Thank you for Richard Howard's accurate portrayal of the "horse-shit paying... sweatshop" Amazon.com ("How I 'escaped' from Amazon.com," 7/16). I took a temporary job with Amazon but found myself in a boot camp. I worked in the warehouse where people do repetitive, injury-causing, mind-numbing tasks at a frantic pace for 8-10 hours in a filthy, noisy environment without heat or air-conditioning. It was heartbreaking to see talented, intelligent young adults (many with college degrees) afraid to file workers' compensation claims for the bone spurs, tendonitis, and knee injuries they acquired, for fear of losing their $8/hour job and misleading stock options. Also disturbing were the constant evangelical pep rallies where our "leaders," with the style of fanatical gym coaches, inspired us to "work even faster" and reported Amazon's latest score against the evil "B&N."
Every day another temporary worker, busting ass without benefits or job protection for up to five months for a shot at the Amazon carrot, would be escorted out of the building. Every day new initiates filled the slots of those shamefully led outside. I was offered a job with stock and benefits. And I quit. I met a lot of wonderful people working at Amazon, but that's all the more reason to suggest: Don't shop Amazon.com. Support small bookstores that love books more than a buck. Use your buying power, or a phone call, to tell Amazon.com you don't support high-tech serfdom.
The grapes are greener
I looked up "sour grapes" in the dictionary after reading Richard Howard's screed on Amazon.com and was surprised to not find his picture there. As a former senior manager at the company, I was stunned to read such vitriol, which appears to reflect much more poorly on the writer than on Amazon.com.
Howard is complaining more about his vision of what he expected Amazon.com to be for him, not about the company itself. He would have liked to have been paid more, worked less, given enormous freedom in dealing with customers, and issued lots of valuable stock options. But Amazon.com is a startup, where everybody works their respective butts off every day; he failed to do his research about what the company would be like before joining it, and then he got fired for failing to conform to the reality that the company expects from its employees, not their dreams of life on the book Infobahn.
Every good company has its own religion. Howard can't grasp that entry-level people need to toe the line until they understand the company's message to its customers. Failure to conform to that line could result in unhappy people, inefficient operations, and bad media attention. A company must control its message to its customers or clients, even at the expense of some individuality and personability. That's one reason why Elliott Bay, Powell's, and even other online bookstores persist: They are providing some of the qualities that Amazon.com can't mass-produce, and in that respect, I agree with Howard.
Howard is also right that customer service at Amazon.com is a hard job with few rewards. However, we live in a market economy: if they couldn't attract the talent they need, they would improve the offer. That they haven't done so means that people are finding what they want out of that job, as crappy as it may pay and as hard as they may work. So why did he take the job?
He talks about his inability to find a higher-paying job, but after reading his stream of venom, I have to think that this has more to do anecdotally with his needs as an employee than a failure of the Puget Sound to provide appropriate opportunities for him.
Finally, he's wrong about the benefits to the customer service old-timers, people there a year or more. Perhaps the article was written before the recent stock run-up, but the current value of Amazon.com stock is about 12 times that of last summer. People who joined the company in any capacity prior to the IPO saw even larger jumps; others there only slightly longer have seen 100- or 200-fold increases. There are certainly paper millionaires among customer service reps.
Myself, I don't disagree with Howard's concerns about the unending workload and intense environment. Due to a desire to work less and poor health (later diagnosed as cancer, now in remission), I left Amazon.com without options and before the IPO. It was the most creative atmosphere I've ever seen, but I have no regrets about my decision to return to freelance writing and consulting. And it's a very short hop to my kitchen landing, where I can pluck the sweetest of fresh grapes right off the vine.
I received the bad news one day before your "Amazon.cult" cover story. And now I am glad that I was not chosen to be part of their "Customer Service—Tier 1" brain-wasting sweatshop. Amazon.com may be a darling of Wall Street now, but it will not last if they continue to ignore fundamentals of business. Their core concept is not so unique that it cannot be copied and improved upon by better businessmen.
