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Created Aug 19, 2015

What would you like to do?

I would like to tell my story of burnout at Amazon, considering the fact that there is so many stories out there on both sides of the issue. My story is also on both sides of the issue, and I've had a lot of time to think about why people can see the same culture but come away with completely different conclusions. This is a throwaway because I still work there and I don't plan on changing that, and I don't exactly trust the company to take this in good faith, despite the fact that I mean this as a purely constructive criticism for a company that I really do like.

I am an autodidact (my formal education only tangentially describes what I can do), and a polymath (capable of holding my own amongst PhD-level Operations Researchers, Statisticians, Econometricians, Data Scientists, Computer Scientists, as well as Software Engineers). I love to solve real world problems, and in many ways am the perfect type of person for Amazon's culture. I started in a level 5 position, but felt from the beginning that I warranted a level 6 position. I was told from the very beginning that I could work my way into a level 6 quite easily and shouldn't worry about the temporary low argument that I found acceptable because my starting pay was still a significant raise over my previous job. My job description could be summarized as: Do whatever the fuck you can to save Amazon lots of money. And I did exactly that. Within my first year, I had created and directly implemented projects that saved Amazon a recurring annualized 7 digits. Within my second year, I had done the same but with 8 digits. In my third year, I had created a project that required direct investment and couldn't be finished within the year, but had been verified through significant simulation on production systems to be worth 9 digits of savings annualized. I consider this to be a significant accomplishment, especially in context of other promotions, with 8 digit savings projects considered to be key consideration for other people's promotions to Principal Engineer (a level 7 position). However, to this day, I am still a level 5 employee.

So why was I not promoted? There are fair criticisms of my personality that I'm willing to accept as legitimate, but my performance was real and measurable. I'll try my best to be as fair as possible in my response.

  1. Political capital. Yearly goals are set based on concrete accomplishments. Yearly reviews, however, are based on peer acceptance. In order to be promoted, you have basically have unanimous support from higher level peers for your promotion. I accomplished my goals, but I didn't gain peer support...partly because in order to accomplish my yearly goals I had to alienate my peers. I had to tear down their pet projects that were inhibiting progress, I had to inform them of misinterpretations of data that they held dear, and I had to make specific types of failures as obvious and clear as possible, whether that was with a bug report or a published analysis. This does not bode well for a promotion process that ultimately relies on having people like me. In order to do my job, I had to destroy my own political capital.

What makes this worse is that in order to be up for promotion, your boss has to "put you up" for promotion, which involves him/her writing a document detailing your accomplishments and arguing before his peers as to why you should be promoted in an effort to secure unanimous agreement. So not only do you need political capital yourself, but your boss expends his political capital by arguing for promotion. If he has 3 Carl Sagans on his team, only one of them is getting promoted. Additionally, this very easily becomes a I pat your back, you pat mine scenario. If some boss wants her direct report to be promoted, she may end up having to make deals with devils to get that one asshole to agree to it.

  1. Shifting priorities. I always prioritized my work based on a cost/benefit estimate. Amazon culture always places higher priority on work that direct-line superiors consider higher priority. If I had a billion dollar project in the backlog, I could still have my time redirected towards a Senior Manager's pet project or a Director's pet peeve. If I wanted to accomplish my goals (which I am ostensibly judged on for promotion), I had to do it on my own time. Eight hour days may be real for the average person at Amazon, but if you are fighting for a promotion, it is completely common to see people working 12-16 hour days. I worked 12 hour days for 3 months straight to be able to publish my analysis that led to the 9 digit savings project. Even then, I had to directly refuse to work on a VP escalation [1] in order to finish up with hundreds of simulations that I was running. This mistake irrevocably killed any semblance of a relationship with my senior manage.

  2. The official criteria for promotion enforces cultural adherance, and becomes a painfully obscure obstruction to constructive criticism. In order to get promoted, you have to have a claim for some adherance to the Amazon Leadership Principles. These principles are vague, hand-wavey, and much like certain unnamed religious texts, can be selectively interpreted to mean whatever you want them to mean. Don't like someone, but they have shown an aptitude for Diving Deep? You can call them out for not Thinking Big. If they show an aptitude for Thinking Big? You can call them out for not Diving Deep. When you get your feedback as to why you haven't been promoted, you get a bunch of hand-wavey bullshit, instead of a clear explanation as to why you didn't make it through the Bro Brigade jury of your peers. It is literally impossible to get clear feedback from your manager as to what you actually have to do to get promoted, because all they are allowed to share with you is this bullshit facade. For three years I was admonished to work on two or three different Leadership Principles, only to succeed and be told to work on two or three different leadership principles for the next year. Unfortunately, it took me 3 years to wisen up to the charade.

