SEATTLE — When Kristi Coulter sat down to write a book about working at Amazon, she kept hearing a voice in her head.
“You were terrible at your job, and you’re not good at this,” the voice said, which also told her that her memoir, published last month under the title “Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career,” would be a failure.
This was the Voice of Amazon, Coulter said. “Amazon is not a place where you really get told you’re doing a good job.”
It’s a place, as she describes it, where no feedback is good feedback, “where you never feel like you’re really nailing it,” and where the frantic quest to prove yourself “nearly superhuman” — a criteria for becoming an executive — exacts a punishing toll. It’s also a place where she occupied rooms filled mostly with men and where she kept trying to convince the few women in her orbit, typically brilliant and self-flagellating, that they were not about to be fired.
Coulter, who spent from 2006 to 2018 in Amazon’s upper-middle management, set out to capture what it’s like to be a woman in this culture. It says something that this task, which took Coulter four years, was way harder than writing her first book “Nothing Good Can Come From This” — a collection of essays about quitting drinking, hardly a light subject, though the wickedly funny Coulter sometimes made it feel that way.
Processing her Amazon experience, she cycled through potential overarching themes, each instructive in their own way.
Was it a book about failure? She had a high position at one of the world’s most powerful companies, and lasted longer there than 98% of employees. But the Voice of Amazon focused on her failure to get promoted into the executive ranks.
About serving Great Men’s ambitious dreams? She sees herself as a Hillary Clinton type, raising her hand for extra credit and plodding along, while men like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos set the agenda.
About trauma? The stress was that bad.
Finally, the 53-year-old author realized: “This is a story of someone who outgrows Amazon and rescues herself from it.”
In the telling, Coulter provides non-Amazonian Seattleites with a rare inside look at a culture that is all around us but strangely and mysteriously apart.
There’s a disdain Coulter feels everywhere, but especially in Seattle. “You’re not one of the cool people,” she said. Instead, Amazonians are assumed to be “either arrogant or like you were like sort of an automaton” — lacking individual taste and personality.
“It was awful,” said Coulter, who holds a master of fine arts in creative writing. As evidence of her non-automaton literary inclinations, she points to walls of books in the living room of her Ravenna home, also decorated with paintings and sculpture, some made by her husband, John Sindelar, an artist turned software company founder. A big music fan, she’s wearing a Pretenders T-shirt. She’s chatty, introspective and remarkably open.
If Amazon employees get a bad rap, the company itself often gets worse. “From the very beginning,” she writes, “I’m attuned to the fact that a lot of people see my employer as, you know, pure evil.”
And that was when Amazon’s footprint, in Seattle and the world, was far smaller. It was rapidly growing, though, and the possibilities lured her away from a boring job at a Michigan media distribution company. She started off at Amazon as a senior manager of books and media merchandising and held a variety of roles, including running imprints for Amazon Publishing and helping to start up cashier-less Amazon Go stores.
Over time, she heard critics portray Amazon as squashing independent booksellers, plotting to take over market after market and abusing its warehouse workers.
She heard boos when she went to a showing of the film “Manchester by the Sea,” distributed by Amazon Studios. After joining Amazon Publishing, she was so wary of the reaction she would get at trade shows that she would turn her company badge around.
“I was always aware I had to be extra lovely, extra charming, extra humble, just to get over the Amazon stench, frankly,” she said.
Even if she agreed with some of the criticism, she said, “It was hard not to get defensive.”
She really liked some things about the company: many of her colleagues, the thrill of taking on huge projects, the ability to reinvent herself time and again in different arms of the company.
She was also making a lot of money. She worried in the early days, before her stock options vested, about having to live on a salary just shy of six figures — under the going rate in tech, but one many would kill for in 2006, or now.
But Coulter depicts money as a kind of salve.
One of the surprises about Coulter’s portrayal of Amazon is a pervasive chaos. Constantly pushed to do things faster, the characters in the book (almost all given pseudonyms) often seem to be flying blind, without adequate information or resources.
