A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 16, 2018

Now the Hard Part: How Will Amazon Find 50,000 Skilled Workers To Hire?

Amazon said it would hire 50,000 new employees at its new HQ2 sites.

But it didnt specify over what time period those new hires would be made. Or where they would be from. JL

George Anders reports in LinkedIn:

Amazon has committed to adding 50,000 executives, managers and front-line employees in new sites. It exceeds the headcount at Fortune 500 giants such as Kellogg, U.S. Steel or Facebook. It took years for Amazon to pinpoint what it wanted in new hires. Some of the best hadn’t attended prestigious schools. They knew how to do their jobs well. “Being smart” gave way to “being right a lot.” It’s easy to imagine such hiring collapsing into chaos, creating a bureaucratic mess or a rogue culture. But Amazon has been rehearsing for this for a long time. They arent motivated to hire fast, but well.
For nearly two decades at Amazon, Bettina Stix has enjoyed a remarkable double identity. In her core jobs, she’s a nonstop dynamo who has done everything from running the company’s German website to shaping the growth of Amazon Prime. Petite, with an easy smile, Stix radiates the confidence of someone who knows how to steer a meeting in the right direction without ever raising her voice.
Yet at each stage of her career journey, Stix has nurtured a side project that borders on obsession. She loves to interview job candidates. She likes to hear their stories, to draw them out – and to be one of the sentries who helps decide which newcomers are right for Amazon. By her own tally, she has interviewed more than 1,000 job candidates over the years. (“I started in my second week at Amazon,” she says, with a grin.)
Amazon cherishes such people. In fact, the Seattle company grants unusual powers to talent-spotting experts like Stix. They are the company’s bar raisers: standout employees whose sense of cultural fit is so valuable that Amazon wants their voice in the center of its recruiting decisions. They coach less experienced colleagues about the best ways of running the interview process; they also have the power to veto hasty or ill-advised job offers that could blow up later. Think of them as Amazon’s last line of defense against sloppy hiring that could cause the company’s built-for-speed culture to collapse.
You won’t find Amazon-style bar raisers at many other companies, mostly because their prominence seems outright galling to traditional hiring managers. What boss would want to share control of the hiring process with an intruder from another department, especially if that person carries a lower-ranking title?
But as is so often the case, what looks crazy to the rest of the world is not only standard fare at Amazon; it might even be a competitive advantage. Amazon now has “thousands of bar raisers at all different levels in the organization,” Beth Galetti, Amazon’s human-resources chief, recently disclosed. “Bar raisers aren’t motivated to hire fast; they are motivated to hire well.”
 Amazon’s hiring system – and especially its bar-raiser approach – is about to face its toughest test yet. After a massive 14-month search, Amazon has finally picked two additional headquarters beyond its Seattle base. By choosing the Crystal City suburb of Washington, D.C., and a stretch of Queens, just across the East River from Manhattan, Amazon has committed to adding 50,000 executives, managers and front-line employees in those new sites. How big a staffing spree is that? It exceeds the total headcount at Fortune 500 giants such as Kellogg, U.S. Steel or Facebook.
It’s easy to imagine such rapid hiring collapsing into chaos. Amazon needs to worry about the perils of creating a bureaucratic mess or a rogue new culture in these cities. But Amazon has been rehearsing for this moment for a long time. In recent years, bar-raisers from the Pacific Northwest have parachuted into locations as far-flung as Boston, Vancouver, Bangalore, Brazil and Hamburg, Germany.
Getting hiring right is vital for any company, but it’s especially top of mind at Amazon. What began as Jeff Bezos’s tiny startup in 1994 is now the second biggest private sector employer in the United States (after WalMart), with about 560,000 employees. Internal headcount growth has topped 20% in recent years; acquisitions have pushed the total even higher. Most companies can’t grow anywhere near that size without becoming slower and more bureaucratic. Amazon is the rare exception.
For competitive reasons, Amazon seldom shares the inner workings of its hiring system. Earlier this year, however, bar-raiser Bettina Stix offered candid reflections about the way she guards Amazon’s talent norms. Senior executives and former bar raisers have added crucial details, too. What emerges is a vivid sense of the ingenuity behind Amazon’s most gravity-defying stunt: sustaining a startup’s ever-changing, lofty ambitions within a staggeringly big company.
To understand how the bar-raiser program took shape at Amazon, it helps to travel back to 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom. Amazon was expanding at a breakneck pace then, announcing new e-commerce initiatives almost every week and scrambling to staff up a never-ending list of projects.
