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Web Extra: A Conversation With Amazon VP Ardine Williams

(Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images)
(Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images)

Our special series “Amazon: The Prime Effect” takes a look at the ways Amazon is changing the way we shop, work and live.

In the sixth episode of the series, we looked at Amazon’s labor force, and how, someday, it could be changing how you work. During the hour, we featured a segment of our conversation with Ardine Williams, Amazon’s vice president of workforce development.

In this web exclusive, Williams speaks with Meghna Chakrabarti about Amazon’s labor force and culture.


In this web exclusive … we hear from:

Ardine Williams, vice president of workforce development at Amazon. (@ardine_williams)


Full Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, you had an interesting career even before joining Amazon: a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and then working at, I believe, Intel as well, easing into retirement. But you came out of retirement to work for Amazon. Why did you do that?

ARDINE WILLIAMS: You know, I got a call after I had retired about a role. And I said, you know, I’m sitting on the patio in Palm Springs. I’m not coming back to work. And the headhunter was really good. She described Amazon Web Services. And it was very intriguing to me because I’d worked in venture capital and I understood how powerful it was to shift an expenditure from capital to expense. So the ability to scale computing needs as your business grows rather than to have to commit significant amounts of funding into the business, was really a game changer, and I wanted to be part of that.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, it’s interesting that your first entry into Amazon was with AWS because in the course of reporting our series, it’s one of the parts of the company that almost everyone we talked to said it was one of the best jobs they ever had, whether they were still there or had moved on to something else. It seems as if maybe the culture of AWS in terms of worker satisfaction might be a little bit different than elsewhere in the company. What would you say to that?

WILLIAMS: I haven’t experienced that whilst I’ve worked in AWS. I moved over to the operations side of the house, which is basically from the time you put something into your shopping cart, and it ends up on your doorstep. I think that the attraction and the satisfaction for me in AWS was really — AWS was like 4,000 people when I joined, and it was a steep slope growth. So in the two-plus years I was there, we went from like 4,400 to over 28,000 people. And the opportunity to experiment, to pilot and to scale was just great. And that opportunity exists for me over on the operation side as well. I experienced them as the same culture just in very different applications.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so we’ll come back to that in a second. But can you describe the scope of your work now? Because I have your title as vice president of workforce development for Amazon. Is that across the company or as you were saying, along a more sort of specific portion of it?

WILLIAMS: It’s across the company. My focus, though, because I sit in HQ2, where I spent a lot of my time is working across the U.S. and then locally to ensure that we have technically skilled, diverse talent to grow.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, and Amazon’s growth feels like it’s been continuing to be exponential in terms of the number of new employees the company has been hiring. So, first of all, tell me, you know, from your perspective, in your experience, what have been the challenges with that kind of growth as an employer?

WILLIAMS: Well, it’s — having been part of the growth, it’s just been amazing. I mean, the steep slope growth is, as I said earlier, was like something I’ve never seen before. And I think as an employer what we experience — the challenges are the same that any employer does, which is ensuring that you have talent that is not only skilled on the technical side but represents the diversity of your customer base and is a fit for the culture.

And this let us — when I was leading AWS recruiting — really led us to create our apprenticeship program for transitioning military members because we found that we had a technical need, that transitioning veterans were a great skill set for Amazon. They were a great match to our culture, but they didn’t quite have the technical expertise that we needed. And so we ran an experiment. We created DOL Registered Apprenticeship Program in cloud computing, and we have solution architects and data center technicians. We ran that pilot, and we found that we were able to take that those transitioning veterans and military talent side and move them quickly into AWS in a program that provided them with classroom training as well as paid-on-the-job training.

And so the opportunity to experiment and then to scale it — we started with a cohort of 15, I think in the first quarter of 2018, and we’ll approach a 1,000 apprentices probably by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, wow. OK. So tell me a little bit more about … the upskilling initiative that Amazon has. I believe it’s to retrain 100,000 current employees by 2025 for careers in high demand fields. What does that mean?

WILLIAMS: So as the second largest private employer in the US, we have a role to play in creating good jobs. And for us, we believe jobs — good jobs — comprise three things: A good starting wage — our starting wage across the country is more than $15 an hour. That’s 2x the federal minimum wage. Access to egalitarian benefits from day one. So that’s mental health, medical, vision, paid family leave and the opportunity to add skills to experience because we know that when you add skills to experience, you open doors for people to continue on a career trajectory. And we do that whether the jobs are at Amazon, or in the case of our career choice program, those jobs exist outside of the company.

And that upskilling commitment was made when we had about 300,000 employees in the United States. So that program, that commitment at the time was larger than it seems now with more than a million employees. And the first year we had more than 15,000 Amazonians that took advantage of the upskilling program.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. So focusing for a second on sort of the current state of the labor market, as I’m sure you know, there’s been a lot of focus on or coverage of Americans willingly leaving their jobs this year. Has Amazon seen challenges in retention, let’s say, over the past six months?

