Tim Bray, an internet pioneer and a former vice president at Amazon, sent shock waves through the tech giant in early May when he resigned for what he called “a vein of toxicity” running through its culture.
Within a few hours, his blog post about the resignation drew hundreds of thousands of views, and his inbox filled up with requests from journalists, recruiters and techies. Soon, lawmakers on Capitol Hill cited the post. It all made Bray, 65, Amazon’s most high-profile defector.
But there was more he wanted to say.
In the weeks since, he has aimed his brain power not at fixing a coding problem but at framing a broader critique of the company. In talks and blog posts that have drawn attention inside the company, he has called for unionization and antitrust regulation. Amid “the beating of the antitrust drums,” he wrote in one post, he would like to see Amazon separate its retail business from its lucrative cloud computing unit.
“And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone,” he said.
Facing growing antitrust scrutiny at the same time the coronavirus crisis has strained the company’s operations, Amazon is increasingly forced to defend its record as an employer and its relationship with consumers. Jeff Bezos, the company’s chief executive, has agreed to testify for the first time before Congress, which is investigating the power of Amazon and other tech titans; the hearing was scheduled for Monday but was postponed Friday.
Bray stands out because while much of the criticism of Amazon has been from the outside — labor groups, lawmakers and rivals — he spent more than five years in the top echelons of the company.
Amazon declined to comment about Bray.
In a series of video interviews from a gently rocking small boat docked in Vancouver, British Columbia, that has been his office during the pandemic, Bray straightforwardly presented his ideas as a matter of logic.
“I am not in some radical fringe because I think the wealth and power in the 21st century is overly concentrated,” he said. “The tech industry is a leading candidate for what could be broken up.”
Tech feats and activism
Bray might have been uniquely predisposed to think about more than engineering problems. Born in Canada, he grew up largely in Beirut, where his father worked as a professor. As political and religious conflict made Lebanon unstable, “it just wasn’t a good place to live,” Bray said.
His time in Beirut stayed with him after he returned to Canada, making him unable to ignore politics. “Politics there takes the very rare form of riots in the streets and incoming Israeli missiles,” he said.
While a student at University of Guelph, near Toronto, Bray found joy and skill in computer science. He used it during the early days of the consumer internet, digitizing the Oxford English Dictionary and founding two startups. But he is best known among technologists for helping invent XML, a critical standard for storing and sharing data on the internet.
By 2014, after several years at Google, Bray had joined Amazon. He became a rare “distinguished engineer,” part of an elite group whose clout comes not from managing large teams but from demonstrating engineering brilliance.
Paul Hoffman, who met Bray in the 2000s while writing technical standards for blogs, said Bray was one of those people you really want to hate but can’t, a polymath who was highly functional on just a few hours of sleep.
Bray is definitely “a geeky geek,” Hoffman said, “but what is atypical is that he also has a lot of other interests.”
In conversation and his writing, Bray readily cites economist Thomas Piketty (whose book on inequality he has read “end to end”), admits a love of heavy metal (which he calls “sort of, well, ridiculous” because “the volume is much louder than can be sanely necessary”) and talks in detail about the climate crisis (which he finds alarming “as a person who has a high respect for quantitative science and understands what mathematical modeling is about”).
He turned some of those interests into activism. In 2018, he was arrested while protesting a proposed pipeline in Canada that would export tar sands oil to Asian markets.
Last year, when he saw thousands of corporate Amazon employees had signed a letter urging Amazon to address the climate crisis more forcefully, he added his name. He was the most senior person to join.
His involvement thrilled organizers. “To have a VP just confirmed how strongly Amazon employees felt about Amazon taking significant leadership on climate,” said Emily Cunningham, an Amazon designer at the time who helped organize the letter.
His public dissent angered some leaders at Amazon, Bray said. He said he had been told to remember the Amazon leadership principle known as “disagree and commit,” the idea people should vigorously debate internally but that once a formal decision on an issue is made, everyone should fall in line and support it.
“As a VP, you’re not supposed to go off the rails with conflicting messaging, which is not an unreasonable position,” Bray said. But that idea would eventually lead to his resignation.
In April, Amazon fired Cunningham and several other workers who had raised concerns about safety in Amazon’s warehouses. The company said each employee had repeatedly violated various policies. To Bray, it looked “like an explicit policy of firing anybody who put up their hand.”
“We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies,” Jaci Anderson, an Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement.
For Bray, the firings crossed a line. He said he had raised concerns internally but could not “disagree and commit” as Amazon wanted. He stayed for a few weeks to wrap up a project and resigned, leaving $1 million in compensation behind.
He turned to his blog to explain the resignation publicly. Bray stayed up until 2 a.m., preparing his server to withstand greater-than-usual traffic, should Reddit and Hacker News pick up his post as he hoped. The plan worked even better than he had expected.
“I was aiming at a soft target, it turned out,” he said.
‘A deep societal problem’
In the days that followed, Bray’s critique resonated in Washington, D.C. He spoke with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat whose district includes Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. And a group of senators mentioned his resignation blog post when they wrote to Bezos about the firings.
Bray initially tried to keep a low profile, responding only by email to press requests. But he kept blogging and eventually talked publicly, making even more aggressive criticisms of the company.
On a live video in early June with National Observer, a Canadian investigative news site, Bray said Amazon was a symptom of concentrated capitalism. “We don’t really have an Amazon problem,” he said. “What we have is a deep societal problem with an unacceptable imbalance of power and wealth.
“It’s not obvious to me why the retail company, the manufacturing company, the voice recognition company, the cloud computing company and the Prime video company should be the same company,” he said at the event. “They’re not particularly related to each other, and I think it’s actively distorting and harmful.”
A week later, Bray spoke at a virtual conference convened by global unions critical of Amazon. He said unions should be easier to form in the United States and that “one of the most powerful political programs we could run with the aim of correcting the power imbalances that concern us is antimonopoly.” He also said the sheer size of Amazon and other large corporations gives them inordinate power over politics, policies and labor conditions.
The “goodness” Amazon espouses for customers — low prices, endless selection, quick delivery — “isn’t free,” he said. “Right now, the downside of all this goodness is overwhelmingly being experienced by the warehouse workers.”
Amazon has strongly defended its labor conditions, saying that it has spent billions of dollars to make its warehouses safe and that its workers are paid at least $15 an hour, plus benefits.
Bray soon turned to formulating a business case for breaking up the company. He wrote it in a standard Amazon format, known as a PRFAQ, envisioning how the company would announce the proposal once it was fully enacted. With antitrust pressures growing, Amazon might prefer to “proactively” spin off its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services, he wrote, “as opposed to under hostile pressure from Washington.”
He posted the document on GitHub, a coding collaboration tool, asking for help improving the pitch. By spinning off AWS, he argued, companies like Walmart that compete with Amazon would be more comfortable using the cloud computing service, opening up more potential customers.
“Organizations who compete with Amazon want to take advantage of AWS’s industry-leading offerings without having to worry that they are strengthening a competitor,” he wrote.
His post did not go viral like his resignation. But looking at logs on his blog’s server, he could tell it got attention somewhere critical: inside Amazon.
His suspicion was confirmed when a former colleague told him Amazon was worried a Wall Street analyst might think the document was a true Amazon document. Could he add a disclaimer?
Bray updated the proposal. “This document is not an Amazon production,” he wrote. “It describes a hypothetical process that could take place.”