Bezos says Amazon’s drones will be as common as mail trucks

16 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Amazon boss says Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear follow-on show ‘expensive but worth it’.

They are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. A story published Saturday by the New York Times called new attention to the workplace atmosphere at fast-growing and increasingly hard-driving Inc., while occasioning a fresh look at the company’s guiding principles. • Company leaders take ownership of the company’s overall destiny and practice founder Jeff Bezos’s famed long-term focus (vis-a-vis short-term results). • Amazon’s successful leaders are “right, a lot,” meaning they have strong instinct and judgment and seek diverse views and “work to disconfirm their beliefs” in that process. • Amazon, anticipating a common criticism, concedes that “many people may think [its ‘relentlessly high’] standards are unreasonably high,’ but instructs leaders to raise the bar “continually.” • Amazon leaders are to earn trust, with vocalized self-criticism — even if awkward or embarrassing — presented as one means of achieving that end. • Leaders at Amazon have “backbone,” which enables them to challenge and disagree — again, even when doing so is “uncomfortable.” They don’t compromise for the sake of compromise, but when a decision is reached “they commit wholly.” • Amazon leaders deliver results by focusing on “key inputs” and never settling for less than the “right quality” delivered in “timely fashion.” London: Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos has hailed the UK’s regulatory regime for drones, as the world’s largest online retailer hints of the possibility of launching its flying delivery vehicles in Britain before initiating lift-off worldwide. His endorsement comes amid growing hope that Britain can become an international hub for the non-military drone sector, a belief that stems from the fact that the UK’s regime on drones is more relaxed than elsewhere, particularly the US.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority has granted permission to more than 850 commercial groups to conduct aerial work in the country using the machines. Bezos, who is worth an estimated $50bn , told the newspaper he was very excited about Clarkson’s move, but did not confirm if he had met him or his fellow presenters or how much they were being paid. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” – the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

After speaking with more than 100 current and former Amazon employees, reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld reveal how working at one of the great success stories of the digital age can be fascinating but often brutal. The company announced in July that it had signed up Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond for a new show to be broadcast via its on-demand TV service. At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Amazon began trials for its fleet of delivery drones in Cambridgeshire last year, while the Seattle-based company was only provided permission to test its vehicles by the US Federal Aviation Administration last March.

The team, along with Top Gear’s former executive producer Andy Wilman, have signed a three-series deal, with the first broadcast due at some point in 2016. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”) Many of the newcomers filing in on Mondays may not be there in a few years.

In 2013, Amazon announced it was developing Prime Air, a futuristic service that aims to use pilotless machines to deliver packages to millions of customers within half an hour of an order being placed. Bezos said it was one of a number of new shows commissioned for viewers of Prime, who pay £79 a year in the UK to access programmes and get next-day delivery on orders. “I think we’re in a golden age of television, so if you go back in time even just five years, you couldn’t get A-list talent to do TV serials, or if you could, it was a rare thing,” Bezos said. “But that’s flipped completely.” In the same interview, Bezos hinted that UK shoppers could be among the first to receive their Amazon deliveries by drone. Facebook has acquired Ascenta, a Somerset-based UAV maker, as part of its plan to use flying vehicles to bring internet access to more parts of the world and has begun test flights of its drones. For some people it doesn’t work.” Some clearly thrive in the cutthroat, almost dystopian work environment that encourages workers to turn into informants on their colleagues and chastises those who fail to respond to emails after midnight.

Asked in an interview with the Daily Telegraph this weekend about when and where its drones may be deployed, Bezos said that system will not be seen in the skies for many years. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover. One even describes the system that involves firing a certain number of employees every year as “purposeful Darwinism.” Yet on its way to “conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable,” as the Times puts it, lots of people seem to have suffered horrific experiences.

