Bits | Farhad and Katie’s Week in Tech: Amazon and Ashley Madison Exposed

If you have trouble reading this email, please click here

Saturday, August 22, 2015
For the latest updates, go to »

Farhad and Katie’s Week in Tech: Amazon and Ashley Madison Exposed | Farhad: Hey, Katie! Mike is off snorkeling in Hawaii, so I’m thrilled that you’re free to help me make sense of this week’s tech news. You have some small shoes to fill!

Katie: #dadjoke
Farhad: Er… so, on to this week’s news! Hackers posted a huge cache of data stolen from Ashley Madison, a site that claimed to let married people securely seek affairs online. Apparently that was not true. The breach is a pretty frightening illustration of the life-ruining possibilities of cybertheft — what John Herrman of The Awl calls “in some ways the first large scale real hack, in the popular, your-secrets-are-now-public sense of the word.”
It wouldn’t be a tech newsletter without an appearance by Uber: This week, prosecutors in San Francisco and Los Angeles said the ride-hailing service had failed to uncover the criminal records of 25 drivers in those two cities. Uber countered, saying that the taxi industry’s background-check process isn’t perfect either — which, to me, seems a small comfort.
Of course, the big news involved the online retailer Amazon. Last week, The New York Times published an article detailing Amazon’s bruising corporate culture. The piece drew criticism from Amazon — Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder and chief executive, wrote in a memo to employees that he did not “recognize this Amazon” — but it also set off a wide-ranging conversation about the way the tech industry treats its workers.
So maybe we should start with that larger lens. You have covered this industry for a while, Katie. Does Amazon stand alone, or does the work-all-the-time culture described by our colleagues echo a larger problem in tech?
Katie: Maybe the work-all-the-time — and work-at-all-costs — culture that the article explored at Amazon wasn’t a tech-specific issue.
The world’s most successful consulting firms, law firms, banks and hedge funds accept that this is the cost of excellence. Rather than deny that the grind exists, employees and managers at elite companies in these fields see it as part of what makes them better. It took a Bank of America intern dying for other leading banks like Goldman Sachs to cap the number of hours that an intern can work at 17 hours a day.
Perhaps one reason the story hit a nerve is because the tech industry seems to want not to be lumped in with the Goldmans and Skadden Arpses and McKinseys of the world, as if tech companies can achieve superior results in some other way. But that’s probably not true. Witness the emotional and physical abuse that Apple employees underwent to make the first iPhone a reality. And as the early Facebook employee Dustin Moskovitz describes, physical and emotional burnout is an accepted part of start-up life.
Perhaps what separates the best tech companies from the rest of the elite white-collar world is the ability to wear flip-flops to work and eat better cafeteria food. But at the end of the day, the ethos — push yourself to the limits for your company — is always the same if you want to be No. 1.
Farhad: Forget law firms and investment banks — look at our own business! I’m a diva columnist who writes at a leisurely pace, but many people at The New York Times and other successful news companies don’t exactly get to sleep on the job. Miguel Helft, a former Times reporter who is now at Forbes, said on Twitter that the closest he had come to crying at his desk was when he worked here. I think he was joking.
Still, even if most white-collar work isn’t easy, I do think it’s important to draw a distinction between, on the one side, Apple and Amazon and, on the other, pretty much every other company in tech. Working at Google and Facebook isn’t a cakewalk, but these companies are known to be generally less torturous in terms of work hours, and more lavish in terms of benefits, than Amazon and Apple (especially Apple under Steve Jobs).
Ben Thompson, the analyst who runs Stratechery, has a good theory about why: Apple and Amazon produce superior consumer products, the sort of hardware and e-commerce services that never fail to delight end users. (Who among us hasn’t been thrilled beyond belief when an Amazon box showed up the day before it was promised?) Google and Facebook are software companies that try to create delight in the aggregate, from data. A failed Google search isn’t seen as an issue that needs Larry Page’s attention; it just calls for a better algorithm. But a single late delivery of a “Frozen” doll? That’s a real hardship, and Jeff Bezos could well get involved.
Which leads to a larger question: How bad should we feel for Amazon’s white-collar workers? As Ezra Klein of Vox points out, unlike Amazon’s warehouse workers, the people at its corporate offices are well paid and could easily work anywhere else. Honestly, that fact mitigates any guilt I may have harbored about shopping there. How about you — are you still visiting “the everything store”?
Katie: “The everything store” just sent me 24 rolls of paper towels, and, indeed, I was delighted.
Regarding your take on Apple and Amazon versus Facebook and Google, hierarchies of excellence also exist in all industries. In corporate America, people pay a high cost to stay on top. Apple is the most valuable company in the world, and Amazon became a cloud computing leader with Amazon Web services. Conversely, Facebook integrated Instagram and WhatsApp to fight obsolescence and, as Mr. Thompson pointed out last year, Google is starting to look like Microsoft in all the wrong ways.
It’s condescending to feel bad for people who choose a grueling lifestyle. It’s more interesting to debate whether there’s an alternative management style for companies that want to reach Apple- or Amazon-level success. When tech companies blaze a different path to the top, then they’ll really be different from the rest of corporate America. That sounds like the sort of impossible problem that the industry says it loves to tackle. In the meantime, there will be no end to the Amazon boxes arriving at my door.


More From The Times
From left: Daniil Simkin captured Stella Abrera after a promotion; Adrian Danchig-Waring's self-portrait.

Ballet Life, Unfiltered and Uploaded to Instagram | Dancers, so accustomed to speaking with their bodies, are using social media to speak with a lens on their terms.

Multiple instances of Google Chrome Helper in the Mac's Activity Monitor program typically means that the browser has several open tabs and plug-ins running.

Unseen Burdens in Chrome That Can Lead a Mac to Lag | Determining whether a browser might be the source of a computer’s sluggishness, and a look at Facebook’s “authentic identity” policy.



Work Hard, Live Well | Medium
Amazon isn’t the only company burning out their employees with unsustainable expectations. Let’s break the cycle, writes Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook. – Ashwin Seshagiri

Google Express Workers Vote to Unionize | Re/code
The vote comes after the company announced that it would shut down two delivery hubs for the service, which has struggled to gain a foothold in the market. – Ashwin Seshagiri

.  For Bits mobile, go to »
.  BlackBerry users can download the Bits BlackBerry Shortcut »
.  Receive this daily email: Subscribe »

About This Email

You received this message because you signed up for’s Bits Email newsletter. As a member of the Truste privacy program, we are committed to protecting your privacy.

Copyright 2015 | The New York Times Company | 620 Eighth Avenue New York, NY 10018