Top Amazon engineer: Tim Bray's reasons for quitting AWS 'simply wrong', 'deeply offensive'

Senior Amazon engineer also defends the speed of the company's reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Two senior engineers at Amazon have responded to top developer Tim Bray's reasons for quitting his high-paying role at AWS. Bray had cited the firing of whistleblowers who had raised concerns over safety precautions for warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bray wrote that to remain an Amazon VP meant he would be in effect "signing off on actions I despised". So he resigned on May 1 and explained in a blogpost that he decided to quit after Amazon fired two whistleblowers. 

However, he also criticized its treatment of warehouse workers, saying, "Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential."

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Brad Porter, a VP and distinguished engineer who leads robotics at Amazon, says Bray's description of Amazon's treatment of warehouse workers was "simply wrong" and "deeply offensive to the core".  

"For those of us who work in World-Wide Operations, nothing could be farther from the truth," he wrote in a LinkedIn post

Porter's post doesn't address Bray's chief reason for quitting – Amazon firing the whistleblowers – but he disagrees with Bray's comments that the "supertanker" Amazon was slow to implement safer processes to protect workers from COVID-19, instead comparing the company to a nimble "ant farm".             

"Amazon is not a super-tanker… Amazon is more like an ant farm that can adapt extremely quickly," said Porter. 

"[Bray is] right that we are prioritizing this issue… seven days a week since this started. He's wrong that we were slow," he wrote. 

"I believe a strong case can be made that Amazon has responded more nimbly to this crisis than any other company in the world. New government-mandated protocols are implemented within hours. 

"My organization invented an ability to use AI to review social-distancing compliance and deployed it in four days, allowing us to pinpoint opportunities for improvement and work with the leaders in those areas to fix them."

Bray's comments about Amazon's approach to pickers and packers are likely to have hit a raw nerve with Amazon's top engineer responsible for automating warehouses with robots. 

While improving efficiency, Porter argues worker safety is a driving force behind warehouse automation. The robotics group, for example, in 2018 created safety vests for workers at Amazon fulfillment centers to alert robots that humans are nearby.   

"Our product roadmap is driven by where we can bring increased safety, such as robotic palletizers and depalletizers that save the effort of stacking and destacking transport totes," Porter said. 

"Our deployments are gated by our safety performance. Our deployments are gated by our safety performance. Every new robotic deployment is expected to significantly exceed the safety benchmarks set by the existing process."

Joshua Landry, a principal technical program manager at Amazon Air Science and Technology, commended Porter on his rebuttal to Bray's post. 

"Ultimately, I was shocked that someone of [Bray's] caliber could succumb to unfounded opinions and assumptions of a few radicalized employees," wrote Landry in a comment to Porter's post

However, Anton Okmyanskiy, a principal engineer at AWS, said Bray's comments about power balances and capitalism "struck a chord with me" and that Amazon's leaders "would be well served to listen intently" to Bray's comments, which included calling on regulators to control Amazon. 

"Amazon is the shining beacon of the productivity and consumer benefits it can deliver," he wrote. 

"But capitalism is also about effective use of resources including human ones and has no checks and balances against runaway power imbalances. We need to self-impose them on ourselves. Amazon should stay ahead of anger-driven regulatory enforcement by becoming a leader on social-justice issues. It is time."

SEE: Top AWS engineer Tim Bray quits $1m-plus job over Amazon firing employees

He said the first practical policy Amazon could implement was paid sick leave for warehouse workers – an issue widely reported since the coronavirus outbreak began

Amazon today posted an update on its COVID-19 blog, highlighting the steps it's taken for employees.

"Our top concern is ensuring the health and safety of our employees, and we expect to invest approximately $4bn from April to June on COVID-related initiatives getting products to customers and keeping employees safe," the company said. 

"This includes spending more than $800m in the first half of the year on COVID-19 safety measures."

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Celebrated software developer Tim Bray wrote that to remain an Amazon VP meant he would be in effect "signing off on actions I despised".

Image: AWS/YouTube