Kristi Coulter worked at Amazon headquarters in Seattle for 12 years, until 2018. Now she is a writer, which is what she always wanted to be and what she studied to do. Her second book is Exit Interview, a literary memoir of her experience at Amazon.
“Little is written about jobs,” says Coulter, 53, in an interview with EL PAÍS via videoconference from Seattle, where she continues to live. Her book is a hard-hitting review of the unbearable conditions at Amazon, both in terms of the grueling work hours and the mental workload. It comes as no surprise. In 2015, The New York Times published some stories from Amazon corporate employees of the difficult worklife at the company. Coulter was one of the multiple sources included in that report. The terrible conditions in Amazon’s logistics warehouses has also been the subject of numerous investigations.
Kristi Coulter spent over a decade working at Amazon. In Exit Interview, she unpacks the secrets and lies trapped in the cardboard.— Betty Beel (@bettysbookclub) September 9, 2023
Coulter narrates the audiobook and you can hear the invisible scars she wears.
A gripping listen for any corporate employee. @MacmillanAudio pic.twitter.com/Igjz2GKxPn
The work culture at some tech companies is notoriously inhumane. But the details that Coulter shares about Amazon — even without mentioning real names or business secrets — suggest that, according to her, it was one of the worst tech companies to work for. EL PAÍS asked Amazon about the claims made in Coulter’s book, but the company declined to comment.
1. No family life
In the book, Coulter recounts an employee meeting with then-vice president Jeff Wilke, one of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s right-hand men. It was a kind, edifying talk. “For 45 minutes, Amazon feels loose and hymant,” Coulter writes. Then Wilke said, “Look, this place is intense. It’s important to find a sustainable balance. Maybe that means a few times a year you leave at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday to hang out with your families. That’s great! You absolutely should take advantage of those opportunities.” Coulter continues: “We all smile and nod, but the energy in the room collapses.”
It didn’t come as a shock. It’s rare to find workers with families at Amazon, says Coulter. “I’m not a parent,” Coulter explains. “I remember a manager who was a father and scheduled meetings at 7:30 a.m. His little ones weren’t at school at that time. I knew a lot of women who just left after they became parents because it was just too hard to keep up. There’s no kind of daycare at Amazon. There’s no subsidy. And in Seattle, people start looking for daycare the day they find out they’re pregnant. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t individual cases, like that of a VP, who would be like ‘Oh, I can’t make that meeting because of my kids.’”
2. Daily grind
Working at Amazon was hard due to the combination of long hours, high intensity, multitasking and pressure from superiors. Coulter did at least half a dozen different jobs during her time at Amazon. Changes are frequent and normal, she says. ”When I got here, I figured I’d work in media marketing forever, but a decade later I’ve sold DVDs, built software, written as Jeff Bezos, interviewed over 800 people, run the world’s biggest translation publisher, weighed in on whether a romance novel cover shows too much nipple,” she writes.
When it comes to an average day at Amazon, Coulter says that she spent at least 12 hours doing something related to Amazon. “That doesn’t mean I was always in the office, but I was probably there 9 to 10 hours a day and then I was always checking email. If you receive a message from someone, you are expected to respond. Part of that is the way Amazon trains you mentally.”
The problem was not only her work scheduled, but the workload, variety of tasks and the depth of knowledge demanded. During her months as manager of an Amazon publishing house, her boss gave her difficult milestones to reach. “It takes a long time to publish a book,” she writes. “A finished manuscript still needs a contract and copyediting and proofreading and a cover and page layout and printing and so on. Most publishers need at least nine months. In bits and pieces, we’ve managed to get it down to six months.” But her boss wanted to go “faster”: to bring the time down to 30 days.
If a question came from a superior, it was assumed that you had to know the answer: “I’ve seen people be targeted in meetings for not knowing some little thing that they’re realistically not going to know,” Coulter says.
The writer says she was expected to make constant decisions based on “partial information,” poor data and amid the famous frugality of Amazon. In the book, Coulter explains how one of her workers had been crying about “the weekend work, the midnight emails, the Sunday night stomachaches, the sense that none of it means much in the eyes of the company.” Her advice to the worker was “to make peace with the fact that they’ll never really feel finished when they stop working for the day. That they’re all doing the jobs of at least two people and it’s normal to live underwater.”
Amazon is also legendary for its multitasking demands. “I call it context shifting. I had to context shift every 15 to 20 minutes,” she tells EL PAÍS. At one point in the book, Coulter says she hit a record of 15 interruptions in a single hour. “The hard truth is that saying yes to every outlandish request is Amazonian. It may be ruinous and unsustainable, but Amazon as we know it wouldn’t exist without a thousand tiny acts of self-destruction every day,” she writes.
“Especially when you’re in leadership, people have questions and need you to weigh in on things. You’re shifting from something very practical and tactical to something high level. At Amazon, leaders, even at Jeff Bezos level, are expected to be very attuned to the small details and the very large strategic details. You have to know everything and everybody struggles with it,” she says.
That level of knowledge was almost impossible when the jobs were so new that it was sometimes impossible to know your goal. “The job is like sand falling through your fingers, meaning it’s the role, not me. But how do I make it not like sand? I don’t know, and I’m ashamed for not knowing, so I don’t ask,” Coulter writes. “It’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle where every third piece is missing and also the underlying picture changes every night. Six months in, I should be at full steam, but I’m still trying to make a landscape out of tattered cardboard shapes.”
