The Amazon Culture

published on 15 September 2021

At the end of every Amazon interview, when it came to offering candidates the chance to ask me questions, I could lay a safe bet they would ask me“what’s the Amazon culture like?”.

The problem was, I never really understood what they were actually asking. The definition of the Amazon culture is so expansive and everyone has a different definition. So I changed tactics and asked them to be more specific in their question, so I understood how they were defining the Amazon culture.

I got a huge range of specific questions, so I thought I’d share the more frequent ones with you in case you have that question too.

Do people socialise together?

Obviously this depends on the team and the ups and downs of workload, but as a general rule in the teams I worked in over 5 years, I found them all to be very sociable.

There is a mix of life-stages singles to families, so there is always a good chance of someone who wants to wind down at a local bar/pub at the end of the week. Teams also get a social budget allocated. And from that budget unit managers will organise periodic team social events.

The big events of the year in Europe and US are the Summer Party and the Christmas Party (happens in Jan). I’m sure these big events vary in other locales. These are amazing. Brilliantly organised, with entertainment, food, drink and music all laid on.

The social element is a key part of the Amazon culture, especially for the younger Amazonains.

Do people support each other or is it a competitive environment? 

Both. There’s no denying Amazon is packed full to the rafters with incredibly smart ambitious people.

To progress, you have to compete with others, simple. In the majority of my experience however this type of competitiveness, didn’t manifest in people crawling over each other’s dead bodies. If I needed support, I could in the overwhelming instances, rely on my colleagues to give it to me. And often help would come unsolicited, when people saw I could do with a hand.

As with all companies, there is always someone whose ambition outstrips their humanity- but I didn’t find that to be systemic or a fundamental element of colleagues at Amazon.

What is work life balance like?

This is a very common interpretation of  the Amazon Culture.

This is also variable between teams and the ups and downs of workload. There’s no question, that you’ll work hard at Amazon. It’s a high demand, high expectation organisation.

The biggest variable is the same at Amazon as it is at any organisation, which is that unit leadership sets that tone, far more than any company wide policy. I worked in a unit where my work-life balance was not great. I worked in a unit where my work-life balance was wonderful.

At a company level there’s an appreciation that Amazon is your job and you’re entitled to a life beyond it. Equally there is an expectation, that you’re committed to getting the job done.

Ultimately it’s up to you to take care of yourself, manage your own workstack, be vocal but respectful with your leadership if you don’t feel you’re achieving the balance you would like. Not everyone’s sense of balance is the same.

Are there any internal societies or interest groups?

Many, many, many.

How is underperformance managed? (I was surprised how frequently this came up)

Amazon has a very structured approach to Performance Management. If someone is identified as an under performer it’s very clearly made their manager’s responsibility to help them improve. They’ll meet with their manager and agree a plan and goals. In my experience this isn’t a one way path to dismissal. I’ve personally successfully supported people out of the process and they’ve gone on to get promotions.

Do people have lunch together? 

Yes. No matter what team I’ve been in, there have always been groups that lunch and take coffee together. The canteens in the buildings I’ve worked in across London and Seattle are always packed. And god help you if you need to get a lift to the lobby, to collect a candidate around lunch time. They’re packed and stop at every floor!

How does the company deal with diversity?

THis is certainly what I think about when I think about the Amazon culture.

As a general rule, I think Amazon is a wonderfully diverse organisation. Because it’s truly global and Amazonians often rotate around different locales, there’s always a range of cultures and ethnicities. Some offices are more diverse than others, as you would expect- but it’s certainly the most ethnically and culturally diverse company I’ve worked for.

Again, along with norms this diversity does begin too narrow as you get higher up the leadership hierarchy. For example woman have a lower representation at senior levels than junior, but as I understand it nevertheless is higher than the average blue chip organisation. I was also impressed by Amazon’s approach to disability and inclusion, I’ve worked through sign language interpreters with colleagues, worked with colleagues with service dogs in the office etc.

Are you expected to work out of hours?

This depends on the role you do. Teams who support critical services will generally have an “on-call” roster, to ensure those systems always have coverage. In other teams, as a matter of course you won’t be expected to work out of hours, but you will be expected to get the work done and sometimes that does mean having to log back in after the official working day has ended to achieve that.

Equally if you work in a team that works with colleagues in different time zones, sometimes it’s necessary to work outside your own time zone’s working hours to be able to cross paths with them.

How does the company feel about taking time to cover family responsibilities?

I was a parent for my entire duration of my career at Amazon and I can safely say I never had any concerns about taking the time I needed to support my family.

How does the company approach social responsibility?

There are of course lots of initiatives at a corporate level about Amazon’s commitment to its carbon footprint and other CSR initiatives. As an individual Amazon offers limited paid time off to volunteer for charities and in the teams I worked in, we would also turn team events into volunteering opportunities which was always fun.

What is the dress code?

Almost anything goes. I’ve seen snappy 3 piece suits to a selection of Hawaiian shirts, board shorts and flip flops.

Does Amazon support learning new skills?

There are so many programs about this in Amazon. To describe a couple: There’s a couple of mentoring programs, they’re in an excellent internal training platform KNET with hundreds of courses, open for anyone to use. The company may also fund special training if there is a skill you need for your job not covered by KNET.

There is also a recent investment program to help propel skills around the company these include

Amazon Technical Academy, which equips non-technical Amazon employees with the essential skills to transition into, and thrive in, software engineering careers

Associate2Tech, which trains fulfillment center associates to move into technical roles regardless of their previous IT experience; Machine Learning University, offering employees with technical backgrounds the opportunity to access machine learning skills via an on-site training program

AmazonCareer Choice, a pre-paid tuition program designed to train fulfillment center associates in high-demand occupations of their choice

Amazon Apprenticeship, a Department of Labor certified program that offers paid intensive classroom training and on-the-job apprenticeships with Amazon; and AWS Training and Certification, which provide employees with courses to build practical AWS Cloud knowledge that is essential to operating in a technical field.

I hope that’s useful. Amazon has a moto “work hard, have fun, make history” which I think broadly sets the agenda out correctly.

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