One former employee says that “nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.” Apparently a popular saying in the company is that it’s a place “where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.” And the company helps them. The biggest issue, or the biggest thing that needs to be worked on, is the regulatory side. “What I would say is that in the scheme of things the UK regulatory agencies have been very advanced. It’s also a system that seems to treat people as robots and any life event, such as having a child, or personal tragedy, like a cancer diagnosis or a dying family member, can get you in trouble.

Its swelling campus is transforming a swath of this city, a 10-million-square-foot bet that tens of thousands of new workers will be able to sell everything to everyone everywhere. In July, the company outlined a proposal for special airspace — between 200 and 400 feet — would be allocated for the use of commercial drones only. Ciubotariu insists he almost never works weekends and that horrific phone system is mostly used to leave positive feedback. “The Amazon described in this article may have existed, in the past,” he writes. “Certainly, I’ve heard others refer to ‘how things used to be’ but it is definitely not the Amazon of today.” This law states an unmanned aircraft cannot be flown beyond a person’s “line of sight” — or 500 metres away horizontally and 122 metres vertically. The company authorized only a handful of senior managers to talk to reporters for this article, declining requests for interviews with Bezos and his top leaders.

And more than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working. “A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It’s the greatest place I hate to work,” said John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book, “The Amazon Way.” Amazon may be singular but perhaps not quite as peculiar as it claims. It has just been quicker in responding to changes that the rest of the work world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be measured continuously, come-and-go relationships between employers and employees, and global competition in which empires rise and fall overnight.

Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving. “Organizations are turning up the dial, pushing their teams to do more for less money, either to keep up with the competition or just stay ahead of the executioner’s blade,” said Clay Parker Jones, a consultant who helps old-line businesses become more responsive to change. Only one, Keith Ketzle, a freckled Texan triathlete with an MBA, lit up with recognition, explaining how he left his old, lumbering company for a faster, grittier one. Decades later, he created a technological and retail giant by relying on some of the same impulses: eagerness to tell others how to behave; an instinct for bluntness bordering on confrontation; and an overarching confidence in the power of metrics, buoyed by his experience in the early 1990s at D.E. According to early executives and employees, Bezos was determined almost from the moment he founded Amazon in 1994 to resist the forces he thought sapped businesses over time – bureaucracy, profligate spending, lack of rigor. The guidelines conjure an empire of elite workers (principle No. 5: “Hire and develop the best”) who hold one another to towering expectations and are liberated from the forces – red tape, office politics – that keep them from delivering their utmost.

Employees are to exhibit “ownership” (No. 2), or mastery of every element of their businesses, and “dive deep,” (No. 12) or find the underlying ideas that can fix problems or identify new services before shoppers even ask for them. Within Amazon, ideal employees are often described as “athletes” with endurance, speed (No. 8: “bias for action”), performance that can be measured and an ability to defy limits (No. 7: “think big”). “You can work long, hard or smart, but at you can’t choose two out of three,” Bezos wrote in his 1997 letter to shareholders, when the company sold only books, and which still serves as a manifesto.

He added that when he interviewed potential hires, he warned them, “It’s not easy to work here.” Rossman, the former executive, said Bezos was addressing a meeting in 2003 when he turned in the direction of Microsoft, across the water from Seattle, and said he didn’t want Amazon to become “a country club.” If Amazon becomes like Microsoft, “we would die,” Bezos added. Google and Facebook motivate employees with gyms, meals and benefits, like cash handouts for new parents, “designed to take care of the whole you,” as Google puts it. Compensation is considered competitive – successful midlevel managers can collect the equivalent of an extra salary from grants of a stock that has increased more than tenfold since 2008.

But workers are expected to embrace “frugality” (No. 9), from the bare-bones desks to the cellphones and travel expenses they often pay themselves. (No daily free food buffets or regular snack supplies, either.) The focus is on relentless striving to please customers, or “customer obsession” (No. 1), with words like “mission” used to describe lightning-quick delivery of Cocoa Krispies or selfie sticks. As the company has grown, Bezos has become more committed to his original ideas, viewing them in almost moral terms, those who have worked closely with him say. “My main job today: I work hard at helping to maintain the culture,” Bezos said last year at a conference run by Business Insider, a Web publication in which he is an investor. Of all of his management notions, perhaps the most distinctive is his belief that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace – that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas.

