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King of diamonds, king of spades! Bezos was king of the kingdom of work
October 10, 2013 6:34 PM   Subscribe

The Secrets of Bezos: How Amazon Became the Everything Store, Brad Stone (Businessweek) "Amazon’s culture is notoriously confrontational, and it begins with Bezos, who believes that truth shakes out when ideas and perspectives are banged against each other. Wilke and his colleagues argued that lubricants were available in supermarkets and drugstores and were not that embarrassing. They also pointed out that Amazon generated a significant volume of sales with such e-mails. Bezos didn’t care; no amount of revenue was worth jeopardizing customer trust. “Who in this room needs to get up and shut down the channel?” he snapped."

"The one unguarded thing about Bezos is his laugh—a pulsing, mirthful bray that he leans into while craning his neck back. He unleashes it often, even when nothing is obviously funny to anyone else. And it startles people. “You can’t misunderstand it,” says Rick Dalzell, Amazon’s former chief information officer, who says Bezos often wields his laugh when others fail to meet his lofty standards. “It’s disarming and punishing. He’s punishing you.”"

[...]

Curious about Bezos, Fala had watched online clips of the Amazon CEO being interviewed, including one from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He was startled to hear Bezos’s laugh. He’d heard it before. He grew up listening to it. “He has Ted’s laugh!” Fala said in amazement. “It’s almost exact.”
posted by CrystalDave (48 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
A related Businessweek story about stalking finding Bezo's biological father.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:07 PM on October 10, 2013


Amazing stuff about his biological father. Also, as we know, he only picked up the Washington Post because he accidentally clicked Buy It Now.
posted by exogenous at 7:08 PM on October 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


“Hello, everybody,” and followed with “So, Steve Shure is sending out e-mails about lubricants.”

Sounds like a dick. Like the Kinda guy who is pissed you aren't selling enough lubricant then gets pissed again when you try to sell more lubricant.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:09 PM on October 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Sounds like a dick.

When you run a company that pulls in $75 billion a year, and you treat your warehouse staff arguably worse than Wal Mart does, I don't think there's much of a question about your off the charts dickiness.

I buy from Amazon when I simply can't find another option, even if it means paying more to another retailer. And then I feel bad about it.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:51 PM on October 10, 2013 [12 favorites]


The lubricant story reminds me of a recent experience I just had with Amazon, and it prompted the first email of this type I've ever sent to Amazon.

In searching for "Gifts for Mom," the following search results came up in the first few pages:

1. A book called "Porn for Moms" (joke gift, but whatever).

2. A fake turd to place on a toilet seat, with a picture showing it in action.

3. A least two phallic wine bottle devices that depicted a plastic man's erect penis, either as a cork screw or a bottle stopper.

Now, I don't give two whits about whether Amazon sells these things, or whether people buy them. But they all seemed in poor taste based on what I was actually looking for, and it at least surprised me that that they wouldn't have thought that maybe I wouldn't want to see them in such a context insensitive way. It also crossed my mind that I would have been pretty disappointed if I had run into a few of these things while searching for a mother's day gift with my seven year old daughter.

So, I sent off an email to Amazon mentioning that I was surprised and a bit disappointed, and boy were they on it quickly. Their response: "I am forwarding your message to our Development Team of Amazon.com so that they may do further research and make necessary changes and ensure that this does not happen again."

That is a pretty definitive response. We'll see what happens, and maybe I'm getting a bit grump in my old age. But I wonder if part of their reaction time is to make sure that stuff like this doesn't get directly to Bezos before they make necessary changes.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:53 PM on October 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I dunno about that piece, seemed a lot like the usual CEO lionising married to corporate fairy tales. I note that many of these fairy tales lack a proper conclusion; demonstrating how the different moves actually affected the company. That retention rate is telling, I think - I note Goog's is not much better.

Managers in departments of 50 people or more are often required to “top-grade” their subordinates on a curve and must dismiss the least effective performers. As a result, many Amazon employees live in perpetual fear; those who manage to get a positive review are often genuinely surprised.

