29 April 2008

New business, same people.

I remember when the boxes started arriving at our house. Overnight the area around my dad's desk became cluttered with cardboard, all bearing that smile mark with no eyes above it. Once I was even allowed to send away for one of my own, inputting the numbers and checking the mailbox each day. Amazon fever hit my family and hit it hard in the late '90s. It's pretty much never left; one of those magic boxes brought my dad a Kindle for Christmas this year, and I carry an Amazon Rewards credit card which lets me rack up points towards future purchases (most recently, of THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO and C.O. Bigelow lip gloss). But I knew hardly anything about Amazon behind the scenes before I picked up Mike Daisey's 21 DOG YEARS, a memoir of working for the dot-com in its early years; indeed, I took all that infrastructure for granted.

Daisey was an unhappy temp in Seattle when he was sent on an interview for which the company specifically requested "freaks" and candidates who wouldn't fit in anywhere else. That company was Amazon, and though the position was a typically depressing customer-service job, Daisey and his coworkers was all fired up about the company's mission and its bid for dominance in whatever business it was in. (Founder CEO Jeff Bezos made a point of never specifying what that was, only stressing that Amazon was not just the world's largest bookstore.)

The longer he worked there, though, the more Daisey realized he was quite bad at customer service, which in itself is extremely demoralizing, but the more he wanted to stay with the company. He was eventually promoted to a position where he saw the full dream and promise of the dot-com boom (including the ill-fated Pets.com) collapse, sufficient that he never wanted to reenter the business again. To ensure this, he started giving a monologue called "21 Dog Years" which became this book.

As with Ayun Halliday's JOB HOPPER, I found much of this book very easy to relate to from the customer-service jobs in my past -- the weird tricks one plays on oneself to deal with the onslaught of complaints, the small acts of sabotage he committed against the company (notably, amassing a large collection of office supplies and sending free books to Norway). The title comes from a company opinion that working for Amazon ages workers faster than they would do so in the outside world, and at a peculiar rate similar to that at which dogs grow old.

While this book isn't an economics primer, I have a better understanding now of how dot-com companies like Amazon become "worth" a certain ridiculous amount, only to later fall to earth. Still, it wasn't just a primer on Web economics; I laughed out loud several times while reading this book as well. If you like funny work memoirs with more than a little American satire, read this book.

Side note: I've had this book for a while but pulled it off my shelf because I covered Daisey's one-man show "How Theater Failed America" a few weeks ago. If you are in New York and interested or involved in the state of theatre in the U.S., you really should see this show.

1 comment:

Jess said...

Um, we have that Amazon Rewards card too, and we love it. It's our favorite credit card. Also, I am totally buying that book for Torsten. He's a bit obsessed with Amazon. We even registered there for our wedding.