In a memo on Monday, you asked employees to write to you if they had any stories that were similar to those published in The New York Times’s now-controversial takedown of your company’s work management practices published Aug. 15. “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,” you wrote. “But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Well, Jeff, as the spouse of a former Amazonian who worked at your company between 2007 and 2013, I thought I might take you up on your offer. Obviously, plenty of employees are very happy at Amazon, but don’t be so quick to dismiss The Times’ account: many scenarios and anecdotes detailed in the article hit very close to home. Amazon prides itself on being a workplace that encourages a constant flow of feedback—even when that feedback may be difficult to hear. I hope you remember your own management principles when listening to my story.
We gave up our entire life when my husband got his job at your company. Leaving behind our friends and family—not to mention my own job—seemed a small price to pay for such an amazing opportunity. I wanted to move, and I was so proud of my husband getting hired at such a well-known, high-caliber company.
Our first years were heady and dazzling. We were moved into corporate housing with a waterfront view. Seattle was lonely, but exciting. It felt like our lives had leveled up.
But little by little, the shine wore off. My husband’s first team was responsible for managing shipping warehouse software. With warehouses around the globe, my husband would get paged to fix problems in China in the middle of the night, in the UK in the wee hours of the morning, and then in the Kentucky warehouse during work hours. During those weeks when he was “on call,” we would hunker down in our apartment, isolated, tethered to the laptop.
When his pager went off, he was expected to respond within 15 minutes or risk blowback or a call from a manager. If something came directly from you, Jeff, it was all hands on deck until that problem got figured out. No matter the emotional or physical toll.
Eventually, my husband’s team was whittled down to himself, his manager and just one other developer. This meant he was expected to be on-call every three weeks. “Our” all-time record was 64 different pages, mostly answered outside of business hours. As his one-woman pit crew, it was my responsibility to wake up with him when he was paged in the middle of the night, to pull over somewhere on the highway to find him WiFi if he was paged on the road, and to make sure that our lives never involved traveling anywhere more than 15 minutes from an internet connection.
Without children, this schedule was grueling. But when our girls were born, it became almost unbearable. With my husband unable to take off more than two weeks after they each arrived, I became like so many other quasi-single parents, married to a partner who was married to the job. (Today, the ridiculousness of this policy is compounded by the stories of other tech companies and their increasingly generous paternity leave.)
When our first daughter was about a month old, my husband was asked to go on a business trip. I imagine he could have turned that down, but I was insistent that he go so that his managers would not worry that his home life was impacting his work ethic. This is the Amazon way, after all. It was also one of the loneliest weeks of my life.
Then there was the weekend trip we planned with my parents one summer, when we were forced to cancel our hotel room and come back a day early. Jeff, you wisely set it up so that Amazon freezes their code to provide a stable platform for customers during the busy retail holiday season. But when that code unfreezes during the midsummer “crunch time,” life for many of your employees is put on hold.
When my husband returned from his aboded vacation that Monday, the writing was on the wall. Pulled into a meeting with his manager, my husband was told he was not making enough progress on his teams’ initiatives. Nevermind that he was no longer working with the boss who had hired him, or that the new management team had been shifting his priorities every two weeks. Expecting to become the sacrificial lamb used to explain the team’s lack of progress, he began to look for other positions immediately.
He had been under so much stress that after the meeting I asked him to go to therapy. Ironic, isn’t it, that we were able to afford such a good therapist because of Amazon?
I’m so thankful, Jeff, that you brought us to Seattle. We love this city, and its tech culture, so much. We gained so many things from the move out here—not the least of which was better career opportunities for both of us! But it’s hard to know if the six years we spent at your company were worth it.
If only you had asked for our feedback earlier, and responded with the same kind of intensity with which you expect your own employees to respond to yours.