Don’t Mess with Bezos

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has pledged to fight Donald Trump’s immigration ban. This could be a get-out-your-popcorn clash between two business leaders who couldn’t be more dissimilar, a battle of the billionaires, if you will.

If you just followed that last link, it’s okay if you want to take a moment or two to get your bearings on reality. Good luck.

I worked at Amazon from 1998 to 2000 as a customer service representative, and again from 2004 to 2007 as an editor on the Media Merchandising team. I was in maybe half a dozen meetings with Jeff Bezos. The first time was in 1998, when he spoke to a group of CS reps in a cramped conference room. The media was in love with Amazon in those days, and we all knew we were changing the world. Bezos spoke about how important it was to wake up every morning convinced that everything would fail. We hung on his every word and once we were dismissed we practically raced back to our desks, excited to field as many calls and emails as possible. He inspired us to want to make him proud.

To work at Amazon was to live inside Jeff Bezos’s innovations. I toured the first distribution center and knew I was witnessing something of historic importance. I volunteered to join a secret team that developed Amazon’s Auctions site, which quickly turned into the lucrative third-party seller platform. During my first stint at Amazon, the company opened British and German sites and branched out into selling CDs, DVDs, and even VHS cassettes. When I came back in 2004, Amazon had expanded considerably and its by-any-means-necessary startup spirit had evolved into a sometimes brutal workaholic culture. If the company was libertarian in its approach to business, it was also socially libertarian, with enlightened policies on domestic partner benefits, for example. I worked alongside developers from India, China, and the Middle East. We were all Amazonians.

My complaints about Amazon over the years have been complicated by a reverence for the company that I can’t shake. As an author, I’ve taken issue with how Amazon relates to the publishing industry. I’ve questioned whether its policies are good for writers, and I’ve been concerned that it gives pitifully little to the local arts organizations whose programs help attract Amazon’s employees to Seattle.

After speaking out to management about how they had treated some of my colleagues, I was fired in 2007, and it took nearly a decade for me to sort out my feelings about the company. I was surprised to find that I had made peace with the company. I realized that I gained much more than I’d lost in the five years I spent there. One, I got an education in the art of innovation–embrace a bias for action, constantly experiment, cycle through lots of things quickly, and exapt failed experiments into successes.

Two, at Amazon I picked up something I like to call motherfucker skills. These include expecting the absolute best, relentlessness, and calling out bullshit. You can’t use motherfucker skills without stepping on toes and making enemies, and you don’t become a company bigger than your eight closest competitors combined without using motherfucker skills.

Now it would seem that America is in dire need of motherfuckers to take on this president. I can think of no motherfucker better suited to this task than Jeff Bezos.

As founder of a company that relies on foreign tech talent secured with H1-B visas, Jeff Bezos stands to lose a lot with Trump’s America-first approach to immigration. I also have to believe that as a resident of a multicultural, progressive city, Bezos takes issue with Trump on cultural and moral grounds. Trump is no fan of Amazon, either. And Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post puts him in direct conflict with the notoriously press-hating president.

But there’s another aspect of this story that’s going to be really interesting to follow. In 2014, Amazon started building a $600 million cloud for the CIA and 17 other intelligence agencies. This means that the intelligence community depends on systems that Jeff Bezos and his army of engineers developed. I have no idea what the implications of this might be, but it would seem to place Bezos close to the growing conflict between Trump and the intelligence community.

Jeff Bezos didn’t make his fortune peddling steaks, beauty pageants, and fake college degrees. He innovated everything he touched, changing commerce forever, upending entire industries, and seized the potential of the World Wide Web. He’s cunning, superhumanly driven, and has surrounded himself with brilliant people. While inventing e-commerce secures his legacy alongside Edison, Jobs, and Gates as one of America’s great visionaries, his finest hour, as a destroyer of fascists, may soon be at hand.