123 of 148 people found the following review helpful
Kind of like Billy Blaze in Night Shift
, November 22, 2013
This review is from: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Kindle Edition)
There was this scene in the funny movie "Night Shift" where Michael Keaton (playing Bill Blazejowski) is trying to convince his conservative buddy Chuck (played by Henry Winkler) that they should start a "love broker" business during the night shift they worked at the city morgue. Bill argued that they could protect women from dangerous out-of-town "Johns." To prove his point, he shows up when Chuck is getting a haircut with a newspaper headline he's holding that reads "Girl scout attacked." He said "see Chuck? See what I mean?" Chuck then starts to tug at the paper to see the rest of the headline Bill is obfuscating. Finally he succeeds and the headline actually reads "Girl scout attacked by dog." Bill, indignant, says "dog, guy from out of town, what's the difference, Chuck" to which Chuck says "there's a very big difference. One carries an attache case and the other urinates on trees."
That's what this book reminds me of...full of stories that have some piece of reality, but most of the key pieces are either fiction or skewed to meet the author's thesis.
Let me start by saying I respect Brad. I've been interviewed by him a couple times, and found him professional. His stories have been pretty straight down the middle, so the content of this book surprised me because it was so skewed. Not sure if this was because Brad didn't speak in depth to the senior leaders at the Company or because he wanted the book to be more compelling so he spiced it up. But, I've been at Amazon for 16 years, worked for Jeff directly for nearly 12 years, worked on all of Amazon's businesses, and either have first-hand knowledge or pretty good visibility to many of the topics in the book, and the book presents a distorted and often inaccurate perspective.
Here are a few examples:
- the Quidsi acquisition: did Amazon have to compete with other companies for that acquisition? Sure. This is pretty typical in acquisitions. Did Amazon plan to announce Amazon Mom while the founders were in a meeting at Amazon so they couldn't respond immediately? Come on. Really? That's pretty absurd. Who did Brad speak with who was deeply involved that confirmed that? Was it Jeff Blackburn or Peter Krawiec, the guys who managed the deal? Or, Doug Herrington, who managed Amazon Mom? No. Apparently, Brad asked Jeff Blackburn whether this was planned and Jeff told him unequivocally it was not. This is a keystone anecdote in the book and the punch line is made up. Girl scout attacked...by dog!
- The 2001 story about when Amazon decided to lower prices is inaccurate. It wasn't some grand announcement in a s-team (Jeff Bezos’s senior leadership team) meeting. Like most things at Amazon, it was through a series of meetings where we were discussing the business and what we wanted to change to drive growth and customer experience. It sounds more dramatic that it came after meeting Former Costco CEO Jim Sinegal and in a grand announcement thereafter at s-team. Problem is, it just isn't true. And, I know because I was in the meeting where we made this call as I was running the Music business at the time.
- When Alan Brown left the Marketing leadership role, it was Lance Batchelor and I that co-led marketing. Not Jeff Holden and me (as the author reports).
- The comments about the TVs given away for the person who came up with the most bureaucratic process in the company, once again, was only half right. Yes, there was the award. But, we never ran out of the TVs or morphed it into the Door Desk Award. We stopped giving out the bureaucracy award well before the TVs were all given out (the program wasn't quite accomplishing what we'd intended), and the Door Desk Award was an independent idea that was conceived and started.
- Several parts of the AWS origin story are inaccurate, and I won't list them all here, but a couple examples: (1) Brad talks about iterating fast by layering services like Flexible Payments Service and Amazon CloudSearch alongside EC2 and S3...while it's accurate that we layered on new services, the key services that we launched that meaningfully expanded the breadth of AWS were Elastic Block Store (EBS) in 2008, CloudFront (our Content Distribution Network) in 2008, and Relational Database Service (RDS) in 2009 (CloudSearch wasn’t launched until 2012); (2) the vision document proposing the AWS business and outlining the initial set of services for AWS (including our compute service, EC2) was finished and presented to the executive team in September 2003. I wrote the document and was lucky to have the help of several people in putting it together. This was about a year before Chris Pinkham moved to South Africa to build the initial version of EC2. Chris played an integral role in the definition, team-building, and product-building of EC2 (despite leaving before EC2 was launched). There are several errors in this section, and at the end of the day, you could debate how much they matter. But, an impeccably, well researched account it's not.
- "Jeff Bots": In 16 years, I have never heard this term once (and I sponsor several cultural events that attract people from all levels of the organization-- like Tatonka, our buffalo wing eating club). Further, I know the people Brad calls "Jeff Bots" very well. I can't tell if Brad is just badly informed or making this up for drama, but I can tell you that calling people like Steve Kessel or Russ Grandinetti robots is ignorant and another sure sign that this author didn't get inside the Amazon culture closely. I've sat in countless meetings with Steve and Russ where they've come up with strikingly inventive ideas, and fought hard and challenged peers and Jeff Bezos. You don't get far at Amazon by being a robot and caving on what you think is important. "Have Backbone" is an important part of one of our key leadership principles ("Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit"), and the people Brad dismissively calls "Jeff Bots" have backbone in spades. I took this section either as Brad trying to make the book more interesting or his being frustrated that he doesn't get more interesting press interviews with Amazon leaders because they stay on message. Having a strong culture that the leadership team really buys into is very different than having a group of robots who do what they're told. The former is part of what's made Amazon successful the last 18 years (and especially the last 10); the latter is an interesting, but nearly impossible way to be successful in the breadth of businesses Amazon's pursuing-- and plain wrong.
