At 35, Kristi Coulter had all the trappings of small-town American comfort: a stable job, a supportive partner, a golden retriever and a house with a backyard. But she was stagnating. Her job at a “cosy but perpetually underachieving tech company” hadn’t challenged her in years. “I try to tell myself it doesn’t matter, that it’s enough to make decent money doing fun work with people I mostly like,” she writes in her new memoir Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career. But eventually she could no longer kid herself: she wanted more. So she told her boss she had a cold and flew to Seattle to interview for a managerial job at Amazon.
Coulter felt underqualified for the role, but she also trusted that she could envelop her predominantly male interviewers “in a force field of earnest competence, the kind I’d been practising since kindergarten with my hand permanently raised in class, the kind that says I will die before I let you down”. After what amounted to an eight-hour audition, she was – in spite of a stumble when asked to work out the number of gas stations in the US – offered the job. Undeterred by online rumours about the intensity of life at Amazon (the company was almost called “Relentless.com”), she accepted.
[See also: The techno-optimist fallacy]
Over the next 12 years Coulter held a range of managerial positions across the company, from overseeing Amazon’s books-in-translation imprint to running leadership camps for other executives and serving as an editorial director of Amazon Publishing. She also came to identify as – and take pride in being – “Amazonian”: working all hours of the day, fielding emails time-stamped 3am, tackling an impossible and ever-expanding workload. She would wake at 6am with a pit in her stomach and try to hack the day by “optimising breakfast” – blending coconut water, kale and camu camu powder in her Vitamix. She absorbed Amazon’s “leadership principles” so fully that she caught herself asking her dog to show some “bias for action” and pee already.
One of the company’s most cultishly embraced principles is “frugality”. When Coulter moved to the West Coast in 2006, other Big Tech firms were wooing recruits with perks such as on-site nap rooms and free dry-cleaning. Amazon, meanwhile, was notoriously spartan, with employees crammed together in open-plan offices, jostling for private meeting space and discouraged from taking taxis on work trips. Die-hard Amazonians made do with as few office comforts as possible, despite earning salaries that allowed them to carry designer handbags and holiday at luxury ski resorts. The first time Coulter got a bonus, casually handed an extra $100,000, her field of vision blurred; for a while, she felt as though she were winning a prize every day. Yet we rarely see her enjoying her disposable income: mostly, it seems to go towards facilitating her schedule and upholding her image – she hires a house cleaner and a wardrobe stylist – or rewarding herself for surviving another day.
Perhaps Coulter is reluctant to indulge because, in spite of her exorbitant salary and growing responsibilities, she never feels secure. She lives in fear of the next arbitrary reorganisation. Her boss calls her stupid. The goalposts continually shift. To get a promotion – or, in Amazon lingo, reach the next “level” – she is advised to “just change the world”.
The stakes of Exit Interview – whether or not Coulter will be promoted from a high-level, very well-paid job to an extra-high-level, absurdly well-paid job – may not be all that interesting. But it’s a testament to her writing, her ear for detail and her self-awareness that we care about whether she will achieve it. It helps that she broadens her lens to include interludes on “the history of female employment”, featuring such milestones as the nomination of the first female US vice-presidential candidate in 1984 (and grown-ups’ expectation that she, a middle-schooler, would be excited about it); Coulter’s mother’s reluctant exit from the workplace; and her discovery that an incompetent man she managed out-earned her by $40,000.
Amazon may have been a brutal place to work, but so were its peers. In 2016 – when Coulter was offered a red stripe on her employee badge in honour of her tenth anniversary at Amazon – the Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, explained in an interview that it was possible to work 130 hours a week “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom”. Coulter’s story reveals the costs of the rise-and-grind ethos that dominated Silicon Valley in the 2010s. And so we care as we watch her drive herself into a state of joyless exhaustion.
She flies to New York to attend a publishing event even though she’s so ill she can’t speak (introduced to the playwright Edward Albee, she mouths “laryngitis” and points at her throat). Her tolerance for stress rises so high that sex feels “under-stimulating”, and yoga – a practice she’d cherished for years – bores her. At first, she thinks it’s just her local studio that’s “geared toward sad and lazy people who don’t want to work hard”, but a broader search leads her to conclude that “every single yoga studio in the Greater Seattle area is for cowardly pussies”. She comes to rely on alcohol to unwind; her nightly glass of wine turns into five, until, so foggy and hungover that even her superfood smoothie has no effect, she quits drinking. (Her first book, Nothing Good Can Come from This, is a memoir of her sobriety.)
Coulter’s self-esteem plummets: she constantly wonders if she’s about to be fired and believes she would be unemployable if she left Amazon. She recognises the same self-doubt in many of her female workers: objectively successful women who cry in her office and ask if they’re going to lose their jobs. While women made up about half of the junior workforce, their numbers dropped at each rung of the corporate ladder until, by Coulter’s level, they accounted for only one quarter of employees. Micro-aggressions add up: executives joke about sexual harassment; a male colleague can’t understand why it might be insensitive to print “broccoli rape” on an Amazon Fresh meal kit. The pace is so punishing that Coulter comes to think of having a baby not just as something she’s ambivalent about, but as “a literal impossibility, as though Amazon has altered my anatomy”.
Coulter spends about a hundred pages gearing up to hand in her notice. After she stops drinking, she sees her unhappiness more sharply. She argues with a Kindle executive who thinks authors should use data on “the ideal number of words in a sentence” to reverse-engineer bestsellers. She gets rid of the trinkets on her desk.
But one turning point comes when Coulter – who entered essay competitions in high school, studied literature in college and completed an MFA in creative writing – publishes a viral essay about her relationship with alcohol. She sold her first book while still at Amazon. And so I have a quibble with the subtitle, “The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career”. Writing books might not be compensated the way working at Amazon is, but it offers a shot at other rewards that ambitious people tend to appreciate: attention, prestige and, in very rare cases, fame. Who is more “ambitious” – Coulter, who went to grad school for writing before taking a steady job at a tech company, or the German novelist and translator Heike Geissler, who was so committed to her writing, and so bad at remembering to file invoices (“you tend to put them on the back burner,” she writes in her second-person memoir Seasonal Associate), that she wound up working at the Amazon warehouse in Leipzig?
Coulter’s transition from manager at Amazon to non-fiction author is framed as the story of her ambition flaming out. I am sorry, but it takes an almost pathological amount of ambition to write a book – particularly a good one, like this. Coulter’s tech career may be over, but her ambition is very much alive.
And what about the Amazonians she left behind? Coulter quit in 2018, two years before the pandemic inspired a global reckoning with how we relate to work. More and more workers are acknowledging burnout; “quiet quitting” is replacing hustle culture. The number of employees who are “engaged” at work has been falling since 2020, with a particularly steep drop among Gen Z and millennials. At Amazon, workers have protested return-to-office mandates, but the company ignored a 30,000-strong petition and invited those who preferred to work from home to resign. It sounds very much like the Amazon portrayed in Exit Interview.
Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career
MCD, 384pp, £23.99
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[See also: Bill Gates is bad for humanity]
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now