The liberal arts glut
Just a quick note to the author of "Amazon.cult": What are you, new? Ask around and you'll find that Seattle creaks beneath the weight of English Lit degrees. Those folks with the cell phones and expensive suits? Business degrees.
Your main beef with Amazon.com seems to be that they paid you the "disgusting" wage of $10 an hour. Ha! There are plenty of people in this city—single-parent families with kids, even—who would be thrilled to be making $10 an hour.
Also, I hate to burst your bubble, but Borders employees aren't making $6.25 an hour just in Iowa—that's the starting wage for Seattle Borders employees, too. The fact that Borders can require degrees and literature tests for a job that pays $6.25 to start, and still manages to fulfill its staffing needs, speaks to a surfeit of desperate liberal arts majors. It's like Grapes of Wrath, but with writing journals.
It's a free market
I read with great interest the tale of Richard Howard, the scorned ex-employee of Amazon.com. If I were his supervisor, I would have fired him too. My sense is that he possessed his bitter and sarcastic attitude from day one. However, his less-than-professional attitude was not the only element of the story that caught my attention.
I worked as a customer service rep (CSR) at Microsoft. My manager's professional expectations were just as high and the cubicle environment just as dismal. Please note that Microsoft pays their CSR employees considerably less than Amazon.com. Plus the manager overemphasizes that you will never become a permanent employee, makes you sign a six-month contract as a condition of employment, and would never ever dream of offering you stock options. So please, dear editor and reader, do not be swayed by Richard's "looser and less pretentious" description of the big M.
Script needs a rewrite
I wish to thank you for that insightful piece by Richard Howard. It was an excellent piece of work that compelled me to e-mail Amazon about their policies. The answer I received was a bit trite and said that they work with an amazing group of people and Mr. Howard was hyperbolic in his comments about the company. I guess that is to be expected from reading his piece. I can't see working for an organization that says they value individualism, but expects customer service people to give only scripted information. What's the fun in that?
Santa Clara, CAlif.
I left the same position at Amazon.com that Richard Howard dissed so smugly, at precisely the same time he arrived. I lasted four months answering customer service phones and e-mail, and count that period among the most interesting of my professional life. I'm also proud to have the credential on my resume—of course, I wasn't fired after three weeks as a temp, as Howard was. Yes, the regimen was often grueling and the environment intermittently oppressive (I guess that's why they call it a job), but Howard's accusations about Amazon's brainwashing of Seattle's best and brightest read like a litany of sour grapes.
Like Howard, I found the job market tough when I gave up freelancing, and grudgingly accepted a spot at Amazon. Like Howard, I was a good decade older than most of my co-workers, who rightly thought they had landed a fine entry-level job in an exciting company. These "self-styled hipsters" were intelligent, dedicated people whose enthusiasm was infectious, especially as the company continued to hit so many nerves in both the virtual and real worlds. I was frequently struck that Amazon.com existed as much for its employees as it did for its management team, shareholders, and appreciative customers. We all knew we deserved more than $10/hour, but along with generous benefits, it was way more than what I had earned working at that bastion of overqualified booksellers and literary individuality, the Elliott Bay Book Company, even after four years.
I walked away from my modest, yet valuable, Amazon stock option to join another rising Internet company offering a bigger salary and a better fit with my experience. I have no doubt my tenure at Amazon was a significant factor in getting me a better job. I'm equally sure that had I stayed, I could have looked forward to a long, exhausting, fulfilling, and lucrative career.
Beanie Baby bull
Richard Howard's bitch on Amazon.com brings to light one of the real problems of our time—the New York Stock Exchange. I start a company, so I get a billion shares of stock. I sell a couple billion more shares to people who can't even spell Internet. Now I'm CEO of this multibillion-dollar company that sells $150 million worth of books—one thousandth of what my company is supposed to be worth. So tell me why this stock keeps going up and up and up? It's the new bullshit Beanie Baby economy, run by suits and ties! Never mind your 10-buck-an-hour job; imagine how that Chinese kid who makes $1,500 stuffed animals out of a penny's worth of fake fur and beans feels—for a quarter a day!
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