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Amazon Culture

Life in the Tech Jungle: Salvo Talks with a "Missionary" in the Thick of It

On August 15, 2015, the New York Times ran a front-page exposé on the internal work culture at Amazon.com—the giant internet company that sells everything from books to clothes to movies to just about anything else you could buy. Titled "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace," the article depicted a dog-eat-dog world where "workers are encouraged to tear apart one another's ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are 'unreasonably high.'" One former employee was quoted stating, "You walk out of a conference room and you'll see a grown man covering his face. Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk."

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 36

Here at Salvo, we've observed that sometimes the mainstream media will—how shall we put it?—inflate situations and create exaggerated headlines to increase their ratings and sell more newspapers. Suspecting that such might have happened here, we caught up with an employee who works at Amazon's headquarters in Seattle, Washington, to get a straight line on what it's really like to work there. He chose to remain anonymous for this interview, so we'll call him "Bob."

Bob is a mid-level Amazon employee who been at the company for only a couple of years. But because Amazon is growing so fast, he's more senior than over half of the company's employees. In any case, he knows his way around Amazon.

Bob is also a conservative Evangelical Christian who tries to live his life for Christ in Seattle, one of the least-churched cities in the United States. He's also a self-described "lifelong technophile, music lover, and all-purpose geek"—with a dry, sarcastic wit to boot—so he says he fits in pretty well at Amazon.

Bob told us what it's like to be not just an Amazon employee, but an Amazon employee who loves Jesus and wants his coworkers to know the grace-filled love of Christ.

The New York Times story on Amazon described workers as constantly "crying at their desks" due to the pressures of a harsh work environment. Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of what it's like to work at Amazon?

I believe that what the article said was true, but it's much rarer than what the article suggested. Sure, occasionally there are cases of people having a bad experience—maybe because of an overbearing manager or trouble meeting their goals. But I don't think the New York Times story reflects the usual experience at Amazon.

I think some people will have bad experiences just being part of a huge company that's growing at a really rapid pace. A majority of our employees have been there less than two years. Things are constantly moving forward and upward. Sometimes people get arrogant. Everyone is kind of new and still getting to know one another, and sometimes feelings get hurt. I'm not justifying it. But these are just natural growing pains—I don't think the problems are unique to Amazon.

So you don't sit crying at your desk every day?

Not every day. I try to limit it to Mondays and Wednesdays.

But seriously, of course not. This isn't something I've experienced, and I really haven't seen it happening at Amazon.

How was the New York Times article received among your coworkers?

The reception internally was more humorous than anything else. We tended to turn it into jokes like, "When's the last time you wept at your desk?"

There was also a more serious response. Jeff Bezos [Amazon CEO] sent out an internal message saying that if this is really happening to you, tell our HR department and we will nix that. Most people at Amazon trust him when he says things like that. Amazon has faith in its CEO in a way that you probably don't see at most other huge companies.

You call yourself a fairly conservative Evangelical Christian. What's it like working at Amazon as a Christian?

It can be lonely. I think I've only ever worked with one other open Christian, and that briefly. In most of my experiences at Amazon, I'm the only open Christian around. It's pretty rare to be a Christian at Amazon. In fact, it's pretty rare to be a Christian in Seattle.

I know quite a few people who are former Christians or who came from a religious family—former Christians, former Mormons, former Hindus, former Muslims, etc. There's a lot of diversity here, but I haven't seen a lot of people who practice any religious faith.

Do you feel like a misfit because of your faith?

No. Even though there are very few open Christians here, I don't feel like a misfit. That's probably because there are a lot of nerdy people here, and truth be told, I fit that mold.

Amazon has a really high bar for getting hired; they are only going to hire people with a high aptitude for learning, high performance, and high intelligence. That's what allows us to innovate and make things. I don't want to sound arrogant, but I'm a smart guy, and I fit in pretty well in that way, too.

Does Amazon have a "typical employee" or a culture?

Amazon definitely has a culture and a demographic. It's not a racial or gender demographic. It's a demographic of people who are intelligent, motivated, and teachable. But at the end of the day, it's a demographic of people who are almost entirely without Christ.

So as a Christian working at Amazon, I see people doing amazing things, but I also see emptiness and a lack of compassion for one another. It's the same problems you'd encounter anywhere else in the secular world—self-centeredness, cheating on spouses, etc.—but here there's a really unique concentration of nerdy, hip, intelligent people.

Sometimes it almost feels like I'm a missionary. I'm in this unchurched culture of people with their own ways and languages and traditions, and almost their own religion in terms of Amazon's leadership principles. Except that I don't have backing or funding from a church. I just have a job.

Can you elaborate more on Amazon's leadership principles?

