December 10, 1997, 7:05 PM
I've just finished a grueling phone shift at Amazon.com, where I've been working at one of two tables in a "quad"—a cubicle in a windowless room carved up by partitions. I share my quad with three other "Customer Service Tier 1 E-Mail Representatives." We sit two to a table, with our backs to the backs of the other two at their table, and talk constantly on the telephone in a voice that is supposed to be loud enough for the customer to hear us and quiet enough to keep from distracting our quadmates. I've been doing this for the past three and a half weeks, spending fully half of my daily shift in one of Amazon's telephone "queues," dealing with an endless stream of holiday-frazzled shoppers and would-be shoppers. Not that we ever sink to the status of lowly order-takers, mind you. We're more like guides: "I'm sorry, ma'am, we're not set up to take orders over the phone—only through our Web site . . . yes, it's really quite simple . . . yes, it's perfectly safe to enter your credit card number online; just be sure to click on 'Secure Server' . . . It's not working? One moment while I transfer you to an order specialist. . . ." And so on, ad nauseam. You manage to survive by telling yourself that every goal has its price. And if you're an idealistic, young college grad with one of those ubiquitous liberal-arts degrees and a dream of moving up the ladder in a hot, technology-based Seattle start-up, the price you pay in this case is an entry-level job worthy of the Electronic Sweatshop Seal of Approval. And the price they pay you for your services is a breathtaking $10 an hour, made marginally palatable by the constantly whispered mantra of "stock options." I have time to take no more than three deep breaths to unwind from the stress of talking nonstop for four straight hours when I see my supervisor walking determinedly my way. Normally this woman, whom I'll call Lisa, has her jaw worked into an almost perpetual horsey grin, even when she's offering a
critique of my performance—which usually has to do with my failure to conform my phone or e-mail responses tightly enough to the surprisingly rigid format prescribed by management. I say "surprisingly" because the superficial atmosphere around the headquarters of "Earth's Biggest Bookstore" is one of alternative-minded, almost New Agey liberalism. Capitalism with a kinder, gentler face. Everyone here seems as earnest and personable as the workday is long (and the workdays feel really long), and there's not a shade of cynicism anywhere. No wonder I feel out of place around here. It doesn't help that I'm well over a decade older than the average Amazon.com employee. The company makes a conscious effort to hire intelligent and overwhelmingly youthful just-out-of-college types because these are precisely the worker bees most likely to buy into the hallowed Start-up Dream: Toss them a little "win-win" free-enterprise prattle and the promise of a promotion to a salaried position somewhere down the line and they'll launch a Children's Crusade for you. (That salaried position, like the stock options package, turns out to be sleight of hand . . . but more on that later.) Lisa walks right up to me and asks if I've got time to talk. She is straining to keep her voice neutral. Not having to contend, for once, with the smile-borne glare of her thoroughbred teeth, I notice her other features for the first time. Her eyes appear a bit dull and tired; there's a furrow between her brows. I reply that I really don't, that if I miss my bus, which arrives in about seven minutes, I'll have to wait until almost eight for the next one. I pause for a moment, then ask if it's urgent or something. She seems not to know how to answer at first, then says that it is but that she could always talk with me first thing in the morning. I tell her no way—now that she's sounded her alarm bells, she can't honestly expect me to wait until tomorrow to let her drop her little bombshell,
whatever it is. As if I couldn't guess. I can't deny that I've felt like an alien in this curiously insular environment ever since I first set foot in it; couple that with the temp-worker wages—for a remarkably complex and demanding job, when all is said and done—and I knew straightaway I was just going to be biding my time here. Still, given the horse-shit pay, I never really dreamed they'd have the audacity to actually care about how well you met their idiosyncratic notions of attributes like "competence," "team skills," or "the right attitude." But care they do. Lisa tells me I've been fired.
I should have known from the beginning that this wouldn't be a fit. At the temp agency, after all, I had been warned by my recruiter—who'd mentioned that the job involved a lot of rote memorization of cryptic UNIX minutiae—that you could expect to do at least six months of hard labor in the phone and e-mail "queues" before having any chance of a promotion, and that promotions tended to be to supervisory positions within Customer Service rather than Editorial, where I wanted to be. No matter how unglamorous she made the job sound, though, it still seemed to offer all the superficial elements I was seeking: writing, technology, online commerce, stock options. . . . I was even inclined to put a positive spin on Amazon.com's requirement that all prospective hires provide three letters of reference, two writing samples, SAT scores, and college transcripts: The implied aura of rigorous selectivity convinced me that quick promotions and raises would be a matter of course.
