Fording the Amazon: On Corporate Culture, Rockstars, and Having a Great Career



Fording the Amazon

On ‘Rockstars’, corporate culture, and what it means to have a Great Career

Article by Ben Feuer.  Photo by Valeriy Osipov. 

    A week ago, my wife met an elderly black woman on the subway sitting next to a Chinese man with Down’s syndrome.  My wife, assuming the woman was a professional home aide, asked her how she liked her job.  “Oh, I’m not his caretaker,” the woman replied.  “We’re going to a flashmob together”.  This woman devoted several hours every week to escorting the young man, an acquaintance, around to fun events.  He was challenging charge — he blurted out loud, confused statements and was sometimes physically aggressive — but she clearly enjoyed it.  “I can handle him,” she said with pride.

    Almost everyone else in the world seems to understand that work is just a small part of a great life – Americans, however, cling stubbornly to the peculiar and hard-headed belief that our country can and should be run in much the same way as, say, one might optimize the delivery a Frozen “Elsa” doll — efficiently, impersonally and uncompromisingly.

    That, of course, is a not-so-veiled reference to  A recent must-read Times Magazine article exposes the company’s metric-driven hiring and management practices.  It describes a culture of backstabbing and suspicion, eighty-hour work weeks, midnight text messages demanding responses and little tolerance for those struggling with illness or injury.  Nor is this the first time we’ve heard this about Amazon – complaints about the company stretch back for years.

    But let’s be clear, Amazon is neither the worst nor the only offender in this regard.  Another recent Times article points out that so-called “big law” firms have been doing this kind of thing for years, and it shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.  So even though I’m talking about Amazon in this post, I’m not *just* talking about Amazon.

    In the article, Amazon HR says they’re after a team of ‘rockstars’, ambitious, brilliant powerhouses.  In case you’re a little hazy on the definition of this term, a rockstar is a technical savant, a hard-driving (usually) young white princeling with the right credentials, smart enough to know it all but not quite smart enough to know better.  Drunk on a newfound sense of power and agency (and blind to how narrow their particular beam of light really is) they’re usually too immature to have any clue as to why others might not be able to match their particular brand of industry, and so they run around demanding everyone else match their pace, style and volume.

    Not so great to share an office with, but awesome to manage, right?  From a numbers standpoint, if each rockstar is, say, 35 percent more efficient than the average employee, a team of them should be 35 percent more efficient than the average team, right?  Actually, you might not want to count your chickens just yet. The research on this point indicates just the opposite — not everyone wants to be or should be a ‘rockstar’, even at Amazon, and getting a full night’s sleep and trusting (and building relationships with) your team over months or years contributes more to quality of work than any individual effort. 

    Overconfident ‘rockstar’ employees (and executives) can also lead their teams on wild goose chases if they are too locked-in to a particular vision of a project – certain recent Amazon failures come to mind. That pesky little thing called reality notwithstanding, the idea of the ‘super-employee’ is too sexy (and too flattering to founders) to possibly pass up, and so the vicious cycle continues.

    Can Amazon really be as bad as the Times article makes it out to be?  Probably not quite – many employees and ex-employees have since chimed in and said their experience at Amazon was nothing like this (apparently, the better managed teams at Amazon are largely insulated from the chaos and maintain more normal hours and culture).  But there is certainly more than a little truth in what these employees are saying, since many more workers have now echoed the article’s claims.  In one particularly telling Times comment, a man described placing a negative review on a product after it shipped late and receiving a desperate call from an Amazon employee begging him to take it down — “You have no idea how much trouble this comment is causing us!”  We do now.

    Even Bezos didn’t counter the Times’s case with data (his favorite fetish).  Instead, he fell back on anecdotes.  “The amazon he knows” isn’t like this.  Furthermore, if the Amazon YOU know does sound like this … well, there’s the door.  You hear this kind of free market argument a lot when people are defending businesses.  They have a point – a disproportionate number of Amazonians do leave, as the Times article mentions.  But people with cancer and expecting mothers often can’t afford to sacrifice their employer-linked health insurance on the altar of rugged individualism, and vulnerable populations are the prey at Amazon, not young healthy bucks with nothing better to do than cram themselves into Hermann Miller chairs for 80 hours a week.  Mr. Bezos is quoted in the article as saying that maintaining Amazon’s culture is his primary job responsibility at this point in time — if all of these ‘anomalies’ come as news to him, perhaps he needs to check his Anytime Feedback Tool more often. 

