Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Michael Goodman and Cheryl Stumbo some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

What is it like to work at Amazon?

In an excerpt from his new book, a former high-level Amazon employee reveals what it takes to hack it under the watchful eye of Jeff Bezos.
The Amazon Way book cover.

The Amazon Way book cover. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from The Amazon Way: 14 Leadership Principles of the World’s Most Disruptive Company.

Leaders at Amazon are right — not always, but a lot. They have strong business judgment, and they spread that strong judgment to others through the utter clarity with which they define their goals and the metrics they use to measure success.

Make no mistake; there is a high degree of tolerance for failure at Amazon.com. A successful culture of innovation cannot exist without it. But what [CEO] Jeff Bezos cannot tolerate is someone making the same mistake over and over again, or failing for the wrong reasons.

Therefore, leaders at Amazon are expected to be right far more often than they are wrong. And when they are wrong — which of course will happen when a company continually pushes the envelope, as Amazon does — they are expected to learn from their mistakes, develop specific insights into the reasons for those mistakes, and share those insights with the rest of the company. 

The resulting culture of learning, growth and accountability would be impossible without a high premium on clarity — clarity in the setting of goals, the communication of those goals throughout the organization, the establishment of metrics and the use of those metrics in gauging the success or failure of any initiative. Practices like “fudging the numbers,” “guesstimating,” “approximating” and “bending the rules,” as well as deadlines that aren’t real deadlines and targets that are purely aspirational rather than firm objectives — all of these are anathema at Amazon.com.

As I’ve mentioned, one of the reasons I’m able to write out a description of Amazon’s fourteen leadership secrets eight years after I left the company is the exceptionally clear way we articulated our goals and processes as a team and as an organization. Great leaders (like Jeff Bezos) develop a strong, clear framework; then they constantly apply that framework and articulate it accurately to their team. Get this right from the outset and you’ve got an excellent mechanism for scaling good decision-making from top to bottom.

Interestingly enough, as leaders at Amazon.com we were required to write out our ideas in a long, narrative form, which may seem contrary to the value of clarity. After all, don’t most business presentations involve a series of bullet-point PowerPoint slides that are supposed to boil down complex concepts into a handful of brief, vivid phrases?

But at Amazon, PowerPoint slides were not allowed. If you needed to explain a new feature or investment to the S-Team or Jeff himself, you began by writing a five to seven-page essay. After you finished that, you reviewed it and trimmed it down to maybe two pages of text for the executives. I can’t tell you how many of my weekends were consumed by this writing and editing process. Then, at the beginning of the meeting, you would pass out this narrative and sit quietly for ten minutes while everyone read it.

The two-page document was a useful tool for sharing a set of ideas with your colleagues. But even more important was the process of working on the plan or proposal, describing it in a narrative so that important nuances, principles and features were clear is a critical goal. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “It's not the plan, it's the planning that counts.”

Jeff believes that reliance on PowerPoint presentations dumbs down the conversation and does not push teams to think all the way through their topic. As he explained in a 2013 Charlie Rose interview, “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.” By contrast, in the typical PowerPoint show, “You get very little information, you get bullet points. This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience.”

By contrast, written documents share more information without the need of additional explanation. When you have to be super specific, it further drives a culture of clarity, commitment and accountability.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Wed, Jun 25, 7:17 p.m. Inappropriate

What a remarkable ejaculation of the Amazon Way!

And to think that the author, having committed these particularly bright gems of business acumen to the page on one occasion with Utter Clarity, has conveyed them to Crosscut unexpurgated and unabridged.

And to think further that Crosscut, which was probably "ramping up" to boldly dish the Inside Scoop on exactly how Local Boy Makes Good, did not need to pursue that heffalump! The Scoop was conveniently available from the author's publishers, who--no doubt following careful vetting in Legal--agreed to placement of the piece.

Mr. Rossman's narrative is certainly an intriguing one, and his revelations will startle the hide-bound, timid, and unimaginative among business strategists and high-paid consultants.

Many of us have, for example, gnawed on the following koan 'til our teeth pert-near broke: how can we create a culture of learning, growth and accountability, in which there is no hiding from our failures?

Failures which are, to be sure, tolerated--even encouraged (and how else could there be so much failure in this firm?), but not to excess, and certainly not more than...a couple? a few? several?...repetitions of such failure will lead to another kind of permanent failure. Yes, "the island will vote you off," and that's it for a career at Amazon.

It is stimulating to read of a firm that "pushes the envelope," and challenges its managers to set audacious, clear, and measurable goals--and never to back away from achieving them, because they've been written down somewhere. Unless, of course, those enterprising managers, constantly revising their understanding and circling back on problems they thought they’d already solved, totally abandon those goals.

