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23 February 2021

“He leads by fear and pressure“: former Amazon employees on Andy Jassy, the company’s next CEO

As CEO of Amazon he will be one of the world’s most powerful businesspeople. What do those who have worked with Andy Jassay expect of his tenure?

By Oscar Williams

In the early days of Amazon, staff at its Seattle headquarters would often visit a nearby restaurant called the Wing Dome. Over the years, chicken-wing feasts became a part of company culture, and eventually an annual eating competition, the Tatonka Bowl. Sales executives invited their clients to participate in a record-breaking eating competition during a conference in Las Vegas.

The master of ceremonies at the Tatonka Bowl was Andy Jassy, and he took these competitions seriously. First-timers were tasked with consuming a requisite number of “atomic” chicken wings, one attendee says, although Amazon denies there was an initiation ceremony. “Bone inspectors” and “wing flow managers” were deployed to police the competitions and ensure a constant supply of chicken to competitors. One former employee remembers Jassy asking a new member of staff about their greatest “food accomplishments” in a meeting. 

Jassy’s intensely competitive character is perhaps most evident, however, in his work, and later this year he is set to claim the ultimate prize. On 2 February, Amazon announced that its founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos would step down in the third quarter of the financial year, making way for Jassy, the current CEO of Amazon Web Services, to succeed him.

Amazon is unique. There are other trillion-dollar companies – Microsoft, Saudi Aramco and Apple are all larger by market cap – but none have the same physical scale. Amazon’s frontline employees peaked at 1,372,000 during 2020; only Walmart and McDonalds employ more people in the US. 

This makes Amazon’s chief executive arguably the most powerful business leader in the world. But Jassy, 53, has maintained a low profile. Who is he? What is it like working under him? And what does his own management style mean for a company that is rapidly transforming the nature of work itself?

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Jassy joined Amazon on 5 May 1997. At the time the business was three years old, employed just 256 people and still specialised in selling books. But it was nearing a pivotal point in its history: the company was preparing to sell shares publicly for the first time – and while it was ultra-lean, it had yet to turn a profit, raising concerns about how its stock would perform once it was exposed to the mercy of the market.

Shortly before the IPO, the company had raided Harvard Business School’s (HBS) MBA programme for new employees. Jassy finished his exams on the first Friday in May 1997 and joined the company’s headquarters in Seattle, more than 3,000 miles away, the following Monday. “I didn’t know what my job was going to be, what my title was going to be, what group I was going to work in,” Jassy recalled in an interview with the technology journalist Kara Swisher in 2019. “But it was very important to them that I showed up that Monday.”

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By the time Jassy took the job at Amazon, he and his wife, Elana Rochelle Caplan, had lived on the East Coast for five years. Jassy came to an agreement with Caplan, that they would “come out West for two to three years and then go back to New York”. “We wrote that agreement on a napkin in a bar when we made the decision to come out to Seattle,” said Jassy. “That was 23 years ago. My understanding is that the statue of limitations on that napkin has now expired.”

Ten days later, Amazon defied its critics and raised $54m at a valuation of $438m. Jassy and his former Harvard classmates were soon tasked with developing new lines of business.

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Jassy is described by former colleagues as affable, personable and down-to-earth. But he can also be “intense and focused,” says a former senior-level employee who spoke to the New Statesman on condition of anonymity. “I think those traits are pretty similar to Jeff [Bezos]. I always thought of him as a mini-Jeff. He would also be quick to laugh and be quick to be intense. I think there are a lot of parallels. He mimicked what Jeff said and did and perfected that over 20 years.” Amazon says the two men are very different individuals who share a common vision.

Jassy’s first role at Amazon was as a marketing manager, but he soon secured an advisory role shadowing Bezos and providing guidance on each decision he took. Their close working relationship continued to develop after the apprenticeship ended and, in 2003, they began work on providing cloud hosting services to other businesses. Amazon Web Services (AWS) began by serving small startup companies, but over time larger businesses also adopted its technology. Today, cloud computing is a $371.4bn industry and one that AWS continues to dominate, powering large parts of the internet. It is also in cloud computing – not retail – that Amazon makes most of its profits.

Bezos and Jassy are noted for their capacity to operate large businesses, as well as nurturing new ones. “Even inside Amazon, there aren’t many managers who are good at both,” says Bill Carr, who led Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Studios and Amazon Music and has written about the principles of Amazon’s business in the book Working Backwards. “Despite not having a technical background, Andy was able to dive into what was the technical product in Amazon Web Services and understand those details well enough to think about the product roadmap and chart a course through it.”

This, says Carr, is a hallmark of Amazon leaders. Another is their “relentlessly high standards”, which the company admits “some may consider to be unreasonable”. Jassy has said that it was only when he started shadowing Bezos that he realised his standards weren’t high enough. “The recipe for AWS is hire smart people, pressure the ever-loving hell out of them and wait for success,” says a second former senior-level employee who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “That works. That model works in terms of most of the time it generates great business results. It’s just that it’s inhumane.”

The former employee estimated that, going by their own experience, senior executives working under Jassy could be averaging 60- to 80-hour weeks. In some weeks, they estimated that 20 hours might be spent working from home through the night tackling emergencies. The first former employee also said that working anti-social hours to tackle technical issues was common: “It did get better, but it took a long time to get better.” AWS is well regarded in the industry for its low rate of service disruption, but when incidents do occur, they can knock dozens of internet services offline at once. Amazon said it was untrue that AWS staff spend an additional 20 hours every week tackling potential causes of service disruptions and that this doesn’t fit with the fact it has had a small number of disruptions in its history.

When Jassy is happy with a team’s work he is known to send emails that say, simply, “nice”. But he is said to rarely hand out compliments in person. The first former employee said that they “got very little positive reinforcement” during their time at the company. “Andy’s not a big praising person.”

[see also: Will the EU’s antitrust battle with Amazon expose the limits of the regulator’s power?]

The second former employee was more direct: “This is a guy who I’ve never really heard say anything positive of anyone, let alone say they are doing great,” they said, adding that they believe some current AWS employees feel “burned” by this behaviour. “But if someone went and complained about the culture, they would just be seen as weak. It’s a sort of fratboy culture.” 

Carr said he couldn’t speak directly to suggestions that Jassy tended to withhold praise, but suggests criticism is indeed core to Amazon’s culture. “Sports coaches who are successful over a long, long time – generally speaking, they have this characteristic, which is they are fiercely competitive, they are extremely demanding, they’re never satisfied and they set extremely high standards. That’s a hallmark of the best leaders at Amazon,” he says. “Candidly, if you’re going to build a company that becomes one of the biggest companies on planet Earth, it’s not a contest that’s won by the nicest guy.”

Amazon said Jassy frequently praises members of staff, responds to thousands of emails about service launches each year, hands out quarterly awards, emails staff directly and sends company-wide emails sharing his gratitude at Thanksgiving. 

“If I was to describe my career at Amazon, I would say it was extremely challenging to work there but it brought out the best in me,” Carr continues. “But it’s not for everyone and this is not to pat myself on the back but there are some people who for various reasons that culture is not for them. […] If you’re working for Andy Jassy, it’s not like someone has ever put a gun to your head to say you must do this. You obviously have plenty of career options. As they say, if you can’t take the heat, then get out of the kitchen.”

[see also: The world’s richest man has never had it so good]

But while it may be true that AWS employees have plenty of alternative career paths, Jassy will soon preside over hundreds of thousands of frontline workers who may have few other options. 

“Sure, I’m a highly paid executive. If I don’t get a lot of ‘attaboys’ on my back, I can choose to go and be highly paid somewhere else,” says the second former employee. “But he is going to lead all of Amazon, which employs up to 1.3 million people and he basically appears to be incapable of demanding, (a) less than 100 per cent life commitment and (b), actually acknowledging good work. I think it’s a fear of demotivating people. He likes to lead by fear and pressure.”

Amazon said AWS employees are high performers with passions outside of their job and that Jassy encapsulates this through his work supporting programmes that help low-income students from ethnic minority backgrounds enter higher education, as well as his time spent supporting reading programmes and his part-ownership of a Seattle ice hockey team. 

An Amazon spokesperson added: “We believe that Amazon is the place where people come to build the future, have an impact on the lives of millions of customers, and accelerate their careers. We see a growing interest from people of all backgrounds and levels of experience to join Amazon – last year we received tens of millions of jobs applications to join our company.

“Amazon ranked number two on the Forbes “World’s Best Employers” list and we are consistently rated among the top three most desired employers in the U.S. by LinkedIn. We employ 1.3 million people around the world and have hired 500,000 people over the last 12 months. We pay a starting wage of $15/hour (U.S.) or £9.50/hour UK (and in the London area, £10.50 per hour)  and offer comprehensive benefits, including healthcare, 401(k) company matching, up to 20 weeks of parental leave, access to free skills training, and more.”