Employees often say their co-workers are the sharpest, most committed colleagues they have ever met, taking to heart instructions in the leadership principles like “never settle” and “no task is beneath them.” Even relatively junior employees can make major contributions. Last August, Stephenie Landry, an operations executive, joined in discussions about how to shorten delivery times and developed an idea for rushing goods to urban customers in an hour or less. One hundred eleven days later, she was in Brooklyn directing the start of the new service, Prime Now. “A customer was able to get an Elsa doll that they could not find in all of New York City, and they had it delivered to their house in 23 minutes,” said Landry, who was authorized by the company to speak, still sounding exhilarated months later about providing “Frozen” dolls in record time. In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour. (Amazon came under fire in 2011 when workers in an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside, taking away laborers as they fell.

The process begins when Amazon’s legions of recruiters identify thousands of job prospects each year, who face extra screening by “bar raisers,” star employees and part-time interviewers charged with ensuring that only the best are hired. As the newcomers acclimate, they often feel dazzled, flattered and intimidated by how much responsibility the company puts on their shoulders and how directly Amazon links their performance to the success of their assigned projects, whether selling wine or testing the delivery of packages straight to shoppers’ car trunks. Every aspect of the Amazon system amplifies the others to motivate and discipline the company’s marketers, engineers and finance specialists: the leadership principles; rigorous, continuing feedback on performance; and the competition among peers who fear missing a potential problem or improvement and race to answer an email before anyone else.

But many others said the culture stoked their willingness to erode work-life boundaries, castigate themselves for shortcomings (being “vocally self-critical” is included in the description of the leadership principles) and try to impress a company that can often feel like an insatiable taskmaster. One ex-employee’s fiancé became so concerned about her nonstop working night after night that he would drive to the Amazon campus at 10 p.m. and dial her cellphone until she agreed to come home. When they took a vacation to Florida, she spent every day at Starbucks using the wireless connection to get work done. “That’s when the ulcer started,” she said. (Like several other former workers, the woman requested that her name not be used because her current company does business with Amazon.

Some current employees were reluctant to be identified because they were barred from speaking with reporters.) To prod employees, Amazon has a powerful lever: more data than any retail operation in history. Some managers sometimes dismissed such responses as “stupid” or told workers to “just stop it.” The toughest questions are often about getting to the bottom of “cold pricklies,” or email notifications that inform shoppers that their goods won’t arrive when promised – the opposite of the “warm fuzzy” sensation of consumer satisfaction. But they also say that is part of the point: The meetings force them to absorb the metrics of their business, their minds swimming with details. “Once you know something isn’t as good as it could be, why wouldn’t you want to fix it?” said Julie Todaro, who led some of Amazon’s largest retail categories. One Amazon building complex is named Day 1, a reminder from Bezos that it is only the beginning of a new era of commerce, with much more to accomplish. In 2012, Chris Brucia, who was working on a new fashion sale site, received a punishing performance review from his boss, a half-hour lecture on every goal he had not fulfilled and every skill he had not yet mastered.

After she had a child, she arranged with her boss to be in the office from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day, pick up her baby and often return to her laptop later. Her boss assured her things were going well, but her colleagues, who did not see how early she arrived, sent him negative feedback accusing her of leaving too soon. “I can’t stand here and defend you if your peers are saying you’re not doing your work,” she says he told her. Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman, said the tool was just another way to provide feedback, like sending an email or walking into a manager’s office. In some cases, the criticism was copied directly into their performance reviews – a move that Amy Michaels, the former Kindle manager, said colleagues called “the full paste.” Soon the tool, or something close, may be found in many more offices.

