Feature Do you ever get the feeling that there’s a party going on and you’re not invited? Is that how you feel when you fire up LinkedIn and see yet another long-standing connection has been rewired into Amazon or AWS?
Whether it’s a veteran CEO such as former HPE EMEA boss turned AWS EMEA boss Andy Isherwood or a whole platoon of Rust contributors, Amazon and AWS seem to have an inexhaustible hunger for tech talent, and an irresistible ability to recruit the targets they want, sooner or later.
Amazon has 55,000 employees in the UK, and 1.3 million worldwide. At the end of 2019, its global workforce stood at 798,000, while five years ago it was a mere 341,000.
The firm does not officially break out either its workforce by role, or its recruitment targets. But at time of writing, Amazon’s vacancies page lists 54,000 jobs, of which more than 15,000 are in software development, with just under 3,500 in ops, IT and support engineering, and over 3,000 in technical project, program, and product management. It also needs over 5,400 new solution architects.
Drilling down into AWS specifically reveals over 19,000 full time vacancies. Of those, more than 6,100 are in software development, 5,258 are solutions architect roles, with 1,604 in ops, IT and support engineering, with another 1,200 project, program, and product management jobs.
In the UK, Amazon has over 200 solutions architect jobs going – mainly at AWS – along with 190 software development roles, and 81 project, program and project management roles. It also needs one principal economist who, presumably, enjoys their own company. And remember, these are just the jobs it hasn’t filled.
By comparison Microsoft’s entire workforce is 144,000, while Facebook currently musters around 60,000 workers, up 26 per cent on the year.
Oh my God, it’s full of vacancies
So what on earth are Amazon and AWS doing with all these people, particularly those from what on the surface look like traditional end-user or vendor roles? Paul Johnston spent a year at AWS as a senior developer advocate for serverless and says it’s simply a case of recruitment tracking the company’s furious growth.
“They are constantly behind the curve as to how many people they have. So if we’re talking AWS specifically, AWS does not have enough people to service all of the work that they have. And that is solution architects, that is account managers, that is all of that and they are understaffed for pretty much all the time.”
But even if Amazon and AWS never have enough people, says Johnston, they still succeed as “they are so damn good, and aware of what they are good at, and they know their products so well, because they have to be on top what they know.”
Ultimately, says Johnston, “you find that the majority of people go to Amazon because of the prestige of the work, the clients that they get to work with. And the fact that they’re number one, they’re the biggest company out there. And if you want to work in tech… there’s really no other game in town at the moment. They are the pinnacle.”
Chris Jackson, chief product and technology officer at Thomas International, and a former chief evangelist at Rackspace, says it would be a boost to anyone’s CV “to immerse yourself [at Amazon/AWS] and apply what you’ve learned in other roles in the future.”
And for techies in particular, Jackson says, “the things that those people are enthused by and passionate about are being intermediated into the as-a-service layer. So, if they want to continue to work on those things, it’s better to help the people building the products that people are consuming.”
With Kubernetes in particular, he says, “if you really know how that works, and how it scales and how it operates under the hood… Doing that at scale among the cloud providers is the best way to showcase your talents.”
So there are plenty of reasons to join AWS. But what happens when you get there?
It really is day one. Every day
Amazon/AWS’s mantra is that “it’s always day one” and, by all accounts, the company really does operate in permanent startup mode. Which means AWS and Amazon work their people hard. Very, very hard.
“You’re told that you’re the best of the best,” one insider told us. “You don’t get through the process of hiring unless you’re really, really good. So, you know, a lot is expected.”
Sometimes, it seems, too much is expected. It’s not difficult to find AWS staffers bemoaning their experiences on sites like TeamBlind or Glassdoor – alongside many positive comments to be fair. Typical complaints are that it’s a toxic environment, and like a “cult” or “North Korea” in its rabid adherence to its leadership principles and ruthless driving of performance.
On the Former and Current Employees of Amazon page – hosted on Google funnily enough – the most recent post is headed “Dystopian Hellscape” but you can peruse other headlines such as AWS Abuses, Toxic Culture, The Turnover Problem, and Everyone’s Quitting.
One source told us that it’s probably not the sort of place you’d want to go if you had a tendency for self-doubt or anxiety. Another pondered just how seasoned execs from vendors or users adjust to the shock of eternal Day One when you’ve spent the last 10 years of your career coasting along on Day 10.