These "forcing functions" apparently drive a culture of clarity, commitment and accountability. This culture is right next door to that culture of learning, growth, and accountability, am I right?

And what's the "common denominator"? Accountability! And, you'd better believe it, Scalability! And gladiatorial practice during small-group breakout sessions, after we've finished our narratives, and waited respectfully for others to read it!

Thanks to Crosscut for conveying such intelligence to us without alteration or commercial interruption. Or, IS IT a commercial interruption?

Seneca

Posted Thu, Jun 26, 12:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Oh will wonders never cease!.... Yes that small mistake of buying "Pets.com"... good thing AMZN learned so much from it.

Amazon makes a ton of money by
a) selling things it doesn't own yet
b) paying suppliers well after selling the merchandise
c) paying shippers far less than it charges customers for those same items.
d) making salaried employees work a zillion hours of what used to be called "overtime" to be on 24hr pager duty. (Otherwise known as "house arrest" due to the fact that a page must be dealt with in 20 minutes or less, which generally requires logging into the hive and spending hours talking/IM'ing and fixing the broken stuff.) Granted the pay is good, but seriously?
e) only hiring "high school graduates" for warehouse work, except when they employ temps which only have to pass whatever temp agency requirements (not a HS diploma required, thus reducing their pay by the overhead of the agency.)

One of these days the investor bubble will pop, then lookout.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Jun 26, 2:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Seneca pretty much nails it. Crosscut has squandered whatever editorial credibility it had. Why not just post Amazon's corporate press releases? Pathetic.

CharlieE

Posted Thu, Jun 26, 6:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Okay, I'm no fan of Amazon nor do I have any ties to the company. But the take away is there are jobs that pay really, really well if you are willing to work really, really hard - choice is a good thing.

Seasoned

Posted Fri, Jun 27, 12:54 p.m. Inappropriate

What a God-awful way of spending your working hours. Spinning out parlor word games so, in some aspect, you can sell more stuff. I can't think of a more soul-sapping work environment, other than being a cubicle code monkey. Do people really like these jobs? Is it just a matter of self-preservation after a while that you convince yourself your job is worth-while?

Thanks for the insight into another job that I'd shoot myself before accepting.

Treker

Posted Fri, Jun 27, 1:53 p.m. Inappropriate

More Amazon propaganda, just what we needed. Here's the real question: how long before Crosscut's Board wakes up and sees what a disaster the site has become?

ACJ

Posted Fri, Jun 27, 7:47 p.m. Inappropriate

This is impressive. Power Point bulleted presentations are lame, and make intelligence wither and die.

From the article, these paragraphs resonated with me:

Interestingly enough, as leaders at Amazon.com we were required to write out our ideas in a long, narrative form, which may seem contrary to the value of clarity. After all, don’t most business presentations involve a series of bullet-point PowerPoint slides that are supposed to boil down complex concepts into a handful of brief, vivid phrases?

But at Amazon, PowerPoint slides were not allowed. If you needed to explain a new feature or investment to the S-Team or Jeff himself, you began by writing a five to seven-page essay. After you finished that, you reviewed it and trimmed it down to maybe two pages of text for the executives. I can’t tell you how many of my weekends were consumed by this writing and editing process. Then, at the beginning of the meeting, you would pass out this narrative and sit quietly for ten minutes while everyone read it.

The two-page document was a useful tool for sharing a set of ideas with your colleagues. But even more important was the process of working on the plan or proposal, describing it in a narrative so that important nuances, principles and features were clear is a critical goal. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “It's not the plan, it's the planning that counts.”

Thanks John, for a glimpse into the written culture of Amazon. I hope this style never goes away.

Posted Sun, Jun 29, 12:14 p.m. Inappropriate

What's it like to work at Amazon?

HINT: Most people who work at Amazon are not in leadership positions. Fix the oversight, or at least fix the headline.

simorgh

Posted Sun, Jun 29, 5:24 p.m. Inappropriate

This story is what is wrong in America and the world today. Corporate Monopolies running amok with "Gladiators" in charge. Walmart, Microsoft, Boeing, Comcast-privatize and capitalize. Who is accountable to the poor laborers at the bottom? The Slaves without the armor of the white boy "Gladiators" at the top? Nice article, give yourself a pat on the back "Amazon World". I will never by a thing from you. I boycott all the monopolies...this is anti American, anti Union, and anti Human. What is the difference between a frigging "Gladiator" and a "Psychopath"? Nothing...

Posted Sun, Jul 6, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

What's so frustrating about this piece (and about most tales of "what it's like") is that it's short on specifics. It doesn't dramatize, it generalizes. The author tells no more about life "inside Amazon" than Bezos's disdain for PowerPoint. As a reader, I'm not necessarily looking for "dirt," but, at least, for "dust," some ambient descriptions of how the place actually operates.

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »