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Amazon is the most sought-after employer in the US. We went inside to find out why

The first three times Amazon tried to hire him, Gerard Medioni said no. As a tenured professor at the University of Southern California, known around the world for his computer-vision expertise, he was well settled in his dream job. In early 2014, he agreed to give a guest lecture at Amazon's Seattle headquarters, but nothing more. Setting boundaries one more time, Medioni initially refused to write a job-applicant essay that an overeager Amazon executive requested.

"I'm a professor," Medioni reminded everyone. "I give homework; I don't write homework."

Then everything changed when Amazon told Medioni about a secret project: building a grocery store that wouldn't need checkout lines, because computer vision could flawlessly track shoppers' actions. Stunned by Amazon's audacity, Medioni shot back: "Do you have any idea how hard this is?" Amazon's response: "Yeah, we know." Unfazed, Amazon was ready to spend many millions of dollars to make this futuristic vision of retailing come true.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
The Washington Post | Getty Images
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Medioni couldn't resist. Nearly four years after joining Amazon as a research director, he's beaming about the recent public launch of Go, Amazon's new, no-checkout grocery store. Shopping runs that usually take 15 minutes can now be completed in less than five. Customers are delighted and Medioni is, too. As he told LinkedIn, "I revel in the comments that we receive."

Such career journeys explain why Amazon has surged to the No. 1 spot on this year's LinkedIn Top Companies list in the U.S. You won't find extraordinary perks at the Seattle-based company, and the work tempo is famously intense. But for people who want to chase big dreams with giant-company resources at their disposal, the chance to make a mark at Amazon is an enticement that sells itself.

Last year, Amazon expanded its headcount 66 percent, to 566,000 people, becoming the second-largest private sector employer in the United States. (Walmart is the biggest.) About 90,000 of those employees arrived via Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods Markets; more than 130,000 came onboard because of rapid, across-the-board expansion in Amazon's existing lines of business.

On LinkedIn, Amazon's job listings have attracted a whopping 55 million views (and 8 million applications) in the past 12 months alone. Competition for engineering jobs is understandably intense, with 52 applications for each opening. But the scramble to get a sales job at Amazon is even fiercer. LinkedIn data shows that each sales opening, on average, elicits 401 applications.

While millions of people know Amazon as an e-commerce giant, carrying out nearly 44 percent of all online retailing in the United States, that's just the beginning. The company now builds drones and makes industrial robots, too. It produces hit shows in Hollywood; it owns the Twitch videogame streaming service, and it is a global leader in cloud computing. In the past year, Amazon has signaled an interest in expanding into everything from healthcare to banking.

Worldwide, Amazon currently has more than 12,000 openings on its careers page. The company is hiring hourly warehouse workers, computer scientists with Ph.D.s — and everything in between. Each Monday, Amazon onboards hundreds of new corporate hires in a six-hour boot camp that's as quirky and relentless as the company itself. (This reporter visited a recent session. See the final section of this article for details.)

INDIA AMAZON
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As big as Amazon is, "we still think like a startup," says Jeff Wilke, Amazon's CEO of worldwide consumer. Company founder Jeff Bezos famously declared in 1997 that Amazon was operating in Day 1 of the Internet economy. That sense of time hasn't changed one iota. It's always Day 1 at Amazon, says Wilke, who oversees 90 percent of Amazon's workforce.

In an interview with LinkedIn, Wilke identified a host of distinctive habits that keep Amazon nimble, even though the company's headcount — astonishingly — now rivals the 507,000 career workers at the U.S. Postal Service. Here are three that stand out.

First, Wilke says, Amazon obsesses about what customers want. "Our approach, as we invent new things, is to imagine something that the customer might need," he explains. "Then we work backward from that need to design a product for them."

In practical terms, that means Amazon constantly looks to disrupt its current offerings, even those that are profitable and well-regarded. Price cuts and simpler designs are a way of life. In addition, many of Amazon's internal heroes build their reputations on humdrum improvements that please customers, rather than their bosses' egos. Better bubble wrap matters at Amazon. Candid shopper feedback is prominent on the site, including negative reviews that could crimp sales of products already sitting in Amazon's fulfillment centers.