Added to which, AWS is not considered the most generous payer among the hyperscalers. And stock options are reputedly backend loaded, meaning people often leave before they make much on equity.
This all adds up to some churn and burn of talent, multiple sources told us, even as the company’s headcount remorselessly increases.
A spokesperson for AWS told us: “We don’t mind being called ‘peculiar’. We have our own way of doing things. Our unusual approach and our culture – focused on removing obstacles so builders can build – are part of why our employees enjoy working in AWS. One thing that’s remained consistent is that employees that succeed at AWS are bought in from Day 1 on our Leadership Principles.”
Apart from the impact on individuals, there’s a broader industry effect from Amazon’s relentless hoovering up of talent. When someone joins Amazon, it’s not that they’re lost to the rest of the industry forever. It just feels that way.
The company is seen as controlling in the extreme. One observer we spoke to reeled off a number of DevOps and open-source figures who had joined AWS over the last year or so, and suggested that any contributions they make to industry conferences in future would be squarely in line with AWS doctrine.
Dr Hamed Haddadi, an academic at Imperial college who works on systems and privacy and algorithms, says that once researchers and academics head to Amazon, “they disappear for a while.” They rarely publish papers. This is in contrast to Microsoft Research, even Google and Deep Mind, he says (though not to Apple apparently).
“It seems like a very metric driven environment, which doesn’t work very well for research,” says Haddadi. “Sometimes we [in the academic world] work on something for a year or two and it doesn’t pay off.”
Nevertheless, he continues, the company seems to be aggressively targeting academics. “It makes recruitment a little harder generally for us, at least in the London and Cambridge area because they recruit quite intensely in this space.”
AWS’s spokesperson says it absolutely supports open source, and this includes “enabling employees to contribute to open-source projects and conferences,” though outsiders might question how much time they might get to do this considering their punishing workload.
Not that AWS is unique in this. The hyperscalers in general are not great at sharing everything they do. For example, says veteran software engineer and tech ethicist Anne Currie, “they do some great stuff with green data centres, and green processes, and increased efficiency that they don’t talk about but other people could be learning from.”
But there’s a wider concern, according to Currie. AWS – and its hyperscaler rivals – are hoovering up proven talent. But how much investment are they putting into developing the raw talent the industry as a whole relies on?
Won’t someone think of the grads?
“There is an amount of training that goes into being a software engineer,” she says. “You need to learn, you need to have mentors, you need to have training, and it’s expensive. Not all of them take graduate-level recruits. I think that’s a bad sign.”
Or put another way, someone needs to pay and train techies when they’re still a bit crap.
As for Haddadi, he says, “I’ve never had a student going to Amazon for an internship.” Though, he adds, this could be in part because researchers would prefer to go to somewhere that is open to them publishing.
AWS insists it does focus on “early career talent. Our teams are looking to learn as much from them as we think they’ll learn from us.”
At time of writing, there were 44 roles listed on AWS student/graduate jobs page, and 58 on Amazon’s. So, if you really want to join Bezos’ team, chances are you will probably have to put the years in somewhere else first.
Once you do, how do you find your way in? As noted, there are thousands of vacancies currently listed on Amazon’s careers page. Beyond that AWS’s spokesperson said it uses “a combination of inhouse recruiting supported by outside agencies.”
But the fact is, if you’re really Amazon material, there’s a good chance you’re already on their radar. As one source told us, AWS is looking constantly at people it is interested in – people at meetups, speaking at conferences.
This amounts to “an unwritten process of ‘we’ve identified someone, we will point them to a role that we want them to do, and then they will be flattered…'”
The upshot, our source says, is that “a lot of people are essentially flattered into Amazon.”
Or you might get the opposite treatment. One source who was targeted by Amazon told us that the firm’s intensity, obsession with metrics, and demand for fast turnarounds, extended even to the company’s recruiters. “I actually found the recruiter aggressive,” our source said. They didn’t join.
The chance to work with and learn from the best, the most interesting projects, the hottest technology, and a combination of flattery and ruthless aggression; Amazon/AWS will no doubt continue to exploit all these tools and more as it continues to consume talent at a rate that would put Mr Creosote to shame.
But will it ever be satisfied?
One insider suggests that the worst thing that could happen would be for AWS to get all the staff it wanted. “I think the company would slow down… because people would feel like they were able to take the pressure off themselves.” ®