Amazon Publishing had all of 15 employees when she worked in the division, which felt, she writes, “as if we were putting a show on in the barn.”
How does Coulter square this with the reality of a phenomenally successful company? As parts of the business matured, they got more stable, she said.
Then, there was that push for superhuman devotion. Coulter writes Bezos considered naming the company “Relentless,” and if you go to www.relentless.com, you’ll find yourself on Amazon’s homepage. (Try it.)
There’s a scene in the book so unbelievable it reads like parody.
Jeff Wilke, then a top Amazon executive, comes to a team meeting to give a pep talk. “Look, this place is intense,” he acknowledges. “It’s important to find a sustainable balance. Maybe that means a few times a year you leave at 5:30 on a Friday to hang out with your family.”
A few times a year.
How these expectations play out along gender lines is a running theme of the book. Coulter does not have kids, and notes the same of most women she met at Amazon.
“My own interest in motherhood has never been more than casual and passing,” she writes, “but since I’ve been here, I’ve begun thinking of kids as a literal impossibility, as though Amazon has altered my anatomy.”
Men are parents too, of course, but those Coulter knew at Amazon tended to have wives who left high-powered careers to stay home.
Another telling scene in “Exit Interview” comes when the author, during a stint working in executive development, asks a roomful of company leaders what they might change to achieve more gender parity at the company’s top levels. (Roughly 72% of its managers and 78% of its senior leaders are men, according to Amazon figures.)
“I’m sure every person in this room would love to see more women in Amazon leadership roles,” one man says. “But what would it mean for us to become the kind of family-friendly company where that can happen? Would it mean moving slower? Having less aggressive goals?”
Coulter’s reaction: “I will never overcome the belief that the presence of women means a slower, softer, weaker Amazon.”
And when a woman gets aggressive, that isn’t good either. For the first time in many years working at Amazon, Coulter raises her voice in irritation and is told that a male colleague felt “emotionally unsafe.”
This is when Coulter concludes that women can’t outrun their gender so they might as well forget all the advice on how to speak, stand and dress in the working world and just do what they please.
But it would be a mistake to see Coulter’s book as only about women at Amazon. Just as interesting is her portrayal of the company’s prevailing brand of masculinity.
She sees little sexual harassment, as became common in bro-ish Silicon Valley. In fact, Coulter describes Amazon as a weirdly asexual place. The men are too busy trying to measure up. Fear pervades.
Not that they show it. These men are stoic, leaving their emotions at home. They are not criticized for arguing aggressively; it’s the norm. Coulter said there would often come a moment in meetings, as the men were trying to one-up each other, when she and the one or two other women in the room would roll their eyes at each other.
You’d be tempted to think these men consider themselves “Masters of the Universe,” as novelist Tom Wolfe famously described Wall Street’s alpha males of the 1980s.
“But the Amazon environment and culture just sort of shrinks everyone down to size,” Coulter said.
For one thing, while tech companies typically ply their employees with free food and other goodies, Amazon has a strictly no-perks ethos. In their private lives, senior staffers might live in multi-million-dollar houses. But at work, they occupy Spartan, cramped spaces and fly coach on business trips.
Amazon’s dedication to “frugality” is embedded in the company’s “leadership principles,” and reading about the seriousness with which employees take them can vaguely call to mind a cult. Another principle demands leaders be “vocally self-critical.” Coulter, when conducting hiring interviews, looked for a culture fit by asking candidates when they badly messed up.
No wonder stress got to the men too. Coulter said she heard poignant tales from executive coaches. “You get these men into a room, these confident men, and within 15 minutes, they’re in tears,” she said.
She received dozens of messages after the book came out, and unexpectedly, some were from men. They didn’t know what it was like to be a woman at Amazon, but otherwise, they said essentially “you told my story.”
“The men are not OK,” Coulter realized. And since the women don’t appear to be either, at least in her telling, she wonders whether there will come a point when Amazon’s culture will become a liability.
©2023 The Seattle Times. Visit seattletimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.