  3. Sunk Costs. If you change teams, it is effectively impossible to be judged on past-team accomplishments, and therefore you throw away all your past accomplishments and start over from scratch. If you have invested 3 years into getting promoted, and then you decide it is politically impossible to do so in your current team, you are going to go at the very least a 4th year without a promotion. If your team gets re-orged and your new Director is a data-hating cowboy (like mine was) and you are someone that relies on data analysis to do your job, you won't get promoted until you switch teams and spend a year somewhere else. It is far too easy to think promotion is just around the corner, only to be shafted with something completely out of your control.


Where did this leave me? It left me completely burnt out, with a doctor telling me that my kidney stones were from stress and insomnia and recommending that I look for another company to work for. In a story that could only come from Office Space, I mentally checked out, spent 3 months looking for a new team to join, and left...only for my Senior Manager who gave me kidney stones to tell me I had made huge improvements in the last three months and should try to stay for another promotion. I switched teams, worked for a boss that I liked but had little political capital until she left the company. I ended up on a PIP (I'm not gonna lie, I probably deserved it, but it happened because I was still completely burnt out). My new boss is actually great...he has been helpful, advocates for me when around his peers, works with me on problems that I'm having trouble with, and is oddly transparent about what I have to do to get ahead. This probably has something to do with him having a very similar story of burnout in a different but equally brutal org...he actually has some empathy.

Here are my criticisms, and how Amazon should fix the problem:

  1. The culture of amazon has evolved. I can still see remnants of a culture inspired by libertarian philosophy...a meritocratic ideal where only the best of the best survived and the company at the time was better for it. Much like the apocraphal frog in the slowly boiling pot of water, Amazon has almost completely lost that culture with the veterans oblivious to the fact. I can totally understand why Jeff Bezos doesn't recognize the Amazon that is portrayed in the New York Times. He hasn't had the chance to step back and observe what has happened to it. Much like how the Great Roman Empire didn't fall in a day, Amazon didn't turn into a churn-and-burn culture in a day. Corrupting political forces corrupt quite unobtrusively, and you have to be consciously vigilant to notice it happening.

More importantly, you aren't ever going to see the culture clearly from a quick overview. A happy employee retorted to the NYT article, and I can totally understand why he didn't recognize the company portrayed: He has only been here for 18 months. All companies have bad teams and orgs with shitty managers and disgruntled employees, but that is never the majority case...even at Amazon. I would say that in general, existing Amazonians are pretty happy with their jobs...but that is a function of survivorship bias. My experience is a minority experience amongst current employees at Amazon, but it isn't a rare one amongst current and former employees...the others who experience it have already left the company, are in the process of leaving the company, left the offending org and chalked it up to a fluke, or are quietly biding their time while they wait for stock to vest so they can leave with the pay theyve been promised. If you really want to see what these disgruntled former employees are talking about, you can't just ask current employees about it. And forgive the data-nerd criticism, but you aren't going to see it with summary statistics unless you know what you are measuring. A significant problem that affects 10% of new employees and results in 10% of new employees quitting within 6 months will not look extraordinary if you only look at median retention durations. It is far too easy to take a quick look at an easily measurable statistic and dismiss something that is quite nefarious. If you can't see it with the data you have, maybe you are asking the wrong questions.

  1. A company as big as Amazon is incapable of having a homogenous culture, especially one that strives for purist meritocracy. Not everybody is ambitious enough to throw away their work life balance to secure a promotion, but that doesn't mean those people aren't of value. I have seen extremely talented people leave because of work life doing so you get 0% because you aren't willing to settle for anything less than 110%. Just like how you can't grow a company at Amazon's scale without paying attention to the special needs of racial minorities, females, the disabled, etc., you can't grow Amazon without paying attention to people's non-work needs. If amazon only employs people who are pathological workaholics, your hiring pool exhausts very quickly.

  2. People adapt to the culture to survive or they burn out. I had a very close friend who I referred to the company. He was much better than me at Political Capital. He was transparent with me about how he got promoted ahead of me. He kissed ass, always made the right people look good at the right times, only worked on things that superiors wanted him to work on, fudged numbers when superiors wanted to tell their story as they saw it when the data didn't support it. I don't blame fact I admire him so much more because of it. I'm smart, but he was way smarter to realize it so much quicker than me. He adapted quickly...I burnt out. Amazon is worse off because of it. If some aspect of your culture sucks, do you really want people adapting to it? Even if the culture is in general a net positive, you would be a fool to not try as hard as you can to weed out the corrupting parts. There is a saying that I've heard around here enough to be comfortable calling it a colloquialism: Amazon hires intelligent people, and they retain the sociopaths. Every time I've said it to a peer that hasn't heard it, I get a laugh of approval, as well as a conversation about how true it is. should probably do something to weed that aspect of the culture out.

