And Seven Ways He Can Encourage More Women to Join Amazon

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos: Image courtesy Wikipedia

Dear Jeff,

Back in 1995, I dated a woman whose housemate worked for you at Amazon. I downplayed your company’s potential success because my Microsoft manager repeatedly emphasized that physical goods such as PCs and books were low-margin commodities; only software was lucrative. I wish I’d come to work for you back then. It would have been an amazing ride.

Having spent eight years inside Microsoft’s increasingly corporate culture, I know what it’s like to drink the Kool-Aid. It took me several years on the outside before I began to agree with aspects of the government’s antitrust case against the company. But by 2004 when I learned more about Microsoft’s Nevada-based tax dodging, I’d “sobered up” enough to speak out against it. Gates and Ballmer were criticizing our state’s education system while depriving it of vital funding.


I’ve disparaged you and Amazon a lot the past two years, especially for Seattle’s worsening traffic. But, in fairness, you’re not to blame for all of our woes. Generations of leaders here wanted to keep Seattle small and rejected investments in infrastructure. Meanwhile, you’ve built a global economic juggernaut that’s begun to outshine Microsoft in its accomplishments and its financial support of the region.

I applaud your $32.5 million in gifts to cancer research, MOHAI and gay marriage. I support your decision to build Amazon’s headquarters in the heart of the city, revitalizing South Lake Union and promoting sustainability. I left Microsoft in 1999 in part because my commute home over 520 regularly exceeded an hour and a half. I remember wishing at the time that Microsoft had an urban campus where I could work.

You have a record of astounding accomplishments. Amazon’s success has inspired innovation across the technology sector, which is in turn helping make the world a better place. I apologize for not having taken time in my writing to say this until now.

Why I’m Writing

I felt inspired to write you after speaking at length to one of your employees. He loves working at Amazon but he mentioned that he’d like to have more women to work with. His floor is 90 percent male and he just misses the dynamism that women bring to the technical workspace. Then, he said he and his girlfriend are paying a ton in rent and trying to find a larger place but don’t want to pay $3,200 monthly for a nice apartment.

Amazon’s growth has driven developers to build faster than the state’s Growth Management Act can react to. Your shareholders and employees are benefitting from our relaxed zoning and regressive tax system. If you follow through on your plans and grow your employee base to 71,500 by 2019, you’ll do so bearing almost none of the infrastructure costs needed to support them. I agree with Katie Wilson who recently wrote that all Seattle residents are “subsidizing Amazon’s success.” And, we’re struggling with its unintended impacts.

Amazon’s helped the region’s economy bounce back quickly from the 2008 recession. Since then, you’ve likely created 25,000 new jobs in Seattle. And with all the new residential skyscrapers coming to SLU, many of your employees will be able to walk to work and share wonderful views and community spaces. But the changes aren’t great for all of them and they’re worse for large groups of longtime Seattle residents.

Recently, a SLU food service worker in technology companies like yours wrote that Seattle rent is scheduled to consume 80% of his pre-tax salary and some of his coworkers are commuting more than four hours daily. Living in SLU isn’t an option because developers aren’t required to allocate even a small percentage of units for low-income residents.

Amazon has led the way in modernizing our economy – many jobs have been automated, more can be outsourced. In part due to the company’s rapid growth here, rents are rising faster than the wages of many Seattle residents. Many members of the gay community, for whom you have expressed support, have been displaced from nearby Capitol Hill. I have a number of friends who have left, or are worried that they may soon have to.

You Don’t Need More Toilets, Just More Women

Many of us laughed reading about Amazon’s toilet shortage for men, but in five years, few of your single straight male employees will be able to find female dates. You may be able to recruit talented 20-somethings to move to Seattle but you won’t be able to convince them to stay. The city’s “boom market” in prostitution is likely not a coincidence.

Ms. Wilson eloquently communicated the need for a massive investment in public transportation, reform of our tax system, and civic engagement from Amazon itself (beyond its $25,000 annual support of insufficient city initiatives, Proposition 1 and Move Seattle, and enhancements to its nearly private streetcar). She’s right in asking you to channel some of your passion for Blue Origin’s space travel into making Seattle an easily navigable metropolitan city for the future.

Seattle really needs $25 billion in transit investments now. This won’t happen until you and other technology leaders advocate for a new state tax system in which Microsoft, Google, Boeing, Apple, Facebook, Adobe, et al. pay a more fair share. You’ll barely notice this on your P&L’s, and your employees will appreciate living in a city where they can travel without delay.

You’ve Been Largely Silent

There’s a gap in your willingness to engage in public conversations about how to better address the impacts of Amazon’s growth on the city. Truthfully, this is a tremendous opportunity to step forward as a civic leader that nudges Seattle away from San Francisco’s darkening future into an innovative, futuristic model, as the Space Needle has always symbolized. Currently, the city is at risk of becoming an office park in gridlock rather than a vibrant, diverse metropolitan area.

I understand that libertarians like you often cringe at the idea of regulating rent increases but at this point, I see it as essentially the only remaining emergency measure to allow lower- and middle-income Seattle residents to stay as Amazon grows. While this might make it harder for your incoming employees to find places to live, it will embody our shared stake in quickly modernizing the transportation system in our region.

As a technology manager myself, I’ve always been surprised by Amazon’s success despite its high turnover rate. Alison Griswold insightfully suggested that Jay Carney’s aggressive response to The New York Times exposé was simply an attempt to salvage your recruiting efforts. The Times’ article would give any candidate second thoughts and certainly implies that the best women in technology should go elsewhere.

A lot of Amazon employees criticized the Times for writing an imbalanced hit piece. I disagree. When the Times vets and speaks to a hundred ex-employees who repeatedly share similar experiences, it’s best to report about that.

