I was an Amazon drudge

As a liberal arts grad in the late '90s, I was prepared for many things. But nothing had prepared me for Amazon

Published November 27, 2015 12:30AM (EST)

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My first job after college was in the customer service department at Amazon.com. When I read the recent New York Times piece about the current culture there, my heart sank a little; looking back, I still feel some nostalgia for the place. I started in 1999 in a department that no longer exists, so the Amazon I knew then is not the one we know today.

Although the job market was good in the late 1990s, I left college with a liberal arts degree and a lot of uncertainty about my future. After an internship at a newspaper in college, I wasn’t sure I was cut out to be a reporter: I had a near panic attack any time I cold-called someone for an interview. I also spent some time in the career center reading their handout for English majors. It told me I was a generalist. I had good writing skills. I could do anything! But studies have shown that too many choices can be paralyzing and the stakes felt high.

I moved to Seattle and began my job search. I was offered a job writing for a Native American gaming magazine that was somewhat tempting –it was a legit writing job and I have been known to kill time at a craps table. But it involved a hellish commute and I didn’t see much of a future in it. Next, I went on two interviews for a job as an assistant at a distribution company. But it was located next to an industrial shipyard and I couldn’t imagine spending a gray Seattle winter staring out at cranes and rusting metal while repeatedly saying, “Ms. Martin is on another call, can I take a message?”

The recruiter did a good job selling me on Amazon when we met in her office in a high-rise in downtown Seattle. “There is no dress code –they don’t expect you to spend a lot of money on work clothing,” she said, looking knowingly at my khakis and chunky black loafers.

“And you get stock options,” she continued. This was the golden ticket in the late '90s – get in at the right time and place, and you could be enjoying your retirement home in the Greek Isles by the time you turned 40. Of course, there were no guarantees that Amazon would make it at that time – dot-coms everywhere were erupting and then fading like fireworks in the night sky.

“And it’s in the customer service department?”I asked.

“Yes – you’ll be answering phone calls and emails, but they require everyone to have a college degree. They use a Unix-based system, so it takes some thought to operate,” she continued. “I’ve placed lots of interesting people there – history majors, art majors, philosophy majors…” This had some appeal. I enjoyed the company of like-minded liberal arts majors, no matter how impractical our degrees might be. Perhaps the job would provide an island for us to gather and put our degrees to use by memorizing Unix commands and assuaging customer fears about their missing copy of Memoirs of a Geisha.

“Is it possible to move on to other departments?” I asked.

“Of course.”

That settled it. I would do a short stint in customer service just as a stepping stone I told myself. How bad could it be?

After a month of training I sat down at my desk for my first phone shift. As I put on my headset, my hands were shaking slightly – I was worried the next few hours would be filled with irate callers. Then the phone rang and the voice on the line said, “Good morning, I can’t get into my account. Can you help me?” I could. It was an easy password change. As the day continued I found that most of the calls were straightforward. People were nice if I was, and they were often appreciative of the help.

I answered phone and email questions ranging from the basic (“When will my order arrive?”) to the semi-crazy (“I couldn’t use my gift certificate because I was attacked by wild animals”). The Internet was also still a new phenomenon for many people, and I spent a lot of time explaining what email addresses were or that we had no physical catalog or stores to send them to. I heard a story about one rep who got a call from a man asking him to find a restaurant for him.

“I’m sorry, we aren’t really supposed to do that,” the rep told him.

“But someone did it for me last time,” the caller said.  So the rep just opened up an AltaVista search window and looked up the info.

I never personally found a restaurant for anyone, but I did have an awful lot of days that went like this.

I get to my cubicle at 5:45 a.m. to prepare for a 6 a.m. phone shift and see some of the night crew mulling around in their pajamas. When I put on my headset the phone doesn’t ring immediately, so I read through the emails that have accumulated overnight. The most recent status report says: “All is quiet for now, but the angry New Yorkers are about to wake up, so get ready.” The phone rings and I jump.

“Thank you for calling Amazon.com, how can I help you?”

“Can you order a book for me?”

“I can’t, but I can walk you through the process.  Do you have an email address?”


“OK, and what’s the rest of it?”

“That’s all of it.”

“There is usually more – something after an “a” with a circle around it.”

“My address doesn’t have that.”

“They all should. Do you have an Internet provider?”

“Yes – AOL.”

“OK, that’s your email address then: bob1945@aol.com. You’ll need that to place your order. Now let’s find the book you want. You can just search for the title in the box at the top of your page.”

“How do I get to that box?”

“Just click on it with your mouse.”

“I don’t have a mouse. I have Web TV.” I sigh audibly. I’ve heard of the program but never actually seen or used it myself and only know it operates differently than a typical computer.

