Amazon warehouse worker, wearing a mask
Source: Amazon

Protocol Cloud: AWS has an Amazon problem

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol Cloud, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This week: how a bombshell announcement from a prominent AWS engineer could have ripple effects, Protocol's guide to how quantum computing actually works, and the next big venue for tech conferences could be … Animal Crossing?

Number of the Week

300 million

That's how many daily users Zoom reported having last week, which I repeated here in this section. Turns out, Zoom actually has 300 million "daily meeting participants," which is a very, very different metric. The company quietly changed the wording of a blog post using the figure without telling anyone.

The Big Story

Disagree and eject (then repeat?)

AWS dominates cloud infrastructure computing for many reasons, one of the biggest being that it practically invented the concept. But another important reason for its success is the formidable collection of tech talent it's assembled to drive its services forward.

The cloud leader lost a notable member of that roster last week when Tim Bray, a prominent AWS software engineer with an impressive background, quit after Amazon fired employees who had advocated for better working conditions for the people scrambling to fill pandemic orders in its warehouses.

  • In a blistering blog post, Bray explained that "it was clear to any reasonable observer that [those employees] were turfed for whistleblowing ... It's evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture."
  • "I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison," he wrote.
  • Bray took care to separate AWS's culture from Amazon's, though: "[AWS] treats its workers humanely, strives for work/life balance, struggles to move the diversity needle (and mostly fails, but so does everyone else), and is by and large an ethical organization. I genuinely admire its leadership."

Amazon plans to invest almost all of the operating profit it expects to generate in the second quarter — somewhere around $4 billion — to improve working conditions within its distribution facilities amid the pandemic. But that didn't satisfy Bray, who didn't respond to a request for further comment on his post.

  • "Amazon is exceptionally well-managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power," he wrote.
  • This is a symptom of larger problems within American capitalism, in his view, but "the big problem isn't the specifics of COVID-19 response. It's that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential," he wrote.
  • Yesterday Amazon confirmed that an employee at its Staten Island, New York facility who was working on site until April 5th died of COVID-19.

There's a deeply unoriginal ideathat tech reporters love, where they write about how AWS should just split off from Amazon.

  • Most of that discussion has centered around customers: Is AWS affected by a reluctance among businesses in competition with Amazon to fund one of their biggest existential threats?
  • Amazon's impact on AWS employees is different. Amazon doesn't break out how many people work for AWS, but over the last several years the division has operated more or less autonomously, with CEO Andy Jassy going so far as to call it a "separable business."
  • But Bray's public exit is an alarm bell for high-paid AWS employees that will force them to think about their role in a machine that has reshaped the U.S. economy by working its low-paid distribution staff harder every year.

Competition for cloud-computing talent has never been hotter: Silicon Valley stalwarts like Google, Facebook, and countless others have been setting up offices in Amazon's backyard for years, hoping to poach some of the Seattle-area people that made AWS the most powerful modern enterprise tech company. No one will be returning to those offices any time soon, which could make it easier than ever to switch teams.

  • So a big question now: Is Bray the lone exception to Amazon's famous "disagree and commit" corporate value? Or is he the canary in the coal mine?


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Question Time

I'm thinking about shamelessly stealing borrowing an idea from my colleague Biz Carson's new Protocol Pipeline newsletter on startups and venture capital: a recurring section in this newsletter in which I pose five questions to a member of the cloud community and publish them here. Interested in participating? Just reply to this email, or email

This Week In Protocol

Quantum leap: We published a comprehensive look at the state of quantum computing this week with our first Protocol Manual, a collection of reports that explain the potential of quantum computing and the struggle to make it work. In my contribution, I examined how some of the first companies that want to take advantage of the power of quantum computing will likely do so through the cloud.

Bullish on cloud: Wall Street was once Silicon Valley's favorite market, a collection of companies hungry for faster and more capable computers every year — but most financial services companies were skeptical about the cloud. Only recently has that started to change, and the pandemic is forcing companies dependent on outdated tech infrastructure to rethink their approach.

Capping expenditures: Both Amazon and Microsoft reported earnings after the arrival of last week's Protocol Cloud, and for the most part, their cloud units continue to post excellent results. Microsoft noted that supply chain disruptions in January forced it to reduce capital expenditures on building out its cloud network by more than it had hoped — which could account for some of the capacity issues suffered by Azure as the pandemic took hold.

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