective determinations of ones skills. Yes, some people stay 10+ years but many don’t and both are ok. They are personal choices.
Think it’s a cake walk working at any of the countries top law firms? Skadden Arps, Wilson Sonsini, Cooley, Quinn Emanuel, Gibson Dunn, Munger Tolles? The one thing I learned as a consultant (I worked at Accenture for 9 years in my 20’s) and working with bankers doing M&A transactions is that no matter how hard we worked there was always a lawyer who got handed the documents at 2am and had to turn them around by 8am in the morning. And it consulting & banking you rise up to be relationship managers but in law you still need to be the shit hottest at your legal practice.
Should we do an article on what it’s like to be a medical resident? How about working in the US military? Chief of Staff for a major political figure? What about a top athlete in the NFL or NBA or even part of the coaching staff. Think they don’t have work/life balance challenges in a field they’ve chosen to work in?
And of course there are startups. I’m not looking to fund people who err too much on the life side the work/life balance. Can you objectively say that you think rational investors would? I’m looking for maniacal, competitive, driven, hard-working, obsessed individuals who are deeply committed to winning in the same way that Kobe Bryant is committed to being at the best in his field. Why should I expect less? I wrote about that in this much-read post about what it takes.
I spend so much of my public life talking about the challenges of startups precisely because it’s not for most people and with Shark Tank and Silicon Valley and The Social Network we as a society have so glamorized startups that we expect them to be all fun and games. In reality working at startups often sucks. I called it Entrepreneurshit and if you haven’t read that post you should consider it. It paints an accurate picture.
None of these jobs from Amazon to Goldman to Skadden Arps to being in the US military is for everybody. In fact, I’d say most people would rather trade off more free time and less pressure than to be at an elite firm and many people value their hobbies and work/life balance. It’s admirable and we shouldn’t hold up the hard-work culture as the pinnacle of achievement in life. But both extremes are life choices and we each get to make them freely.
So what do I think about Amazon?
I think it’s the most successful startup of our era. It’s the most ambitious and has had the most impact on our daily lives basically creating the modern category of retailing. They push the boundaries on eReaders on video streaming on web hosting on logistics and a variety of other fronts. How could you expect this to occur in a laissez-faire culture? How many of you would be fine saying “sure, just get my my stuff some time next week.” No. You want it G-ddamn now and you demand it now and you demand the perfection out of Amazon and in a very Nicolsonesque way you want people with guns guarding walls and you don’t want to know about it behind the scenes.
Think your favorite company Apple is a cake walk? The Amazon article talks about their internal HR system where they can anonymously “out” colleagues for bad performance and bad behavior. I’ve heard from several people Apple has the same tool but you “out” people who leak information to the public or even talk with friends about confidential projects. Hear a drunk colleague at a party talking about the OS release? Out him or her on your internal system. When is the article talking about Apple’s culture?
Yes, the article had some very concerning points about not showing compassion for people on leave with cancer or caring for parents or having children. If these allegations are true and are widespread that would be both an enormous problem and a cultural failure. But until I hear evidence that this is more than isolated incidences I’ll chose to believe that as a general rule the company that is our industries most successful and innovate standard bearer would never make this institutionalized practice. So I give them the benefit of the doubt.
So where do I finally net out?
Amazon is an amazing company and I’m sure their people work their asses of. I’m sure many want to quit within their first 3-5 years and I’ll bet most are richer skills-wise and career-wise for having done so. And they probably have a few extra beans in their bank accounts, too. But the beauty of capitalizing is that if they’re unhappy they can march down the street and work for somebody less demanding or they can start their own companies.
I lived and worked in a country (France) that regulates work hours and work rules so inflexibly that I can see startups struggling to take on more risks in fear of expanding too fast and needing to cut back on employees, which is hard to do. Any economist will tell you that labor inflexibility leads to higher unemployment for just this reason. Many of these companies don’t hire the extra employees because they don’t want the risks so they grow more slowly.
But even in France the top professionals still just work as hard as you or me. It’s the system that works against them. I’ll always remember right after the 35-hour maximum work week was put in place in France I met with the finance minister of the country. He told me
“I love the 35-hour work week.”
“What? How could you endorse that?”
“It’s simple. I love the 35-hour work week so much that I work two of them every week.”
(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)