Philip Su, a software engineering leader turned nonprofit founder decided to turn his life upside down last fall – in search of an antidote to his seasonal depression in a more structured, lower-paying job than he did had known for many years.
Su worked during peak season at Amazon’s giant flagship warehouse south of Seattle in Kent, Washington, known by the company code as BFI4. It was a life-changing and eye-opening experience, as Su documents in his 15-episode podcast series, Peak Salvation.
A former Microsoft software engineer who was the second employee of Facebook’s engineering office in Seattle, Su ran the London engineering office for Facebook (now Meta), then founded and ran the global health software nonprofit. lucrative. Audere before adding an Amazon warehouse employee to their LinkedIn profile.
I listened to the whole Peak Salvation podcast this past weekend; the story really hooked me as it unfolded. Su does a great job explaining and analyzing her experience. I also invited him to join me on the GeekWire podcast this week.
Here are some elements that marked me in its history.
- He found peace and stability in structure, and the ability to leave work behind and out of his mind when he clocked in.
- Getting hired online took him a few minutes; quitting was easier than canceling a Netflix subscription.
- No one learned his name during his time at Amazon’s warehouse. The operation seemed anonymous out of necessity due to turnover.
- Amazon’s injury-reporting system gave him the choice between receiving far fewer hours and paying for light work, or sticking to the job that caused the injury to continue receiving his regular pay.
- The pay structure, as he viewed it, provided little incentive for many employees to do more than the bare minimum.
These are my takeaways. Su is optimistic about many aspects of her experience, including how it benefited her mental health, and the new and humbling perspective it gave her on the privileged nature of life in the tech industry.
A newcomer to the front lines of global flourishing, Su readily acknowledges that there could very well be good reasons for some of the quirks he perceived to be dysfunctional. Not only that, but he was a short-term worker, with a tenure of less than two months. He’s not a logistics expert.
However, he brought fresh eyes and an engineering mind to the operational nerve center of the e-commerce giant. So we asked Su what changes he would make, based on his experience and observations, and he came up with this list.
- Upgrade to Boeing’s three-team model. Less wear and tear on the body given 8 hour days instead of 10/11.5 hours, and the ability to add temporary people during the peak without requiring overtime.
- Build career paths. Jeff Bezos didn’t believe these jobs would/should be permanent, but Amazon now hires 1 in 153 working Americans, and that number keeps growing. Like it or not, these jobs will increasingly become long-term jobs for people. Give the best shifts and jobs to existing employees instead of offering them to newcomers first. Provide pathways for top performers to be recognized and uplifted.
- Increase schedule predictability. Announce additional shifts 48 hours in advance; don’t fire people when they can’t work extra shifts.
- Proactively alleviate the physical toll. Rotate people periodically between tasks requiring different muscles. Establish a fast, non-predatory medical accommodation system that serves the interests of employees. Consider physical ability when assigning roles.
- Increase the sense of belonging. Give employees the agency to suggest and be recognized for making improvements. I spotted many opportunities for improvement, but only managed to convince prospects to barely implement one.
Another possibility we discussed is the idea of Amazon bringing back stock grants for warehouse workers to address some of these issues. The company’s recent 20-to-1 stock split would seem to make that more feasible.
These are particularly timely issues for Amazon given recent news that Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer, is leaving without an immediate successor named. Amazon says it is on a quest to become “the best employer on Earth”, amid a wave of labor activity across the company’s retail network.
All of these opportunities and challenges give Amazon CEO Andy Jassy an opening, perhaps, to try different approaches in the company’s logistics network.
Philip Su joins this episode of the GeekWire podcast to share what he’s learned about the nature of work, socioeconomic status, Amazon, and himself.
Audio produced and edited by Curt Milton.