Sick work culture. And if you think it engenders good performance, you're ignoring tonnes of data suggesting otherwise (the review process, not firing low performers; that's actually a great strategy as it's a lot of investment to turn low performers into top performers).
posted by smoke at 7:57 PM on October 10, 2013 [13 favorites]


Given this anecdote about designing worker movement in distribution centers “[Bezos] had no background in control theory, no background in operating systems,” Jones says. “He only had minimum experience in the distribution centers and never spent weeks and months out on the line.” But Bezos laid out his argument on the whiteboard, and “every stinking thing he put down was correct and true,” Jones says. “It would be easier to stomach if we could prove he was wrong, but we couldn’t. That was a typical interaction with Jeff. He had this unbelievable ability to be incredibly intelligent about things he had nothing to do with, and he was totally ruthless about communicating it.”

it's seems pretty obvious how Bezos' great and terrible methodology could result in a model which seems to treat workers like robots.
posted by warm_planet at 8:56 PM on October 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Just taking a look at the Wikipedia article on stack ranking, it doesn't seem to be employed by any extremely successful companies. It's been particularly blamed for Microsoft's downfall in recent years. They implemented the program in 2006.

I can understand the need to cull employees when a company is doing poorly and needs to shrink, but to make it an ongoing process is sick and counterproductive.
posted by zixyer at 9:01 PM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Microsoft's downfall

Record profits, sounds like one of them good downfalls.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:09 PM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Managers in departments of 50 people or more are often required to “top-grade” their subordinates on a curve and must dismiss the least effective performers. As a result, many Amazon employees live in perpetual fear; those who manage to get a positive review are often genuinely surprised.

Sick work culture. And if you think it engenders good performance, you're ignoring tonnes of data suggesting otherwise (the review process, not firing low performers; that's actually a great strategy as it's a lot of investment to turn low performers into top performers).


The 80/20 rule is a broad tool to see things in a different way and sometimes catch things we might miss from our normal perspective. But if they really do just axe the bottom 20 percent every review period, then you are right, this is a bad culture. But I kind of doubt that's how it actually works. There would have to be some kind of rehabilitation process.

Not to mention, in any department of 50 people, there is almost always going to be a few that need firing.

I hate sick work cultures like the plague. But a culture that encourages continuous improvement and constant attention to quality is not necessarily sick. Tiring and challenging, perhaps, but as long as it isn't stressful (meaning there is clear communication and clear, achievable goals), there isn't anything wrong with it.

As I write this, I'm wondering if I misunderstand what you said. Are you claiming that having reviews at all is not effective?
posted by gjc at 9:22 PM on October 10, 2013


gjc: "As I write this, I'm wondering if I misunderstand what you said. Are you claiming that having reviews at all is not effective?"

See, that's what I'm saying, boss. gjc is slow to grasp new concepts. It's not his fault, I mean, he's a good guy and all... but is he really great? I'm just saying.

Stack ranking is a whispering campaign by a different name.
posted by boo_radley at 9:24 PM on October 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


I just feel like someone's got to offer some appreciation for the random Hadestown reference in the post's title.

Today, that someone is me.
posted by Myca at 9:46 PM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Record profits, sounds like one of them good downfalls.

Well, they just fired their CEO, and their most recent product releases (Windows 8, Surface, and Windows phone) have all been flops to varying degrees. Downfall is probably a strong word, but everything hasn't been going great for Microsoft lately.
posted by zixyer at 9:47 PM on October 10, 2013


I hate sick work cultures like the plague. But a culture that encourages continuous improvement and constant attention to quality is not necessarily sick.

I completely agree. But a modern corporation where the median turnover is only 1 year is burning through an incredible amount of staff that are obviously a-okay working in other companies. There are some lost resources there no doubt. Further, a high turnover like that presupposes that good people produce good results, but this doesn't necessarily follow. Good people produce shit results if they are working on something shit.


I'm wondering if I misunderstand what you said. Are you claiming that having reviews at all is not effective?

Somewhat, misunderstood yes. The idea that fear and a siege mentality produces good results is hogwash, and has been demonstrated over and over again . A lot of companies produce all this cant about innovation because it sounds good - without a fundamental recognition that innovation is high-risk, fails far more often than it succeeds, and is often something that clients and execs in the company don't actually want.

The article talks about how Bezos is constantly pushing for innovation, reinvention etc, but then brutally and swiftly punishes any failure, bullies staff that produce ideas he can't understand or appreciate, and demands blind allegiance to his own gut hunches. It's a complete contradiction - but understandable if you buy into this late capitalist notion that CEOs are Ubermenschen who know something/think some way we don't and can't.

