Interview: NYT reporter Jodi Kantor on the Amazon story, and what she would have asked Jeff Bezos

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Workers come and go at Amazon's campus in Seattle.
Workers come and go at Amazon’s campus in Seattle.

Amazon employees recovering from serious illnesses are told their job performance is under review. Workers use an internal online feedback tool for anonymous backstabbing of colleagues. Employees break down and cry at their desks after brutal internal meetings. And the company’s relentless drive to change the world takes a painful toll on employees’ personal lives.

Jodi Kantor
Jodi Kantor

Those are some of the anecdotes from The New York Times story, “Inside Amazon, Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.”

The story is the talk of the tech world this week, breaking a New York Times record with more than 5,800 comments and counting. It has also stirred plenty of controversy, drawing pointed rebuttals from Amazonians including Jeff Bezos himself, who said he didn’t recognize the Amazon portrayed in the piece.

Our guest on this week’s GeekWire radio show is New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, who wrote the story with her colleague David Streitfeld. We ask about the origins of the story, her thoughts on the reaction, the push toward data-driven workplaces, and what she would have asked Jeff Bezos if the company had given her the chance.

Listen to the interview here, starting in the second segment of the show, at the 8:00 mark. And continue reading below for edited excerpts from the interview.

GeekWire: You’ve written over the years about gender and politics, among many other topics. You spent years covering the Obamas, including a book about the first couple. So what prompted you to dig into the topic of Amazon’s workplace culture?

Jodi Kantor: Well, in the last couple of years, I’ve actually been writing about technology, more and more. I did a story last summer about the software that’s used to manage the time and to schedule low-income employees. It’s about a Starbucks worker. Starbucks actually changed their policies for their whole barista workforce based on what we reported in the story. After that I did a story about the Stanford class of 1994, which was kind of this magical Stanford class that these people graduated at exactly the right place, the right time, and a lot of them went on to very big careers in technology. That story was about who did well, and who didn’t do well, and why.

And so I’m really interested in questions about how technology changes the workplace, how merit is assigned, who’s considered good, who’s considered not. Who gets opportunities, what the new rules of the game are. All of that drew me into the Amazon story. I should also say that in my world, so many people know Amazon as customers. I feel like there’s a pneumatic tube connecting an Amazon distribution center with my apartment. Not that much is known about how the company works on the inside because it’s so secretive.

GW: The reaction to this story has been all over the map. Jeff Bezos said the article doesn’t describe the Amazon he knows. One employee we talked with described the story as “ludicrously comical.” We’ve also heard stories from people we know about the company being very supportive of them during times of illness. And yet other current and former employees say the story was on the mark, just dead-on true to their experience. What’s your take on the wide range of reactions to your piece?

Jodi Kantor: I was fascinated with that Jeff Bezos response. It’s a little bit of a Rorschach test. On the one one hand, he kind of condemned the practices we documented. He said these are callous management practices. If you hear of them you need to contact me immediately. The phrasing, “I don’t recognize this Amazon,” what does it really mean. Does it mean, well, I’m the CEO and I’ve never seen this stuff, but I’m not exactly denying it. Or does he mean, I disagree vigorously with this portrayal, and I think the story is exaggerated? So I think he left himself a lot of room for interpretation.

One of the major topics of speculation in the last couple of days has been, how much does he know, and how much does he not know? He is absolutely the originator of this toughness. He describes Amazon’s standards as being “unreasonably high.” Is Bezos kind of the figure driving this incredible stringency? Or did he create the system and it’s sort of gotten out of control, and even he is sort of shocked by some of what we uncovered. I don’t know the answer to that, but I think it’s an interesting question.

nytAs far as the employees go, I see a kind of magic in the way employees have flooded social media to discuss what until now had been a pretty quiet thing. If you hung out in the right circles in Seattle, you would absolutely hear this conversation, but it didn’t really move beyond that, in part because everybody who works at Amazon signs a long NDA. But since then, we’ve seen Amazonians take to the New York Times website as you said, to LinkedIn, to other places to discuss their experiences, and you do see a very wide variety of reactions. I take most of them really seriously.

Interestingly, the response that was circulated by Amazon PR and by Bezos himself, by this engineer named Nick, who wrote a response on LinkedIn, that response was filled with errors, so I’m not sure what to make of the fact that Bezos and Amazon circulated it. I mean, the guy has worked at the company for 18 months. He said things like there’s no annual culling at Amazon, which is ridiculous, everybody knows that happens. Amazon PR confirmed it for us. He said things like, nobody at this company is required to toil long and late. Which again, if you work at Amazon you know that long hours can be very much part of the bargain. He accused us of making up the term Amholes, which is very common Seattle slang — a negative term for somebody who works at Amazon. So I’m not sure about that particular response, but I found the majority of them to be extremely sincere, and to portray the diversity of experience inside this company.

GW: One former employee that I talked with said that she felt your story was factually correct, but on the whole not a fair portrayal of Amazon. How do you respond to that.

Jodi Kantor: One thing that I really struggle with, in the course of doing these stories, is that there seems to be parts of the stories that people see, and parts of the stories that people don’t see. So there were long portions of the story that were written to reflect the things that people were really enthusiastic about with Amazon. We described what employees said about the culture of innovation and the customer focus. The fact that relatively junior employees can do pretty big things. A lot of Amazonians say that they love how committed their colleagues are. Somebody said to me in the course of reporting, this is the only place where I’ve worked where you don’t look around a conference room and say, “How did that guy get hired?” We describe projects like Prime Now, which was a very exciting release, and showed Amazon’s ability to put things together very quickly, without a lot of red tape, and to launch them at scale.

So I guess the question I would come back with is, I would say to your source, did you read those sections of the story? Did they stick with you? Everybody kind of goes to the most negative material very quickly. I understand why that is. The negative material is very troubling. We documented cases like the woman who had the still-born child who wasn’t given time to grieve and was instead pressured on her performance. But I do sort of feel like the story attempted to portray the best of Amazon. I’m wondering when we put such significant effort into portraying what people told us was the best of Amazon, why would people like your source not see it that way?

Amazon’s employee turnover

GW: One of the things that was most fascinating to us about the story you wrote was the fact that Amazon raised a question about whether you were portraying its employee turnover correctly. Their stance on that was a surprise to us. Here in Seattle, it’s accepted fact that Amazon’s employee turnover is ridiculously high. As you reported, there was a PayScale report that put Amazon near the bottom of the Fortune 500 in terms of median employee tenure, just about a year. And yet Amazon told you that its employee turnover was consistent with the rest of the industry. Did you find any evidence to corroborate the company’s statement?

amazonsignage2Jodi Kantor: We asked them for evidence, and they wouldn’t give it to us, but I want to state the company’s position in a slightly different way than you did, just to make sure we’re being fair to them. What they say is, it is true that our average tenure looks short, but that’s because we’re creating so many new jobs, and hiring so fast that there are a lot of people who haven’t been here very long. What everybody is really arguing about is the rate of departure. Is Amazon a burn-and-churn culture, where people leave relatively quickly. They denied that was the case. They said their numbers were in line with industry standards. I said to them kind of what you said. Guys, the impression is so uniform that people do not last very long at Amazon. If you want people to believe you, I think we really need to see some numbers. And they said, no, it’s confidential, we can’t release it, sorry. So their attitude is basically, trust us. So you can make of that what you will.

GW: One of the things that you and your colleague pointed out in your story and some of your subsequent coverage was that, although Amazon says it stands apart, and spurns traditional workplace conventions, there’s a chance that other companies could see its success and try to emulate its culture. We really are seeing this trend toward data-driven workplaces. What happens to the American workplace, and American culture, if Amazon becomes the prototype?

Jodi Kantor: I’m really glad you asked that, because I do think that some people read the story and thought we were trying to argue that Amazon is completely exceptional. They said, what about law firms, what about medical residencies, or what about other tech companies. What we said in the story, or at least tried to say, is that Amazon is, yes, on the one hand, distinct, particular, they have their own way of doing things. But on the other hand, it’s a harbinger of where the American workplace is going.

I feel like you could devote a whole show to the question of how data changes the American workplace, because it’s such a good topic. One thing that we see is that it tends to redefine, for better or worse, who’s effective. It sort of sets a new standard for defining that. That can be very positive in a lot of ways. For example, we’ve all worked in offices where there were people who didn’t do very much, or weren’t very good, but they were very good politicians or they had terrific personalities, and so they did well just because they made a favorable impression on people. We know that data can sort of get rid of that.

On the other hand, there is a question of whether data can properly reflect people’s contributions. For example, if you have somebody in your office who really makes everybody better — maybe they’re a veteran who’s been there a long time, and they train all the younger people, or maybe they’re just the kind of exceptionally giving person who is always helping other people with their projects — will data necessarily reflect the quality of their contributions? I’m not sure.

GW: You’ve gotten some rare, behind-the-scenes insights into Amazon from your reporting. What would be your advice to someone considering a job at the company?

Jodi Kantor: You know, it’s come up, because I have had people ask me that in the course of reporting. I would say, first of all, that as a reporter, my job is to be an observer, and to stay out of the action. I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling people whether or not to take a job at Amazon. But I would repeat advice that a lot of my sources give, which is, look at your division and your manager very closely, because this is a tough system, and if you’re going to be happy under a tough system, you are most likely to be successful if you have people around you and a boss that you really trust. And if you have a combination of a really tough system and then a boss who you do not think is fair or wise and judicious, you may want to be cautious about that. Again, I’m just repeating the standard advice I’ve heard that veteran-level Amazonian give. I don’t want people to think that I’m telling them or not telling them to take a job at the company.