Workday, a human resources software company, makes a similar product called Collaborative Anytime Feedback that promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event. David Loftesness, a senior developer, said he admired the customer focus but could not tolerate the hostile language used in many meetings, a comment echoed by many others. For years, he and his team devoted themselves to improving the search capabilities of Amazon’s website – only to discover that Bezos had greenlighted a secret competing effort to build an alternate technology. “I’m not going to be the kind of person who can work in this environment,” he said he concluded. Each year, the internal competition culminates at an extended semi-open tournament called an Organization Level Review, where managers debate subordinates’ rankings, assigning and reassigning names to boxes in a matrix projected on the wall.

In recent years, other large companies, including Microsoft, General Electric and Accenture Consulting, have dropped the practice – often called stack ranking, or “rank and yank” – in part because it can force managers to get rid of valuable talent just to meet quotas. Preparing is like getting ready for a court case, many supervisors say: To avoid losing good members of their teams – which could spell doom – they must come armed with paper trails to defend the wrongfully accused and incriminate members of competing groups. You’d have to have a never-ending 2-mile line around the block of very qualified people who want to work for you.” Many women at Amazon attribute its gender gap – unlike Facebook, Google or Wal-Mart, it does not have a single woman on its leadership team – to its competition-and-elimination system. They said they could lose out in promotions because of intangible criteria like “earn trust” (principle No. 10) or the emphasis on disagreeing with colleagues.

Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old parent of three who helped build Amazon’s restaurant supply business, said her boss, Shahrul Ladue, had told her that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required. Ladue, who confirmed her account, said Williamson had been directly competing with younger colleagues with fewer commitments, so he suggested she find a less demanding job at Amazon. (Both he and Williamson left the company.) Molly Jay, an early member of the Kindle team, said she received high ratings for years.

She was blocked from transferring to a less pressure-filled job, she said, and her boss told her she was “a problem.” As her father was dying, she took unpaid leave to care for him and never returned to Amazon. A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

The mother of the stillborn child soon left Amazon. “I had just experienced the most devastating event in my life,” the woman recalled via email, only to be told her performance would be monitored “to make sure my focus stayed on my job.” Berman, the spokesman, said such responses to employees’ crises were “not our policy or practice.” He added, “If we were to become aware of anything like that, we would take swift action to correct it.” Amazon also made Harker, the top recruiter, available to describe the leadership team’s strong support over the last two years as her husband battled a rare cancer. “It took my breath away,” she said. For all of the employees who are edged out, many others flee, exhausted or unwilling to further endure the hardships for the cause of delivering swim goggles and rolls of Scotch tape to customers just a little quicker. He left Amazon in 2010 and then returned briefly in 2014. “The sheer number of innovations means things go wrong, you need to rectify, and then explain, and heaven help if you got an email from Jeff,” he said. “It’s as if you’ve got the CEO of the company in bed with you at 3 a.m. breathing down your neck.” Amazon retains new workers in part by requiring them to repay part of their signing bonus if they leave within a year, and a portion of their hefty relocation fees if they leave within two years. Several fathers said they left or were considering quitting because of pressure from bosses or peers to spend less time with their families. (Many tech companies are racing to top one another’s family leave policies – Netflix just began offering up to a year of paid parental leave.

After Max Shipley, a father of two young children, left this spring, he wondered if Amazon would “bring in college kids who have fewer commitments, who are single, who have more time to focus on work.” Shipley is 25. Amazon officials insisted tenure was low because hiring was so robust, adding that only 15 per cent of employees had been at the company more than five years. Employees, human resources executives and recruiters describe a steady exodus. “The pattern of burn and churn at Amazon, resulting in a disproportionate number of candidates from Amazon showing at our doorstep, is clear and consistent,” Nimrod Hoofien, a director of engineering at Facebook and an Amazon veteran, said in a recent Facebook post. By the time the dust settles in three years, Amazon will have enough space for 50,000 employees or so, more than triple what it had as recently as 2013. Even for entry-level jobs, it is hiring on the East Coast, and many employees are required to hand over all their contacts to company recruiters at “LinkedIn” parties.

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