Reviews are fine. Continuous improvement is great (if you can ascertain what will improve) - but you got to make sure that's what you're getting, and I don't think most places do.
posted by smoke at 9:48 PM on October 10, 2013 [13 favorites]




What many people don't realize is that Bezos has raised up his management in the tradition of the Bene Gesserit. His laugh is a distorted version of "The Voice," and the question mark email a diluted form of the Gom Jabbar.
posted by mecran01 at 10:03 PM on October 10, 2013 [10 favorites]


To the amazement and irritation of employees, Bezos’s criticisms are almost always on target. Bruce Jones, a former Amazon supply chain vice president, describes leading a five-engineer team figuring out ways to make the movement of workers in fulfillment centers more efficient. The group spent nine months on the task, then presented their work to Bezos. “We had beautiful documents, and everyone was really prepared,” Jones says. Bezos read the paper, said, “You’re all wrong,” stood up, and started writing on the whiteboard.

“He had no background in control theory, no background in operating systems,” Jones says. “He only had minimum experience in the distribution centers and never spent weeks and months out on the line.” But Bezos laid out his argument on the whiteboard, and “every stinking thing he put down was correct and true,” Jones says. “It would be easier to stomach if we could prove he was wrong, but we couldn’t. That was a typical interaction with Jeff.
-How is it good management to have a team work for 9 months on something you instantly throw out and apparently solve yourself in five minutes?

-Is it probable that this person haa to insist that Jeff was and is always right about everything to keep their job? Are they relating this through the strained, grit-teeth smile of a resident of Bill Mumy's town in the Twilight Zone?

It's just hard to tell whether to take it at face value as an insight into how well things work, or see it as evidence of deep dysfunction.
posted by anazgnos at 10:07 PM on October 10, 2013 [35 favorites]


Well, they just fired their CEO, and their most recent product releases (Windows 8, Surface, and Windows phone) have all been flops to varying degrees. Downfall is probably a strong word, but everything hasn't been going great for Microsoft lately.

Poor MS, they are just so hapless. In terms of quality, and it seems their desire to work within standard accepted best practices instead of trying to steamroll everyone, they seem better than ever. Yet they still can't seek to catch a break.

The other day I was talking to a "senior architect" about a new project and he stated flat out "he is opposed to 'aspx' because Microsoft doesn't support HTML 5". I think that is their marketing and PR issues in a nutshell. They managed to make people think that they are offering some alternative to HTML, and that it is inferior in some way.

I'll shut up about MS, I just have a vested interest in keeping them afloat till I have my iOS consultancy up and running. Then I'll be right along with everyone else calling MS a failure until Apple starts fucking up.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:24 PM on October 10, 2013


Apple starts? Have you never used that piece of crap called "iTunes"?
posted by Goofyy at 10:42 PM on October 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I live in Seattle, have worked at Microsoft, and have many, many friends who work and have worked there. The forced-distribution stack ranking is incredibly toxic and was a primary factor in the decision of many of my friends to leave. It consistently gets rock-bottom critique in the internal feedback polls. It actively makes Microsoft a terrible place to work, and they are losing top performers because of it.
posted by KathrynT at 10:43 PM on October 10, 2013 [10 favorites]


Stack ranking is a whispering campaign by a different name.

From what I understand, the ranking system at Amazon is data-driven. It does include reviews from peers, but it also uses quantitative measures of performance to decide which bin you land in, whether you get put on a performance review or — alternatively — get pushed up.

For those who can hack it, Amazon perhaps has two problems for retention rates: minimizing on-call rotation and keeping the stock valuation high. The second issue is maybe more pressing in that Amazon doesn't make much money, and Wall Street has looked the other way because no one else is growing as far and as fast as Amazon.

Once the company hits some brick walls — for example, expanding into new countries like India and Brazil is made trickier by ownership rules and no longer having first-mover advantage, and countries are getting more particular about collecting tax revenues — growth will slow and investors will want profits.

Anyway, once growth slows and the stock price goes stagnant or falls, compensation packages for developers will shrink. Since stock vests in increasing amounts the longer an employee stays, a lower stock price reduces compensation and reduces motivation to stay long-term. Hiring and getting new staff up to speed is expensive and affects Amazon's ability to operate.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:10 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


What many people don't realize is that Bezos has raised up his management in the tradition of the Bene Gesserit. His laugh is a distorted version of "The Voice," and the question mark email a diluted form of the Gom Jabbar.

In unrelated matters, he also has a Langford basilisk tattooed on his bum.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:12 PM on October 10, 2013


I don't think I've ever had a development job where I didn't wish management had the balls to come in and fire the bottom 20%. Hell, they wouldn't even need to fire them, just pay them to stay home. At a company Amazon's size, not getting rid of the dead weight is the more common problem.
posted by sideshow at 11:42 PM on October 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


Among his greatest hits, collected and relayed by Amazon veterans:

If only Midnight Run were more well-known ... someone could make this a "Jeff Bezos or Jimmy Serrano?" quizlet.