My first day in training did little to dispel that illusion. To begin with, I was stunned by the backgrounds and level of prior accomplishment boasted by members of my training class (a published book author, a former translator with the Moscow branch of the Soros Foundation . . . ). Why, I asked myself, were people with these credentials training for a $10-an-hour job? In the "sizzling" Puget Soundarea economy the local media were constantly blathering about, surely they could find something more gratifying and lucrative. But then, what was I doing there?
The following day, our training began in earnest, and proved to consist of a maddening initiation into the almost impossibly cryptic and counterintuitive UNIX interface that comprised our virtual workspace. Not only is training on this system quite costly to the company (particularly since there's a sort of never-ending quality to it, as the developers constantly figure out new and better ways to manipulate and tweak this unwieldy beast, regularly adding new tools and fixes to the repertoire while phasing out older ones); you do not, for the most part, learn a skill transferable to any other job on the planet.
After a very full day of this torment, I rode the bus home in a decidedly pessimistic mood. The next morning (Day Three) I awoke to a full-fledged attack of the sciatica that I'd felt pooling in my lower back and left leg the previous two days. This rebellion by my body served as a depressing reminder that I was older and creakier than most of my wide-eyed co-workers; that the cramped working conditions at Amazon's bursting-at-the-seams downtown headquarters weren't doing me any good, physically or psychologically; and that working in a low-paying job with no health-insurance benefits or sick leave was viable only as long as nothing went wrong. One little medical crisis could trigger the double-whammy of large bills and lost income.
When I arrived the next morning, I was greeted with a round of sympathetic and unexpected "How ya feeling today?" inquiries from my fellow trainees. Their solicitude struck me as a mixture of surprise that I hadn't dropped out (these training sessions had a high attrition rate) and charitable concern that missing a whole day of training would leave me at a distinct disadvantage. And indeed, I had missed, among other things, the crucial orientation to Customer Service's utterly indispensable tool: the "Blurb Index."
As a Customer Service rep, the half of your daily shift not spent on the telephone is consumed by grinding out responses to customer e-mail inquiries. These can range from requests for help in finding a particular out-of-print title to suggestions that the company shove a particular policy up its corporate ass. One of the first surprises you encounter on the job is that you almost never respond to these queries from scratch. Instead you learn to troll the Blurb Index—a roster of pat responses, or "blurbs"—designed to address practically every conceivable scenario a customer might present. If a genuinely new situation arises more than once, there will probably be a blurb written for it.
As my trainer explained, the use of blurbs saves Customer Service reps time and helps impose a consistent voice (in terms of both tone and policy matters) on official interactions with customers. Naturally, we were encouraged to tailor the blurb to fit the specific situation in question, as well as to disguise the more obvious signs of blurbosity. But to respond to the questioner as a person rather than simply a customer, to insert a genuinely personal—much less quirky, off-beat, or engagingly eccentric—tone into the transaction was deemed to be crossing the line and was emphatically discouraged.
I soon discovered that there was an unwritten three-strike rule where this category of violation was concerned. During my initial feedback session with Lisa at the end of my fourth day in the queue, her usual tone of overbearing enthusiasm dropped a notch when she pulled out a handful of my "problematic" responses to e-mail questions. Evidently—at least according to her feedback that day—it violated department protocol to provide extemporaneous suggestions about topics and titles that the rep found relevant to the customer's topic of interest. If someone expressed interest in historical fiction about the Civil War period, for instance, and mentioned James Michener's Centennial, it was apparently out of our purview to suggest that perhaps Gore Vidal's Lincoln might better suit her purposes—even though this is precisely the kind of helpful human input expected of employees in any quality bookstore.
The preferred way to handle such a situation, I was advised, was simply to tell the customer how to locate and order Centennial (even if you knew that it had precious little to do with the Civil War), then include a blurb from the index suggesting he or she sign up for "Eyes," the programmed topical referral service that harangues signees from now till eternity with "helpful" future purchasing suggestions.
Despite its legitimate and useful purposes, the Blurb Index eventually came to symbolize for me a corporate management obsessed with enforcing a blandly conventional zone of contact between its agents and customers. This seemed shockingly at odds with the hip-literati Amazon.com image promoted both within the actual workplace and in the company's ad campaigns. How different was working here, I began to wonder, from toiling at Wal-Mart, McDonald's, or the vile Barnes & Noble? After all, our customer service department's policies seemed (ungenerously) to presume a client base of faceless ciphers who crave the cookie-cutter mediocrity of a mall bookstore over the more adventurous atmosphere of, say, an Elliott Bay Book Co. This latter class of book retailer, unlike Amazon.com, intuitively understands that excellence and eccentricity are not mutually exclusive in the bookselling business, and that mass-market pandering is in large part responsible for the dumbing-down of the publishing industry and the demise of independent bookstores across the country.
