Saturday, August 15, 2015

Last Call For The Company Men

What happens when you take the worst, win-at-all-costs aspects of "boiler room" era Wall Street, the byzantine "sausage factory" politics of being a Capitol Hill legislative aide, the high-pressure spotlight of billion-dollar professional sports, and the cutthroat "publish or perish" world of academia, and then combine them with the cult of personality of "techbro" Silicon Valley?

Welcome to being a white-collar Amazon employee.

Tens of millions of Americans know Amazon as customers, but life inside its corporate offices is largely a mystery. Secrecy is required; even low-level employees sign a lengthy confidentiality agreement. The company authorized only a handful of senior managers to talk to reporters for this article, declining requests for interviews with Mr. Bezos and his top leaders.

However, more than 100 current and former Amazonians — members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch — described how they tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with what many called its thrilling power to create.

In interviews, some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it pushed them past what they thought were their limits. Many employees are motivated by “thinking big and knowing that we haven’t scratched the surface on what’s out there to invent,” said Elisabeth Rommel, a retail executive who was one of those permitted to speak.

Others who cycled in and out of the company said that what they learned in their brief stints helped their careers take off. And more than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working.

“A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It’s the greatest place I hate to work,” said John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book, “The Amazon Way.

Amazon may be singular but perhaps not quite as peculiar as it claims. It has just been quicker in responding to changes that the rest of the work world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be measured continuously, come-and-go relationships between employers and employees, and global competition in which empires rise and fall overnight. Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.

“Organizations are turning up the dial, pushing their teams to do more for less money, either to keep up with the competition or just stay ahead of the executioner’s blade,” said Clay Parker Jones, a consultant who helps old-line businesses become more responsive to change.

On a recent morning, as Amazon’s new hires waited to begin orientation, few of them seemed to appreciate the experiment in which they had enrolled. Only one, Keith Ketzle, a freckled Texan triathlete with an M.B.A., lit up with recognition, explaining how he left his old, lumbering company for a faster, grittier one.

Conflict brings about innovation,” he said.

And in conflict, there are always winners and losers. In Jeff Bezos's world, lose too much or too often and you're out.  You're micro-managed to within an inch of your limits, and then shoved over that line in order to use the push to fly into success or plummet like Icarus to crash on the rocks below.  Either way, you belong to the company.

While the Amazon campus appears similar to those of some tech giants — with its dog-friendly offices, work force that skews young and male, on-site farmers’ market and upbeat posters — the company is considered a place apart. Google and Facebook motivate employees with gyms, meals and benefits, like cash handouts for new parents, “designed to take care of the whole you,” as Google puts it.

Amazon, though, offers no pretense that catering to employees is a priority. Compensation is considered competitive — successful midlevel managers can collect the equivalent of an extra salary from grants of a stock that has increased more than tenfold since 2008. But workers are expected to embrace “frugality” (No. 9), from the bare-bones desks to the cellphones and travel expenses that they often pay themselves. (No daily free food buffets or regular snack supplies, either.) The focus is on relentless striving to please customers, or “customer obsession” (No. 1), with words like “mission” used to describe lightning-quick delivery of Cocoa Krispies or selfie sticks.

As the company has grown, Mr. Bezos has become more committed to his original ideas, viewing them in almost moral terms, those who have worked closely with him say. “My main job today: I work hard at helping to maintain the culture,” Mr. Bezos said last year at a conference run by Business Insider, a web publication in which he is an investor.

Of all of his management notions, perhaps the most distinctive is his belief that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace — that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas. Instead, Amazonians are instructed to “disagree and commit” (No. 13) — to rip into colleagues’ ideas, with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful, before lining up behind a decision.

We always want to arrive at the right answer,” said Tony Galbato, vice president for human resources, in an email statement. “It would certainly be much easier and socially cohesive to just compromise and not debate, but that may lead to the wrong decision.”

What does that say about America when one of its most successful companies has the philosophy of beating failure out of you at all costs, and where debate and agreement is not only frowned upon, but actively and aggressively discouraged?

We who are about to innovate, salute you.

The Clinton E-Mail Story Is Still Nothing

And until she's indicted, like say, Gov. Rick Perry, it's a nothingburger and I'll keep pressing that fact.

F.B.I. agents investigating Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private email server are seeking to determine who at the State Department passed highly classified information from secure networks to Mrs. Clinton’s personal account, according to law enforcement and diplomatic officials and others briefed on the investigation.

To track how the information flowed, agents will try to gain access to the email accounts of many State Department officials who worked there while Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state, the officials said. State Department employees apparently circulated the emails on unclassified systems in 2009 and 2011, and some were ultimately forwarded to Mrs. Clinton.

They were not marked as classified, the State Department has said, and it is unclear whether its employees knew the origin of the information.

So somebody clearly did not handle sensitive information correctly.  That somebody is not Hillary Clinton.

Law enforcement officials have said that Mrs. Clinton, who is seeking the 2016 Democratic nomination for president, is not a target of the investigation, and she has said there is no evidence that her account was hacked. There has also been no evidence that she broke the law, and many specialists believe the occasional appearance of classified information in her account was probably of marginal consequence.

A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton said in a statement on Friday that she “took the handling of classified information very seriously.”

“She always received classified materials in secure settings, either by phone, videoconference, on paper or in person,” said the spokesman, Nick Merrill. “If, however, some material unknowingly ended up somewhere on the State Department’s unclassified email system, we want to continue to be as helpful as possible in getting to the bottom of that.”

But of course, it's not like the media players in this game have a 20 year history of witch hunts against the Clintons or anything.  John Cole notes Ron Fournier (of all people) nailed this earlier this week:

Furthermore, a thorough autopsy of the deleted email might lead to details about other embarrassing topics, such as Benghazi (a GOP fetish), or the intersection of Clinton Foundation donors and State Department business (“Follow the money,” a Democrat close to Clinton told me in March). Though this is pure speculation, her closest allies worry about what might be found

That's the whole point of this, to stoke a detailed fishing expedition to look through her email and find some sort of "smoking gun" that ends her presidential run.

That's the entire ballgame, and never forget it for a second.

Code Red Moscow

On Monday in the car on the way home, I heard an NPR story on Kaspersky Labs, the Russian anti-malware firm (which, as NPR host Melissa Block pointed out, is a sponsor of NPR).  The story was a piece about how Kaspersky's ties to Moscow and Vladimir Putin made it something of a boogeyman in the anti-virus world, but that the firm was dedicated to beating viruses.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST: So the U.S. government doesn't buy from Kaspersky, or other foreign companies, but American consumers can buy whichever anti-virus software they'd like. Joining me to talk about how these computer security companies do their work is NPR tech reporter Aarti Shahani. And, Aarti, let's start with Kaspersky, which, as we mentioned earlier, is a corporate sponsor of NPR News. We heard Corey say that people have raised concerns about the work that this company has done for the Russian security services. Does that mean American consumers should be wary of Russian spying? 
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: (Laughter) No. That's really not what it means at all. Kaspersky has millions of users, and their software is a published product, which means that outsiders can reverse engineer it. Plenty of people are pouring over Kaspersky and all the other major anti-virus software trying to find weaknesses so they can be fixed. It's not in the business interest of the company to leave in some obvious backdoors as a favor to hackers, you know, Russian intelligence or otherwise. Researchers in the community would find it and fry them for it. That's pretty much the consensus among the experts I've interviewed.

I thought the timing was rather odd for NPR to go out of its way to say that Kapersky was one of the good guys.  Aarti Shahani's explanation made sense: if nobody trusted Kapsersky, nobody would use the product.

Beginning more than a decade ago, one of the largest security companies in the world, Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab, tried to damage rivals in the marketplace by tricking their antivirus software programs into classifying benign files as malicious, according to two former employees
They said the secret campaign targeted Microsoft Corp, AVG Technologies NV , Avast Software and other rivals, fooling some of them into deleting or disabling important files on their customers' PCs. 
Some of the attacks were ordered by Kaspersky Lab's co-founder, Eugene Kaspersky, in part to retaliate against smaller rivals that he felt were aping his software instead of developing their own technology, they said. 
"Eugene considered this stealing," said one of the former employees. Both sources requested anonymity and said they were among a small group of people who knew about the operation. 
Kaspersky Lab strongly denied that it had tricked competitors into categorizing clean files as malicious, so-called false positives. 
"Our company has never conducted any secret campaign to trick competitors into generating false positives to damage their market standing," Kaspersky said in a statement to Reuters. "Such actions are unethical, dishonest and their legality is at least questionable." 
Executives at Microsoft, AVG and Avast previously told Reuters that unknown parties had tried to induce false positives in recent years. When contacted this week, they had no comment on the allegation that Kaspersky Lab had targeted them.

 If this is true, Kaspersky may not be spying on you for Putin, but he's just a colossal asshole instead.  Either way, I'm still not using his products.
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