“This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team document? I don’t want to waste my time with the B team document.”
is pretty much
"Is this Moron Number 1? Put Moron Number 2 on the phone."
posted by dhartung at 11:45 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


He might be a dick, but sending customers e-mail marketing materials regarding lube was kind of a dick move.
posted by raysmj at 11:45 PM on October 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


The one unguarded thing about Bezos is his laugh...

Creepiest thing about him, too. Had he gone into acting, he would have been your go to guy for Nazi concentration camp commandant.
posted by y2karl at 12:30 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


When we're talking about large corporations who completely dominate their own market, it's always hard to distinguish between the things they do that are clever and are helping them be successful and the things they do that are stupid but they can afford to do because they're so successful.
posted by Segundus at 1:33 AM on October 11, 2013 [15 favorites]


He might be a dick, but sending customers e-mail marketing materials regarding lube was kind of a dick move.

But a smooth dick move.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:37 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


So sad about his biological father.
posted by Peach at 1:45 AM on October 11, 2013


At least he's less of a dick than Steve Jobs, I guess. Maybe someday they can shoot for "not actually a dick at all"? Or is that too optimistic?
posted by Justinian at 1:50 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Bezos fascinates me. He is remarkably capable and he's built a remarkably competent company. When Amazon started in the late 90s I was like "really? another shopping cart?" I had no idea they'd turn into this massive efficient operations center with excellent customer policies. Or that they'd spin up a whole side business selling what we now call cloud computing and thereby changing the entire environment for Internet startups. Also on the side Bezos is a hugely successful angel investor, not to mention an interesting side project building spaceships.

Overall he's an interesting and successful man. And someone who's mostly avoided the limelight. I'm a bit surprised this book is coming out.
posted by Nelson at 2:16 AM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


smoke: "I dunno about that piece, seemed a lot like the usual CEO lionising married to corporate fairy tales."

Yeah, so much so that I wondered if he'd died suddenly and I was reading an arselicking obituary. That little piece about out-engineering the engineers in just 5 minutes! smells especially rank. Even supposing it was true on that one occasion, I wonder how many babies he's thrown out with the bathwater exercising that particular management technique.

Then we have:
Bezos, who believes that truth shakes out when ideas and perspectives are banged against each other.

But later:
“Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”

Who wants to work for a schizoid egomaniac like that? His M&A technique sounds like Bill Gates buying out Homer Simpson. I'm a great believer in the idea that the corporate culture comes to reflect the style of the CEO. Sounds to me like he's an asshole who runs an asshole company.
posted by Jakey at 3:39 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


'Running a company' basically is 'being an asshole.' He should have done something else with his life.
posted by colie at 3:50 AM on October 11, 2013


For those curious about what Bezos' laugh sounds like, I found this here.
posted by litleozy at 4:32 AM on October 11, 2013


I don't know the man at all but I have read that he supervises what the amazon dot com web site looks like. The first time I loaded their pages it was actually a decent browsing experience and it has gone straight steady downhill ever since. If I have to buy something there I use google to navigate it as otherwise it is now painful to browse the piece of dung.
posted by bukvich at 5:40 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


And insiders were once again left marveling at how Bezos had engineered another acquisition by driving his target off a cliff.

His willingness to be King of the Ashes ought to be putting the fear of God into the FTC.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:49 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


'Running a company' basically is 'being an asshole.'

This attitude is a not insignificant part of the problem with our whole sick capitalist culture right there.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:31 AM on October 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


I buy from Amazon when I simply can't find another option, even if it means paying more to another retailer. And then I feel bad about it.

I am curious: is that possible? I mean, aren't alternatives to Amazon as shopping channels anywhere? Especially if you are willing to pay more. Assuming you want to leave your house.

My only real interactions with Amazon is via Book Depository, which they purchased after I'd become addicted and I feel dirty about, but I haven't found a good replacement yet.
posted by Mezentian at 7:01 AM on October 11, 2013


Mezentian, I'm genuinely having a hard time understanding your question.

Did you mean, "aren't alternatives to Amazon as shopping channels everywhere?"
posted by soundguy99 at 8:23 AM on October 11, 2013


'Running a company' basically is 'being an asshole.'

In my experience in the Internet industry this is true. Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and apparently Amazon all run by people who aren't particularly nice in person. OTOH most of those companies are run by people who are very effective, making the right decisions and enforcing them. The lead executives I know at all those companies act like jerks, but they do so in pursuit of the success of their business and in many cases happen to be right. (Although in the case of Oracle and Microsoft, sometimes unethical and occasionally illegal.) Maybe you have to hurt your employee's feelings from time to time. It's a sad lesson, but I think it's probably true.