In a way, we almost have our own moral code at Amazon. It's really odd, because there's a lot of overlap between Amazon's version of morality and Christian values. From the top to the bottom of the company, there's a wonderful focus on serving the customer and helping people. This is different from other jobs I've had, where the focus was just on making money.

We're not just trying to make money. We're trying to obsess about serving customers and having those leadership principles displayed in our everyday work. There's almost a religious tone to it, and it's not at all unlike the kind of servant leadership that Jesus modeled.

But of course this is an imperfect world, and it doesn't always play out like that. You see things that make you cringe—people get selfish, and bad things happen to people, and a non-Christian might just say, "Well, that's life." But as a Christian, you think, "Hey, that's a human being and you should try to love him more."

Part of it, too, is that most people here are new. Everyone is working together towards really high-level goals, and the tone of the office can sometimes be intense. The expectation is that we're going to meet those goals. But when goals aren't met, then, in the midst of that intensity, emotions can come out. It's honest, but sometimes it's harsh.

What I'm getting at is that, as a Christian, I have a lot of compassion for my coworkers and the pressures they're under. There are so many of them, and I want to introduce them to Jesus. Sometimes that just means caring about people and letting them know that there is such a thing as compassion in this world. Hopefully, one day that will open the door to being able to point them towards the Lord.

Do many of your coworkers at Amazon know you are a Christian?

Yeah, a lot of them know I'm a Christian. People I work closely with know that I serve in my church, that I don't swear, and that I don't drink to get drunk. They know I'm a Christian, but they probably don't have a lot of context for what that means.

Some of them have had really bad experiences with religious institutions in the past—not just Christian churches—but they will lump all religions together in the "bad" category. Some of my homosexual coworkers feel they were mistreated, and because of that, they have a very warped view of Christianity and Christ. When they see that I go to church, they often think that I'm a good guy who goes to a bad place.

What do you think would happen if you told an Amazon colleague about your conservative Christian views on topics like abortion and gay marriage?

That probably would not be received well. I have very biblical convictions about those things, but it's hard to imagine a conversation in the workplace where my views would come out. I don't think the workplace is normally an appropriate place to start a religious conversation, especially on those topics, and I definitely don't go around starting conversations about them.

Maybe if someone were going to have an abortion, there would be some urgency, and I might feel the need to start a conversation. But I would probably lose a friend in the process. Maybe it would be worth it.

It's really hard to get people to understand that you love the sinner but don't love the sinful behavior. Homosexuality especially is so ingrained in people's identities that people think that if you don't like the things they're doing, then you don't like them as persons.

But this I do know: if I want to share Jesus with my coworkers, talking about abortion or homosexuality is probably not the best place to start. When these topics come up, people put their guard up and close their minds to more conversation.

Would you talk about other spiritual topics?

Assuming we're outside of work, I tend to start with basic spiritual ideas like loving people, not lying, not stealing, or not being greedy. I might start with something like, "I believe the Bible is God's word. I'm pretty convinced of that, and I understand that you aren't."

Homosexuality, gender roles, and abortion would not be my opening line, but I'm sure they would come up very quickly. I would say that, based on what the Bible teaches, I don't think people should behave in these ways because it's harmful to them, and I think that God wouldn't want that harm for them. After that conversation, I expect I'd be seen as close-minded, bigoted, and prejudiced.

Are there any open doors to communicating the gospel to your coworkers?

Yes, there are open doors, but they're not going to be an email blast to my coworkers saying, "Hey, Jesus saves." You could talk about Jesus in the workplace, and I've seen it done, but there usually isn't an open door there. People are receptive to a person who cares about them, not to "drive-by evangelism." So the doors are people's hearts, and it can take wisdom and patience to know when they're open.

Sometimes that takes relationship-building, and the person needs to see evidence of real spiritual fruit—someone who has true joy, patience, kindness, and so forth. Other times it takes a catastrophic event in somebody's life before he's open—or maybe it takes seeing how I deal with a catastrophic event. Sometimes the Holy Spirit just prompts you to say something.

My coworkers know I'm a Christian, and I think I've had—and will continue to have—a lot of opportunities to show them compassion. Pray for my perseverance, and that all this leads to good conversations with people about Jesus in the years to come.

Can you tell us about any specific interactions you've had with fellow coworkers?

I've invited a few coworkers to my church, including one to whom I gave my testimony after the service. He wasn't terribly interested in the notion of Jesus as a real, living God-man, but we've still got a pretty good relationship despite his skepticism.

What would you want other Christians to understand about Amazon?

Amazon is a potentially huge mission field. The harvest is plentiful, but it's almost an overstatement to say that the workers are few. I wouldn't mind if more Christians came to join me here. 

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