    The real question is this; will Amazon be our new normal, or are we, as Americans, going to demand a counterbalancing force to corporations in the hiring process?  Since unions are mostly dead, and since we all know the federal government isn’t going to do anything, we worker bees have little to no protection left … except our voices. But our voices are more powerful than we realize.  We can— many millenials ARE — choosing to prioritize lifestyle over salary, balance over bonuses.  If we speak as one, employers will listen, particularly tech companies, whose lifeblood is innovation and creativity.

    We have power as consumers too, even though we don’t always exercise it.  Personally, I think that since Amazon is using its ‘customer obsession’ (rule #1) as a justification to smash its own employees, I think we should let them know, as customers, just how we feel about that.  How fortunate, then, that they have a review system.  Perhaps that shiny new Fire HD Tablet they’re advertising on their front page would be good forum to deposit our feelings? 

Why You Need a (Great!) College and Graduate Educational Consultant


A great educational consultant doesn’t do the work for you. He (or she) pushes you—like a tough athletic coach—to go from good to GREAT in all aspects of your candidacy.

Lebron James has undeniable natural talent. He couldn’t be less than “good” at basketball if he shot the ball from his couch with his other hand wrapped around a Pringles tube. But if you want to be Major League, you need someone outside your own mind and body to push you to a new level.

Sammy’s application to MIT Sloan’s MBA program is an excellent example. I enjoyed Sammy’s optional personal expression essay. It was clever, well-produced, and bold. And yet it was missing something crucial.

MIT Sloan’s optional essay allows the applicant to create something original, something that reveals his or her personality.  Sammy made a video, a clever takeoff of Apple’s “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” commercials, explaining that he was no typical finance guy in the way that Macs aren’t typical computers. In making good points about who Sammy is, it did exactly what that essay is supposed to do, no more and no less.  AND THAT WAS THE WHOLE PROBLEM.

At Forster-Thomas, we refer to the upper echelon of elite schools as the Major Leagues of Admissions—Harvard College, Columbia Medical School, Haas B-School, Stanford Law, USC Film.  We do that for a reason.  It takes something special to make it to the major leagues.  Talent is a given.  Most people applying to those schools have talent.  Effort matters—a lot—but not all effort is created equal.  Some effort is wasted on things that don’t count.  That’s why major leaguers need COACHES.  You know, that guy on the sidelines in a suit or uniform (or in the case of Bill Belichick, a grungy hoodie) screaming at you to slide or bunt or whatever it is you do in baseball.  You need someone to take your clever essay ideas, your interesting interview responses and your competent resume from “effective” and “polished” to “authentic” and “compelling.”

In Sammy’s case, his optional personal expression essay was missing that one, teeny-tiny, indispensable ingredient: HEART. While the Forster-Thomas crew enjoyed and nodded at the video when we saw it, a day later, none of us could recall a thing about Sammy—other than the fact that he’s not a PC.  And that is a BIG, BIG problem. If I don’t remember Sammy, neither will the adcoms.

While Sammy had worked with us on his applications to other schools, he did MIT Sloan on his own.  Imagine if he had had someone there to push him, to make him sweat the small stuff.  Imagine, if instead of a perfect Mac, we saw a guy who showed off two amazing things about himself like his academic ability and a great club he led. And then imagine Sammy stops. He looks down, and then back up at the camera and says, “Wait. I don’t wanna put anyone else down—not PC or anyone.” And then he reveals something not so great—like his struggle organizing thoughts, a truth about his insecurity about transitioning from law to business. And then he asks MIT for help giving him the life his really wants. And maybe he cuts to this part when he’s “backstage,” setting everything up. See?  It not only takes it past the clever “Mac/PC” commercial, but it humanizes him. Now MIT doesn’t just like Sammy. MIT remembers Sammy. We all do.