John Vlastelica, the company’s head of technical recruiting at the time, remembers a general dread that everything could spin out of control. “Amazon’s leadership realized there was a risk in having new people hire new people,” he recalls. Extra chaperoning in the interview process seemed in order.
Mindful that Seattle-area neighbor Microsoft had wrestled with the same problem, Amazon decided to adopt a variant of the bigger company’s solution. That briefly became known as the “bar keepers” program, built exclusively for the software engineering department. Amazon identified 20 seasoned, front-line engineers who epitomized what the company wanted. It then invited them to participate in future hiring cycles. They would enjoy the power to veto job candidates that seemed unsuitable to Amazon, even if a newish hiring manager wanted to go ahead.
The “bar keepers” name didn’t last long, but the concept proved enduring. (While the original label reflected Amazon’s desire to avoid lowering its talent bar, it invited too much wordplay around the image of saloons, especially when key fobs with tiny beer mugs started to circulate.)
It took years for Amazon to pinpoint exactly what it wanted in new hires, and to some extent that quest never stops. Core ideas such as “taking ownership” and “customer obsession” were baked in from the beginning. What started-out as a six-item lists of Amazon’s leadership principles gradually expanded to 12 and then, a bit later, to the current 14. “We would hang onto whatever phrases Jeff Bezos was using a lot,” Vlastelica recalls. “Bar-raisers would come up with their own additions, too.”
In its earliest versions, the bar-raiser program focused on identifying candidates with impressive pedigrees. Before long, though, Amazon realized that some of the best software engineers hadn’t attended prestigious schools. They simply knew how to do their jobs supremely well. So “being smart” gave way to “being right a lot” as a desired strength.
By 2005, the key elements of today’s program were in place. The bar-raising program began to touch every department within the company, rather than engineering alone. Participants remained fully involved in their core jobs, agreeing to take on about two interviews a week, as well, in what is officially about a five-hour-a-week commitment. (It can amount to more.) There wouldn’t be any extra pay for being a bar-raiser; recognition and the work itself would be the main rewards.
Despite its unpaid format, the bar-raiser program has grown briskly. Potential bar-raisers are tapped when they make a name for themselves as savvy interviewers; they then undergo specialized training. Only about half the nominees pass muster. To ensure continuity, apprentice bar-raisers shadow a full-fledged bar-raiser for 30 or more interviews to pick up the craft.
One big switch in the bar-raising system came early on, when the company realized that some of its best software engineers could be quite argumentative when it came time to sort out disagreements about candidates’ merits. Ever since, Amazon has looked for bar-raisers who, in the words of one adviser, were “willing to invest in making other people better.” That sense of supportiveness remains an important part of the program.
 Another pillar of the bar-raiser approach: hire for the long-term good of the company, rather than the expediencies of a particular team’s short-term needs. Sometimes that requires bar-raisers to be the stern voices saying: “No, we can do better.” Yet the same guiding principle can push bar-raisers to advocate for unconventional hires that otherwise might slip away.
 Nitan Kesarwani, a former Amazon engineer who served as a bar-raiser until 2017, says one of his favorite parts of the job involved being “an angel for the candidate.” That meant speaking out on behalf of promising people who deserved a second shot at an Amazon job even if their first set of interviews didn’t lead to a job offer.
Could a variant of Amazon’s bar-raiser program take hold at other companies? Amazon alumni have made tentative attempts to transplant the idea to companies ranging from Starbucks to Groupon. Generally, though, the graft hasn’t taken hold. “It’s very hard for a hiring manager to accept the idea of surrendering full control over who gets hired,” former Amazon recruiting manager Vlastelica explains. “Hiring managers tend to think of that as the most powerful way they can have a larger impact on the company.”
Add that to the long list of paradoxes about Amazon. It’s one of the most successful companies of our era, but also one of the hardest businesses for anyone to emulate.
Bettina Stix is in a chatty mood, and I’m grateful. We’re sitting at a white café table inside one of the Amazon Spheres, those deliriously lush terrariums in downtown Seattle, packed with tropical ferns and trees. She’s taking a break from her regular job as Amazon’s senior manager for community engagement to explain the bar-raiser’s role to me. I’ve just asked what she knows about hiring and career success that the rest of us don’t.
In reply, Stix gestures at a laminated copy of Amazon’s leadership principles, on the table between us. Then she asks me: “What do you think is the easiest of these principles to learn?”
I guess wrong.
