Big Technology

Will Amazon Be ‘Kinder’ After Jeff Bezos?

A conversation with Recode’s Jason Del Rey

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Jeff Bezos is resigning as Amazon CEO. And because 2021 is the craziest news year on record, we mostly haven’t stopped to consider this seismic story and what it means for the business world. Jason Del Rey, a senior correspondent at Recode and author of a forthcoming book on Amazon’s battle with Walmart, joins Big Technology Podcast to discuss what Amazon looks like after Bezos.

Alex Kantrowitz: How surprised were you when you saw the news that Jeff Bezos resigned?

Jason Del Rey: I think it might’ve happened sooner, if not for the pandemic. I think many people both inside and outside of Amazon have said that this almost formalizes the way Bezos was interacting with the company for a couple years now—working on his pet projects, early big swings, trying to make time for his rocket building and other increasingly philanthropic initiatives. So, anytime it was going to happen, it was going to feel like a big moment. And it is, but when I could digest it for a second, it was not altogether surprising.

Why do you think he’s leaving now?

There are three theories, and I think they could have all played a role. One is he was planning to leave before the pandemic and then felt like he couldn’t with everything facing the company and society. And so now, hopefully feeling like we’re on the back end of the pandemic and with the vaccines rolling out, he thought it would be a fair time to pass the baton. Does he want to be testifying in front of different congressional committees more? Or have to face that? I don’t know anyone who wants to do that. Maybe he’ll still have to, as the founder and executive chairman, but I don’t think he wants to spend his time being briefed on that stuff. And I think there’s going to be more of that to come.

And then, from a financial perspective, Amazon will sort of be lapping their amazing gross numbers from the pandemic. So, he’ll stick around a couple more quarters, maybe as those growth numbers don’t look quite as good as we lap them. This is a generous take, but he’ll take the brunt of it if the growth slows down, before passing it off to Jassy. But I think it’s a combination of the fact that he has other interests he’s been spending time on, the scrutiny he doesn’t want to be the face of for much longer, and then really trusting that Andy Jassy is the person who can make sure his company stays on track.

You’re writing a book about Amazon and Walmart. Jeff Wilke was the head of worldwide consumer, and he’s out, too, so the two big characters inside Amazon are leaving. Will that change your forthcoming book on the battle between Amazon and Walmart?

It’s a new era, so obviously I’ll be looking for changes. I think unlike Brad Stone’s book, which is an Amazon-centric book, I think Brad has some work to do between now and his publishing in May. My book’s not coming out for a bit after that, so I’m not super concerned. Maybe I want Jassy to play a bigger role in this book now than I anticipated, but that is not high on my stress list. And I have a lot of things on my stress list.

Amazon under Bezos had this retail DNA, which is notoriously cutthroat and frugal. Now Jassy is coming from the money-printing side of the business, Amazon Web Services, one that doesn’t have those constraints. Will that background make Amazon a kinder culture?

I think it’s a complex answer. On one hand, the guy now running Amazon’s retail business is Dave Clark, who has run the warehouse network operations for years in sort of a cutthroat fashion. A great Bloomberg profile said his nickname used to be the sniper, because he would, in his early days, hide out in an Amazon warehouse to watch workers and fire people on the spot if they weren’t doing the right thing. So, Clark is running that retail business, and he’s a tough guy. I’m interested in Jassy coming from AWS. I’ve talked to Amazon former execs who won’t say this publicly, but privately they tell me, “Jason, when’s the last time Amazon has really had a breakthrough invention?” And they will point out Alexa, AWS, Kindle, and the initial idea for Amazon, basically.

So, my big thing is will Jassy taking over in some way directly lead to the next great invention? And does Amazon even need that? With all the room to grow in retail, in logistics, in video media, in Alexa, the things they already do well, it doesn’t really feel like that, but there’s an argument. Some former execs would say privately that they worry the company’s already touching day two, which is this idea of like when you stop becoming that inventive, scrappy, no-holds-barred startup.

Tim Bray, who left Amazon in protest after they fired whistleblowers, told you, “AWS was, by a wide margin, the best-managed place I’ve worked.” Was that surprising to you?

When I spoke to Tim Bray, I asked him, “How do I make sense of you going out the way you did and then this praise of Jassy?” And he basically said he doesn’t think Jassy had anything to do with the whistleblower firings, that he was really upset about it. The truth is Andy Jassy is on the S-team [Bezos’ senior leadership team] at Amazon, so I don’t know that he oversaw those firings.

I think Bray was talking more about the DNA that comes from Bezos. I think that is true. I’ve had people describe Jassy to me as, “Well, there are a lot of similarities in management style and philosophy,” but he’s “more human than Jeff Bezos.” The word empathetic has been used as well.

He’s a hard-charging executive, for sure. But I think some people internally have a hope that the place will become, you may have described it, a nicer place. How that manifests itself externally, I have no idea, but I’m going to be looking for any signs of change. I’ll stop there. But those are some of my thoughts on that topic.

I think the company’s biggest weakness is that it does have a lack of empathy. Let’s say the company does get more empathetic—does that make it stronger?

The answer I want to give is yes, it would make it stronger, but then I look at all the coverage, all the employee activism, much of it shining a negative light on the company, and yet there are record sales and profits through the pandemic. People will say it’s not on consumers to vote with our wallets; you’re just trying to get by day to day. I don’t know that being more empathetic will make it a more popular company. I think the service has historically been so exceptional and far and away the best thing in retail. People just make decisions that are best for them when it comes to buying stuff. Recruitment-wise, no one wants to be at the center of potential antitrust enforcement.

Lastly, do you see the antitrust crackdowns as a real risk to Amazon?

I’ve talked to people about whether the government has the bandwidth to take on more than two giants, and I think there’s still a real risk Amazon’s facing. I’ve been surprised at how combative they’ve been with critics over the last few years from both a communications and public policy side. They had a lot of friends on Capitol Hill a few years ago. Now they go in there and every conversation doesn’t start with, “Oh, I’m an Amazon Prime customer.” It starts in a sort of interrogation, and that’s what I’ve learned over the years reporting. Maybe Jassy will instruct his comms and policy teams to take a different tack. I’ll believe it when I see it.

So, yes, I think there’s real risk. I’ve reported on Lina Khan, sort of an antitrust scholar and a previous lawyer on the House antitrust subcommittee that investigated the tech giants, who believes all these companies need to be reined in. She’s in contention for the FTC commissioner spot, which would be a very big deal. I think there’s real risk. And you would think Jesse might not want to sit down before Congress or other courts and might want to take a different tact, but smart people inside the company think the best way forward is to be somewhat combative and dismissive of some of these complaints. And I’m just here to watch the ride.

I write the Big Technology newsletter. Sign up here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.

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