That’s what a strong, experienced, savvy educational consultant does. He or she takes you from D-League to Major League—by helping you find and express your HEART, not just your resume.  Odds are, Sammy considered doing something personal and warm—but rejected the idea. Without someone to give him permission to get real, he backed off because admissions is scary. The more your put yourself on the line, the harder it is if you get rejected.

You may be Superman, but you have Kryptonite buried somewhere in your candidacy, and it will suck all the power out of it if you let it.  We all have a blind spot—you, me, everybody.  We all need a coach to be great.

I have a confession to make: I have a bit of an ego.  That is why it is extra hard for me to admit what I’m about to admit: I’m not a Mac.  I’m not slick, or polished.  I wake up every day and ask myself, “Was I a phony yesterday? Does anyone really care what I have to say today?”
That fear is not “slick” or “polished”—it’s just the truth.  My media consultant, Hank, otherwise known as my personal pain-in-the ass, is my secret weapon that never lets me merely be good. He helps me be great. That’s why I hire him.  And that’s why you should hire us, or another educational consultant that is the right fit for your personality and needs.

You worked hard to give yourself a shot at a top program or school.  Why settle for second best in your candidacy and your applications, the final and most telling stage of the entire process?  That’s why you need a GREAT educational consultant.  The good news is, I have a couple suggestions about where to start looking.  HECA, IECA … I’m looking at you!

—Auntie Evan

Job Talk Daily Live – October 1, 2014


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Job Talk Daily Live – September 24, 2014


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Job Talk Daily Live – September 17, 2014


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Job Talk Daily Live – September 10, 2014


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You know it’s true.

You lied to get your job. Eventually, you have to put up or get out.

If you say you know how to work with Excel, eventually you’ll have to learn Excel.

What’s brought this subject up is our office manager, Roberto.

Roberto said he could be a copy edit during his interview. Obviously one of the things you need to do to be a copy editor is spell. When we asked him to read over some client work, the ugly truth was revealed.

He didn’t see a difference between “desert” and “dessert.”

But seriously, this is not the worst sort of lie. There’s all types of lying. Half of Americans admit to lying at some point during a job interview.

We are not in favor of lying. However, our personal belief is that you should do everything you can to get the job. But you have to be able to rise to the occasion if you plan on stretching the truth a bit.

In Roberto’s defense, he was good at English. He had good grades in his English classes. So when he saw that we wanted someone who preferably knew how to copy edit, he said he could.

Our problem is not that Roberto said he was a copy editor. Our problem is that when he got the job he didn’t get ass over to The Learning Annex and learn copy editing.

Just because you have an English degree doesn’t mean you know how to copy edit. Just because you know how to use a computer doesn’t mean you know how to use Excel.

You have to be cautious. This is where the lie gets crazy.

Sometimes you don’t know that you lied. And you find out later that what you said you know how to do you don’t actually know how to do.

What you do then is take a class.

There’s a big misconception. It’s never too late to learn the skill you said you could do (but can’t). Even when you’re found out.

But what’s the difference between an acceptable lie and an unacceptable lie? It’s fine to stretch the truth a little to get the job, but it needs to be something that you can back up.

An example would be saying you can copy edit, if you’re not going for a copy editing job.

If you have 4 out of 5 skills and the 5th skill is something you can learn, say you have all five.

Heath Ledger supposedly got the lead role for A Knight’s Tale by saying he knew how to stage fight. Which he didn’t. But when he got the job he immediately went out and learned how to stage fight.

Here’s an unacceptable lie. If you’re not 6’2”, don’t say you’re 6’2”. This goes for acting gigs, shoots and online dating. If you say you’re 180, and you’re actually 280, that’s a big fat lie.

If you say you worked at Morgan Stanley when you didn’t work at Morgan Stanley, that’s unacceptable.

If you say have a Bachelor’s and you don’t, that’s unacceptable.

These are career destroyers.

These are usually lies made up from thin air.

There’s a difference between faking it till you make it and flat-out lying.

You know in your heart when you’re hustling and when you’re just making shit up. It’s the same feeling you had when you were five years old and knew you were doing something wrong.