EXIT INTERVIEW: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career, by Kristi Coulter
In 2023, it’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t have an opinion about Amazon or is unfamiliar with its treatment of its employees. Through the stories that have come out, it’s easy to form a picture of the company, but what about the people who make up the organization? Why would anyone work there? That picture is missing a face.
Enter Kristi Coulter and her new memoir, “Exit Interview.” Coulter spent 12 years at Amazon, her tenure beginning in 2006. At that time, Amazon was more than a decade old and its media e-commerce business was already “mature.” But Twitter was just emerging; Facebook was barely two years old; Instagram was nonexistent; and Apple’s launch of the first iPhone was a year away. Even with the smoldering remains of the dot-com era visible in the rearview mirror, the tech industry still fostered an air of opportunity, potential and self-reinvention — manifest destiny remade for 21st-century captains of industry, a new frontier without the pesky limitations of a finite continent.
That spirit and potential for growth hooked Coulter. She was working at All Music Guide (now known as AllMusic), but she felt bored with and stifled by her job. Casting about for new opportunities led her to interview at Amazon. Conflicted but intrigued, she eventually found her rationale for joining: Coulter wanted to be somewhere where it was OK to be ambitious, somewhere that offered real, big challenges. She didn’t want a career path — she wanted a career vector, something with direction and magnitude that, in her words, would “leave a wake.”
In “Exit Interview,” Coulter takes us through the ins, outs, ups and downs of her Amazon career, with roles ranging from senior manager in books and media merchandising to running Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s book publishing imprint for literature in translation, and eventually ending her tenure as a principal writer, designing the entire language system for the first physical Amazon Go store. (That brand is now known as Amazon Fresh.)
She was plunged into chaos from the beginning. Employees seemed to exist in a state of constant overwork and panic. Projects were gargantuan, almost maniacally so. In her first role, she was responsible for both managing a global merchandising team and somehow fixing a merchandising system so broken it caused employees to do their complex tasks twice. “This is the most important thing to understand about Amazon. No one knows jack,” a colleague tells her, using an expletive.
Well, someone does, it seems: Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s senior vice presidents, who were (and still are) mostly men. One of these S.V.P.s will tell her, in a meeting with others present, that her work is stupid. Then he will call her stupid. He will never apologize, and eventually she will leave his team. Along the way, she’ll be told repeatedly she needs to have more backbone, but when she has it, she’ll be seen as prickly and intimidating. Time after time, a promotion to director level is dangled before her, but despite her success in a wide range of senior roles, she leaves without having ever been elevated.
Anyone looking for the inside scoop on Amazon will be in luck. Maddening stories and details about the company are abundant, if occasionally too plentiful — sometimes the focus on project minutiae bogs down the narrative, although Coulter brings the reader along by sharing the bewilderment she felt while dealing with the fire hose of information she faced.
Coulter’s writing is funny and warm, bringing to life a cast of people caught in the same corporate maelstrom. She describes herself as a relentless people pleaser, a self-critic longing to tap into the ambition she saw crushed out in women of earlier generations. She explains that she learned early in life how to envelop men in her “force field of earnest competence,” harness her will, figure out any job and never let anyone down.
If anything, Coulter works almost too hard to show how hard she had to work. She frets about failure, promotions, the fear of disappointing everyone, but the reader knows she was a highly paid senior-level employee who kept opting to stay at the company. She describes horror after horror, but she also says “parts of it were astounding and fun.” Some readers may be frustrated by this tension and wish for a better understanding of why she stayed; others who have made similar trade-offs, or who have spent their lives as ambitious people-pleasers, will see themselves reflected in Coulter’s narrative and feel validated by it. This will be especially true for women working in similar corporate cultures, regardless of industry.
Coulter uses two lenses to frame her narrative: one trained specifically on herself and her experiences at Amazon, and another focused more broadly on the experiences women everywhere face in the world. In two separate chapters, both titled “Events in the History of Female Employment,” she weaves historical milestones for women’s rights in the workplace with moments from her own life.
By situating her experience in a larger feminist narrative, Coulter gives her story a more universal application. But with her focus on Amazon, she opens a set of questions that she leaves unanswered: Is Amazon’s sexism unique? If not, then what is it that makes Amazon so uniquely toxic? If companies like Amazon are both wonderful and awful in varying measures, is the point that we will always have to navigate the bad to try to harness the good for our own personal growth and gain?
In such a system, there are very few moments when we truly believe we are successful. Too often there isn’t a triumphant finale. Things don’t end with a bang, but a dawning realization that the personal cost is, at last, too great.
Leah Reich’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and The Verge. She has worked in tech for over a decade, at Instagram, Spotify and Slack, among other companies.
EXIT INTERVIEW: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career | By Kristi Coulter | 368 pp. | MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $29