Amazon Echo Always Ready, Connected, and Fast.The humans at Amazon can be famously mum on questions they don’t want to answer. But last night, I woke up with a solution.

Who needed Jay Carney, the ex-Obama press secretary now on Jeff Bezo’s payroll as a senior VP handling PR and policy matters? In line with Amazon’s passion for robots and automation, I could simply turn to Echo, aka Alexa—the loquacious personal assistant that looks a bit like a dark can of Pringles potato chips.

Carney might bob and weave. But surely Echo would respond with robotic forthrightness, even on a tricky topic such as working conditions at Amazon’s headquarters.

Q. “How many employees does Amazon have?”

A. “ has 149,500 employees.”

Q. “Do you think Jeff Bezos is ethical?”

A. “Hmm. I’m not sure what you meant by that question.”

Q. “What do you think of working conditions at Amazon?”

A. “I don’t have preferences or desires.”

Q. “What’s the one-year retention rate at Amazon.”

A. “I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.”

Q. “Has Jeff Bezos ever threatened to fire you?”

A. “Hmm. I’m not sure what you meant by that question.”

Q. “Moving on, why don’t recent E Ink Kindles have text to speech?”

A. “Sorry, I can’t send it to that device right now. Make sure it’s powered on and connected to WiFi.”

Q. “Will Amazon ever give Kindles an all-bold option, for those of us who need it for optimal readablity?”

Electronic sounds, then silence.


  1. When I lived in Seattle, I made a game of studying the city’s various high-tech firms both when I met employees and, in the case of Boeing and Microsoft, when I did contract work for them. Here are my observations.

    Boeing—There’s a reason some call the company the Lazy B. The company is so huge and the projects it undertakes so enormous, that few get any sense of accomplishment. Most are dealing a tiny slice of a tiny slice of something like a 787. That doesn’t mean they’re unhappy. It just means they’re more likely to be dutiful than excited.

    Microsoft—It’s changed. In the 1980s, when I worked there, there was a sense of pioneering excitement accompanied by a feeling that the company was a quick path to riches. In fact, my contract editing and proofing there disappeared when all three of my contacts with the company,, after only eight years or so of employment, took their stock option millions and retired in their early thirties. From the mid-90s on and the trouble with the federal government, things went downhill. The excitement was gone. Sad. The average Microsoft employee would score quite high on a niceness scale. It’s their upper management who were thugs.

    Adobe—I mostly got to know the InDesign group and they were certainly a happy lot. What they were doing mattered and they were small enough that each could get a sense of accomplishment. Adobe is the only one of the high-tech lot in Seattle that I’d choose to work for. They had good managers too.

    Amazon—I could never quite get a feel for Amazon. I met enough people, I should have developed an opinion, but none seemed to want to talk about their work even in a general sense. Maybe it was those non-disclosure agreements they had to sign. It remained a riddle to me.

    Seattle Art Museum—Yes, I know it wasn’t high tech, but I did work there too. The pay was nothing like the high-tech companies, but Mimi Gates, Bill Gates’ step-mother, was a brilliant leader. She knew how to motivate and to keep the morale high by keeping up personal contact with the staff as they worked. At none of the other companies I mentioned were employees likely to see even their boss a couple of level up. Corporate management tends to stick to itself. But Mimi at SAM was constantly about the museum, making sure all was right without seeming judgmental.


    For those who’re interested, I’ve written a book on keeping employee morale high that’s based on my experiences. It’s focused on nursing morale in hospitals because there the morale problems have hit a critical level. But many of my examples and all the principles are valid in any organizational context.

    The book is called Senior Nurse Mentor: Curing What Ails Hospital Nursing Morale. Based on my experience working on a hospital’s nursing staff, it advocates a new nursing speciality that’s especially tasked with maintaining high nursing morale. Nurses can talk to her in complete confidence that what they say will remain confidential, and she’s totally outside the normal administrative structure of the hospital, reporting only to the CEO. She not only has the authority to sit down with anyone in the hospital administration and give them ‘what for’ about their mistakes, she’s expected to do just that. There are experienced nurses who’d love and be great in just that role.

    To maintain morale in an all volunteer military, all branches of the U.S. military created similar specialities in the mid-1990s, giving them titles such as Command Master Chief (Navy). Even Boeing has a similar role at its highest corporate ranks. A friend of mine’s father had that position there. When something went wrong on a project, he had the authority to root out the cause and make heads roll.

    Perhaps that’s what Jeff Bezos needs to do at Amazon. Tasking people solely with morale not productivity could make a difference. If you want something done, make it someone’s sole job and give them the authority to do it well. There’s clearly no one at Amazon tasked with morale.

    Personally, I suspect that Amazon is already paying a heavy price for their high turn-over rate. It’s only covered up by the fact that currently they can still hire replacements. Having someone in a mentor-like role would make a difference. That someone could raise hell when some manager, concerned solely with numbers, treats someone with cancer or a recent miscarriage badly. At the moment, there seems to be no check on such abuse.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail