Big Technology

How Amazon Automates Work in Its Corporate Offices: A Conversation With Elaine Kwon

Alex Kantrowitz
OneZero

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The question isn’t what’s going to get automated. It’s what’s going to get automated last.

Elaine Kwon

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As I wrote Always Day One, my book about tech giant culture, I learned of a massive automation program inside Amazon’s corporate offices called Hands Off The Wheel. The initiative took tasks once performed by white-collar employees within Amazon’s retail organization — core work like purchasing, price negotiation, merchandising, and product promotion — and turned them over to the company’s machine learning systems. Elaine Kwon, co-founder and partner at Kwontified, was a vendor manager at Amazon when the company turned her tasks over to the machines. She joins Big Technology Podcast to discuss the experience and what we can learn from it.

Alex Kantrowitz: You joined Amazon in 2014 as a vendor manager. What does a vendor manager do?

Elaine Kwon: In theory, the vendor manager is supposed to be the buyer. And there was a little bit of buying involved, especially within the fashion realm, which is where I was working.

Buying means you’re on the phone with brands like Gucci and Versace saying ‘We need this many handbags, at this price, at these fulfillment centers?’

At the time, a lot of Amazon’s buying spirit was very much about the “Everything Store,” which is: buy one and see if it sticks. Buy one of everything, see if it sticks.

At Amazon, you’re dealing with fulfillment centers that can fit an entire Sunday’s worth of NFL games. So you were just out there buying like crazy and see what the internet demands?

Exactly. The thought process was that we’re Amazon, we didn’t really care about being profitable. We just wanted to be the best e-commerce site in the world. The customer will know what…

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Alex Kantrowitz
OneZero

Veteran journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.