BIG TECHNOLOGY

‘It Just Felt Wrong’: Ex-Amazon VP Tim Bray on Why He Left.

Bray talks to journalist Alex Kantrowitz about how Amazon treats workers, regulation, and more

Tim Bray
Tim Bray
Photo courtesy of Tim Bray

OneZero is partnering with Big Technology, a newsletter and podcast by Alex Kantrowitz, to bring readers exclusive access to interviews with notable figures in and around the tech industry.

This week, Kantrowitz sits down with Tim Bray, an ex-VP for Amazon and distinguished engineer who quit after the company fired employees who spoke up about working conditions in its warehouses. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To subscribe to the podcast and hear the interview for yourself, you can check it out on iTunes, Spotify, and Overcast.

In May, Amazon VP and distinguished engineer Tim Bray said he was leaving the company. Amazon had just fired employees who spoke out against its working conditions, and Bray couldn’t tolerate it. He handed in his resignation and published an astonishing blog post detailing his decision — an unprecedented move for an executive inside the tech giants. “I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison,” he wrote.

By listening to Bray, we can learn a bit more about how people inside the tech giants view their power and how they might drive change as Congress and regulators stand still.

Alex Kantrowitz: Does it feel painful, or do you feel like you did the right thing?

Tim Bray: Well, both. It was the world’s greatest job, and I really liked the people, and AWS is a treat to work for. But that was just not a thing that I could let go by.

I want to read something from your departure letter. You said that “firing whistleblowers is evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.” Could you help us understand what that toxicity is?

Well, I’m really not going to be able to explain it because I don’t understand it. I spent five and a half years at Amazon. I would say it is an exceptionally well-managed, well-run company. These days, in the days of late capitalism, there’s a lot of things to displease even mildly progressive people about the way big companies are run. And Amazon operates within the rules of businesses as they currently operate, and that leads to some things like situations in the warehouse that concern people. Obviously, it didn’t concern me enough for me to quit because I kept on working there for five and a half years. But then when this firing the whistleblowers and activists thing started, that just seemed different. It didn’t seem like a thing that a company ought to do within or without the rules. It just felt wrong and not something that I was comfortable with.

“The entire basis of 21st-century capitalism builds in a huge amount of disregard for people in blue-collar jobs by people in white-collar jobs.”

And I think when you carry a VP rank, you really need to be able to speak for the company in a comfortable way and explain its reasons for the things it does, and I couldn’t, so I didn’t.

Having said that, not only did I find [the firings] ethically challenging to an unacceptable degree, I thought it wasn’t very smart. Have these people never heard of the Streisand effect? It seems like firing activists is like pointing 50-foot arrows of fire at a situation and saying, “Oh, there’s something here we don’t want you to hear about.” So I was disappointed in that. But I just did not feel I could be a public-facing person as part of a company that did things like that.

Yeah. Then going back to the toxicity, is it more of a disregard for worker conditions? Is it a disconnect between people in the white-collar jobs and the blue-collar jobs at Amazon? How would you describe it?

Well, I think that the entire basis of 21st-century capitalism builds in a huge amount of disregard for people in blue-collar jobs by people in white-collar jobs. And Amazon is by no means the worst. I mean, you could look at Walmart, you can look at any number, particularly in the agricultural sector, the meat-packing plants and so on. Amazon is by no means the worst. But I think that is not an Amazon problem. That is a societal problem. And if we do not like the way that blue-collar workers are treated, we need to do old-fashioned regulation and legislation to deal with that.

Having said that, I thought that firing activists was qualitatively different. It was a step over the line and not just a routine part of the practice of modern capitalism. It was just something I couldn’t be comfortable with.

In terms of the whistleblowers, can you tell us a little bit about what the story looked like on the inside? We know that it was pretty challenging in the middle of Covid-19 for Amazon to maintain safety precautions inside the warehouses, and there was a feeling inside that people were just like, “This isn’t going to work.”

Oh, I disagree. I don’t think that there was a “this isn’t going to work” feeling. I think that is absolutely the case that Amazon invested a huge amount of time and effort in trying to make the warehouses safer and operable. At the same time, we were hearing repeated and sustained objections from the staff who didn’t feel safe at work, and I didn’t have any trouble believing both of those things: That Amazon was working hard at this, and that there was still a lot of deeply expressed concern among the staff. I don’t believe for a moment that Covid makes it impossible to do business. We’re going to have to figure out how to do it, and things may run slower, and they may be more expensive, but I certainly wouldn’t be a defeatist about it.

You mentioned that it wasn’t smart for Amazon to fire the whistleblowers. Why do you think they did it? Because you’re right. It does bring more attention to the things that they’re speaking up about.

I absolutely do not know. Sorry, but I just don’t.

Is there a tolerance for dissent inside Amazon?