  3. The pay and promotion structure encourage the negative aspects of the culture and make constructive criticism untenable. There is no way in hell I would ever respond to Jeff Bezos' email asking people to rat out the assholes...and its not because I have an ideological bias against ratting out assholes. There is one simple reason: I have never seen someone get promoted who complained about anybody, let alone their manager, who was a higher level than them. It is nearly impossible to call out someone that outranks you, no matter how obvious it can do it, but you won't ever get anything out of it. In my time here, I have made several attempts to make sure I'm not crazy and validate my negative feelings about a coworker by asking other people, and I have slowly come to the conclusion that only people that don't get promoted ever talk negatively about their superiors. Jeff, if you are reading this, when was the last time you had a direct report called you a dumbass? 1997? According to insider accounts of the Fire Phone[2], it looks like there were several people who wanted to call you out for being a dumbass, but nobody actually did...they let you have your way even though it was an obvious and predictable failure. News flash: Your whole company is like this, all the way down to the lowest level manager. Fix it.

I would add that the pay structure is actually huge-as-fuck spiral of death just waiting for Amazon to fall in. Amazon is propped up in the stock market by extremely high expectations of its future growth. The engineers that keep it all from melting down are being paid a huge part of their total compensation in stock, and have a huge vested interest in high stock prices. All it takes is one article, PR disaster, earnings statement, or scandal, and you will effectively give everybody at Amazon a 20-30% pay cut. Amazonians will leave in droves, and their tribal knowledge goes with them. On call tickets will spike, causing more people to leave. You could offer them more stock, but that only adds to the wall street momentum. This company will melt down to nothing if 20% of the engineers quit at once. You should probably rethink how you use your precious cash flow, and start paying people more in cash.


Jeff, if this makes it to your eyes, I want you to know something. I don't hate Amazon...I quite love it actually. I will probably always be a customer even if I leave the company. I want it to succeed. But there is an existential crisis going on and you need to fix it with more than just an email asking people to rat out their fascist managers. You are currently barrelling down the ocean in a TI-class supertanker at full speed, Wall Street is betting big on you because they think you are headed directly to Happystan but your compass is off by 2 degrees and you are actually headed directly for Shitlandia. There has never been a better time to use your favorite All Hands On Deck mantra. The faster you correct course, the faster we can all forget about it and enjoy the Amazon that we know is possible.

[1] If you've heard of Jeff Bezos's famous question mark emails, those are referred to as escalations. They don't always just come from Jeff Bezos, they can come from anybody that is directly superior to you.



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Geep5 commented Aug 19, 2015

Amazon's HR is working 100x right now to sort everything out.


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throwaway1488 commented Aug 19, 2015

Geep5: a company's HR section is not there for you or the workers, it's there for the company and the CEO. If you complain to HR, more often than not it'll bring negative attention to you. They might even decide to get rid of you to mitigate the negative impact your complaint has to the company. Everyone knows this.

Shit like this just wouldn't fly if it wasn't condoned by the higher ups. Bezos doesn't care about you, you're replaceable.


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g2p commented Aug 19, 2015

Expanding on Geep5's comment

Bezos added that any employee not fully committed to ensuring a healthy work-life balance should look for a job elsewhere


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dleslie commented Aug 19, 2015

What I've read above seems to describe an individual who performed their position admirably, but who may not have exhibited the desirable qualities for promotion to higher levels; more bluntly, the higher up one goes the less valuable it is to be a self-described autodidact and polymath. What's more, I see no mention of the author seeking mentors or appropriate training. Perhaps it is the case that such opportunities for skill-building are not available at Amazon, but I wouldn't know.


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skyzyx commented Sep 1, 2015

I worked for AWS for just over 4 years. This is almost a complete mirror image of my experience. 4 years, a shit-ton of experience coming-in, and I had the shit kicked out of me over and over for the same reasons you talk about.

My Director decided that he didn't like me, so he completely sidelined my career. I had 5 different managers while I was there, and never had a single chance for a leg-up. I invested SO MUCH into that company and the teams I worked on, and I think about those people almost every day even still. But with no possibility of promotion, a decent raise for doing excellent work, or any kind of career growth, it was time to GTFO.

People ask me what it was like working for Amazon. I tell them that it was simultaneously the best and worst job I've ever had. I learned more there than I've learned anywhere before, and the people are some of the smartest you'll ever see. But the environment is brutal. I can still remember one moment after I'd been there for about 2 years, where I was under SO MUCH stress and pressure, that I finally cracked. I ended up breaking down and crying in one of the 3-person "phone screen" conference rooms. People who know me, know me as being very stable. Opinionated and ambitious with a low tolerance for B.S., yes, but stable nonetheless.

I worked with some amazingly brilliant people who really, really got it. Nearly every one of them flamed-out. There are a couple who are still there who have told me in private that they're just waiting for their stock to vest, then getting out. I used to admire Amazon. Now I feel sorry for it.


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davelnewton commented Sep 2, 2015

Personally I thought this was hilarious. You might be smart technically; it's impossible to tell from reading this. But being wholistically smart entails more than being able to run "hundreds of simulations", it includes not destroying your personal health and well-being while alienating everyone in the process.

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