WILLIAMS: I think what we’re seeing on the retention side is consistent with what we’ve had in the past, what we see in our peers. I think that the challenges in the labor market that we see is that the pandemic really turned a lot on its head. And entire industries shut down overnight. And those that can’t get started back up, if you think about the hospitality industry — so restaurants, for example, that employ a large number of people shifted from shutting down to then doing takeout meals.

And those people who were furloughed from those industries, we were fortunate to be able to employ many of them. And they’re now working in jobs that offer them the opportunity to add skills to experience. So they’re upskilling. And I suspect that part of the the shift in the labor market is that there are people who are deciding that by adding skills to the experience they have, they’re opening other doors. And they had a chance during a tremendously dark period for the country to see what the possibilities were in terms of resiliency in other fields. And so I think we’ve seen a pretty significant shift in the labor market that was accelerated by the pandemic.

CHAKRABARTI: But internally to Amazon, as you definitely know, The New York Times has reported on Amazon’s workforce quite extensively, and in one of their stores, they say they found a 150 percent turnover a year, which they reported as being higher than the retail or logistics industry averages. I mean, do you think that turnover rate in in Amazon is acceptable?

WILLIAMS: I don’t know if that is the turnover rate. I don’t have that data.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so I guess what would you say would be an acceptable rate of turnover at Amazon?

WILLIAMS: Turnover is tough, right? When people leave, you lose not only institutional knowledge, you lose your colleagues. And so retaining a skilled workforce is a priority. And I think that if you take a look at, for example, the two leadership principles that were recently added prior to the change from Jeff Bezos to Andy Jassy on being earth’s best employer and the safest place to work, that really underscores the focus on ensuring that we are creating a great place to work and taking care of our workforce.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, I’m glad you mentioned those two things, because those are recent additions to the leadership principles, which are sort of at the core of not just Amazon’s corporate culture, but really the entire way that the company operates, right? Those leadership principles keep coming up over and over and over again. But it’s fascinating to me that the previous ones, the older ones have language around, like, sort of leaders are obligated to do such and such. But the two new ones you just mentioned, including strive to be the Earth’s best employer, are really people focused. So what do you think is the difference at Amazon between managing people versus managing a project to launch a new product or the attempt to reach certain business goals?

WILLIAMS: Well, I have a — I’ll start with my bias from the military, which is you you don’t achieve a mission without the people. And so I think that this is a — I would view it as giving voice to something that has been implicit all along, which is that employees and Amazonians are the key to serving customers.

CHAKRABARTI: And so therefore — so serving them is a is a core principle at Amazon. I mean, look, I have to ask: Do the addition of these two particular leadership principles — safest place to work or earth’s best employer — do they come after Amazon has endured a lot of criticism for perhaps not being either of those things? I mean, we’ve heard story after story reported from, you know, what some of the working conditions or expectations at the fulfillment centers have been.

WILLIAMS: You know, I think my experience of the company — so I’ve been here coming up on seven years is really that we are internally focused, and these really have been, at least in the period of time that I have been with the company, priorities. The addition of them isn’t a response to external criticism. I believe that the response, like other changes to the leadership principles, are making something that was implicit explicit because we know that when we focus on something, we can do better.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, there’s no doubt about that. That’s one of the great lessons I’ve been learning about this company, that remarkably, to a degree that’s actually incredibly admirable, when Amazon does focus on something, it stops at nothing to achieve it.

So let me ask you this: With that idea in mind, we were looking back at the shareholder letter that Jeff Bezos wrote following the attempts at unionization at the Bessemer Fulfillment Center. And he wrote then that “while the voting results were lopsided, and our direct relationship with employees is strong,” and I’ll just make an aside here because the unionization attempt there failed, Bezos wrote, “It’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees, a vision for their success.” I’m wondering if you want to share what your ideas are and what that vision might be.

WILLIAMS: I think that vision is — what we started with is creating great jobs. Great jobs not only pay people and help provide them with the benefits for themselves and their families, but they also help create a career path. And I think the piece that I’m incredibly proud about at Amazon is that where we experiment and do things like the Amazon Technical Academy, which prepares people without a software development degree to become software development engineers and to thrive in those roles and to do it in about nine months. And we have trained thousands of people in skills that are in demand in local communities, in jobs that pay more than we do. And we are helping people get onto a career ladder and advance.

And to me, that’s what that looks like. It’s about bringing people in and paying them well, providing access to benefits and providing the opportunity to add skills to experience so that we can, in fact, advance our career, whether that’s within Amazon or without.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, Amazon is a company with — it occupies a rare space in that it has almost unlimited financial capital and admirable human capital within the corporation to achieve whatever goal it sets its mind to. So regarding trying to fulfill one of these leadership principles about striving to be the Earth’s best employer, what do you think Amazon can do better on to meet that goal? What is it yet to do?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think there are — one of our leadership principles is being vocally self-critical because, as you pointed out, the leadership principles are really the warp and the weft of the company, there’s always opportunity to improve. And I think that we have an opportunity internally to help employees explore and see different career paths. I think that there’s an opportunity to learn about other businesses.

We are very disparate as you pointed out. We have the the devices business. We have operations. And while the culture is very similar across them, the businesses are very different. And in a company and an enterprise as large as ours, it can be difficult to see what other opportunities might look like. And so I think that there’s an opportunity there to help employees see potential paths that might not occur to them.

CHAKRABARTI: I do wonder if you think — and I’m asking this question with the utmost sincerity because your background, I think, provides a really unique vantage point on this. Have you ever been in situations before, say, with your military service, where the stated goal of a particular mission may be at odds with, you know, with the team that you had to achieve that goal? And if so, how did you resolve that conflict? And do those lessons help within Amazon? Because I’m wondering if sometimes the corporate goals for Amazon, for any particular business or product may not actually work with the concept of trying to be the Earth’s best employer.

WILLIAMS: That could be an interview question. I think that — I’m not exactly sure the question that you’re asking. I thought you were going down a path of, “Hey, if your team isn’t suited for the mission that you’re asked to do,” but maybe …

CHAKRABARTI: We can go down two paths. Let’s do that one first because I would actually like to hear your answer to that.

WILLIAMS: First of all, it’s mission first. Right? Mission first people always — and that again is an army view, which is — there are times at work where we’re asked to do things that may not be in the best interest of our personal team but are in the best interest of the company writ large. And reconciling that and ensuring that you understand how you take care of people along the way is incredibly important because, as I said, it’s people who achieve the mission. And that may be something like shutting down a business to start a new one.

So I think that understanding is a leader. And what the what the goals are and what the impact is to your team is and how you ensure that you’re taking care of your team is essential.

CHAKRABARTI: So then, how does that work — let’s just focus on fulfillment centers for the time being — when, you know, and please do correct me if I’m wrong, but one of the missions of, you know, the business of effectively running a fulfillment center is running as efficiently as possible, having the best performance out of the employees there so that literally billions of packages can be sent out around the world. And we’ve heard sometimes that the expectations put on employees in those places don’t lead to the idea of being the Earth’s best employer, that people have been asked to, you know, to not take — I want to phrase this in the most factual manner, so I’m screwing myself up. Let me back up here. We’ve heard that conditions sometimes in the fulfillment centers, in order to meet those business goals may not actually be the best for employees. So what do you do in those cases?

WILLIAMS: So having worked in fulfillment centers, I think that there’s a narrative that doesn’t accurately reflect — I suspect you’re going down the path of, “Hey, I don’t have time to use the restroom because of what’s expected of me.” And that’s not consistent with how we run our fulfillment centers, nor how we treat our employees.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so it’s not consistent, but we have, you know — since you accurately pointed out we have heard those reports. Do you just not think that they’re true?

WILLIAMS: They don’t reflect the experience that I’ve had.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. You know, it’s so interesting to me because Amazon is so big that, of course, no one anecdote can accurately capture the scope of the entire company. And this is going to get bigger because on the other hand, Amazon continues to be rated as a top employer. I think a LinkedIn survey recently reflected that. So what do you think Amazon is doing right right now to stay at the top of those lists?

WILLIAMS: I think that it is — it’s what brought me to the company and what keeps me at the company. It is the opportunity to invent on behalf of our customers, to work with a team that’s committed to problem solving and every day to get up and experiment and bring new things to life in the workplace. That’s pretty cool.

We’re also a company that I believe in my experience when we talk about those leadership principles, and I think you’ve spoken with a number of other Amazonians is: that is who we are. They’re not printed on the back of a badge somewhere, but it’s how we hire, it’s how we assess, it’s how we promote. It’s the shorthand language we use with one another. And it’s really what guides the ethos of our culture.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So tell me then, just as a follow up to that, and then I promise I’ll let you go. There are various narratives about Amazon out there. We’ve touched on some of them. What do you think regarding its workforce or the experience of working for Amazon? Do people not know enough? Those folks who don’t work for the company?

WILLIAMS: I think that the probably the biggest eye-opener for people is when they actually come in and have the opportunity to tour one of our facilities, whether it’s a fulfillment center or cross dock, to actually experience what it’s like to see the working conditions, to engage with associates and talk to people. I think that it’s a surprise.

I was on a tour two weeks ago with a group of folks who were just blown away. It’s that that peek behind the curtain of what a fulfillment center like is not at all what people expect. And I think that a lot of — in my opinion, a lot of the narrative is really based on an echo chamber where people talk about it — to your point — a single experience or a couple of anecdotes and don’t have the context or the view to what the environment is actually like.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. And your experience thus far, has that borne that out in terms of your personal career at Amazon?

WILLIAMS: It absolutely has. Like I said, I retired eight years ago, and I’m still working.

CHAKRABARTI: How does it compare to being in the military?

WILLIAMS: You know, that’s a very interesting question. I think that the reason that veterans are such a great fit at Amazon is because that the camaraderie and the teamwork and that singular focus on serving customers is a great uniter. And so I think that in many ways it’s like that. In other ways it’s completely different because of the pace and the growth and the rate of innovation. So the cultural side is the same. But, boy, there are other parts that are super different.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Ardine Williams is vice president of workforce development for Amazon. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.