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A Pinch Of Amazon

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The topic of organizational health in the knowledge-work field does not always get into the news, but the recent Amazon press here and here and here (among many other articles) has made for some reading that is both fascinating and morbid.  Isn’t it entertaining to step back and listen to casual laypeople talking about the relative brutality of the tech world?

You see, gentle reader, Amazon (at least, some parts of Amazon) might be regarded as something called a “body shop.”  In my formative years in the software engineering space, a body shop was a place where you worked in your early 20’s (read: you were single and had very little else to do with the hours in your day), worked like a machine, got burned out, and left.   Afterwards, you either left the industry completely, or you realized that you loved what you did, but you moved on from the company all the same.  There was constant turnover.  Bodies in, bodies out: a body shop, get it?  A great place to work?   For some, perhaps.  That depends on the sources of one’s motivation.  But I digress.

These days, I take the self-proclamation of “cultures of superstars” with a grain of salt.  But this time I decided to take a closer look at Amazon’s tenets of leadership.  You can find them here, but I will repeat them below anyway.  I know you want to continue reading this blog without switching contexts, right?

Have Your Lawyers Read This First

Disclaimer: I have never worked at Amazon, and although I know people that worked there and currently work there, I did not consult them in writing this material.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at those principles.

Amazon’s Leadership Principles

Customer Obsession

Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

I find this to be a straightforward and well-intentioned goal.  The key elements are there: “start with the customer,” “earn and keep trust,” these are great goals for any engineer to aspire toward.  The word “obsession” is more than a bit disconcerting however, as it brings to mind stalkers and one-trick ponies that are not capable of doing other things in life.  It does not seem to indicate a sense of perspective.

Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job”.

I believe this to be a great core value in theory.  I have been in countless situations where I wished that software development teams would show some concern for their own deliverables, rather than pushing responsibility on other groups or uncontrolled variables, letting the end user find bugs, and other unprofessional practices.  This is really about being accountable.  A culture of accountability is a tremendously difficult thing to achieve in a development culture for a variety of reasons.  That said, “Don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results” is an admirable goal, but sometimes it can be unrealistic, depending on the circumstances.  Sometimes, it is difficult or impossible for a team to understand when they are making a trade-off between long-term value and short-term results.  Even further, it is sometimes acceptable for that trade-off to be an unknown.

Invent and Simplify

Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here”. As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.

This is an interesting statement on Amazon’s thought process.  Note the use of very sharp words: “expect,” “require,” “everywhere.”  If you read my blog post on catastrophic thinking, you probably know my opinion of these things.  I don’t find anything fundamentally flawed with the intention of being innovative, or simplification as a goal.  The comment about being misunderstood seems to encourage the fostering of ideas that might be considered radical to the internal status quo.  Very interesting.

Are Right, A Lot

Leaders are right a lot. They have strong business judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.

I completely agree with the idea that leaders should have strong business judgment and good instincts.  Seeking diverse perspectives is a great practice and shows maturity as a problem solver.  But “leaders are right a lot” smacks of pure ego.  Socrates once said “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”  I think Amazon could afford to paint its leadership with less arrogance on this one.  Then again, perhaps that is what Amazon has found to be necessary to become what it is today.

Hire and Develop The Best

Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others.  We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.

This one is particularly interesting.  I found myself fond of the point about taking coaching seriously.  This is sadly lacking in many tech-based environments.  Note the extreme terminology: “every,” “best,” “exceptional.”  Everyone who has ever made a hiring decision wants to hire exceptional talent.  However, there are many challenges in this endeavor.  First, it is deceptively difficult to even know what “talent” means to a company.  Is it the fastest coder?  Is it the best communicator?  Is it the person that spends the most time in the office?  Perhaps it is the person that will wear the pager on weekends?  Based on the stories in the press, Amazon seems to have no problems focusing on data-driven decision making, yet appears to struggle with its interpretation of “talent.”  A common problem, to be sure.

Insist on the Highest Standards

Leaders have relentlessly high standards – many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

This is another double-edged sword.  Fixing defects so that they stay fixed is another application of inevitability thinking, which I happen to admire.  However, notice the extreme speech again: “relentlessly,” “unreasonably,” “continually….”  It sounds like Kyle Reese talking to Sarah Connor, describing The Terminator.  These goals sound noble, but if they come at high interpersonal expense, is that a positive result or a negative result?

Think Big

Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

It’s hard not to enjoy this principle.  I might have to borrow it for my own use.

Bias for Action

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Can you see Amazon’s business model in this one?  Make a calculated decision and move forward.  It makes complete sense, given the pace at which they feel they must operate.  I admire the use of the word “calculated” here, because I happen to be a proponent of data-driven decision making where it is possible to do so.

Frugality

Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention.  There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size or fixed expense.

