Yesterday’s NYTimes story about working conditions at Amazon is still percolating through the blogosphere. It’s provoking fights as the usual parties take their expected positions, but it has also inspired commentary from unexpected places.
For example, an old piece by Benedict Evans showed up on one of the mailing lists I follow. In January 2014 Evans pointed out that the hit pieces on Amazon don’t hurt its reputation so much as they create a mystique of a scary and powerful retailer:
Even apparently negative stories, for example about how hard the workers are driven, benefit Amazon, much like a mobster’s reputation: ‘don’t try competing with these guys’. Hence, one could suggest that even if a journalist sets out to make Amazon look bad, the result is generally something that looks and feels negative but still actually helps the company.
He goes on to point out that this can help Amazon with consumers, some of whom see a fight between Amazon and one of its suppliers in terms of Amazon fighting to keep prices low.
Hit piece can also help Amazon’s reputation with stockholders and Wall Street. As Philip Greenspun wrote yesterday, reports of Amazon’s ruthlessness confirm that it is performing to task:
Investors have been grappling with the principal-agent problem for centuries: fund a corporation, hire managers, and then sit back while they feather their own nests, e.g., by donating shareholder funds to local charities, hiring friends, etc. Perhaps because Amazon is still managed by its largest shareholder, Jeff Bezos, if we believe the nytimes the company’s main interest in employees is getting the maximum productivity out of each worker. I.e., not a year of parental leave like Netflix, no celebration of the “whole person” behind the desk. Instead of celebrating this rare example of Econ 101 in practice, the journalists are enraged by this behavior and so are most of the commenting readers.
So when a noted anti-Amazon partisan like Streitfeld bashes the company, his slanted and selective reporting can inspire a fear that Amazon can use to its advantage.
Early in the piece, the Times declares that Bezos “turned to data-driven management very early.” To back up that assertion, the Times shares a story of Bezos at age 10: “He wanted his grandmother to stop smoking, he recalled in a 2010 graduation speech at Princeton. He didn’t beg or appeal to sentiment. He just did the math, calculating that every puff cost her a few minutes. “You’ve taken nine years off your life!” he told her. She burst into tears.”
For some inexplicable reason, the Times doesn’t tell us what happened next. It’s all in the Princeton commencement talk, which can be accessed here or here. Bezos’s grandfather stopped the car. The old man signaled for his 10-year-old grandson to step outside. Once they were standing together, the old man said: “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
When you have the full story (or better yet, read the commencement talk itself), it paints a very different picture of Bezos. Rather than revealing him to be “an emotionless cyborg, casting a shadow over everything else that follows”, he becomes a “relentless doer, periodically wrestling with his conscience”. (Of course, this is the image Bezos paints of himself, so … )
And that’s not the only point that has been called into question.
As of Sunday afternoon, I have two first-hand accounts from Amazon employees that fundamentally disagree with the spin that Streitfeld applied to his piece.
You can find one in the comment section of The Passive Voice, and the other was posted on Medium by Nick Ciubotariu. The comment is semi-anonymous and thus unquantifiable, but the other is a fisking by a senior manager at Amazon who has direct experience with Amazon’s hiring practices and
Ciubotariu’s piece is one that you absolutely must read before drawing any conclusions. I won’t quote it here, but I recommend this piece because Ciubotariu rebuts and refutes the original NYTimes article point by point.
It’s like one of Konrath’s fiskings, only without the hyperbole.
Update: Ciubotariu’s report is backed up by a second senior manager, Tim Bray, who disputes the accuracy and says that he was “really shaken by that piece”.