All of the employees who spoke to the Times on the record placed their future careers at risk. The stories from some of the women brave enough to speak out were chilling and reflect evidence of misogyny within Amazon.

You asked Amazon employees to immediately report any such behavior and suggested that there would be zero tolerance for it. Yet, shortly after, Carney publicly attacked those brave enough to speak to reporters, which only underscored their point. One commentator wrote that Carney’s actual intent was to intimidate remaining employees from speaking up, an echo of the initial attacks on Bill Cosby’s accusers.

When you responded, “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,” it reflected the bubble of employees surrounding you who adore you and who might hesitate to ever criticize you.

One of the risks of being an incredibly successful person is you’re often surrounded by “yes men” who are intimidated by the thought of ever challenging you. The failure of the Fire Phone seems to demonstrate the cost of this at Amazon.

A Tremendous Opportunity for Women to Lead Amazon

You missed an opportunity to respond to The New York Times’ article expressing acknowledgement, regret and commitment to positive changes. Almost anyone who lives in Seattle has heard stories from Amazon employees similar to the allegations made in the Times, and your mistreatment of warehouse workers are legendary. I’d have hired an external firm to meet with the Times’ sources, gather more evidence and create an anonymous, protected reporting system for your employees to raise concerns. Living as you do within a bubble of privilege, you’ve not personally faced the risks of standing up to report wrongdoing in decades.

Similarly, you’ve not experienced the challenge women face in technology. And again, there’s an incredible opportunity here for you to step forward and lead. It’s great that you’re now offering parental leave but there is so much more you could be doing.

The Amazon employee I spoke to commented that it’s hard to hire women in technology because “they’re not in the recruiting pool and they don’t seem interested in tech.” It highlighted for me the gap in diversity awareness within Amazon.

Women began retreating from computer science in 1985. There are many layers of cultural baggage that influenced this that you can’t immediately resolve. However, you’re in a singular position to lead us forward in a new direction.

Women in Computer Science

When Women Stopped Coding

Actively Encourage Women to Join Amazon

Here are seven ways you can encourage more women to join Amazon:

1. Acknowledge the failure of Amazon to outpace the technology community in hiring more women and minorities. Publicly disclose the company’s current diversity statistics for race, gender and income in its Seattle workforce and pledge to do better.

2. Acknowledge the misogynistic culture reflected in The New York Times’ piece and talk about the steps you will take to reform the company.

3. Change your interviewing process. Bring in female recruiting talent and give them a larger role in decision making. When your employees are 85 to 90 percent men, you can be assured that many haven’t experienced the value that women colleagues bring to a work culture. I had firsthand experience with a similar disconnect in cultural depth in early 2014 during a phone screen with your company: a VP saw my experience building inclusive, collaborative community and leadership as a weakness.

4. Give your female employees time off to speak to women and girls in their communities about technology and encourage them to do so.

5. Bring in outside expertise to retrain your existing employees on the importance and benefits of diversity, communication and respect for all ages, races and genders.

6. Actively fund high school programs and collegiate scholarships for girls and women in computer science. You have an opportunity to bring a new wave of young women into technology and leadership positions.

and finally,

7. Declare that Amazon wants the best women in technology here in Seattle now and ask them to give you a chance. Offer larger signing bonuses for women and launch a competition between Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple to pay more for the best.

This issue has become personal for me. I’m able to write this today in part because of the skill of my neurosurgeon, a talented minority woman leader in her male-dominated field who’d been training and practicing for 30 years. It’s hard for me to imagine what it took for her to rise to the top of her profession as a woman. I am deeply grateful she did.

One More Thing

Jeff, I had a handful of opportunities to be in meetings with Bill Gates, and it was very uncomfortable to challenge him. I once tried to clarify something for him to be sure he understood, to which he replied, “What!? Do you think I’m stupid?” The room went silent, and for a moment no one wanted to be in my seat.

It’s likely uncommon that people feel comfortable confronting you about the problems they’re encountering in your workplace culture, especially after Mr. Carney’s Medium posts. The Amazon you see and hear about most is its rarified, insulated, filtered best.

Bill Gates has done amazing work and the Gates Foundation is groundbreaking as well. But several blocks from its front door, there’s a homeless man who’s been panhandling there for at least six years. The foundation had been a strong supporter of the county’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, yet this week, the mayor had to declare a state of emergency for the homeless in Seattle. Similarly, Gates has been an advocate for education for decades and yet he’s led the Nevada tax dodge at Microsoft which has undermined our state’s entire education budget. Years ago, the LA Times reported on how the Gates Foundation’s investments are causing many of the harms his foundation is attempting to remedy, but no changes were made.

Do I think Bill is stupid? No, nor do I think he is uncompassionate. But at times he’s hypocritical and foolish. He often misunderstands how systems work and how he impacts them. Don’t be like Bill.

I believe the world is a better and more dynamic place with Amazon’s accomplishments and continuing innovation. But we need you to lead now, not just in technology, but in supporting quality of life issues and elevating women and minorities as equals.

Ask those quoted in The New York Times to come in and talk with you personally. Listen to their stories.

Your voice has been quiet in Seattle while your company’s impacts have been unprecedented and, more recently, quite challenging. Please step forward and begin to participate more in conversations about the health and quality of life in our community. Be thoughtful about social justice, sustainability and re-establishing a level playing field for the Seattle dream.

I ask that you act on these challenges now and I’d be glad to support you any way that I can in doing so. It’s time to give something back to Seattle beyond high-income jobs for men and a busy skyline.

Jeff Reifman

Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest. Check out Portland Wild, a visual map-driven guide to Portland's public art, its Heritage Trees and its Little Free Libraries.

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