Solving Problems

Some of you may be aware that I have started a new job, working in one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers. I know fellow independent authors, “the enemy.” Amazon has not been very kind to independent authors, the royalty rates are paltry, but it’s a huge market and they own it. My ranking in their top 100 is #3,621,641, but I was never looking for monetary wealth.

I do need to pay the bills, so now I make sure other authors’ books get out into the marketplace. One of the dangers of working at Amazon is seeing all the books you didn’t know about, in fact even products you didn’t know existed. I’ve already come home from work and gotten on the computer to order something I saw going into the warehouse. I’m still waiting to see a copy of my book go by (not bloody likely), if I do I’ll be tempted to pick it up and sign it.

Life goes on, the path has curves but it is still the same path. My second day I was moved into the position of “Problem Solver” (one of the perks of having started the first day the facility opened), a fitting place for me. I’ve held a variety of positions in my life, but I’ve always been a problem solver, a “fixer,” the guy who makes things work. Ironic in timing, my personal life is beyond repair, my last wife died in my arms, I can fix other people’s problems but not my own.

The work is fascinating. Not so much the work itself, although the problems I resolve vary enough to hold my interest. The warehouse is largely robotic, all the items are stowed in bins that are moved by Kiva robots, then the pod of bins is stored and moved to the person filling an order when that item is needed. Our robots are a little sleeker than the ones in this video, and our pods are four sided and not just open shelves but a series of “bins” on each side, each bin is a unique address in some monster database that maintains the inventory.

 

One of the robots took a liking to me last week, it entered my work area without a pod, stayed facing me for a minute or two, then started flashing its blue headlights at me, as if it was fluttering its eyelashes, then it moved around into my immediate workspace, which it shouldn’t do without a pod, by which time the master program discovered its presence and sent me a message to release the robot into the available pool. If I was just a bit crazier I might believe that #5936 was flirting with me. I have been feeling rather lonely, but not that lonely.

The software that makes all this work must be millions if not billions of lines of code, tracking each item, each location, bringing the ordered items to the packers, and I’m fairly sure I might have done a better job in coordinating the processes. I just like watching the robots dance though. If one has a problem and stops, the other robots move around it, like cars in traffic. I had a line of robots waiting to enter a zone that had been shut down, and the robots behind the first in line kept shifting order as they tried to get past.

My job is finding lost items, making sure the virtual inventory matches the actual inventory, kind of a liaison between the real and virtual worlds, treading through maya. I am comfortable, in my natural environment.  It remains an interesting testament to man’s self doubt that errors are blamed on humans, even in the face of multiple computer faults, so another part of my job is giving feedback to the humans connected to mismatches, trying to help them reduce the number of errors even when I know that more than half the time it wasn’t their fault.

Amazon is a quirky company, looking both forward and backward. The founder, Jeff Bezos, started in his garage fifteen years ago, using a door laid across saw horses for a desk. Today, every desk is made of a door. No one carries a briefcase, they use backpacks. No ties (how I miss wearing a tie!), everyone in T-shirts. The facility, the largest Amazon has at the moment, is over one million square feet of floorspace, and situated within a 100 mile radius of the largest concentration of Amazon customers. My thoughts are it is in anticipation of the ability to deliver by drone, that radius allows a maximum flight of 200 miles, and the rooftop could be a droneport.

The hours are a little rough, a ten hour day (plus a half hour lunch) means I start at 0700 and finish at 1730, four days a week. The overlapping shifts mean you have a variety of people to interact with in a week, we all have different “weekends”, but the night shift follows the path of all night shifts, they leave the place a mess every morning and there is no way to communicate with them. I’ll never get to see another “Free at Noon” concert in Philly again, they are always on Friday, and as we head into the Christmas or “Peak” season, there will be overtime, in some instances mandatory overtime, possibly 60 hour weeks. Don’t expect to hear from me after Black Friday until New Years Day.

I’m not allowed to carry a camera or cell phone because I have to pass through a metal detector to leave, or I would take pictures and video of some of the amazing technology at play. Keeping track of thousands of employees’ cell phones to be sure they didn’t pick up one off a shelf would be maddening, not only to security but to employees who would like to leave the building within an hour of quitting time.

So I take a break from retirement, gathering new experiences to write about, enduring the pain of Lieve leaving me behind, using the time to reacquaint myself with me, or at least discover who I am now. I’ve spent the last four years trying to stop being a “type-A” personality, now those skills are coming back.

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6 comments on “Solving Problems

  1. Mari Collier says:

    Oh, yeah, you are working for a Northwestern Washington company. It was hilarious. If I wore a coordinated sweatsuit, I was fashionably dressed. Of course, the “seasonal” hours of our “busy” time (from Thanksgiving through January) were brutal. I’d encourage that robot,. You never know. It may have a story to tell. Yes, I Tweeted.

    Like

  2. Mike R says:

    It seems that there isn’t any environment that you can’t fit into, Blake, and maintain the same reflective mind. The phrase “taking a break from retirement” tells me that the untiring optimist in you is still alive and kicking. Can’t help much with the topic of robots and emotions, though. I think I would prefer a robot over some people, though.

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