I was at Amazon for about six and a half years, and now I’ve been at Google for that long. One thing that struck me immediately about the two companies – an impression that has been reinforced almost daily – is that Amazon does everything wrong, and Google does everything right. Sure, it’s a sweeping generalization, but a surprisingly accurate one. It’s pretty crazy. There are probably a hundred or even two hundred different ways you can compare the two companies, and Google is superior in all but three of them, if I recall correctly. I actually did a spreadsheet at one point but Legal wouldn’t let me show it to anyone, even though recruiting loved it.
I mean, just to give you a very brief taste: Amazon’s recruiting process is fundamentally flawed by having teams hire for themselves, so their hiring bar is incredibly inconsistent across teams, despite various efforts they’ve made to level it out. And their operations are a mess; they don’t really have SREs and they make engineers pretty much do everything, which leaves almost no time for coding – though again this varies by group, so it’s luck of the draw. They don’t give a single shit about charity or helping the needy or community contributions or anything like that. Never comes up there, except maybe to laugh about it. Their facilities are dirt-smeared cube farms without a dime spent on decor or common meeting areas. Their pay and benefits suck, although much less so lately due to local competition from Google and Facebook. But they don’t have any of our perks or extras – they just try to match the offer-letter numbers, and that’s the end of it. Their code base is a disaster, with no engineering standards whatsoever except what individual teams choose to put in place.
To be fair, they do have a nice versioned-library system that we really ought to emulate, and a nice publish-subscribe system that we also have
no equivalent for. But for the most part they just have a bunch of crappy tools that read and write state machine information into relational databases. We wouldn’t take most of it even if it were free.
I think the pubsub system and their library-shelf system were two out of the grand total of three things Amazon does better than google.
I guess you could make an argument that their bias for launching early and iterating like mad is also something they do well, but you can argue it either way. They prioritize launching early over everything else, including retention and engineering discipline and a bunch of other stuff that turns out to matter in the long run. So even though it’s given them some competitive advantages in the marketplace, it’s created enough other problems to make it something less than a slam-dunk.
But there’s one thing they do really really well that pretty much makes up for ALL of their political, philosophical and technical screw-ups.
Jeff Bezos is an infamous micro-manager. He micro-manages every single pixel of Amazon’s retail site. He hired Larry Tesler, Apple’s Chief Scientist and probably the very most famous and respected human-computer interaction expert in the entire world, and then ignored every goddamn thing Larry said for three years until Larry finally – wisely – left the company. Larry would do these big usability studies and demonstrate beyond any shred of doubt that nobody can understand that frigging website, but Bezos just couldn’t let go of those pixels, all those millions of semantics-packed pixels on the landing page. They were like millions of his own precious children.