Implausible deniability

Many of you are aware I used to work for Amazon. While it was a fascinating experience, it is not one I would ever repeat.

Recently the New York Times published an article about the workplace culture at Amazon. For some reason, Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon took exception to the descriptions of the treatment of employees saying “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know.” I am not surprised. Not because there is anything untrue in the New York Times article, but because Jeff Bezos is a lying asshole. I just wanted to get any inappropriate presumptions of my appraisal of Amazon out of the way as quickly as possible.

Bezos doesn’t particularly care for the press outside of advertising. He appears to have a disdain for the written word, and after a year of trying to figure out why so little is written down at Amazon (word of mouth being the preferred method of communication) it became apparent. Written documents create a chain of evidence. It becomes difficult to keep saying “I never heard that before” when there are a stack of memos alerting you to the situation. And this is what Bezos is doing with his statement. “I’ve never heard any complaints because anyone who complains is marginalized and shown the door” doesn’t make as good of a press release. His denial is implausible.

The article described the culture at the Seattle headquarters of Amazon, focusing on the white collar workers there. I have no experience at that facility, but the reporting came as no surprise. I left Amazon amid complaints about the “sociological snake pit” at the Robbinsville, New Jersey facility (EWR4). My complaints. I could see how the process was flawed and self perpetuating, I was at the time too naive to realize this was the design. For some reason I wanted to believe the hype, I wanted to believe Amazon treated its employees with twenty first century sensibilities, what I found was the Simon Legree school of management, with enough Orwellian overtones to bring a physical chill when considered. I was alarmed the management failures were creating a hostile work environment, without realizing it was business as usual. The fact that one manager had been successfully sued for sexual harassment three times, and rather than be fired (zero tolerance was allegedly the policy) he had been promoted should have told me everything I needed to know. Much like the Catholic Church, every time this guy was sued they just moved him to another location.

EWR4 is almost entirely blue collar, a new facility built to utilize Kiva technology, robot assisted inventory. Amazon purchased Kiva systems in 2012, an attempt to monopolize use of the warehouse robotics. Amazon isn’t really interested in free market principles, it prefers to own its competition and when that is not possible it blocks access to innovations that would allow competition. The facility opened in July of 2014, I was there the first day. As we developed into our roles, it was immediately apparent these Amazon folks had no idea what they were doing. There were teams from different facilities which were supposed to be training the new hires, but when your company doesn’t commit anything to writing (or bother to bring trainers who are familiar with the subject which they will be training), each “trainer” has his own way of doing things (We later found that being a trainer was a perk, an ability to go on “vacation,” and assignments were based on connections rather than skills). Some of the trainers had come from facilities that didn’t even have the Kiva robots, and tried to show us how to do things “their way.” Six months later we were still trying to figure out the processes, each new manager having his own idea of what the jobs we were trying to accomplish consisted of, and how to accomplish them. Among a shrinking group of associates who were actual critical thinkers, the joke was “Well, this startup wasn’t too bad, considering this is the very first time they have opened a fulfillment center.” There are one hundred and fifty one,  sarcasm was salvation.

Although there were a handful of managers who had transferred to the location for startup, none agreed on anything. A question could have six different answers, and any answer different from the one the manager speaking was giving you was wrong. Bob might tell you to do something one way, then Jim would discipline you the next day for not doing it the way he wanted (but had never actually told you about). Standards for discipline were elusive, a theoretical performance goal became the minimum accepted productivity. Associates were encouraged to apply for lower management positions, so of course the rabble of incompetents jumped for the openings. You no doubt have a job. You have worked with other people. You may have management skills. If you do, you know that “wanting to tell other people what to do” is not a management quality. Yet those were the people “promoted” first. I did not apply for management positions, it was made clear early on (the day our interview became our orientation) skills and experience were meaningless. A promotion to a managing position might take you to a department in which you had never worked, where you would have the opportunity to tell people who had actually been doing the job how to do it better, even though you had never done it at all. Oh, there’s this story about how every manager is exposed to all the facets of the facility. I once sat in the pilot’s seat of a jet fighter, but I would have no idea how to fly the thing and would never presume to correct a trained pilot.

There is a lot of talk about leadership at Amazon. I never saw any, but I heard the words and saw them written on the walls. The “Leadership principles” are printed throughout the building (often misspelled). All that was missing was a big “Big Brother Loves You.” The frustrating thing for those of us who opened the facility was the leadership principles are rarely followed. I speak of those of us who started last year, a cross section of the unemployed in Central New Jersey. We showed up for our interviews and found we were at orientation, this is presented as a big happy surprise to new hires. If you only hire simpletons it will be a big happy surprise, but when you hire blindly across the the pool of available talent a few intelligent people slip in. We found it rather off putting our first interaction with the company was basically a lie. Far from “hiring the best” as Amazon chants, it is “hire the available.” By Christmas it appeared the recruiters were scouring homeless shelters, and the work environment reflected such. I was called “gay” by one group of young ladies, it doesn’t bother me but seemed to get under the skin of my girlfriend, who couldn’t fathom the ignorance in the question “Where is your gay boyfriend?” She was attacked with racial slurs because she wasn’t black. That was the cumulative total of reasons to call her a “Cracker ass cracker.” When she complained to HR her complaint was shredded. Yep, months later when she referred to the complaint because the situation had only gotten worse, the manager in question admitted to shredding the complaint. The examples of improper and even illegal procedures administered by HR is a chapter of its own. This is the standard of leadership Amazon promotes. And this is just a tiny part of Bezos’ insulation from reality.

Most of the more productive workers burned out under the badgering method of management. The goal might be 400 units per hour, but realistically, doing the job the way it is supposed to be done, 300 units per hour would be sterling. Nonetheless, were you to be stowing cases of CDs you might hit 350 or even 390. The manager doesn’t say “good job,” she says “if you can do that you can do 450.” Then she rolls over a cart of large or single items with no available bins, and your rate drops to 100. Careful, you may not be working there tomorrow. Rates are calculated minute by minute, rather than average rates to compensate for the multitudes of variables in a day, the worker is judged by his lowest rate of the day. If you “cheated”, ignoring the quality and safety standards, you could make the numbers, and management only cared about numbers (I actually knew a person who, in the same conversation with a manager, received a perk for having the highest rate in her section that morning, and a write up for falling below this manager’s standard at another point the same day). Morale among the honest people working there was the lowest.  When I left, just a year after starting, there were less than two dozen people still there who had started with me, out of a population of about one thousand employees. When I had mentioned the turnover rate to management I was met with dismay. Now I realize they were not surprised by the rate, they were surprised I took issue with it.

I was fortunate. I had an “indirect task,” so I wasn’t measured by piecemeal rates. I had the opportunity to work with other facilities across the country. Perhaps my managers felt this would soften my view of their performance, giving me the knowledge it wasn’t just them, it was this bad or worse everywhere else. I suspect my managers were not intelligent enough to plan such a strategic move, just about every positive event at Amazon happens by accident. When I found one facility was habitually misstating the contents of their internal shipments, I mentioned it to my manager. He shrugged it off. After a few months, conversations with other facilities who were having the same issue with this one facility, and what is most likely to amount to millions of dollars in “lost” merchandise each year, I found the root of the symptom. Without going into too much detail, they were doing it wrong, using a system no shipper on the planet uses. When I explained it to my manager I got “Well, someone is going to have to go out there and show them how to do it right, and it isn’t going to be me.” In my mind this problem is solved with a single phone call, firing the shipping manager and replacing him with someone who has worked in the industry someplace on the planet Earth, but at Amazon everything is face to face. When I suggested the only logical reason to do things the way they were being done at this facility was to cover enormous routine theft, I was placed under investigation.

I could go on, but I don’t intend to write a book about it. Speaking of books, Amazon started as a book seller, and books continue to be a large portion of its business. Being the only game in town they treat authors much as they do their other employees. Big surprise there.

I was disappointed by Amazon. They came in with a good reputation and talked a good game. Most successful cons work that way. The environment was worse than a sandbox, I would say High School but I actually had a good time in High School. I mentioned to one manager in training there are many examples of successful companies that do not bully their employees, he smiled and said “but this way is more fun.” I’m sure he’s on his way to a career of new facilities, as he stays one step ahead of the harassment lawsuits. His comment had the tacit approval of the HR manager, she didn’t bat an eye when I mentioned it to her.

Amazon is a corporation. It is just another store, and you can buy almost anything through them. Or you can choose not to contribute to their profits and market share. At an all hands meeting last Spring, the General Manager of EWR4 said in a statement to the gathered employees, “You are not people, you are only numbers to me.” This is the general manager of Amazon’s largest facility (he has since been promoted and oversees two plantations facilities). Yet this isn’t the Amazon Jeff Bezos sees.

That would suggest Jeff is either incompetent, blind, or lying. I don’t really care which. I won’t patronize companies that abuse their workers, so Amazon is off my list of preferred vendors.

 

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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.