There is a huge tolerance for dissent inside Amazon. One of the core leadership principles they run the company on is “disagree and commit,” which means that dissenting opinions are not only acceptable, they are sought out, actively sought out in the context of any really important decision to make sure that new people know what’s going on. And I think the effect of that is that, as part of the leadership, the company may choose decisions that go in different ways than what you’d like to see, but generally you have the feeling that you were listened to, that you may have lost the argument, and that’s certainly happened. During my time in leadership there, there were some big arguments that I lost, but that was, at the end of the day, okay. And I was willing to go and publicly defend the position that we took because I felt listened to. But that only goes so far. And when the occurrence that happens is way outside your ethical bounds, that’s different.

I wonder if “disagree and commit” inside Amazon applies when it comes towards building things that Amazon wants. And I wonder if they live that leadership principle when it comes to dissent or when it comes to allowing for disagreement on things in terms of ethics and not in terms of product development.

Obviously, once you have a regulatory framework, large organizations are going to skate right up to the edge of it, and that’s why regulations have to be very carefully written. But I would have to say that during my time there, I simply did not see anything that I thought was even remotely illegal or unethical. The problem isn’t that. Amazon says that they manage things in a customer-obsessed way, and that is absolutely true. And if you look at what Amazon’s retail side offers, they offer broad selection, low prices, and fast delivery. Well, how could anybody be against those things? Those are obviously good things.

Having said that, nothing is free. There has to be a price for everything. And I think I have a broad concern, not just for Amazon in particular, but for our economy and society as a whole, that when you work out the arithmetic there, the experience and life of the powerless is not factored into that arithmetic, and the structure of our society makes that far, far too easy.

And I return to my main point, which is that this isn’t an Amazon problem; this is by and large a societal problem. It comes from the really unacceptable difference in power and wealth between the powerful and the powerless. It’s what was described as the 1% versus 99% problem. And the structure of our society is such that people like those who work in the warehouses have essentially very little bargaining power. Specifically in the United States, they have even less because the regulatory framework in America is so powerfully anti-union. And then what even sharpens the contrast is that in America, your health insurance is tied to your employment. So the prospect of losing your employment is terribly, terribly frightening. And all those things work together to create a situation which I think needs to be changed.

Did people inside Amazon senior ranks ever talk about these issues? It seems like it’s something that’s being discussed in their politics overall, but I’m curious if it actually gets discussed inside the workplace.

Oh, no, generally not. There was very, very little political discussion. We were, in Amazon Web Services where I worked, we were trying to solve the problem of making IT better by applying cloud technology. And let me tell you, that was a big enough subject to occupy 150% of our time.

What do you think would have happened if you were to bring up the fact that “we here at Amazon are working in a broader system that does lend itself at times to worker exploitation?”

Well, I don’t think it’s a secret that I was a person with progressive opinions. I’m also a loud-mouthed environmentalist, and by Canadian standards, I am moderately progressive, which means by U.S. standards, I’m sort of a basic, red-toothed commie. Here in British Columbia, the province I live in, we have a provincial government that is not far off where Bernie Sanders is in the States. So, I don’t think anybody didn’t know that I had a lot of progressive opinions.

Okay. But if you were to voice them, do you think the leadership was by and large concerned, for instance, with worker well-being?

Well, let me tell you, in the context of AWS, Amazon Web Services, we, because I was a member of that leadership, were extremely concerned with worker well-being. And just an example of that, when Covid came along and all of a sudden we started a massive, large-scale work-from-home experiment, we bent over backwards to make sure that this was working out for people because work from home works for some, but not for others. If you’re a small family living in a small apartment with kids who suddenly aren’t going to school, work from home can be pretty hellish.

Yeah, but what about the retail workers though?

I have a point here that I want to make which is that we took extreme interest in how this thing’s working out, and we worried a lot about the AWS workers. And I think that illustrates something important. The fact of the matter is that the Amazon Web Services workers are mostly engineers and knowledge workers who were empowered. They were high-paid, and if they didn’t like their job, they could walk across the street and get another one. And so here we have one group of workers who are being taken really excellent care of and another group of workers who are expressing terrible fear and concern about their health and safety at work. Well, what’s the difference? It’s power. Other workers who are empowered get a much better level of treatment from their employers.

Do you think companies can push change here? I mean, given your discussions with leadership, do you think that a company can say, “This is how the system works, but we’re not going to operate by the rules just because we can, we’re actually going to do better by workers,” or do you think it’s going to take the government to change them?

I really wish if I or the president of United States were to talk to the big companies the way I talked to my kids saying, “Now play nice or no dessert” kind of thing, that would work, but it won’t. I absolutely think that it is precisely the role of government and politics to address this kind of situation. And if some of us are concerned with the way that people are being treated in context such as warehouses, then what we need to do is to change the regulatory and legislative framework so that it is no longer acceptable to do that. And I’m sorry, that means getting down and grinding out boring old politics, knocking on doors, finding candidates to support, organizing behind them. Politics is a slow, messy, and, for many people, unpleasant business, but it’s the tool we have for changing things in society we don’t like.

