Random thoughts on work and that Amazon thing

Only a few random thoughts on this. Not particularly coherent. Not sure if I have a point to make or not.

My dad read the NYT article for the first time yesterday. He was livid that a modern company would treat it’s employees like that in this day and age.

To put that in perspective you need to know two things about my dad:

  1. He specialised in organisational psychology back in the day and built his career on, essentially, company therapy. He’d go in and use counselling and therapy techniques to try and bring management and processes back onto a more humane (and productive) track. He’s the reason why I know that there’s been empirical research on the destructive and counter-productive nature of overwork for much longer than people realise.

  2. My dad doesn’t get angry. (I get my temper from my mother’s side.) He usually only gets mildly annoyed at even major life-changing events.

Which, in my mind, puts a new light on why everybody’s been digesting the article for such a long time. These management practices aren’t just out-of-date, they’re positively medieval.

The attitude behind these practices also dominate back home in Iceland, which is partially the reason why he now works in addiction counselling instead. One of the things he likes to say is that it’s easier and more productive to work with life-long addicts than to try and fix corporations.

The Icelandic attitude towards work is centred on the idea of ‘vertíð’. Fishing season, literally. Fish is unpredictable so when it’s around, you work like a maniac until either the fish goes away or your body gives out. Then you rest when the fish is away until it comes back.

We’ve been a nation of fishermen for so long that it’s become a fundamental part of the national character. You work like a maniac then take very long breaks. It’s the reason why we’re a nation with a scary high tolerance for risk and a willingness to work like mad.

There’s a story I was told by a Russian working at my last place of employment. Apparently when you have trawlers with crews of mixed nationality and a storm hits while you’re pulling in a haul, the first people to leave for safety are the other Nordic nations (Swedes, Danes, etc.). The second group to leave as the storm rises are those from the Baltic states. The Russians stay until the storm threatens to wash them out to sea.

The Icelanders? As long as there is money to be made and fish to be pulled out of the sea, the Icelanders stay and work, the risk of loss of life and limbs be damned.

This kind of mentality is why Amazon has a seemingly endless supply of employees. You get a job with Amazon (or Apple, or Facebook, most of them are horrible places to work for one reason or another—they all love overwork). You work for three to five years like a frantic madperson. Then when you hit your mid- to late twenties you go find a more family friendly job with the nest egg you’ve built up. Especially if you are an employee from overseas. Going back to Iceland, Argentina, or India with a big sack of Amazon/Facebook money gives you freedom to do pretty much whatever you want and the space to discover what that actually is.

It’s destructive. It’s unhealthy. But, if you are young enough to tolerate the self-abuse it involves, it makes sense to try. (Although this might be the Icelander in me speaking. I know that I fall into the typical Icelandic work pattern well enough.)

The biggest risk Amazon (and the other big tech companies who, like I said, are also crap places to work for a variety of reasons) faces is the growing realisation among young engineers that you can have both. You can get a well-paying job that gives you space for a personal life and/or family. It isn’t necessarily in tech because a lot of non-tech companies are now tech-oriented enough to need programmers. It isn’t necessarily in a large company because mid-sized companies are often more stable and better run than larger companies.

There’ll always be people willing to give up their personal lives and sanity for half a decade to work for a large tech company. But it’ll be interesting to see if there’ll always be enough of those people to maintain the frankly insane system that the tech industry has built up.

(And it is pretty much all of tech. Most startups are structured this way as well. They might not be actively employee-hostile like Amazon but they are passively employee-hostile through the expectation of insane overwork and the wholesale destruction of employee personal lives.)

I’ve just got back home from Iceland, catching up with friends and family, and it’s hard for a geek like me to appreciate just how little headway ecommerce has made in penetrating the average life of your average person.

A quick trip to Google reveals that ecommerce overall share of retail ranges anywhere from 2.5% to 15% depending on the country.

Of course, Iceland skews towards the lower end for a variety of reasons. We are screwed by geography—shipping to an island in the middle of nowhere is expensive. We are screwed by global content licensing. Many English-language ebooks aren’t legally available for sale in Iceland. Netflix isn’t available. Nor is Amazon Prime Music or video. Iceland scores unnaturally low on ecommerce penetration because, literally, the rest of the world doesn’t want our money. (Funnily enough, this was worse before the crash. At least now Iceland has access to bits of the iTunes store.) They want my money, since I live in the UK, but when most of my relatives go on Amazon the only things they can order are books (mostly print, some ebooks) and maybe DVDs. Generally speaking, for all other products, only some third party sellers on Amazon will ship to Iceland.

The situation is a lot better here in the UK but most people, still, could easily drop ecommerce from their lives without missing a beat.

And I suspect that most of those who choose to boycott Amazon will do so by dropping books entirely or dialling book-buying down to that one bestseller they can get at their local supermarket. Everything else they get from Amazon is available locally, but many people don’t have a local bookstore. (Here in the UK Waterstones has deliberately been focusing on more affluent areas under the theory that only rich people read books.) Most people don’t need books, they are entirely a luxury/entertainment purchase.

So, while I think the coverage of Amazon’s employee practices is a good thing and that it will, eventually, begin to affect their sales, I also think that for most publishers, those sales won’t migrate to an alternative retail channel and will be lost entirely. Bad-mouthing your biggest channel is rarely a good idea. People don’t go where you tell them. They go where they want and it’s up to you to be there or not. Amazon deserves all of the negative talk it’s been getting, on how they treat both warehouse workers and office workers, but I suspect that if Amazon ever goes down, publishers will sink with them. It’s rare for an industry to survive the downfall of its largest channel.

Anyway, that’s all that pops into mind on that Amazon work thing. Not much, I know.