- The Culture: Of all the things in the book, this is arguably the most inaccurately stated. The notion that most "Amazon employees live in perpetual fear" is bizarre. Do some? Maybe. Suspect that's the case at any company that has high standards. But, do most? No way. The manner in which Brad characterizes Jeff Bezos and the culture is like dissecting Lebron James' career and saying that he's a bad shooter because you mostly detail his missed shots or that he can't win the big game because he didn't win the championship in his first few years in the NBA. In 18 years, if you want to tell the story that Amazon can be tough on people who don't meet the standards, or Jeff can get impatient and frustrated, it's easy to do. But, just like you need to look at Lebron's total body of work that includes four MVP awards, regular season and playoffs MVP awards the last couple years, and a second straight championship (while making a bevy of clutch, difficult plays along the way), to get the right picture of Amazon's culture, you need to look at the collective body of work. I've been the subject of Jeff's frustration at times through the years, and seen him get frustrated with others, but in the thousands of meetings I’ve attended with Jeff over the last 16 years, I can tell you that this has happened a tiny fraction of the time. Jeff is quite inventive and smart, but also collaborative, an amazing brainstormer, a long-term thinker, not one to give up on an initiative easily, and fun. He's also the single best learner I've met, and like many, has continued to evolve his leadership style over the last 10 years. It's clear to me that this author over-relied on interviews with people who had difficult interactions or endings with Jeff, and mostly in the first half of the Company's history.
In my own case, my plan was to come to Amazon for 2-3 years, and then head back home to NYC. I'm still at Amazon in substantial part because of the culture and Jeff. I can't think of another place that starts and ends with the customer the way Amazon does, or that thinks long-term rather than optically for a quarter, or that looks at an area of business (or customer experience) and doesn't let itself get blocked by existing convention, or that gives people who deliver a chance to try any new entrepreneurial venture that makes sense regardless of their experience level in that area, or that hires builders who are unleashed to go change the world, or has such a sharp, inventive, big-thinking, high bias for action, collegial, hungry, and delivery oriented culture. It's why I'm still here 16 years later, Charlie Bell is still here 15 years later, Jeff Blackburn 15 years later, Russ Grandinetti 15 years later, Steve Kessel, 14 years later, Jeff Wilke 14 years later, David Zapolsky 14 years later, Paul Kotas 14 years later, Diego Piacentini 13 years later, Tom Szkutak 11 years later, and the list goes on. There are plenty of opportunities to work elsewhere. We all get the calls. And, you can argue that the start-up scene in Seattle hasn't gotten its "fair" share of new entrepreneurs from Amazon. That's because people are staying at Amazon for an inordinately long time. We work hard here, but Amazon is a builder's dream, and if you want a chance to change the world in a pervasive way, there's no better place.
There are many other examples I could cite (my Kindle is marked with about 30 places that are highlighted as inaccurate or misrepresented), but you get the idea.
This is the problem when you write a book and don't talk in depth (i.e. many hours) to the principal players who have the full detail. People argue that this book is really well-researched. I disagree. Just because you conduct 300 interviews doesn't make it well researched. That's like giving credit to a book for the number of pages or footnotes it contains. It's not the number of interviews as much as who you talked to, what access they have to the true details of what's going on, whether you can represent the way the company evolves over time, and what the author then chooses to weave together as his story arc. I find it nearly impossible to tell an accurate and representative account of Amazon and its culture over the last 18 years if you haven't spent lots of hours with people like Jeff Bezos, Rick Dalzell, Jeff Wilke, Tom Szkutak, Jeff Blackburn, Diego Piacentini, Steve Kessel, Russ Grandinetti, Charlie Bell, David Zapolsky, myself, and other long-time senior folks who know these stories you're trying to write about and understand the culture deeply. Brad didn't talk to Jeff Bezos at all, and spent about an hour with a few of those other people but in a pretty high level way (not really trying to get deep at the core of what makes the culture tick or what have been the defining chapters in the Company). They were light questions (e.g. “Is it true you hit Jeff with a canoe paddle in your first month?”) or cursory questions that didn't seem to be considered very deeply in the writing. You can ask these people above and they'll tell you the same thing. Would they have told Brad the inner workings of Amazon? I don't know. Amazon is quiet in that respect. But, I do suspect they would have been happy to help Brad avoid getting the culture wrong, or the Quidsi story wrong (in this case, they tried), or several other of the errors.
Further, just because it might be frustrating that you can't get the primary characters to tell you everything you want doesn't mean you do your best to make it up yourself. That doesn't lead to an accurate or definitive non-fiction book. It might mean that you don't get to do the non-fiction book you’ve had your heart set on doing. But, that's a more noble path than getting it wrong like this.
So, the mantle is still open to tell the real story of Amazon. I’m not baiting people to fill the void, but do know this book isn't it.
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