“OK, can you describe what you do have?” I ask, settling in for a long call.

When I started working at Amazon the company was spread out among a couple of different buildings in downtown Seattle. My department was housed in the rented-out first floor of an ageing office building. I worked in a sea of cubicles lit with dimmed fluorescent bulbs, computer screens and a hodgepodge of Christmas lights. The customer service department was divided into different teams, which they called quads. Handmade signs announcing the quad names hung over different cubicle groups. Desks were decorated with action figure collections, wrapping-papered walls, or mosquito netting. My first company badge was just a simple laminated piece of green paper that had the company name and my login on it. No picture. No bar code. A fourth grader could have made a very good counterfeit replica. Most of us in the office called each other by our logins rather than our first names.

There were only three tabs on the website when I started – Books, Music and a recently launched DVD/video store. A couple months after working there a group of reps were pulled into a “mystery” quad. They were sectioned off from us and couldn’t talk about what they were doing. Later that year we found out – auctions. Then toys. Then tools. I remember someone sending around a joke mock-up of a future Amazon homepage that had 30 tabs cluttering the top – one of the tabs said “Biscuits.” They solved the tab design issue, but otherwise it wasn’t that far off from what they became. As we moved further away from a books focus, I debated whether I really wanted to be working for the Wal-Mart of the Web. I would sit through PowerPoint presentations at all-hands meetings and realize that the quirky dot-com I had signed up for was becoming like a big corporation that I always thought I would avoid.

When I began in January the department was still recovering from the biggest challenge of the year – the holiday shopping season. The reps who had been through it seemed exhausted, and I quietly aspired to get a job in the editorial department before the end of the year. That first year the days were constantly counted down; as early as March emails would announce “Only 300 more days until Christmas!”

In October I was hired into a Quality Assurance group (the people who “may be recording the phone call for quality assurance purposes) and narrowly escaped a regular phone shift during the holidays. But when the red lights on the boards above our cubicles flashed long hold times I would jump back on the phones to help out, and still spent good portions of my day responding to customer emails.

As we crept nearer to Christmas, the company authorized unlimited overtime and many of us started pulling 10+ hour days. The Seattle department was the only branch of customer service the company had at the time, so people had to staff it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I had heard rumors of them putting some sort of “we are closed for Christmas day” voice mail on the phones during the really early years, but those days were gone.

The week after Thanksgiving I was responding to emails as quickly as possible. I had music playing on my headphones to block out distracting co-workers and the riot on the street below. It was 1999, and Seattle was trying to host a World Trade Organization meeting. Protesters dressed in turtle costumes had been squaring off with police in riot gear on the streets around our building most of the morning. Normal offices probably would have closed earlier, but we were a 24-hour customer service center heading into the busiest time of year.

The liberal arts major in me could sympathize with the anti-corporate protesters, but now I had a new perspective from my position on the other side of the fence. Customer service was far from the boardroom -- we worked for meager wages (and high hopes in our stock options) and many of us actually did care about giving customers the best possible experience.

My concentration was broken by a manager’s email -- there was tear gas on the streets below us, and they were shutting the office down. I gathered my things, surprised; it was the first time I’d seen the office close. I half-hoped the protests would earn us another day off, but the next morning I ran past boarded-up shop windows toward the open office.

Our department entered a blackout period in December -- no one could take vacation days. The other departments ceased all but essential operations and sent almost everyone to work in either the warehouses or customer service. The holiday party –a lavish costume affair in a rented hotel ballroom -- was scheduled for late January.   

Late December brought an endless stream of calls and emails as we raced to upgrade shipping, and my smoking colleagues upped their nicotine intake. The company did try to ease us through the holiday season by offering chair massages and catered meals, but it was hard to get too excited about a crepe maker in the break room when you knew each call could end with a new accusation that you ruined Christmas.

On Dec. 24 I answered a slew of emails delivering the same bad news – the orders wouldn’t arrive by the holiday. I had been working 10-hour days for over a month and had yet to begin my own Christmas shopping when I caught a flight back to Colorado that night. Since the holiday fell over a weekend, I was able to stay a couple nights before returning to work. I was relieved to have a short break, but also knew that despite the skeleton crew that had worked through Christmas, there would still be a pile of angry customer emails waiting in the office when I returned. You don’t have to do this anymore, I reminded myself. You can start looking for another job.

The Monday after the break I logged on to my computer at work and found a couple hundred emails. Among the clutter were messages from a few customers sincerely thanking me for help with their orders. In addition to the disappointments, I had made a few people ecstatic by overnighting orders at the last minute.