Second, Amazon encourages lots of little experiments that might fail, so long as they don't risk blunders that can't be repaired. Most business decisions are "two-way doors," Wilke explains. "If you don't like what you see, you just turn around, walk back the other way, and everything is fine. We're encouraging everyone around the company to try two-way doors, because the cost of failure there is very low."

It's the rarer one-way doors that attract warier glances from Amazon's leadership. After all, as Wilke points out, "Things that are irreversible require more decision-making time. If you don't like what you see, you really can't get back to the original state."

The Amazon Go grocery store at the Amazon corporate headquarters in Seattle, Washington.
David Ryder / Stringer | Getty Images
The Amazon Go grocery store at the Amazon corporate headquarters in Seattle, Washington.

Third, Amazon embraces frugality as a winning cultural value, even if it means squeezing desks together and eschewing free food in favor of vending machines down the hall. "You won't find a bunch of marble floors or wood-paneled entryways here," Wilke says. "We don't want to spend money on things that customers aren't willing to pay for." Pinching pennies helps Amazon operate successfully in a host of highly competitive, low-margin businesses. It also encourages employees to innovate in ways that streamline the business, rather than making it more complicated.

In 2015, The New York Times presented a dystopian view of Amazon, laced with accounts of rapid burnout and people crying at their desks. In the days that followed, a wide spectrum of the Amazon community — ranging from Bezos himself to Amazon engineering manager Nick Ciubotariu, to former Amazon employee David Lee — published memos and articles saying, in essence: "That's not the Amazon we know."

Intensity has always been an important part of Amazon's culture, but as the company has grown it has worked harder to tone down intermittent excesses. Asked if Amazon today has a cultural problem with work-life balance, Wilke replied: "I don't think so. If you focus on the things that matter at work, you can get an enormous amount done in a reasonable time. I meet hundreds of thousands of happy Amazonians who love their work and love their life."

For people who grin when they hear the words "challenging" and "never been done before," Amazon is the place to be. Among them is product manager Zoe Corneli, who recently led the launch of Style Check, a camera-based feature that uses Amazon's Alexa technology to tell users whether today's outfit looks stylish or not. "If you want to get your hands dirty and actually go do stuff that's going to impact a lot of customers quickly," Corneli says, "I can't think of a better place to do it than Amazon."

Another such adventurer is Michael Ramirez, a one-time helicopter mechanic in the U.S. Army, who joined Amazon in 2015 as a drone engineer. "Having a chance to continue working in the aviation field is incredible," he says. Package-delivery drones haven't gone mainstream yet, but Ramirez wants to change that. He is excited about the day when Amazon customers can click on a purchase — and have it delivered to their doorstep within 30 minutes.

Of course, not everyone gets such a broad mandate. Amazon runs hundreds of storage and shipping facilities around the world staffed by seasonal, high-turnover employees. Can Amazon infuse this can-do enthusiasm into those centers? Does it even make sense to? For now, front-line workers can win promotions into management, Wilke says, but Amazon wants to do more. He points to the company's Career Choice program, which pays 95 percent of tuition for hourly workers wanting to master booming disciplines such as healthcare and computer programming. "When they graduate," Wilke says, "they have a skill set that gives them even more choices than staying at Amazon."

For other people, Amazon's massive packaging and shipping operation offers unexpected thrills. Kim Houchens earned a Ph.D. in materials science in 1998; she's worked at a half-dozen large companies since then. She joined Amazon in 2015 and is championing the company's long-standing push toward frustration-free packaging, which gets rid of hard-to-open plastic clamshells. She's excited about better ways of packing light bulbs; she cracks a big smile as she shows off oddly painted Amazon packages that kids can turn into raccoon masks.

"I came here because I'm peculiar," Houchens says. "I was looking for a culture where I could fit in; where I could bring all of myself to the table."

Amazon's annual revenue now tops $177 billion. Such vast size usually obliterates the nimble habits of any business's earliest days. In an exchange with LinkedIn, however, Bezos offers his secret for keeping Amazon forever young. "Nothing does more to protect Day 1 vitality than focusing obsessively on the customer," Bezos writes. "It drives you to experiment and invent, to risk and accept failure, and to double down on any discoveries that truly delight customers. Plus, it's way more fun."

