Monday, December 28, 2015

Five Things I Learned From Working at Amazon

So as you may have heard, I picked up a seasonal gig working at the local Amazon fulfillment warehouse. I know, I know. As an author and a humanist, Amazon is my natural frenemy: unavoidable, yet never to be trusted.

But now I can say that I've been inside the belly of the beast - and lived to tell the tale. Here's what it taught me.

1. Most work stress comes from trying to manage other people's emotions and/or behavior.

Seriously. You know what I'm talking about. And that's exactly why I wanted to work in a warehouse. There are no customers to wait on in this magical land, no phones to answer. The human beings we serve are distant, unseen entities, their dreams and desires reduced to a list of items on a scanner gun.

And it is wonderful. How delightful to go to work in casual grungewear! How divine to blast "Turn Down For What" as you blow through the aisles at breakneck speed, snatching the ordained goods off the shelves like a coke-addled Supermarket Sweep contestant! This was everything I loved about working in a kitchen, back in the day: it's just you, the food, and your fellow knife-wielding menials, all waging the eternal war against time and hunger. It's not that you don't care about the customers - after all, they're your entire reason for being there! But my god, work is so much easier when you don't have do it under the critical eye of the people you're working for.

Sorry I don't have any relevant photos - you can't bring your phone onto the floor.
Let's enjoy a tub of sweetcorn ice cream instead.

2. It's good business to take care of people.

I was well warned about this job beforehand. Amazon would use me up and spit me out, grind through me and every other disposable human cog with soulless, ruthless constancy. After all, isn't that what evil empires do?

Answer: that's what the stupid ones do. The smart ones know that every time you hire a new person, you have to pay: for their background check and drug testing and all the rest, but also for their slowness, their newness, all the mistakes they make and orders they botch while they're learning the job. So the smart thing to do is to minimize newness: hire the best people you can, train them up right, and then do everything in your power to keep them from getting sick or hurt or fed up and quit.

And Amazon is really, really smart. There are hand sanitizers and water stations and safety checks galore. There are literally laminated color charts in every bathroom stall for you to check your pee and make sure you're not getting dehydrated. More than that, there are arcade consoles and free snacks in the breakrooms, a super-futuristic automated scheduling system where you can request extra work and/or time off, gift card drawings and other perks for the people who are working the undesirable shifts. You know how Amazon became this world-crushing corporate monolith by being the absolute easiest, most customer-friendly e-store out there? Let me tell you: they have serious game on the back-end, too.

Here is some German peanut butter. We don't sell this, but I wish we did.

3. It doesn't cost you anything to listen.

This is the one that really gets me. All that fancy stuff I just listed above is great for the aforesaid corporate monoliths, but you know a mom-and-pop shop could never implement it. But the most amazing invention I've seen at the warehouse is just a whiteboard with a marker. It has a space for you to write down your name and your request/concern, and another space for management to write down their response, and the name of the manager responsible. In the short time I've been there, I've seen requests for everything from more stepstools to better-quality TP in the bathrooms. They are always answered with either a "yes, we can do it, and here's who's going to handle that", or a "sorry, here's why that's not feasible." And this board is IN PUBLIC, for everyone to see. The accountability is amazing. The culture of transparency this creates - from what little I've seen of it - is wonderful. And I wish more businesses would do this.

Here is a book. We sell this, but I really, really wish we didn't.

4. New things are ripe for misunderstanding.

So at one point, we were watching a training video, and it got to one of the "inspirational" bits. Jeff "The Godfather" Bezos came on the screen, talking about the launch of Amazon Prime, and how people thought it was so crazy/stupid/unworkable to offer a subscription-based free-shipping service. And I'm not a big fan of The Beez by any means, but he said this one thing, which was seared instantly onto my heart:

"Whenever you do something new, you have to be prepared to be misunderstood for a long time."

And oh, friends, what a truth that is. I think it was the last bit that hadn't quite clicked for me yet - like, just how long and how consistently you have to Do Your Thing (whatever that is) before people even begin to sit up and take notice. This is... not comforting, exactly, but really puts this past year in perspective for me.

This is a sculpture in Saratoga Springs, New York.
It's also my first-ever opportunity to write the words "fettuccine toe shoe."

5. You can't buy give-a-damn.

Heartwarming story time. So it's 10:30PM on Christmas Eve, the last of our orders have gone out, and everybody's packing up to leave. Then the bell rings. We have another order: somebody paid for special rush delivery, and now we have to make it happen. Everyone is tired and wants to go home, but the manager himself - who by this point has been at work for 16 hours straight - goes through the aisles to get the item, and personally wraps it and packs it for loading into the driver's truck. It's a Fisher Price toy. When somebody grumbles about people's failure to plan ahead, the manager says "Hey. This is what we do. This is why our business exists: to make sure a kid doesn't miss out on Christmas."

$6.50 plus shipping; colors and styles may vary; Riesling not included.

And like... if they put that in a commercial, it would be unbearably schmoopy. But it was real and it happened, and it made me think about this bit from Cracked's article on the Monkeysphere (thanks, Frank!):
Listen to any 16 year-old kid with his first job, going on and on about how the boss is screwing him and the government is screwing him even more ("What's FICA?!?!" he screams as he looks at his first paycheck). Then watch that same kid at work, as he drops a hamburger patty on the floor, picks it up, and slaps in on a bun and serves it to a customer.

The kid will protest that he shouldn't have to care for the customers for minimum wage, but the truth is if a man doesn't feel sympathy for his fellow man at $6.00 an hour, he won't feel anything more at $600,000 a year.
And there's the world in a nutshell, yeah? Zillionaires and menials. Some care, some don't, and it has nothing to do with their job title or their tax bracket. I don't think you can teach give-a-damn, at least not to adults in the working world. But you certainly can select for it, and encourage it, and equip your employees so they can actually use it to good effect.

And if you're lucky enough to find a job that does all those things - man, hold on to it two-handed. I certainly intend to.


  1. Thank you for the insights and comments. I completely agree!

  2. Glad to hear that you are enjoying it! I've had students for whom Amazon was the only decent paying job they could get around here without an education.

  3. Very interesting, very eye-opening and completely not what I was expecting! Thank you so much for writing that.


  4. A truly interesting and well written article, thanks

  5. How very cool! Congrats on the new job, and thanks for the inside peek.

  6. What an amazing insight into a very demonized business! I learned enough to convince me to go ahead and sign up for Amazon Prime, even though I've always reviled the company. I certainly can now see that their corporate culture is very different than my preconception! So beautifully written as well! Oh that's right, you're a genuine author! Thanks for the insider perspective.