The first time I loaded their pages it was actually a decent browsing experience and it has gone straight steady downhill ever since.

I agree with you, I hate the Amazon site. But every single pixel has been carefully placed to optimize revenue. They aren't stupid, the site looks like it does because it makes them more money. Personally I never browse, I just search for what I want on Amazon and generally find it as the top item after about three keywords. And occasionally the "people who bought this.." and other upsells actually are useful. Etsy is the only online store I've used with a good browsing interface; otherwise it's all search for me.
posted by Nelson at 9:20 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


They aren't stupid, the site looks like it does because it makes them more money.

Relentless A/B testing results in finding a local minima for performance (turning clicks into money) - i.e. the data driven approach is guaranteed to find the best of a bad bunch, but not the best. Who's to say that a more elegant display and better faceted search wouldn't result in higher sales? We'll never know, because it requires too great a change to be effectively A/B tested (and/or too expensive in time and effort to justify the cost to folks focused on making short term decisions).

My favorite experience with Amazon involved a talk to my company given by AWS sales engineers (AWS is the group that rent out Amazon servers/services to other companies to use, among other things). They were quite proud of the fact that Amazon had invented this cool way of doing time-sharing of computers (that it had been done since at least the 1960s was lost on them). They also inadvertently said two things: That they didn't have the lowest prices in this business, and that AWS made massive profits for Amazon. Which didn't exactly endear them to us...
posted by combinatorial explosion at 9:37 AM on October 11, 2013


Wow, a median employee retention time of one year. When I quit Amazon in 2004, I heard it was eighteen months. Things must be getting worse.

Somehow, it all works and it all keeps making more money. I have to admire what Bezos and Amazon have accomplished, but I'm much happier now that I'm not working there anymore.
posted by Sauce Trough at 9:41 AM on October 11, 2013


Did you mean, "aren't alternatives to Amazon as shopping channels everywhere?"

Yes. Yes, I do.
posted by Mezentian at 9:46 AM on October 11, 2013


Who's to say that a more elegant display and better faceted search wouldn't result in higher sales? We'll never know

Fair enough. OTOH you can set up a more elegant display for Amazon easily enough via the API. Metafilter's own kokogiak ran Amazon Light for seven years that way, a very nice clean simple Amazon browsing interface. And skimming referral fees along the way. I think it was modestly successful for awhile.

You're right though that the Amazon design represents a locally maximized optimization around their A/B testing regime. I'm just skeptical whether some radically new UI would really do better. Again, Etsy stands as a counter-example, but then they're a boutique store, they ain't Walmart.

Comparing AWS to 1960s style time-sharing is so mind-bogglingly ridiculous I don't know how to answer it. AWS is definitely very expensive to its users and is massively profitable for Amazon. But if you just point at that and say "huh, Amazon must be dumb" you're missing a more interesting lesson about the cloud computing market.
posted by Nelson at 10:02 AM on October 11, 2013


Comparing AWS to 1960s style time-sharing is so mind-bogglingly ridiculous I don't know how to answer it

Yeah, it kinda wasn't possible in the 60's to just sit down at your desk with a credit card and instantly provision some temporary S/360s for a gnarly job.

(well, maybe if you had an awesome enough credit card you could do it)
posted by Sauce Trough at 10:28 AM on October 11, 2013


Opening tonight in Seattle: The Bezos Center for Innovation.
posted by donovan at 10:30 AM on October 11, 2013


The 80/20 rule is a broad tool to see things in a different way and sometimes catch things we might miss from our normal perspective. But if they really do just axe the bottom 20 percent every review period, then you are right, this is a bad culture. But I kind of doubt that's how it actually works. There would have to be some kind of rehabilitation process.

Not to mention, in any department of 50 people, there is almost always going to be a few that need firing.


You would think that wouldn't you? As someone who spent 10 years working for a company that uses that model it really doesn't.

The first couple of years are easy. You have plenty of people to sacrifice as you get rid of the deadweight. But then it keeps coming, year after year, relentless as a mob of zombies you think you can outrun. Soon, there isn't any fat to cut and now you have to choose the least damaging to the company to get rid of.

Sure, there are 'needs improvement' types of performance plans, but it is a formality. Those people are gone, gone, gone as soon as they can get rid of them. Then, one year down the road you find yourself identified as a sacrifice. You have been there too long, make too much money and have become a target.
posted by UseyurBrain at 12:44 PM on October 11, 2013 [9 favorites]




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