I applaud the intent of frugality: deal with your budget, mind the expenses, and so forth.  But “accomplish more with less” as a core mantra, particularly in Amazon’s position, seems to be either a shrewd way to promote creative operational scalability, or it is simply borderline insane.  Some of the stories that got media coverage – employees paying travel expenses out of pocket – if true, would rank in the “disgusting” category.  Granted, the retail space has famously small margins – but that is no excuse to mistreat employees.

Learn and Be Curious

Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

I could very much identify with this principle, since it is something I aspire to myself.

Earn Trust

Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing.  Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume.  They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Earning trust is something I have written about previously, it is an extremely valuable skill with respect to team work and organizational effectiveness.  In addition, the introspective intentions of this principle would be a welcome change to the software leadership that I have often dealt with in the past.  Wanting to benchmark one’s own capabilities against “the best” – whatever that actually is – is a noble pursuit, so long as it has some value in positive motivation.

Dive Deep

Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.

One of my own core principles is “Never ask any team member to do something that you would not do first.”  However, there can be a fine line between effective leadership and being a micro-managing, workaholic jerk.  This principle seems like it carries good intentions, but could easily result in overbearing and unbalanced management practices if left unchecked.  I’m not sure which reality this principle is intended to promote.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

After I read this, I thought of the phrase “is this the hill you want to die on?”  While I completely enjoy the idea of being able to challenge decisions and have a respectful discussion, the wording here makes it sound like everything is a battle.  The reality is that one must choose one’s battles.  Again with the extreme speech: “commit wholly.”  Does that mean selling ones soul?  I hope not, because my soul, for one, has other things to achieve outside of work.  I hope the Amazon folk feel the same.

Deliver Results

Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.

I was surprised to see this at the bottom of the list, but then again, perhaps order was not important on the list.  Delivering results, of course, should be at or near the ‘customer focus’ in terms of importance.  More black and white speech here: “right quality,” “never settle.”  It seems to set an almost impossibly high bar.

One Missing Ingredient

Anybody who reads these leadership principles and then interviews for a leadership role at Amazon probably has a sense of what to expect, simply from observing the same things that I have pointed out here.

It seems to me that these principles are singularly focused on goals and vision, and also focused on whipping staff into a stress-ridden timeline frenzy.  But there seems to be a very important ingredient that is missing:

Where’s the love?

Yes, love.  I said it.

That means forgiving people for being human.  It means caring that people get sick, that they have days when they do not perform at their best, or that they need their sleep, and so forth.  It means treating each other with some compassion and dignity.   The truth is, one can only work 80-hour weeks for so long (and it is not very long) before their problem-solving skills, attitude, health, and competence start to nose-dive.  Not everybody wants or needs to be king (or queen) of the mountain.  Humans are not robots, and should not be expected to be so.  If you are a talented, high-energy, twenty-something software engineer, it may feel like you are immortal and infallible – but may I remind you that the stress that you put on yourself does not come cheaply?  Would you work so hard if you knew that your life was half over?  It actually happens, and here is one example.  Yes, he became a CEO.  And yes, he died at 42 years old.

Summary

To be candid, I am a long-time Amazon customer since they first opened their doors.  I find their work in the cloud computing space (something that is rarely covered in the mainstream media) to be awe-inspiring.  However, I also get a sense of the price their employees have paid to get there.

For me, Amazon’s principles seem to be a mixed bag of excellent aspirations and frighteningly unrealistic perfectionism.  I find these principles to be fascinating in that one can see how such intensity brought Amazon the success they currently enjoy, and the scale upon which they enjoy it.  At the same time, some of the principles sound sharp, ego-centric, and nearly robotic.  In comparing Amazon’s principles against my own, I start to wonder if such leadership mantras should be more humanized, lest they reduce our industry to nothing more than slave labor.  I could imagine that such principles, when implemented with mature and empathetic leadership, could lead to great achievement and tremendous learning.  In less caring hands, it could spell an awful reputation for the software industry.  Ironically, this aspect seems to indicate how “normal” Amazon’s culture is, since many other companies struggle to balance similar concerns with varying degrees of success.

 

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  • linuxster

    Great recap and reflection! It’s pretty clear Bezos strives for excellence and expects everyone to passion like a founder. I think that attracts those looking to measure themselves (elitism), those who think they are serving a higher purpose (idealism), or those who might themselves be founders but don’t make the jump, maybe rationalizing even with Amazon expectations they still have a batter work life balance than starting their own company (pragmatism). Jack Welch and Steve Jobs were notorious for similar practices. Ex stack ranking and wage fixing

    You can say this churn and burn style is bad because it represents the purist form of capitalism, but the company is winning and out innovating its competitors. It can’t just swap bodies in all areas so the talent retention must be there. Employees must be ok making work life trade-offs…for now. But that infinite supply of talent might decide to leave if squeezed too tight.