Not long after Lisa's critique, I was approached by one of our department's earnest young "old-timers," who took it upon herself to reassure me that Amazon.com was a great organization and that this was the best job she'd ever had, a "truly life-changing" experience. This was only the first of several unsolicited testimonies I was to receive over the next week or so, and eventually I got to wondering whether I was being singled out for such pep-talk treatment. I finally approached a fellow trainee, one of the more irreverent-seeming people in the class, and mentioned it to her. "Oh, I know," she replied, somewhat reassuringly. "I've gotten a couple of those too, only my friend warned me in advance that working here was sort of like being in The Stepford Wives, so I've more or less taken it in stride."
While the Stepford Wives analogy might be going a bit overboard, it did seem that management employed an almost Skinnerian system of psychological rewards and punishments in training its new devotees . . . er, employees. In this vein, if the overly insistent smiles and breathless words of encouragement functioned as reward, then the punishment consisted precisely in the withdrawal of these signs of recognition and approval. That is, once I'd begun to fall out of favor with my trainers (for asking too many "dumb" questions; for my failure to sufficiently toe the homogeny line in the phone and e-mail queues; for displaying insufficient enthusiasm over being part of the Amazon team), I realized that the wellspring of affirmations I'd become accustomed to had abruptly gone dry. This was driven home one afternoon during what turned out to be my final week with the company. One of my class's trainers (a young, self-styled hipster I'll call Biff) was strolling through my "quad" and right down my aisle, displaying his usual exuberant charisma to those he deemed worthy. I noticed that he'd gotten his hair cut so that instead of his trademark ponytail, he now had sidewalls above his ears and a shiny, exposed neckline. So I threw out a line of banter that a week before would have surely drawn a genial response: "Hey Biff, like your haircut." Now, however, he barely glanced my way and without breaking stride responded only with a muffled "Thanks."
Of course, by this point Biff had not only weathered my "obtuseness" in the training sessions, but had also been part of the supervisory group that listened in on our telephone interactions with customers—this as part of the company's drive to impose order and standards. I learned of this during my termination session with Lisa; as she was explaining management's rationale for the bad news she had to give me, she alluded to the "continuing issues" (or some such pop officialese) that she and other formally sanctioned eavesdroppers had with the tone and style of my conversations with customers, and with my judgment over when and under what circumstances to escalate a call to the next level of "order specialist."
Speaking of escalating, there's a more pervasive issue here—of which Amazon.com is more symptom than cause. I recognized it one day while pondering how a company that enjoys the backing of Silicon Valley's premier venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and touts itself as the harbinger of the "next big thing"—serious online profiteering from a product other than pornography—can get away with paying the bulk of its employees essentially unlivable wages, here in trendsetting Seattle of all places. I mean, aren't the local and national media constantly sounding the drumbeat about the overheated economy we have here in the Puget Sound region, how there's a dearth of qualified workers, how it's a job seeker's market, how area businesses (particularly technology-related ones) are forced to engage in bidding wars with each other for scarce labor resources? To the extent that I, a new arrival to the area, had ingested all this economic boosterism, I felt embarrassed over having been reduced to taking a $10-an-hour job in this, one of the "hottest" regional economies in the nation.
"But what about those vaunted stock options?" you wonder. So did I. After hearing a decidedly vague and breezy overview on the topic early in the training session, I quizzed Lisa for specifics. She explained that a new employee has the option to purchase "up to 100" shares of common stock over a five-year period, for the price it held on the day you were made a permanent employee. Now granted, certain stock-option packages can indeed be quite lucrative: Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, for example, has become a multibillionaire due to the recent run-up in the company's stock price (he holds a modest 19.8 million shares). A paltry 100 shares, however, almost certainly won't make any of his overworked customer service minions wealthy. Even those fortunate few who got in on the ground floor and have seen their holdings, say, quintuple in value since Amazon's IPO are tallying profits in the neighborhood of perhaps $10,000-$12,000 thus far—a welcome payback for all those underpaid hours of phone-queue drudgery, no doubt, but hardly the stuff of Microsoft-millionaire fables.
