Kristi Coulter on Being Inside Amazon in the Early Days
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
This week on The Maris Review, Kristi Coulter joins Maris Kreizman to discuss Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career, out now from MCD/FSG.
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from the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Tell me a little bit about Amazon in 2006, because I feel like in 2023, I’ve spent so much time understanding the negatives…
Kristi Coulter: Yeah. And there are many.
MK: Especially in the world of book publishing. But tell me about what it was like in 2006.
KC: Yeah, it’s, it’s funny looking back. I came to Amazon from a company of about 200 people, so Amazon seemed overwhelmingly vast to me, but it was parts of three buildings in downtown Seattle. I want to say it was maybe like 5, 000 people, so it seemed huge, but it was small enough that people would say, Oh, you know, Ted and recommendations.
And you’d be like, Oh yeah, Ted, I know him. It was basically just a retail company. It was already the most famous e-retailer on earth. But there was no Kindle. There was no web services. There was no A-Pub.
MK: All this stuff that would come later that would make it more than a place to shop did not exist or was in secret.
KC: Yeah, I certainly didn’t know about it. And we had offices in I think three or four other countries, but they were small. I mean, it was like a mom and pop shop compared to what it is now. When I arrived for my interview, the way I knew I was at Amazon is there was a piece of printer paper with Amazon printed on it, taped to the door. I mean, that was the lobby sign. And I was like, wow. Because even then I would have expected, you know, something a little more professional.
MK: I also didn’t realize that having no perks was such a big identity for early Amazon.
KC: And current Amazon, really. I mean, the offices are much nicer now, the public spaces anyway, but it’s basically a perk-free workplace. I overheard a few years ago, a guy… at a coffee shop who was giving a pep talk to his startup employee and he said, you know, it’s not Amazon. I can’t give you a gym and free haircuts and free food and daycare. And I was just like, Oh my God, where does he think it’s not Google? Like none of that, none of that exists at Amazon.
MK: And in fact, I was surprised to learn how so much red tape at Amazon prevented things from moving quickly, physically and otherwise.
KC: Absolutely. When I first worked there Jeff Wilke, who was the senior VP at the time, I remember him saying this: there’s going to come a time when we can’t turn the ship around quickly, and right now we still can. But we’re going to get to that point. And I was like, Oh, whatever, because we moved so fast. And I definitely saw it happen. Within my tenure there the ship just didn’t move fast anymore. There are times that’s good because you don’t always want to be making breakneck decisions, but yeah, lots of red tape as it grew up.
And I don’t know how you avoid that. I don’t think you can stay that agile and be. The largest company in the world, I mean, and it’s just inevitable, I think, but it’s kind of sad.
MK: I have read all the articles, you talk about a piece that Jodi Kantor wrote about Amazon in 2015. But it still feels like so many of the inner workings and methodologies of Amazon are meant to be top secret.
KC: It’s not a company that really talks to the public. I think Amazon’s been forced to start talking to the public in the last few years a lot more than it ever was before because the news has been so bad, just so bad. And they’ve not, in my opinion, done that very well. Like, I have caught them lying in public.
There was an article about stack-ranking employees where you have to put X number into your bottom bucket and get rid of them. And they said we have never stack-ranked employees. I mean, I was in meetings where we stack ranked employees at least three or four times.
So I said, maybe you don’t do it now and that’s great, but to lie and say you didn’t do it, there are tens of thousands of people who were there in those meetings. So it’s very strange. And I think the other reason that a lot of Amazon’s inner workings are secret is that Amazon is chaos. And this is something I really wanted to get across in the book. Nobody knows what you’re doing. And it’s a bunch of smart people kind of running around like chickens with their heads cut off, putting on a show in the barn.
And so I think a lot of the inner workings are just like, Oh God, oh, we have to do this. We just had a new goal handed down. Well, let’s figure it out. And so there are some systems of course, but there’s just a lot of like, no one panicked, and let’s figure this out. And so it’s hard to convey that outwardly. People think it’s an army.
MK: And one of the things that I feel like the lifeboat meetings get at, which is a big theme, in your memoir is the way that Amazon values data above all else, but also every data point is a human being in those buckets.
KC: Yeah, absolutely. The data points at the lifeboat meetings where we had to say who’s the worst. It was always fascinating because the way that we would talk about those human beings was always quite respectful. It was never just like, well, screw that guy, get him out of here. You could tell that everyone in the room was like, no one felt good about this. Aside from the odd sociopath here and there, there was the sense that these people, if they were the weakest, had to go. And some of these people were still really good. That was the painful part, that you couldn’t just be really solid. And a company needs a bench, you need people who aren’t trying to become CEO, who just want to be good at their jobs and then go home.
And there was a sense at Amazon that that was not okay, that you had to be striving and wanting to really grow. And every year you needed to get that much better. And at some point I remember thinking, we’re all going to get managed out at some point. If the hiring bar is that you’re supposed to hire people who are better than half the people you already know at the company, and the bar gets higher every year, then everyone who works here is going to end up in that bottom bucket.
I think It was chilling to realize that. I think Amazon is now seeing the limits of that because they’re kind of running out… well, they’re literally running out of warehouse employees. This has been publicly reported that they’re worried about it. And anecdotally, I know so many smart, brilliant people who just won’t even take the phone call because they don’t want to be in that kind of environment.
So I think they’re, they’re hitting the limits of seeing people as disposable batteries. And it will be interesting to see if they could change their approach.
Kristi Coulter is the author of Nothing Good Can Come from This, which was a finalist for the 2019 Washington State Book Award. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, was a Ragdale Foundation resident, and has taught writing at the University of Washington and Hugo House. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, New York magazine, Elle, and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle, Washington.