After the email piles settled at the end of January, I attended the company holiday party. My department enjoyed the open bar in a rented hotel ballroom with the camaraderie of a group that had just survived a boot camp. It was one of the few times a year we mingled with the rest of the company. Our offices were physically housed in different buildings than other departments and the rest of the company seemed to view us as an island of misfits.

After a man from marketing had come to our office to listen to a few of my calls he said, “I could never do what you do.” I had just changed some passwords, he literally could easily do what I had done, but fielding customer contacts was work many people viewed with fear.

We were constantly reminded about how important customers were to the company, but we were still near the bottom of the organizational totem pole. I got the impression that many people considered customer service just slightly better – maybe – than packing boxes at the warehouse (something that was sometimes still done by hand at the time).        

Customers also didn’t seem to know what to make of us. Almost everyone has a customer service call horror story – from being put on hold for hours to being passed around in endless circles where no one could help. Part of the problem is you are reaching out to a void when you call a company for help. You could be connected with a 20-year-old woman in Delhi or a 50-year-old man in Wichita.

People often asked me questions: Where are you? How long have you been working there? What are you doing working there? My answers led to pleasant banter as I waited for their order details to pull up. Many people called preparing for a fight or an endless loop of automated options and they seemed relieved to be talking to a real live person who could actually help.     

A year into the job I had grown proud of my colleagues despite their underdog status. We traded travel stories and book recommendations during lulls between calls. We had potlucks and performed Pepsi taste challenges with Dixie cups. Tattoos and piercings were proudly displayed and the only time I dressed up for work was when my group decided we should have “dress up” Fridays in a bizarro nod to other workplace’s casual Fridays.

One Friday a co-worker showed up in a tie and pin-striped suit. “Jvick,” he said, “we’re all dressed up.  Let’s go out for a power lunch!”

“OK,” I said. We rounded up some co-workers and then stopped by our manager’s desk on the way out.

“You’ll probably need this,” she said, handing us her cellphone. “You’ll look very important.” So we borrowed her phone and took turns pretending to talk on it between bites of sushi at lunch.

My colleagues also didn’t display a lot of the cutthroat tendencies rampant in other workplaces. I had come to believe what one of my co-workers had once said – that customer service was one of the few departments in a company with heart. Unfortunately, our department didn’t last long. 

When the dot-com bubble burst the landscape changed – customer service centers opened in India and cheaper areas in the U.S., and the company restructured. In 2001 the Seattle customer service department was shut down and only a few specialty groups -- including the one I was in – were left intact. We were moved to the headquarter offices -- which seemed to justify our existence. But during the move when boxes marked “Customer Service” were stacked by the elevators, someone from another department muttered, “There goes the neighborhood.”

A couple months later, I gave notice with plans to move to New York. My stock options weren’t fully vested, but they were submerged underwater anyway. On my last day, I carried my requisite box to the elevator and pushed the button for the bottom floor. Someone had written “goodbye jvick” on the whiteboard in the elevator. I felt tears welling up and managed to keep them down before I left the building. With a move across the country and no job lined up in my future, I wondered whether I had made the right choice.

In my early 20s, I spent some time staring out the misty windows of Seattle city buses wondering how I would look back on that time in my life. Now, 14 years later, I have a clearer idea.

The upside of my generalist humanities major is that I can now envision the alternate career paths I could have taken like shifting scenes in a view master. In the "Devil Wears Prada" version, I get up the guts to move to New York right after college, get my foot in the door at a magazine, and work my way up to a satisfying editorial job. But maybe my co-workers are cutthroat or, more likely, I’m laid off when the print publishing world starts to collapse.

In another, I hold onto the golden ticket and stay at Amazon while the company matures. I make more money, but probably have less space for a personal life. And maybe as the company grows up so do my remaining colleagues, trading in their quick quips for more serious personas and business casual clothes. 

In my actual reality, I move to New York and soak up city life for a few years before returning to grad school in Colorado. I get a college teaching job where I don’t make that much money but enjoy my work, and can mold it around my reality of having young kids.

Now, when I look back, I realize the time I spent at Amazon was unusual. The Amazon of the late '90s gave me an imperfect but valuable transition job from the world of books and ideas to the world of people. Recent reports about the company paint a different picture of the current culture. If I were graduating now, I doubt the same opportunity would be open to me – companies aren’t often collecting liberal arts majors to build departments these days. And even if they were, I’m not sure I’d want the job. I was lucky to leave school without any debt at a moment when the economy was soaring. The future seemed bright, opportunities endless. It was a different time, a time when you could sit inside a 90-square-foot cubicle and feel as though you weren’t inside anything at all.

By Julie Vick

Julie Vick is a writer living in Colorado whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

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