How to be a culture mismatch at Amazon
December 27, 2011
3 min read
This is my new most-upvoted answer on Quora. I've written popular answers about Amazon on Quora before, but it was interesting to do a take on Amazon's culture by examining its inverse.
What are some cultural faux pas when working at Amazon?
Here are some from my time there:
Not acting like an owner. Amazon has an ownership culture; there are no excuses and nothing that's "not your job".
Prioritizing your own results over the broader interests of the company as a whole. This is the other half of ownership: you are expected act like an owner of the company and to put on your "Amazon hat" for all decisions.
"Optimizing for optics." Amazon thinks and acts long-term; Bezos invests the company's resources with a seven-year time horizon. Sacrificing the long term to make this quarter's numbers is seen as simply wrong.
Being lax with spending. "Frugality" is touted as a company value.
Making decisions that aren't in the best interests of the user. Amazon aims to be the world's most customer-centric company. That means always putting customers first—even when it means cannibalizing your own sales in the short term (don't optimize for optics).
Caring only about technology. The engineers you'll find at Amazon generally aren't interested in technology for its own sake. They care about the product, the user experience, and the business. Being uninterested in these things is seen as not acting like an owner (see point 1).
Metrics and data:
Changing the site without an A/B test. Not a faux pas so much as a total taboo. Every change to the site goes through split testing, or "Weblab" as it's called internally.
In general, not measuring your results and making data-driven decisions. Data is used to decide what to do. Data tells you how well you did. Data is used to predict ROI before the fact and measure it afterwards. If you're not measuring when you could be, you're not part of the culture.
Not knowing key metrics off the top of your head. Leaders, at least, are expected not only to measure but to have important numbers memorized and at their fingertips in any meeting or conversation. If you own SEO and someone asks how many sessions Amazon gets through search engines per month or what the conversion rate is, "I'll look that up and get back to you" is not really an acceptable answer.
Complaining about oncall. Well, everyone complains about it, but in humblebrag fashion, the way kids at CMU or MIT complain about their homework. The faux pas is to take the attitude that it's beneath you or that you shouldn't have to do it—to care only about writing the code but not about whether it's actually available for customers to use. That's not acting like an owner (see point 1).
Breaking the website, especially during Q4. Kind of goes without saying. A story: When I was running Landing Page Optimization and helping out with SEO, we wanted to put a feature on the detail page to help foreign customers get to the right Amazon site for their country, if they landed on the wrong one. It was December and the middle of the Q4 site freeze, when any non-critical changes are postponed for the sake of uptime during the all-important holiday shopping season. But my manager encouraged me to get the feature live immediately, so I petitioned for an exception. Jon Jenkins, at the time director of a group called Website Operational Excellence (sometimes referred to as "We Own Everything"), gave me the go-ahead, but told me: "Whatever you do, don't break the detail page. If you break the detail page for one hour during Q4, you will lose the company more money than your feature could ever hope to make up." (We launched the feature. We didn't break the detail page.)
See the original answer on Quora or check out my take on what allows Amazon to be so innovative. Or just for fun, see my list of what you can't buy on Amazon.
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