Sunday, December 02, 2012

Amazon Christmas

I came across these wild photos of Amazon's warehouses, packed with books recently, and it reminded me of my first Amazon Christmas. So far this one has been interesting (best moment so far, walking to Mike's Pastry in Boston at 7 AM after working from 2 AM to 7 AM on some Black Friday prep... nothing like awesome lobster tail pastries to replace sleep). Nothing so far like my first Christmas, though. Here's something I wrote up about that 1999 Christmas.


The smell of coffee brewing makes me up before my alarm goes off as the timer on my coffeemaker ticks over to 4 AM. A velvety black is draped across my apartment as I stumble out of bed to get a cup. This morning- mid December 1999, probably rainy, definitely cold and dank- is just like all the others in a string of a few weeks since we paused working on updates to’s website software and went all hands on deck in the company’s warehouses. We have been successful beyond anything we thought would happen and people are ordering books and CDs faster than we can get them out the door. My team of developers has drawn the morning to mid-afternoon shift and we assemble in South Seattle at an anonymous warehouse to start work as elves.

I pull on an extra pair of wool socks and put my work boots back on, then slide my walkman into my vest pocket. We all listen to mixtapes during our shifts, swapping them back and forth to ease the monotony of hour after hour after hour of moving books from the loading docks into the shelves. We’ve picked up a new foreign tongue. To “receive” is to grab pallets of shrink wrapped books out of the backs of tracker trailers. To “pick” is to grab books off the shelves that we’ve deposited them on to be assembled into customer orders. I’ve been told that we run our warehouse differently than any other warehouse. I joke that sure, few warehouses around here have software engineers wrestling 60 pound boxes of books off the loading docks, given that this is the pinnacle of the dotcom boom.

One slice of that different way we run our warehouse is in the very area I’m working. One of the backend software engineers had noticed that because we use computers to generate our pick lists it didn’t matter where on the shelves we stuck the books we’d unloaded, just so long as we told the computer where they were. There was no need to put all the textbooks in the same spot- they could go in any shelf that had space for them. Gingerly, I slash open a pallet of book boxes and scoop up an armful, as many as I think I can hold. Grateful that I’ve yet again avoided the sharp razor of the box cutter I turn and set off down the aisles to store the books for the pickers. An open spot down by the floor catches my eye and I stuggle to kneel down without spilling the armful of books. I grab the scanner clipped to my belt and scan the barcode under the shelf spot- the bin- where I’m about to put the book. Then I scan the book, tuck it into that spot, and walk on. I love the delicious simplicity of this hack. I’ve turned into a walking hash function, the computer algorithm by which items can be stored at arbitrary locations but still be retrieved by a pointer. My scanning that bin and then book made a pointer in our warehouse’s memory to be traced in reverse by the picker.

Scanning, kneeling, walking, walking, walking and scanning more. I peek at the giftwrap station sometimes, assuring myself that the endless stream of books that I’m pulling out of trucks really are going out to customers. We sit on breaks sucking down stale coffee. We marvel at seeing all the code we wrote the past few months turning into real packages to people all over the world. The sky outside, when I peek it between the trucks and the loading dock has weathered from the inky black to a flat gray, the same gray that will slide into black again before we are done here.

These really early mornings ended eventually once we got too close to Christmas to ship anything to customers anymore with any hope of it reaching them on time. The next few Christmases I mostly helped out on the customer service email queues, so I rarely went back to that warehouse after that first year. Eventually we closed it, because as an older un-automated one it couldn't keep up with the volume of the newer distribution centers.