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

Subject: An open letter to Jeff Bezos: A contract worker’s take on
From: Steven Barker
Date: 5 Mar 2015

Dear Jeff Bezos,

bezosIn 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.


Steven Barker