Twenty Years in Seattle with Amazon

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Amazon’s HQ1 as seen from the observation deck of the Space Needle.

I moved to Seattle in September, 1997, to an apartment with a view of the Acacia Cemetery on Lake City Way. I’d often stand at the window with a cup of coffee, watching hunched people sobbing over graves. I’d given up my cool job at a bookstore to follow my girlfriend as she pursed a Naturopathic medical degree at Bastyr. I was in graduate school myself, enrolled in a low-residency Master of Fine Arts program at Bennington College. The low-residency format meant I could live anywhere, and in the back of my mind I had long known I would eventually end up in Seattle anyway. I remember those first few months in Seattle as particularly lonely.

After a short stint working for a sad little poetry press run out of a Green Lake garage, I got a job answering phones and email for Amazon.com in the spring of 1998. That was a season of 90 straight days of rain, and we’re talking raindrops the size of Tic Tacs. It was all the same to me, as I spent much of that year in a windowless call center downtown. If memory serves, the Customer Service department at Amazon was all of 200 people. Within a couple months of my start date, we learned that the company was going to branch out into selling CDs and VHS tapes. This e-commerce startup was really going places!

I remember certain books I read then. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Thomas Bernhard’s The Lime Works, Amy Hempel’s The Dog of the Marriage, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. I remember the late nineties mini-explosion of American auteur cinema–Buffalo 66, Being John Malkovich, Magnolia. Late nineties, post-Cobain Seattle was awash in either electronic music or throwback bands that everybody’s grandparents could dig. Combustible Edison, Fatboy Slim, Underworld, Air, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Flushing the Smashmouth out of the cultural digestive system were Radiohead’s OK Computer and The Soft Bulletin by Flaming Lips. Overnight, it seemed, everybody had started dipping bread in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, hosting cocktail parties, and believing in the prognostications of Wired magazine. It was fashionable in those days for paridigms to shift.

Hovering at the end of the 20th century, anxieties percolated over the global catastrophe to come when computers would blank out what year it was. In November, 1999, Seattle erupted in riots as the World Trade Organization convened downtown at the Convention Center, an event I captured on Super-8 video tape. News of the world still came primarily through TV and newspapers dropped every morning on the welcome mat. President Clinton ejaculated onto a Gap dress. The Chicago Bulls dominated. Napster showed up to offer a treasure trove of bootlegs. Ostensible adults bought black PVC pants at Hot Topic.

I moved to First Hill, to a new apartment with a view of the Pac Med building perched on the north edge of Beacon Hill, Amazon’s new corporate headquarters. Some days I would have meetings in that building’s 8th floor conference room, from which I could see my apartment. That conference room also provides one of the least-appreciated views of downtown Seattle, from the southeast, with I-5 and Interstate 90, two blood streams spanning continents, converging at the King Dome.

Ah, the Dome. I watched Ken Griffey Jr. smash homers from the nosebleeds in that poured concrete clamshell of a stadium. And then I watched it collapse from an office in the nearby Columbia Tower. When the Dome imploded, a great gray cloud flowed through the streets of Pioneer Square. I watched one pedestrian running like hell to escape the plumes of obliterated concrete, and afterward people writing goodbye messages to the stadium in the dust that accumulated on parked cars.

The other day I woke up to find ash from the wildfires to the east covering the sills of windows I’d left open overnight. A rush of associations… Faint echoes of the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. Anxiety about the Northwest being behind schedule for a major earthquake. Worries about driving on the rickety viaduct. The last time we got hit by a major seismic event, the Nisqually quake of 2001, I wasn’t in Seattle but in upstate New York at an artist colony. I assumed the jackass playwright who broke the news to me was pulling my leg. I found a bar broadcasting footage of the quake and tried to contact everyone I knew in Seattle with a cell phone that couldn’t text, take pictures, or play music.

I left Amazon in 2000 to ride a dotcom roller coaster through a series of Internet startups. I initially second guessed my decision to jump ship, then realized I’d made the right choice when, a few months later, the company laid off the entire Customer Service department. The severence packages my friends and former colleagues received seemed to me a sign of executive guilt.

