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How Pivotal Is Amazon's Culture To Its Success?

This question originally appeared on CoFoundersLab: Is Amazon’s culture pivotal to its success?

Answer from Tal Saraf, SVP, Engineering and Architecture, Starbucks and former General Manager at Amazon.com


I worked at Amazon (AWS specifically) and am in Seattle. I learned a lot and am very proud of what my teams accomplished at Amazon.


There's a lot of discussion online including this discussion of the Amazon "Leadership Principles."


I was an Amazon bar-raiser as well as a Microsoft "As Appropriate" interviewer, which is the Microsoft equivalent. Bar-raisers are intended to ensure that candidates are a good cultural fit in terms of the leadership principles and being able to meet the job requirements. The leadership principles are very much pivotal to Amazon's success in my opinion.


I would add that different parts of Amazon have subcultures. AWS and Kindle are somewhat different from one another and each is certainly different than the old core book business and broader retail business. In my opinion, each SVP had a sub-culture, some of which is called out in elements of the New York Times story. So while this is painted as Amazon overall, I don't think that part of the NYT story is accurate, as it overly generalizes individual managers and individual anecdotes as being the company overall; it paints too harsh a picture of Amazon.


Some people do really love working at Amazon and they figure out a way to make Amazon a great place to work as long as they elect to be there. There are many options for talented people,  and elements of Amazon can be quite attractive e.g. getting a lot done and having compelling work.


Also, Amazon managers have a lot of autonomy, so who you work with and for matters as it does for most companies and jobs. There are good managers in most companies. And there are bad managers everywhere who show poor judgment and act inappropriately. I'm not making excuses; I’m just calling out a reality that a story or stories could be written about any number of companies where managers take actions that no one would want to read about in the NYT or elsewhere. For instance plenty of articles have been written about the Microsoft stack ranking system, which I won't go into any detail about here.


I would agree that Amazon is not a country club, is very frugal, has tremendous customer focus, and is extremely analytical. Amazon also hires smart, committed leaders who it entrusts to work with autonomy, which is also a core element of the company's success and culture. You can also read the rest of the Amazon principles above as they guide a lot of the company’s day-to-day.


You'll note with all the positives there are no Amazon principles around managers taking care of their own teams. As a comparison, I was really surprised to observe how John Chambers of Cisco led and talked about the "Cisco family," which has its own set of positives and negatives and is very different from Amazon on this element of culture.


And the attrition, while "in line" with the industry according to Jay Carney, isn't for everyone, and certainly doesn't treat employees as well as Google, Netflix, or some other employers. I wouldn't expect to see Amazon match many of the benefits of other companies.


For instance, many engineers on my Amazon teams bought their own extra monitors, SSD hard drives, etc. As a matter of fact, so did I. It was the first and only employer I worked for for whom I bought (with my own money) computer gear to use everyday at work and paid for the cell phone I needed to do my job. So, the discussion of "entitlement" is accurate if you expect an employer to provide all of the tools needed to be effective in your day-to-day role. You certainly don't have to do any of those things, but many people do and did that at Amazon. That is different than other tech companies, and I'm not sure that everything in Amazon's culture is a net positive.


But this story isn't new; you can read more in Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store. Personally, I learned a lot at Amazon and worked with committed, hard working peers who built great services. But Amazon isn't the only place to work with top-notch people who are solving problems for customers in a way that builds real businesses. In many ways, this is part of the reason that I decided to leave Amazon when I did.

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