Bezos's convictions are reborn every Monday, when hundreds of new hires arrive at Amazon's headquarters for a day-long orientation. The company's ambition is on full display, with a giant orange banner proclaiming: "Make History, Starting with Day 1." Amazon's frugality is in plain sight, too; the meeting takes place in a cement-floored room with boxed Greek salads for lunch.

On a brightly lit stage, guest speaker Madeline Buchanan coaches 117 newbies on this new way of thinking. She's a 2006 graduate of the University of Washington who has spent the past six years working as a recruiter or customer-experience specialist for Amazon. Now she's part of Amazon's efforts to teach Customer Obsession 101 to new employees. In her 90-minute workshop, Buchanan doesn't just extol customers in the abstract; she re-enacts vivid decisions that demand Amazon-style humility, because in the end, it's all about the customer.

Consider the way Amazon tried to promote "The Hunger Games" video on its desktop homepage in 2012. On a giant screen behind her, Buchanan summons a thrilling close-up of actress Jennifer Lawrence shooting an arrow. "Unfortunately," Buchanan explains, "our marketers hadn't checked to see what else was on the homepage that day." With that, Buchanan zooms out. Suddenly everyone sees Lawrence's arrow pointing at the homepage's lower right-hand corner — where a smiling toddler is promoting diapers.

"Whatever you do, don't shoot babies," Buchanan declares. She elicits gasps and giggles, but she's also making a teaching point. At Amazon, marketing that frightens customers is taboo, no matter how clever.

Next, Buchanan shares a protracted customer-service call that has become famous inside Amazon's spheres. In it, a shopper seethes because an overdue package hasn't arrived. The first 90 seconds of audio are all about validating his feelings, with a service rep telling him: "I would feel just as frustrated." As tempers cool, the service rep untangles the problem: Her customer had expected UPS delivery at his home, but the Postal Service brought his wares to a nearby mailbox.

It takes 5 ½ minutes to soothe the customer, but Amazon's work isn't done. When customers get confused about delivery arrangements, the fault isn't with them, Buchanan says. It's on Amazon to make things easier. So in recent months, Amazon has rebuilt its notification system, sending photos and text messages to customers, letting them know exactly where a delivery has been made.

Much of Buchanan's audience consists of software engineers. While at Amazon, they won't ever field a customer call. Yet she is undeterred. "Even if you're an engineer designing cooling systems for one of our data centers, we want you to be thinking about the customer," she says. "When you protect them from downtime, you're making their days better."

Another example involves a real-life blunder during the Black Friday shopping frenzy a few years ago. Amazon meant to sell a popular videogame at cost, for $39, but accidentally sent out an errant email offering it for $29. Shoppers rushed to buy the game, and most were charged $39. What should Amazon do?

New hires debate this quandary. Some want to leave the status quo intact or offer discount coupons down the road. The room falls silent as Amazon's presenters reveal the company's actual choice: Give everyone an instant price adjustment to $29, even if it isn't clear who saw the errant email. The lesson: Amazon can stomach the financial hit; it never wants to jeopardize customer goodwill.

Partway through Buchanan's session, she tells attendees: "Turn to your neighbors, and take a couple moments to brag about your team. Talk about what you're going to be doing at Amazon, and what customers you'll be impacting."

Suddenly, a low hum spreads through the room. An instant later, it gets louder. Voices switch to a higher, almost frenzied pitch. The roar overwhelms the background salsa music that Amazon has piped in as all 117 attendees turn break time into a noisy celebration of their new jobs.

At the next break, Naveen Ravisankar mentions he has just left one of New York's biggest banks to work on payment systems at Amazon. Amit Gupta says he will be doing web development at Amazon, after having completed a similar job at one of Silicon Valley's most famous companies. "I like the Amazon pace," Gupta said. "Things move fast."

Anjaly Mehla enthusiastically explains she will develop software for Amazon's Alexa synthetic speech systems, after previously working for a smaller competitor. Asked how she feels about stepping into Amazon's unusual culture, Mehla smiles. "Amazon's values align with mine," she says.

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