That’s interesting. So when you were in Amazon, did you believe in having the government come in and regulate the company? Or was it only after you left did you think that regulation would be the move?

In Canada, I’m a supporter of a party called the New Democratic Party, which is currently the government here in my local province, which is pretty well along the lines of the Democratic Socialists in the States. So yeah, I actively gave money, and my family went out and knocked on doors and things like that. So yeah, I’ve been politically active on and off for years.

But in terms of actually wanting Amazon itself to be regulated, I guess it would come in terms of being regulated as far as the way that worker protections are implemented overall. But when you were working there, is that something you wanted? You wanted to see the government come and rein it in?

So, I absolutely do not want to regulate Amazon. I want to regulate the operation of the larger economy. I think the rules should be the same for all big companies, and I think the rules should do a much better job of empowering the powerless in society. So, yes, I’m an activist. Yes, I would like to see stronger regulatory and legal frameworks. No, I’m not particularly interested in going after Amazon in particular.

Right. So just capturing Amazon in a regulation that would affect the broader economy. What percentage of Amazon executives do you think hold that perspective?

By and large, the technology workers tend to be vastly progressive. In the American context, that means they tend to vote for and give money to Democrats rather than Republicans. Obviously, the higher you move up the food chain, probably the less is true, but I’ll be honest, I never had a political discussion with a member of the senior leadership team. One of the reasons for that is that being in leadership at a large successful company, such as Amazon, Amazon Web Services, is fantastically fun. It’s about the most fun you can have and get paid for. And when you’re doing it, it occupies 110% of your attention. And you might be the kind of person who just simply doesn’t want to think about politics at all because you’re just too busy making customers happy and making the business work. So the rank and file, sure. Rank and file, I’m sure that I was not really a big outlier. Senior leadership, it’s a mixed picture.

There are these two different ways people register dissent inside companies. One is they go and they bring their issues internally and try to get it fixed that way. And two is they exit. So why did you choose exit?

Well, I didn’t. I did both. I did, in fact, raise the issue internally and had some extensive discussions before I left, and the reasons I left we’ve discussed fairly clearly. And for people who want to dive deeper, if you go and Google for the string “Bye Amazon, Tim Bray,” you’ll come up with the piece I wrote, which goes into a great deal of depth about that. So, certainly. I felt as a duty as an employee to express my opinion strongly to the right people. And I did that, and having done that, I then left the company.

When you brought those issues up internally, what did people say? Were they like, “Tim, what are you talking about? This is sort of the way we do business?”

Well, unfortunately, those are probably covered by my nondisclosure agreement. And I was a team member, and I trusted and valued my team members, and I just don’t think it would be appropriate for me to go out and dive into the details of that.

Did you generally come away with an impression thinking that things could possibly change inside Amazon, or did that seem sort of like something that wasn’t going to happen there?

I’m just not going to dive into that, but having said that, I do believe that as I was saying a little earlier, the technology knowledge worker workforce is by and large a very progressive demographic and has had relatively little involvement with politics historically. We’re starting to see that change. There’s my story. There’s been some activism over at Google. There was an outburst of dissent over at Facebook. I suspect that should the knowledge worker demographic wake up and realize that it has a lot of political power potentially and start exercising it, that could be a really substantial force for a change in our society. So, you asked specifically, do I think Amazon has the potential to change? I don’t know, but I do think that Big Tech has the potential to, as a reflection of the activism of its employees, become a force for change and progress in society.

But we also have been through a year of employees standing up and speaking their mind. You look at Google, that’s an analog. A lot of the Google activists have left the company. At Amazon, there are either activists like you who sort of did your activism on the way out or the whistleblowers who ended up getting fired. I’m a little pessimistic that the knowledge workers can get anything done given their track record so far. What do you think?

Well, I’m a natural optimist, but I would actually disagree with you. I think that five years ago, we had zero employee activism. A couple of years ago, we had a little bit. Last year, we had really quite a lot. Amazon did, in fact, for example, change its posture on climate, the climate emergency. I doubt they would come out and say it was because of employee activism, but I’d be surprised if it was entirely unrelated. I think that the potential for this to grow and get traction, particularly in a year of, in America in particular, profound political disturbance is not trivial. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see some real game-changing activism going on.

Well, here’s a question for you. One thing that Amazon is pretty clear about is its obsession with customers. And we talked a little bit earlier about how that means giving people low prices and getting things to them quickly. And I’m curious what would happen if customers got together and started to lobby it, essentially saying, “Hey, we’re the customers. Your leading leadership principle is you’re obsessed with us and what we want, and it’s not just about getting the box quickly. It’s about treating workers better, being better stewards in society.” How do you think that would be received inside of Amazon if it was a big enough movement?

