An open letter to Jeff Bezos: A contract worker’s take on Amazon.com

Brutal Letter To Jeff Bezos Says Way To Get Ahead At Amazon Is ‘Be A Pretty Girl Or A Dude Who Used Liberal Amounts Of Axe’

JIM EDWARDS JUL. 25, 2013, 5:24 PM 9,887 24

A former Amazon contract worker has written an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that brutally dissects his temp hiring policies: “the revolving door of new hires encourages low quality work, inconsistent productivity and wastes useful resources on training,” Steven Barker wrote, after a stint as a contract worker developing Amazon’s X-Ray for TV and Movies.  Barker alleges that Amazon has a policy of hiring temporary contract workers who are let go when they’ve served 11 months, preventing them from becoming permanent employees. The result is that important projects at Amazon such as X-Ray (which allows Kindle users to tap the screen for more info on characters in movies) end up being run by poorly motivated temps, and those temps end up training the new temps, in an endless cycle of increasingly inexperienced, demotivated employees who have no incentive to do quality work because Amazon is “a dead end.” (We’ve reached out to Amazon for a rebuttal; we’ll update this if we hear back.)

An open letter to Jeff Bezos: A contract worker’s take on Amazon.com

July 25, 2013 at 11:59 am by Steve Barker 30 Comments

Dear Jeff Bezos,

In your position, I imagine that you rarely have an opportunity to receive feedback from one of your temporary-contract employees. I thought you should have some input. I hope you find this useful.Having just completed my maximum of eleven months of contract work Amazon allows, I thought I would share my thoughts on your practice of hiring a staff that is made up of temporary-contract workers. Although it may seem like the company is saving money — because you don’t have to provide temporary workers with medical coverage or paid vacation time — the revolving door of new hires encourages low quality work, inconsistent productivity and wastes useful resources on training.

I joined the X-Ray for TV and Movies development team in its infancy. [“X-Ray for Movies & TV is a new feature available on Kindle and Wii U devices that enables Amazon Instant Video viewers to quickly identify and learn more about the actors in the scene while watching a movie or TV show, simply by tapping the screen.”] The product hadn’t even launched yet. It was exciting to watch the product grow and have input on creating the best possible user experience.

My team leader was an experienced manager, with the ability to adapt to the ever-changing process and gave the rest of the team confidence that we could go to him with questions or feedback and he would give it careful consideration. It felt like we were all learning together. Our coding tool was constantly being updated based on worker feedback, and our guidelines were always subject to change. Each new development was covered in our weekly stand-up meeting. If something seemed to get missed or lost in translation, an impromptu meeting was called to get everyone on the same page, which proved to be an effective training method.

One day that all changed. Our experienced team leader was transferred to a different department. A few of the temps, who had been on the project since X-Ray’s inception, applied for the now vacant position of project manager. I was convinced the position would be filled by one of two individuals who had trained me and acted as point people for questions and concerns when the manager was in a meeting. None of the temps who applied for the position got it, which most of us on the team found confusing because they were basically already doing the job.

An outsider was brought in who knew nothing about X-Ray. I was later told the new manger was hired based on management experience. She spent her first week being trained by one of the temps who had been deemed unqualified for the product manager position. After spending a week training the manager, and being her go-to person for the next three weeks whenever there was a problem, he was let go because he reached the maximum of eleven months on his contract. Since the new manager never completely grasped the program, she asked a select few of the oldest temps to train the newest temps. It seemed to me that these people were not chosen based on merit or capability, but more like she was putting together her own collection of “cool” kids. The best way to be put in a leadership role was be a pretty girl or a dude who used liberal amounts of Axe hair gel.

As experienced temps left and new ones rolled in, the breakdown began. Temps who had not paid attention in training were now training new temps. Different temps were teaching different techniques and it wasn’t long before the quality of work suffered. As witness to the poor quality, I made a few attempts to express my concerns, but none of my suggestions were implemented. When one of the higher-ups checked our work and realized that mistakes were being overlooked, performance scorecards were implemented.

The oldest temps would grade the newest temps. If a temp made twenty mistakes in a week they were let go. I agree that if someone makes that many mistakes they don’t deserve the job, but perhaps these mistakes were caused from a lack of proper training. Even though I performed excellent work, I was not deemed worthy of a full-time position, yet I held the fate of someone’s job in my hands. We were told the scorecards were an attempt to find out what mistakes were most often being made so they could be addressed. This was confusing since nearly everything I checked had the same mistakes, yet they were never addressed. Of the current X-Ray team only about half know the guidelines and proper procedure.

By my final month, it was difficult to care. I did quality work. I was one of only a handful of employees who didn’t need their work checked before pushing it to live status, but as far as the rest of the team was concerned I’d lost my enthusiasm for the project.

Why should anyone care if X-Ray succeeds or fails? If X-Ray becomes the biggest program on the planet and puts another several million dollars in your bank account, people in my position will still be sent packing at the end of eleven months. There will always be an endless supply of replacements, and they will be paid less since the pay rate of the team decreased with every new batch of hires. My replacement will probably work really hard for about six months, and then realize that they are cruising towards a dead end. They might start caring a little less.

In this terrible economy, I am grateful for the work, and the fact that I have a Bachelor’s Degree and the ability to write a complete sentence, means I will probably be back on the Amazon campus in a different department one day. It is likely many of the temps from the X-Ray team will be back as well, but know if they are wearing a green badge, you won’t be getting their full potential.

There’s a lot of talk about how Amazon is a great place to work. They have showers in the basement. You can get your bike serviced while you work. And there’s food trucks!

But if you really want to create a positive work environment and generate productivity and employee loyalty, give your employees some job security.

Amazon is a large company and I know this experience is not unique to me. The company is at a disadvantage when the employees are not working to their full potential.

Sincerely,

Steven Barker

PS: In my final team meeting, we were told that you watched Dumb & Dumber using X-Ray. I did the quality assurance on that film. I hope you appreciate my credit timing for Cam Neely in the bathroom scene. We spent an afternoon discussing that one.

Editor’s note: This post was written in response to the story this week that Amazon.com has some of the least loyal employees

Steve Barker is a former catalog specialist at Amazon. Follow his blog and podcast atOrdinary Madness.

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Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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