Author: S. Kalpanik

Publisher: Center of Artificial Imagination, Inc., 2011 (second edition)


ISBN-13: 978-1-45655-535-1

Amusing as well as informative, this insider’s report on the true nature of will upset many enthusiasts for innovation. Newer is not necessarily better in the larger context (i.e., what’s ultimately good for us). However, the genius and bravado of people like Jeff Besos make for good reading, and the status of his sandbox should not be ignored by anyone who plays in it.

The self-effacing author Kalpanik (a pseudonym), must also be a genius, considering what he had to know to qualify for an Amazon job. After the Silicon Valley bust, he landed on his feet in Seattle and enjoyed the honeymoon; he moved his family there. His obvious delight in his wife and daughters (“Shy” and “Not-so-Shy”) provides what’s upbeat in his memoir. Gradually he learns that his CEO is not especially humane, but just puts on a funny face and down-to-earth costume to hone Amazon’s image. In the process of converting the online bookstore to an open market for everything people want, from which the company would derive commissions, Kapalnik comes to understand the metric-driven business model as one that cannot admit its errors, not even when scandal breaks over the grueling summer conditions of Amazon’s Lehigh Valley facility, where many workers on contract at a substandard wage dare not complain.

I have been reading another book in which the theme of an individual’s impact on history is explored. There’s a bunch of names in the tech business we could mention as having raised the bar for achievement and, indeed, changed the career ladder into, say, a trampoline. Jeff Besos, whether you consider him a mastermind or a monster, must be observed in wonder. Kalpanik admits that the Kindle has changed his life for the better. Nor can he deny that customer satisfaction – Amazon’s byword – is a decent goal.

Sad to say, this book proves that Amazon’s digital reading program still falls short. Not only do footnotes appear in mid-paragraph, but fragments of sentences are repeated. Whether these flaws should be blamed on faulty technology or the editor who can’t master the technology, I don’t know, and it is, after all, a smallish problem. Kalpanik, who has been writing about his experiences since coming from India to the U.S. 20 years ago, is just trying to give us the “truth” (not necessarily the facts). He is worth paying attention to, not only because he has the inside story on the hectic-pace-setting corporations where he has worked, but because he is an amiable storyteller.

A less forgiving critic might note that Amazon is highly successful without making profits. How can this be? Matthew Iglesias of Slate explains that this is Amazon’s high-tax avoidance scheme (“The Prophet of No Profit; How Jeff Bezos won the faith of Wall Street,” January 30, 2014). While slam-dunking brick-and-mortar businesses, as well as exploiting workers – even high level ones – with the notion they are part of a revolution (which Kalpanik does address) -- the octopus-like corporation is proceeding into a future on the bet that the magic of Besos can be sustained. But how deep and wide can Amazon get? A related concern is that other companies that do need a decent profit margin are copying these tactics and failing. How many other wannabee-Amazons will we have to suffer before it all goes bust and the prices on “everything people want” have to rise? Maybe then Kapalnik will bring us up to date again.

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