Book Review: The Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career by Christy Coulter

EXIT INTERVIEW: The life and death of my ambitious careerChristy Coulter

In 2023, it’s hard to imagine a person who doesn’t have an opinion about Amazon or isn’t familiar with how it treats its employees. It’s easy to paint a picture of a company through published stories, but what about the people who make up the company? Why would anyone work there? This picture is missing a face.

Enter Christy Coulter and her new memoir, The Exit Interview. Coulter worked at Amazon for 12 years, starting in 2006. At the time, Amazon was more than a decade old, and its e-commerce media business was already “mature.” But Twitter was just nascent; Facebook is barely two years old; Instagram didn’t exist; and the launch of Apple’s first iPhone was a year away. Even with the smoldering remnants of the dot-com era in the rearview mirror, the tech industry still created an atmosphere of possibility, potential, and self-invention—a manifesto of destiny remade for 21st-century captains of industry, a new frontier without the pesky constraints of a finite continent.

That spirit and potential for growth caught Coulter. She worked at All Music Guide (now known as AllMusic), but felt stifled and bored by her work. Her search for new opportunities led her to an interview at Amazon. Conflicted but intrigued, she eventually found her rationale for joining: Coulter wanted to be somewhere where it was okay to be ambitious, somewhere that had real, big challenges. She didn’t want a career—she wanted a career vectorsomething with direction and magnitude that she says will “leave a mark.”

In “Exit Interview,” Coulter talks about the ins and outs of his career at Amazon, taking on roles ranging from senior manager of book sales and media to running Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s translated book publishing arm, and eventually , ending his tenure as lead author developing the entire language system for Amazon Go’s first physical store. (That brand is now known as Amazon Fresh.)

She was plunged into chaos from the start. The staff seemed to exist in a state of constant overwork and panic. The projects were gigantic, almost manic. In her first role, she was responsible for both managing the global merchandising team and fixing a merchandising system that was so broken it was forcing employees to do complex tasks twice. “This is the most important thing to understand about Amazon. No one knows Jack,” a colleague tells her, using an expletive.

It seems someone does: Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s senior vice presidents, who were (and still are) mostly men. One of these SVPs will tell her in a meeting with others in attendance 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 will be repeatedly told that she needs more backbone, but when she gets it, she will be seen as prickly and scary. From time to time, she is promoted to director level, but despite success in a number of senior roles, she leaves without ever achieving the top level.

Anyone looking for the inside scoop on Amazon is in luck. There’s a lot of crazy stories and details about the company, though sometimes too much — sometimes the focus on project minutiae kills the narrative, though Coulter draws the reader in by sharing the bewilderment she felt dealing with the firehose of information she encountered.

Coulter’s work is funny and warm, bringing to life a group of people caught in the same corporate vortex. She describes herself as a tireless people pleaser, a self-critic eager to tap into the ambitions she saw suppressed in women of previous generations. She explains that she learned early on to envelop men with her “force field of seriousness.” competence”, use her will, solve any job and never let anyone down.

If anything, Coulter works too hard to show how hard she’s had to work. She worries about failure, promotion, fear of disappointing everyone, but the reader knows that she was a highly paid senior employee who preferred to stay with the company. She describes horror after horror, but she also says that “parts of it were mind-blowing and hilarious.” Some readers may be frustrated by this tension and want to better understand why it remains; others who have made similar compromises or spent their lives as ambitious people pleasers will see themselves reflected in Coulter’s story and feel validated. This is especially true for women working in similar corporate cultures, regardless of industry.

Coulter uses two lenses to frame her narrative: one she trained specifically on herself and her experience at Amazon, and one she focused more broadly on the experiences faced by women around the world. In two separate chapters, both titled Events in the History of Women’s Employment, she interweaves historical milestones for women’s rights in the workplace with moments from her own life.

By situating her experience within a larger feminist narrative, Coulter gives her story a more universal application. But by focusing on Amazon, she opens up a series of questions she doesn’t answer: Is Amazon’s sexism unique? If not, what makes Amazon so uniquely toxic? If companies like Amazon are both great and terrible on multiple dimensions, is the point that we will always have to navigate the bad to try to use the good for our personal growth and gain?

In such a system, there are very few moments when we truly believe we have succeeded. Too often there is no triumphant ending. It doesn’t end with a bang, but with the realization that the personal cost is finally too great.

Leah Reich’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Verge. She has worked in technology for more than a decade at Instagram, Spotify, and Slack, among other companies.

EXIT INTERVIEW: The life and death of my ambitious career | Christy Coulter | 368 pages. | MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 29 dollars

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