Jubilantly, she corrects me. “It’s customer obsession!” she declares. “It can totally be coached, because it’s so positive,” she explains. “People come in not knowing it existed, and they become a fan. It takes you five seconds. It changes everything. It’s liberating.” On this trait, Stix is the optimist, convinced that even people who have worked in harsh, customer-indifferent cultures might be able to thrive at Amazon, once they realize how appealing it can be to do things differently.
A moment later, we’re talking about traits that are more likely to be innate. Candidates either have them or they don’t. Now she turns the conversation to Think Big. “It’s really hard to coach Think Big,” Stix elaborates. So many other Amazon principles need to line up the right way, too. “You have to invent and simplify first. You have to be right a lot first. You have to show ownership first. You have to deliver something first. You have to do all of this.”
 A radio journalist by training, Stix likes to draw out the best in candidates’ character and prior work experience. She smiles a lot. Speaking with just a trace of her native German accent, she invites candidates to talk about their successes. As they open up, she injects follow-up questions so smoothly that candidates often forget they’re being interviewed. When candidates seem stumped by a question, she will try a different approach, offering an apology for what might have been an ineffective line of inquiry.
Yet Stix is no pushover. She excels at identifying spongy answers meant to fool Amazon interviewers. When candidates repeatedly fail to come up with clear examples of their supposed strengths, or the stories just don’t pass the believability test, the time for geniality has come and gone. Those are the sorts of situations where bar-raisers will tag candidacies as ones that shouldn’t go forward.
The more we talk, though, the more I realize that the 1999 narrative of “The Bar Raiser Who Said No!” no longer captures the essence of Amazon’s program. What’s far more important are all the ways bar-raisers keep the interview process running smoothly even in stressful times. Call it leadership or call it facilitating: it’s akin to the way air-traffic controllers ensure all the planes are in the right place.
Often bar-raisers exercise their greatest influence before candidates walk in the door. Well-run hiring loops start with a pre-briefing, Stix explains, in which the six or so Amazon interviewers for a particular position huddle together (often via digital-connectivity tools). They agree on key topics for the full interview cycle, and split up who will ask what, during separate 45-minute meetings with the candidate. Someone needs to make sure all priorities are covered, and that's a natural role for bar-raisers.
As obvious as this seems, when new teams are mobilizing in a hurry, it’s amazing what can be overlooked. Years later, Stix still remembers a hasty attempt to hire a designer, without booking any interviews with people who actually worked in design. ("Did you fix that?" Slow nod.)
The pre-brief is the perfect time for seasoned pros like Stix to share some tradecraft. If you’re building out a new team and making your first hire, she observes, it’s often wise to look for someone who can handle ambiguity and has a bias toward action. As the team gets bigger, it will be easy to slot in more cerebral folks to good effect. If the first hire wants to deliberate too much, however, nothing will get done.
She knows the ropes. She’s done this before.
When it’s time to make a hiring decision, the bar-raisers’ skills at leading/facilitating are back in action. Each interviewer first provides written feedback to a central registry, along with the notation “inclined to hire,” or “not inclined to hire.” Then a discussion ensues.
Sometimes everyone agrees on the right course of action. Other times, there’s a split. In such cases, Stix explains, she and the hiring manager lead a discussion designed to get the interviewers sharing their feedback in more detail. Often, individual interviewers change their votes, as they better understand their colleagues’ perspective. Brief disagreements tend to vanish, and the full team coalesces around a yes-or-no decision.
“If we have a good post-brief,” Stix tells me, “it’s really rare for the hiring manager and me to disagree.” By shaping the early interview planning and the post-interview debriefing properly, everyone on the interviewing team can feel they rightly turned down an inappropriate candidate, without ever having felt pressured by the bar-raiser.
Among the many, many parts of Amazon culture that are shaped by Jeff Bezos’s worldview is an unshakable belief that the company is still at Day One of its journey. Bezos began championing that view in the dot-com era and he hasn’t budged from it, despite all the advances in e-commerce, cloud computing, voice-based interfaces and other technologies that have reshaped Amazon’s world.
Yet as Amazon gets ready to turn its HQ2 dream into reality, echoes of the late 1990s seem apt. Once again, Amazon is embarked on an expansion scheme that seems daring to a fault. And once again, it’s up to the bar-raisers to help the company land on the safe side of the dividing line between brave and reckless.


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