I don’t know. I mean, Amazon is not kidding when they say they’re customer-obsessed and they say that they listen to what the customer is saying. And occasionally we hear people saying, “Well, I’m going to boycott Amazon. I’m not going to buy stuff there anymore.” And you’re proposing a hypothetical scenario where people say, “Okay, well, we’re going to start boycotting Amazon unless we see more evidence of a humanistic outlook.”

Not a boycott. This is more like you can lobby the government and still be a citizen, essentially saying, “We might still be Prime members, but we want you to actually respond to some of the values that we see in the world. This is what your customers want.”

I suppose. I think that broad selection, low prices, and fast delivery at the end of the day speak very, very loudly. And those are good things and things that I certainly support focusing on. I think it was John Adams who first said, “We live in an empire of laws, not of men”—of course, we’d say people now—but I think that’s true. And I think the most appropriate way to try and change the shape of society is through operating in a rules-based manner and instituting rules that you think everybody can compete equally on the basis of and let the best competitor win. And right now, I think that the facts on the ground demonstrate that the rules tolerate an unacceptable imbalance in power and wealth. And we just need to change those rules. I’m not saying people shouldn’t try and organize the kind of thing you talk about, but my own preference would be for old-fashioned political activism.

Q: “Do you want to break these tech giants up?”

A: “Oh, absolutely.”

I think it could happen in both ways, but I’m just curious how you think Amazon leadership would respond if they saw a broad movement within their customers to essentially lobby them as if they were a government and say, “If you’re customer-obsessed, this is what the customers want. If you’re obsessed about us, you should respond to these concerns.”

It would be an interesting conversation, because obviously people would be concerned by saying, well, if we do that, and as a result, we have to extend our deliveries or raise our prices, would they decide to go across the street to Walmart? You’d have to really have sufficient critical mass to address those concerns. And that’s why I think you should go and apply that hammer to Amazon and Walmart at the same time. And the best way to do that is through politics.

Do you want to break these tech giants up?

Oh, absolutely.

Why?

Well, I think that if you look at organizations, several reasons. If you look at organizations like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, to start with, they’re simply too big. It becomes intractably difficult to operate in a humanist way, either towards your employees or your customers when you’re operating at that scale. Secondly, the tables are stacked. The pattern you normally see with these Big Techs is that they have stumbled across some really great piece of business that throws off a fountain of cash, which they then use to fuel invasions of other sectors, putting the incumbents in the other sectors at a competitive disadvantage.

I mean, the classic example is web search ads on Google, one of the most insanely profitable businesses that has ever existed, which has enabled them to do a bunch of bad things. I mean, they’re doing office automation with Gmail; they’re doing maps and ads on maps and reviews on maps with maps. They have lots of other businesses. And another side effect of that is that they and Facebook have established a duopoly in the advertising business, which are putting the continued existence of advertising-supported publications at a huge risk.

In the case of Microsoft, it’s the continuing cash cow of Office and Windows that throws off this fountain of cash that is used to subsidize Microsoft’s various other business ventures. And I just don’t think that is something that legal frameworks should allow. And, in fact, they didn’t used to. There was an era of antitrust in the United States where that kind of behavior was simply not tolerated. And I’d like to turn back the clock a little bit and go back to that.

Fascinating. Chances you think that will happen?

I think there’s actually quite a lot of antitrust energy, latent antitrust energy built up in the American populace as a whole. And in general, this affection with Big Business in general and Big Tech in particular, that’s been dramatic. As recently as five years ago, the Big Tech companies were kind of broadly admired and their leaders were sort of hero-worshiped, and I don’t think that’s true in 2020. I think there is — my departure and the reaction it got is another small piece of evidence for that. So I think that, depending on how the election goes, I would be really not surprised to see an aggressive ramp up in the strength of antitrust activism.

Well, we will see. All right. Last question for you before we leave. You wrote this “Bye Amazon” post; you’re sitting there about to hit publish. What did it feel like in that moment?

It was hilarious. Not so much that moment but a few moments later. So I wrote it over the weekend after I’d left, Friday being my last day, and I published it late Sunday night getting towards midnight. And I have my own little server that my blog runs on, and I was a little worried about the configuration and so on, and so I stayed up until two in the morning after fooling around with the server, just making sure everything was optimized and image loading and all the stuff you normally do. And, forgetting that I was now an unemployed bum, I still had my alarm on for early in the morning. So, well before seven in the morning, my alarm goes off and I wake up, “Oh, I don’t have to get up. Wait a second. I should just see, did that get any reaction? Oh my God.”

Silicon Valley-based journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.

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