The short answer is “yes.” It’s also “no” and “it depends.” The recent New York Times critique of Amazon‘s work culture — the most commented-on piece in the publication’s history — has resulted in a firestorm of both backlash and support from the media and tech titans. Former and current Amazon employees have chimed in, sharing views and experiences that both support and negate the Times‘ claim that Amazon is a company guilty of “conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.”
(Photo Credit: JD Hancock/Flickr)
As interesting as the Amazon-specific finger-pointing, however, is the far larger debate it has sparked about work environments not only in the tech industry but also in corporate America at large.
As Vox writer Ezra Klein astutely points out, the Times’ article is not simply an expose on the Seattle-based tech giant, but a wider lens we can use to consider the “future of high-prestige, white-collar work in America and the toll it takes on family life.” A lens that invites the question of “whether some of the most privileged, productive, and highly compensated workers in the world can have both the job they want and the life they want.”
Regardless of the tech or corporate job in question, is it rare to work as hard and under as intense of conditions as at Amazon? And whether or not it’s rare, is it bad? As in the case of the Times’ piece, there is a slew of dissenters and supporters that represent both sides of the debate. Their responses, some of which are outlined below, make it clear that the answer to the second question depends on who you talk to, but the answer to the first is a fairly definitive “no,” or at the very least, a matter of degree.
Demanding Jobs Are, Well, Demanding
Writer and software engineer David Auerbach, for example, argues that Amazon is not an anomaly, at least in comparison to other tech companies.
“I can’t speak firsthand about life inside Amazon,” wrote Auerbach in a recent piece on Slate, “but I spent 10 years working as a software engineer for Microsoft and then Google, both known as fairly demanding, high-intensity workplaces. And at least as far as it relates to the experiences of engineers, the Times article gave me little reason to think that Amazon is much worse than the tech companies where I’ve been employed.”
In addition to his own experiences, Auerbach supplies evidence (in the form of workers’ accounts and side-by-side company comparisons) that some or all of the Times’ accusations of Amazon’s “data driven management,” “grueling job interviews,” and harsh “performance assessment” practices are comparable to those of other tech companies including Google, Microsoft, and AOL.
It’s Not Just Tech
To give another example, tech writer and consultant Ben Thompson, who has worked at both Apple and Microsoft, raises the point that work environments with high expectations are a likely unavoidable byproduct of highly successful companies, tech or otherwise.
“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that any company that seeks to compete on a superior user experience must push further than anyone else,” writes Thompson in his Stratechery newsletter, “and by extension, I’m not sure it’s an accident that not just Amazon but also Apple is notorious for a very trying work environment and zero concept of work-life balance … Few want to admit that progress comes at a cost…”
Inc. writer Amy Vernon makes a similar case that a high-stress work environment is not unique to either Amazon or the tech industry based on her own experiences as a journalist:
“Look. I don’t know what it’s like to work at Amazon. I haven’t worked there. But I have worked at companies that were part of huge, publicly traded conglomerates. Every newsroom I was ever in was filled with wonderful people and with backstabbers. We constantly fought for our stories against other reporters and to get our editors to give us the thumbs up. When we didn’t cry, we got so mad we smashed phones. We yelled at each other so loudly the walls shook (to be fair, the walls were really thin). Those were good days. I’m not saying any of that is right. I’m not saying I didn’t wish things had been different at various times in various newsrooms. But every journalist I know has stories. And many people I know in other industries have stories – from small companies and large.”
There is also data-driven evidence to support the claim that stress is not an issue at Amazon alone. According to a recent study by professors from Harvard and Stanford business school professors, work-related stress is the cause of approximately 120,000 deaths and $190 billion in health care costs in America annually.
Is it hard to work at Amazon? The jury is out. But, what is certain is that high-powered jobs demand dedication from workers … sometimes more than most people want to devote to their job. And, that’s OK. The goal is to figure out what kind of corporate culture works for you, and look for an employer where your co-workers share the same values.
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