I returned to Amazon in 2004, initially as a contractor writing and editing standardized customer email responses, or “blurbs.” Soon I secured an especially sexy job, Editor on the Media Merchandising team. Weirdly, I ended up sitting at a desk next to an editor, Ben Reese, who I’d sat next to four years earlier when we both worked in CS. My responsibilities included crafting email campaigns and on-site messaging and occasionally flying to Hollywood to interview movie stars. When Steve Jobs navigated to the DVD store during the iPhone launch event, some copy I had written about a DVD sale appeared on the screen over his shoulder.

Ten years ago, Amazon occupied Pac Med, the US buildings in the International District, and parts of Columbia Tower. As was the case the first time I worked at Amazon, I moved offices often. The company was growing for sure, but it had yet to colonize an entire neighborhood. That would happen after I left the second time, much more unceremoniously, in 2007.

My feelings about Amazon over the years have been so complicated that I didn’t order anything from them for a decade. Now I’m a Prime member and have an Amazon Echo. Robert Frost’s grave stone in Bennington, Vermont bear the words “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” I feel much the same about the company that Jeff Bezos envisioned. For years I fell more on the quarreling side of that equation, especially as I plied my trade in a publishing industry that Amazon was perpetually disrupting. Now I find myself, twenty years on, with news that the company is searching for a second city to colonize, in admiring awe at what this scrappy challenger to Barnes and Noble has pulled off.

One thing that has become apparent to me in reading the reaction and analysis of Amazon’s HQ2 announcement is that most of Seattle still has no fucking clue what Amazon is about or how they think or operate. Amazon wins games by changing the way the games are played then being the only ones who understand the new rules. Meanwhile, the company’s critics fail by simply sticking to the old rules and insisting that those rules are eternal and/or sacred. I watched this painful process happen to a publishing industry that published four of my books. Seattle’s civic psyche still bears the scars of Boeing’s corporate departure, and Amazon’s news seems to have triggered memories of that break-up. But HQ2 is something entirely new in the history of global capitalism.

I assume you’re reading this on some sort of browser. Go ahead and open another tab and go to Amazon. Now, imagine that the two other people who are bothering to read this blog right now are also opening tabs and going to Amazon. Each of you is looking at a different store, with messaging based on your individual purchase and browse history. Or maybe some department at Amazon is conducting a test on whether more customers click through messaging related to Prime Music or the Echo Dot. Every single thing you see on Amazon is tracked and analyzed; your interactions with the site producing a rivulet of metrics that join a surging river of aggregate data. Amazon is constitutionally designed to obsessively test itself and try new things. And the company is constantly pitting one idea against another, in a process called A/B testing.

Up til now, the concept of A/B testing has been expressed primarily through the website itself, and through its Hunger Games corporate culture. Amazon was absolutely the most back-bitey and cutthroat environment in which I have ever worked. When the announcement came that Amazon would open not a satellite office, but a doppleganger HQ, my first thought was holy shit, they’re going to A/B test the entire company.

Some of Seattle’s civic leaders are sniveling that Amazon doesn’t love us anymore and a shudder just went through our white hot real estate market. These folks are, again, under the mistaken impression that Amazon thinks like Boeing in 2001. Companies embrace a city as their sole HQ or choose to uproot and move. That’s the way the game is supposed to be played. Amazon is doing neither. Opening a new headquarters that will mirror what’s still rising in South Lake Union gives the company an opportunity to build redundancies and compete against itself to arrive at the most innovative ideas. Why? Because they can afford to. HQ2 is also a hedge against the apocalypse, should the tsunami or one of Kim Jong-Un’s warheads decimate Puget Sound. The company is thinking far more expansively than most people are giving it credit for, reinventing what it means to have a corporate headquarters. According to Amazon’s rules, the entire planet is its neighborhood.

I attended maybe half a dozen meetings with Jeff Bezos during my two stints at Amazon. The most memorable one was in the winter of 1999, in a conference room in the cold TRA building downtown. I sat beside him among a couple dozen other Customer Service Reps packed into the room. He still had hair in those days and we always knew when he was in the building because his distinctive, braying laugh would ring out among the cubicles. And he was laughing his ass off in those days. Who in his position wouldn’t be? The company’s meteoric rise often seemed ridiculous, especially to those of us inside of it, and to him most of all. But what he told us reps that morning was sobering: wake up every day terrified that everything could fail and never get lulled into complacency. At the end of the meeting, we all rushed back to our desks to jump on calls as quickly as we could, eager to lay the bricks of empire.

 

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