4. I wouldn’t do it again, not even for a million dollars
Coulter was well paid: she enjoyed a high standard of living and was able to save to finance her life as a writer now (although not to never work again).
Despite this, she does not believe that the money was worth it. “What’s too hard to explain to them is that we don’t feel overpaid. Amazon could be depositing a million dollars a month into my checking account and I would think, Yes, this seems about right, given the fear and the chaos and the ugly surroundings and the endlessly escalating demands and the way no one ever says thanks,” she writes.
If it were 2006 again, would she return to Amazon? “If I could enter as the person I am now, wiser, sadder and more tired, and if I had a plan for getting out and could maintain my sense of worth. I might: I’d go in, learn something, meet a bunch of amazing people, make a bunch of money and take that and go somewhere else. But no, I wouldn’t just wander into a situation like that again because I feel like it was very naive.”
Coulter explains that even people in senior management suffered terribly. “I knew people higher up who were literally making millions of dollars a year,” she says. “They were so stressed. At one point, I ran an executive coaching program. We would get these guys into a room, and these are like stoic alpha males, and they would be crying within 10 minutes.”
In one of those meetings, a colleague of Coulter told her: “We’re here because we’re some of Amazon’s top talent, right? But the bar for our performance gets raised every year, and so does the bar for the people Amazon hires. So at least theoretically, none of us can keep up forever. Every single person in this room will go from being top talent to getting managed out.”
“People like to say, ‘oh the people who make that much money, they’re not doing any real work,’” Coulter continues. “These people were working harder than I was. They’re incredibly driven and they were just grinding themselves down. I don’t think it is worth it.”
5. How the company became so successful
One lesson from Coulter’s book is that Amazon could only have been created under these conditions. One of its competitive advantages was its brutal work environment. In 2013, Amazon was, along with Tesla and SpaceX, both owned by Elon Musk, listed as one of the worst places to work. The company’s success is partly explained by that, says Coulter.
“Jeff Bezos is a genius,” says Coulter. “The thing about Amazon is it was constantly coming up with things no one had ever really thought of. It was like working for a crazy startup that had limitless pockets.”
Start-ups are famous for requiring long work days in exchange for extraordinary rewards when the company succeeds or is sold. Amazon, however, continued to be a start-up 20 years after its founding. “It’s always Day One at Amazon,” was one of Bezos’s adages to pressure his employees.
The author explains: “It attracts the kind of people who have a certain mad gleam in their eye. They want to do these kinds of crazy things. I think it’s also successful because it terrifies everybody. It attracts people who are afraid that they will be found out as imposters. And they just start pouring more and more of their energy into the company. You can get great work out of people for a while when they are both really smart and afraid of being found out.”
From the outside it may seem strange, but that is a pillar of Amazon: “Bezos has even said in recent years that he is okay with this type of rotation [at the company] because perhaps it should be that way,” says Coulter. “It’s impossible to have built that company without it being a meat grinder. With my book perhaps more people will be led to talk about their own experience. But would Bezos care? I think he’s so smart that if he cared, Amazon would be doing things differently. If he cared about burning people out, if he thought it was bad for business, Amazon would be different.”
It was recently learned Amazon may be left without logistics warehouse employees in some U.S. states due to the pressure on workers. Coulter believes this could also happen with office workers. “Bezos thinks it’s the most dangerous thing to Amazon, this idea that we will all start agreeing with each other and being nice to each other. I think that is much more important to him than the idea that people would be happy,” she says.
6. A masculine environment
There is, of course, a group of people destined to flourish in a cruel, competitive and punishing environment. “It’s a fascinating place to work for the right person. You’re slowly killing yourself, but you’re learning so much and it’s very creative and very empowering,” says Coulter.
There are more men in this group. Coulter’s book also discusses how the lack of women in leadership positions has affected Amazon.
“It’s not like there’s nudity photos on the walls. It’s not that kind of sexist culture like that; it’s because almost everyone at the top is a man. It just bleeds down this very hard, emotionless, stoic sort of atmosphere. It’s 50/50 female at entry level and then as you go up the ranks the women just disappear,” says Coulter.
In her case she felt that she should behave differently: “I don’t want to be too essentialist and be like women are naturally soft, that’s not true. But you’re in these places where you’re just not the same as everyone else and you want to blend in, and so it felt like I was always trying to do the right thing as a woman so that I wouldn’t be threatening. You start doing it almost unconsciously and it’s exhausting. Amazon is so male that it just thinks maleness is the norm. It’s not a deliberate, like, let’s keep girls out of the Treehouse. The idea that women could be leaders just doesn’t come up because they’re so few of us,” she explains.
7. No longer Day One
Amazon also has been able to attract people who are strong critical thinkers but lack specific technical training. While the company has a substantial portion of engineers and other employees with business degrees, it also has plenty of free-spirited workers. One of Coulter’s first colleagues explained the work this way: “You know how to write a solid document and think critically. You understand how Amazon uses data. You can persuade people on other teams to do things. This is 90% of most jobs at Amazon,” Coulter writes.
Now, that’s no longer the case. Workers have become more specialized, she says. Since Bezos stepped down as CEO in 2021 and turned the helm over to Andy Jassy, the pace has changed slightly. The pressure to act like it’s always Day One has eased, says Coulter. “I heard a friend say it’s Day 5, not even Day 2. He meant it’s really become another big company. It’s not as fast. It’s not as agile. Partly this is due to the pandemic and people not wanting to return to the office. Jassy is different from Bezos, a super smart guy, but he’s not a crazy mad guy,” she explains.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition