When Millions of Eyes at Amazon Were Wrong

Disclaimer: I worked at Amazon Web Services as the Head of Banking Business Development. This writing does not represent the views of Amazon and opinions written here are strictly my own. Also, I’ll admit that this post wouldn’t be very interesting if it wasn’t about Amazon; however, it does highlight some key things about the company: 1) Amazon, like every other company, makes mistakes 2) Unlike many other companies, Amazon doesn’t view itself as infallible 3) When mistakes are discovered, the company quickly fixes them.

Amazon has a very strong culture. At other places I’ve worked, culture is an aspiration at the senior level but took a back seat to more pressing concerns like making as much money as possible. Amazon embeds its culture in its 14 Leadership Principles. This is a common language and framework that forms the basis of everything the company does, from interviews to everyday decisions.

Like a good Amazonian (what Amazon employees call themselves), I studied the Leadership Principles. Here’s what they looked like when I joined in 2018. As part of my studies, I entered the leadership principles into the app Way of Life. Each day I planned to tick off whether I was living them. However, the app didn’t let me cut and paste so I had to re-type each Leadership Principle by hand. Then I got to this one:

Frugality

Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size or fixed expense.

To my amazement, I found a missing Oxford comma! Now you might not think that’s a big deal (a la the band Vampire Weekend). You might not even know what an Oxford comma is. Let me explain.

What is an Oxford comma? An Oxford comma is the comma before the conjunction in a string three or more parallel phrases joined by a conjunction. Using the Oxford comma clarifies certain statements like “My heroes are my parents, Superman and Wonder Woman,” which could imply that you are the child of superhero parents vs. “My heroes are my parents, Superman, and Wonder Woman,” which clarifies that you aren’t.  With the Oxford comma, this Leadership Principle should read “Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention.”

Why is this a big deal at Amazon? Amazon has a very strong writing culture. The company doesn’t use PowerPoints in internal meetings to make decisions, it uses documents written in prose. This leads the company to focus a lot on the consistency of writing style.  I had a lot of training on how to write at Amazon and they all highlighted the importance of the Oxford comma.  Not using an Oxford comma at Amazon is like using bright pink instead of the standard company colors in a presentation. There are stories of senior managers who have refused to read documents because they were missing Oxford commas.

Once I saw the missing Oxford comma, I started to see other punctuation errors. Ironically, there were two errors in the Leadership Principle of “Insist on the Highest Standards.” Not only was there a missing Oxford Comma, but there was also a hyphen (this symbol “-“) being used as a pause, where it’s correct to use an em-dash (this symbol “—”).

Insist on the Highest Standards

Leaders have relentlessly high standards – many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and drive their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

Amazonians looked at the Leadership Principles millions of times and didn’t notice this. Jeff Bezos and his senior team had spent countless hours reviewing them and fighting over the specific words. Interviewees match their skills against them when they interview. I’m not sure how it slipped past millions of eyes but I suspect that once they left the senior team’s hands, they were viewed as sacrosanct. It’s not the senior team thought that they couldn’t make a mistake. In fact, according to the Leadership Principle of Earn Trust, “Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume.” But everyone was just focusing on the content and completely missed the punctuation.

I showed the punctuation errors to a number of people. Their first reaction was denial. “This couldn’t be,” they said. “Jeff Bezos and his senior leaders spent enormous amounts of time on this.” But then my colleague would look a little deeper and they started to laugh and say “Wow. I can’t believe I didn’t see that before.”

It’s common for things to hide in plain sight. Scientists call it selective attention. The most famous example is the Invisible Gorilla Experiment (click on the link if you haven’t seen it before—it’s amazing). There is so much going on in the world we only can pay attention to the most important things. Our minds help/trick us into thinking that we’ve seen everything by filling in the blanks. I wrote about how much hides in plain sight including the 13th floor of my building. One example is the smile from A to Z in the Amazon logo. Once you see it you can’t unsee it.

At most companies, I wouldn’t think of bringing up errors in one of the company’s most important documents. They would never fix it and the person responsible would be incredibly defensive. But Amazon strives for making things right. It’s also a company that embraces failure as long as people learn from it.

Still, when I asked people how to fix it, the first response was, “You could email Jeff Bezos. He is the ultimate owner of the Leadership Principles.” While that was true, I figured there was likely a better way to go about it. Eventually, someone pointed me to the Amazonian in Human Resources that owned the leadership principles. They were happy to fix the errors as long as we were just changing punctuation and not words. Remember, they spent a lot of time on the words. Then I was able to get a friend from recruiting to pass along the changes to the owner of amazon.jobs site who fixed it there.

Amazon really does live by its Leadership Principles, even if it did miss Insist on the Highest Standards the first time. It’s really about taking ownership and getting things right rather than letting employees think that their sweat smells like perfume. Amazon, like every other company, makes mistakes. The difference is that Amazon recognizes this and works quickly to solve them.

Note 1: I’m sure there are some grammatical and punctuation errors in this page. In the spirit of the Leadership Principles, please shoot me an email so I can fix them.

Note 2: If you happen to be interviewing at Amazon there’s a great explanation of how Amazon uses the Leadership Principles in the interview process.

Note 3: Here’s what the Leadership Principles looked like when I joined in 2018 and here’s what they look like today after the changes I made. I also have a redlined version so you can see the changes.