Because Amazon is mostly men, the men's bathrooms were usually crowded. I worked there for four years, in the midst of Amazon's greatest expansion of headcount. Even though the company had just moved to its new office in the South Lake Union area of Seattle, there was barely enough space for everyone. There certainly weren't enough desks. But more pressing, there weren't enough toilets.
Even more alarming was the bathroom culture. I can only speak to the men's room, most of which each had two urinals and two stalls. I come from a background where a bathroom is a place where you do a certain kind of business, in silence, and you leave. At Amazon, the men's room is an extension of the office. People chitchat about work in the bathroom, as if it is just another meeting room where you can piss everywhere.
The most horrifying moment of my employment at Amazon was the time I was using the toilet and a coworker began talking from the stall next to me. He asked me why I had not responded to his very pressing email. I closed my eyes and pretended this wasn't happening. What email could be so important that it could not wait five minutes for me to use the bathroom? He began tapping on the wall between our stalls, asking why I wouldn't respond, as if inter-stall conversation should be a totally normal, not disgusting means of communication.
He became more specific about what he needed—referencing a project I'd never heard of, nor would I ever have involvement in—and I realized he had misidentified me from my shoes. (Many brown dress shoes look alike, apparently.) We both exited our stalls around the same time, and he realized his mistake. He didn't apologize, only explained that he thought I was someone else. As we washed our hands, he just laughed, and I vowed I would never use the stalls on that floor again.
I regularly saw people bring their laptops into the bathroom, where they would sit on the toilet and write code
From then on, whenever I needed to go to the bathroom, I went to the floors occupied by the rare teams that had more women than men. Amazon Apparel, Amazon Mom, Amazon Baby—these were the places where you had a better shot of getting a free stall in the men's room. If you were really lucky, and your timing was right, you might even get the bathroom to yourself for a moment. It was a relief from the craziness of Amazon's corporate culture. These were the best floors.
The worst floors were the ones dominated by engineers. I regularly saw people bring their laptops into the bathroom, where they would sit on the toilet and write code. (I've never seen anyone clean their laptop after leaving the bathroom.) Engineers would talk to each other through stalls. On many occasions, I heard people take phone calls while mid-business. It was hard to tell if someone was groaning because it was difficult to code or difficult to poop. Another Amazon colleague once joked that this gave new meaning to the word "deploy."
As with all jobs, you eventually get used to the things that make them difficult. The things that suck eventually become "quirks;" the culture just becomes "the way it is." I had a role that took me to meetings across a number of buildings on campus. Over time, I memorized which teams were on what floors of which building, so I could strategize where I would stop in to use the restroom.
One afternoon, I ran into an executive in the elevator. She was the rare person who had been at Amazon for over a decade. I didn't have many friends outside of my own team, but in the few interactions we'd had, she had been encouraging and helpful. I suspected she was the happiest person at Amazon because she knew what to take seriously and what she could let slide.
I was heading to the cafeteria, and I asked if she wanted to get lunch. She told me she'd already eaten. She was actually taking the elevator down to the first floor where her favorite bathroom was. Nobody knew about this bathroom, she explained, and she liked it because it was for a single person and it was never occupied.
Later that day, I explored the first floor of the building in search of that bathroom. It was tucked away, hidden out of sight, waiting to be discovered by the most intrepid, most adventurous Amazonians. I wondered how many people knew about it, and whether I should tell anyone else. Knowing of its existence felt like a responsibility, a secret that must be closely guarded.
This past weekend, the New York Times published a brutal portrait of Amazon's corporate culture. I reflected on my time at Amazon. My experience had not been as bad as those quoted in the piece, but every story rang true. The kicker of the feature comes from Amazon's own recruiting video: "You either fit here or you don't. You love it or you don't. There is no middle ground." This is the perfect embodiment of Amazon's corporate culture: If you don't like it, you are the problem.
Weirdly, I did like it. Despite the strangeness of the company's bathroom culture, my experience at Amazon had been a positive one. I'd succeeded in my roles, been promoted once, given multiple raises, and worked on projects that I've been proud of. I left the company on good terms for an even better opportunity.
This is rare at Amazon. And the truth is that I probably fit into the company's competitive, aggressive work environment well because I am also that way too, at least more than I'm willing to openly admit. That's probably the reason I never told anyone else about the secret bathroom.