GW: Circling back, one of the things that did strike me — and you raised this in the previous segment — was Jeff Bezos’ memo to employees. It was striking that he disputed the portrayal in the story but also asked employees to report, directly to him, any incidents like those described in the story. This is a company that has grown from 28,000 employees in 2010 to more than 180,000 today. Is it possible that Jeff Bezos just doesn’t have a handle on what’s going on below him?

Interpreting the leadership principles

Jodi Kantor: Possibly. First of all, a lot of those employees are in the distribution center. So it’s not that there are 180,000 marketers and engineers working at Amazon, but we know that the defining fact about Amazon is that they just want to grow and grow and grow. There is certainly a theory, especially among a lot of the longtime Amazonians I’ve talked with, who consider themselves keepers of the flame. They’ve done very well at Amazon, they’ve been there a very long time, and what they say is, look, the leadership principles are fantastic, because they have to be administered judiciously, because they can be used for good or evil, and they can be used with nuance or without nuance.

A great example is “disagree and commit,” which is the imperative to be really honest about your criticisms of other people’s ideas, to not be afraid to offend them, to really have a kind of meritocracy of ideas in the workplace, where people are given very rigorous feedback, but then what a decision is made to line up behind it and commit. What many people say is that “disagree and commit” is essentially being used the wrong way. That criticisms are supposed to be respectful even if they’re tough. They’re supposed to be constructive. And then everyone is supposed to rally around and commit.

What a lot of Amazonians say in real life is that the tone is especially combative, that the respect is lost. And so what some of the old timers will say is, look, “I learned this stuff from the people who wrote the leadership principles. I understood the way that it was supposed to be implemented, but these new people don’t get it, there’s no subtlety.” Their managers haven’t been at Amazon for very long. Some younger employees would tell me that they had gone through two, three, four bosses in a single year because the growth is so crazy, and the old-timers are worried that the best of Amazon is being eroded.

GW: Amazon did not make Jeff Bezos available for an interview for your story. How would things have turned out differently in your story if the company did?

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

Jodi Kantor: Oh, I would have loved to have interviewed Bezos. There are philosophical questions I would have really liked to have asked him. For example, I would have liked to have asked him about what the limits are on hard work. Because I don’t want anyone to see this story as an argument against hard work. We know that to achieve great things in the tech industry or any other area of endeavor, you have to be willing to put in a tremendous amount of effort. The question is, in a very hard-driving company and industry, where those limits are. Is it a free market, where you just take this totally libertarian approach, where you say, this can’t be regulated. There are no rules about this. Everybody just has to see how far they can go.

Or do you need to give a little bit more structure around that. For example, Amazon doesn’t have any paid paternity leave, which is really interesting in light of the news that companies like Netflix are giving extremely generous amounts. Microsoft, as many of your listeners know, just made a very aggressive move on the family leave front. So yeah, it would have been fascinating to say, Jeff, why should a 31-year-old male engineer, who’s about to start a family, come work for you guys when he could get, I don’t know, 12, 15, 17 paid weeks at Facebook or Google.

I definitely would have wanted to tell him the stories of the people who felt that they were managed out after a health crisis or family crisis and gotten his response to that. I would have wanted to tell him the stories of the employees who all felt like they were going to be replaced by younger people who could work harder. Those were both mothers, who were told directly by their bosses, and also men, a lot of men at the company at the company are really concerned about this, and ask him what his response would be.

GW: Do you think we’ll see change at Amazon as a result of the stories you’ve been reporting?

Jodi Kantor: I don’t know. I think there would be, frankly, a lot of hubris in predicting or overestimating the impact of a story. This stuff is very unpredictable. Sometimes a story can cause a company or a culture to become kind of defensive and locked down in certain ways. I don’t know if the senior leadership is listening to all of the ex-Amazonians who speak up. I guess the thing I would like them to understand is that the majority of our sources really loved working at Amazon, or loved many things about working at Amazon, or still love those things in the cases of the people who work there themselves. But many of them were just struggling with the culture at the same time.

I think it’s neater and easier for everybody if we pretend that the people who criticize the culture are losers or burnout cases or people who couldn’t hack it at the company. But that was not really true of the people I talked with. Especially with a story that’s provoked a lot of conversation, I feel like my job at this point is to fight to retain the nuance in the conversation, and to say, no, these people aren’t sour grapes cases, they’re people who felt very lured to Amazon but also struggled really hard with it.

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