Don't get me wrong: Even an optionless $10 an hour isn't too bad for some random, no-account temp position (although in Seattle's overblown housing market, you're hard-pressed to pay your share of the rent on such a wage, much less even entertain the requisite fantasy of a sport-utility vehicle with cell phone). But to find yourself competing for a job within a company that demands as much of your loyalty, commitment, and zeal as Amazon.com does, and which then pays you back a poverty-line wage—that signals the real issue: American workers' lack of leverage in the face of globalizing labor markets, deregulation, merger mania, and a stock-market-driven impulse to maximize short-term corporate profits at all costs.
I can't help but recall here author and filmmaker Michael Moore's comments about another ostensibly progressive book retailer he sparred with while on tour last year promoting his surprise best seller, Downsize This! A number of his engagements took place in Borders bookstores, and at one outlet in Iowa, disgruntled employees covertly briefed him on the company's union-busting response to their unionization attempt. As Moore puts it, Borders "seem[s] to think they can require their employees to be highly educated and take a test on the great works of literature and then pay them slightly more than minimum wage. People should be able to have the basic needs of life taken care of—transportation, raising a family, getting adequate housing—and you can't do that on $6.25 an hour." By the same token, Amazon.com likes to boast about how many of its entry-level customer service employees sport graduate degrees, thereby qualifying them for the privilege of toiling at a wage that, based on the local cost of living, roughly compares to $6.25 an hour in Iowa; it's also about the same money you could earn for a generic data-entry or clerical job through any number of area temp agencies.
April 15, 1998
In the four months since I worked at Amazon.com, something will occasionally draw my attention back to "Earth's Biggest Bookstore." I read somewhere that Barnes & Noble filed suit last year to prevent Amazon.com from falsely staking claim to that title. Just as well; I understand Amazon is now on the verge of a big push into CD music titles, and that movies on video and laser disc might soon follow, not to mention plans to open a warehouse and command center in Germany—all as part of a master plan to become something on the order of earth's largest "content" purveyor.
Speaking of grandiose, I've been working as a contractor since the end of January out at Microsoft, for one of the more worthy and endangered providers of A&E content within that company's once-ambitious online-content campaign. And given the reputation of "Earth's largest software company," I've been pleasantly surprised at how much looser and less pretentious the atmosphere is around here than at Amazon.com. I suppose there are any number of reasons for this shocker. The one that makes the most sense to me is that, for all the well-intentioned idealism around Amazon, a sense of humor was in strikingly short supply there; people were too busy taking themselves and their corporate mission oh-so-seriously. Adding to this tone of quasi-religiosity was the unspoken taboo against any speech or expression (including gallows humor) that betrayed your lack of commitment to the long-term success of the enterprise; if you weren't prepared to stoically endure the present purgatory of low wages, long hours, and sweatshop working conditions for a shot at a blissful future of profitability and soaring stock prices, then you were best advised to head back out into the world of cynics and naysayers where you belonged.
All of which would make sense if the outside world held little in the way of viable employment alternatives. But again—at least according to the mainstream media—the opposite is the case: A gushing article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer the other day reported that the job market for this year's college graduates is so torqued up that "even English majors are looking at average offers of $28,129, up 18 percent from last year's average."
Obviously, there is a major disjunction between myth and reality where the brave new information economy is concerned, at least here in Seattle. I mean, I've got an advanced degree in English, serviceable technology skills, and nine months' experience grappling with this region's job market. If there were some cornucopia of $28K-$30K entry-level jobs with benefits out there just waiting to be plundered, I'd know about it.
Just recently, I've watched a couple of fellow contractors leave Microsoft for jobs at Amazon.com. (They each were offered editorial positions, presumably with decent pay and a degree of respect.) And while one of them later confided to me that the atmosphere there is indeed a bit boot-campish, his outlook for both his own prospects and the company's eventual profitability remains high. But having been on the receiving end of Amazon's micromanagement compulsion—watching it expend all sorts of energy making sure its lowly functionaries toe the line, while Barnes & Noble continued to extend and tighten its stranglehold over the book-retailing industry—I remain far less optimistic than he.
Still, Amazon's management team could care less about inspiring my confidence as long as it maintains Wall Street's. And reports like the one I read just yesterday about the company's '97 sales figures, showing a ninefold increase over the previous year to somewhere in the $150 million neighborhood, are likely to pull that off. So if Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos' initial time frame for profitability has been quietly revised backward, no one at the company is worried so long as investors remain bullish and the stock market continues its record-breaking ascent. As long as that remains the case, Seattle-area job seekers will continue to be seduced by the cleverly worded classified ad designed to induce fits of digital envy in its target audience: "Customer Service Tier 1: Lame Title—Cool Job . . . Internet concepts . . . incentive stock options . . . " Virtual poetry for a high-tech, low-wage, post-industrial marketplace.