The Amazon thing

On Saturday, The New York Times published a piece by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld titled, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” Maybe the most critical line of the whole story comes near the end:

Noelle Barnes, who worked in marketing for Amazon for nine years, repeated a saying around campus: “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”

To say there’s been a big reaction to the article would be an understatement.

One of the primary criticisms seems to be that the piece isn’t balanced and that it’s overly negative. I don’t wholly disagree with that reaction. It does feel like the reporters had their conclusion very early on and used their reporting to write the piece they wanted. Is it wrong to take that decision away from the reader?

Whatever your stance, it shouldn’t be very surprising that a company whose mission is to figure out how to deliver orders in under an hour would have harsh working conditions. Let’s hear more stories from the warehouse workers.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter if the piece was overly negative, or even a little unfair. A number of people were interviewed by the Times, and I simply won’t discount their experiences or their truth. This story matters not just in the context of Amazon, but also in the context of addressing technology’s diversity issues.

With that in mind, David of 37Signals has the best take I’ve read on this situation, the report, and Amazon’s response:

How you respond to a red flag is what matters. You can deny its very existence. You can argue that it’s not really red, but more of an orange pink. You can argue that the people holding the flag aren’t true Amazonians. You can argue that the people who caused the red flags to fly were rogue actors, going against the intentions of the company. Or you can simply just claim that since you hadn’t personally seen any of the incidents, the flags are illegitimate on their face.

But the bottom line is that culture is what culture does. Culture isn’t what you intend it to be. It’s not what you hope or aspire for it to be. It’s what you do. There’s no way to discredit, deflect, or diffuse that basic truth.

We wonder why technology isn’t diverse, and yet when people speak up, even anonymously, the first reaction of many is to discredit the source.

I don’t care if each experience reported in the Times story was an isolated incident. It’s still important. These pieces add up. They build a narrative of unfair treatment and bias. The initial reaction shouldn’t be to say these stories aren’t true, or that they’re unfair. The initial reaction should be to press Amazon, a 20-year-old company and one of the most successful in the world, to do better.

Andy Newman