Amazon as an Antidote to Life Inside the High Technology Bubble

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Amazon as an Antidote to Life Inside the High Technology Bubble

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Photo via Lennart Takanen/Flickr

This post originally published on LinkedIn.

Everyone’s still talking about the New York Times’s epic investigation into Amazon’s work environment. Beyond the mortifying instances of management cruelty, some say Amazon has a problem with people working too hard. Some say it doesn’t.

But maybe Amazon’s work ethic by itself isn’t a problem but a solution — not just for getting books delivered to our door, but for some of the ways that capitalism has gone awry in the 21st century with its bubbles, inequalities and entitlements.

Around Silicon Valley and Seattle last weekend, folks momentarily stopped worrying about the evidence of these entitlements that is everywhere around us — unicorns, talent wars, real estate bidding wars, workplace masseuses, millennial ennui, exoduses to Oregon — to worry that Amazon’s employees aren’t entitled enough.

In an instant, we forgot that many Americans outside of high technology have to work two jobs, driving for Uber and washing dishes for Applebee’s, all while trying to raise their kids. We forgot that the least the folks in tech can do when we’re paid so much is to work hard for it.

But many in software these days earn outsized incomes while carefully monitoring the boundaries of a standard-sized workload, in an environment that satisfies every mundane need. The result isn’t just lavish perks at startups of all stripes, but a challenge to the country’s social fabric.

Democrats describe this challenge as a rich-poor gap while Republicans mourn the decline of the Protestant work ethic, but both are anxieties about a more-decadent form of capitalism. For the technology industry, a culture of entitlement is a challenge to our fighting spirit, a phenomenon many have written about, including Redfin in 2013:

The problem is that the young engineers earning that much become well-fed farm animals at the very moment in their lives when they should be running like wild horses. Many now remind me of middle-aged men, collecting expensive scotch or taking up hobbies like kite-surfing and race-car-driving…

What changes these folks isn’t just the money. It’s the cosseting, which can permeate the most minute interactions between engineers and their mentors. If you as a manager have spent all day wooing new hires, you aren’t likely to turn around and tell a young engineer on your team how much more she is capable of, even if this is just what she needs to hear.

This is why Silicon Valley’s War for Talent hasn’t always been good for the talent. After all, the only way to get much better at your craft is to be challenged in ways that make you uncomfortable. Yet not many people in high technology are uncomfortable these days.

The result for many engineers and product managers is often a case of arrested development, as they drift from one startup to the next, dabbling in several side-projects, without the ballast of having solved some really hard problems or contributed to a lasting business.

… Looking for candidates who have visited that hard place in themselves at one point in their life isn’t some Marxist fantasy of mine. It’s how capitalism works best.

Startups, like professional football, are best done by the most desperate people on the planet. Products don’t just walk out the door on their own; sooner or later, to ship something amazing, you have to dig deep and bring out your beast. A horse running wild is a rare sight, but it takes your breath away every time.

The two worlds we described in this essay, virtual and real, rarely meet, except at a company like Amazon, which doesn’t just build an iPhone app for selling soccer balls, but puts them in boxes and ships them. It’s the discipline of running a real-world, margin-sensitive retail business that probably explains why Amazon won’t stock the corporate fridge with cokes.

And this discipline is why Amazon is the hardest-working 25,000-person company I’ve ever seen. I know from experience that sometimes such discipline can be good for a company’s soul because at my own company, Redfin, we have to strive for that discipline too. We aren’t an eBay for consumers to shop for real estate agents; we’re more like Amazon, delivering service via our own real estate agents so we can be better at it than anyone else.

We offer the same benefits to our agents and engineers, and we often remind ourselves that all of us are paid by the sweat of a real estate agent’s brow. This is why I sometimes still sleep on inflatable beds in friends’ homes when I travel. And this is the only way people who studied at schools like Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Yale discover the grit to solve real-world problems with real-world constraints.

There must be a way to practice this discipline that is still humble and humane, that balances our love for our family and for the world around us with our life’s work. Striking such a balance isn’t easy, for an individual much less an entire company. But there are people, young and old, with or without children, who want to try, who will become better human beings for having been challenged to do our best, who will be proud of having put our shoulder to the wheel.

Here in Seattle what we’ve learned from Amazon is how good it is to try hard things, even those that sometimes require extraordinary effort. Now more than ever, we should come to praise Amazon’s grit, not to bury it. Silicon Valley needs it. America needs it.

Glenn Kelman is the CEO of Redfin, a next-generation real estate broker. Follow him on Twitter @glennkelman.

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