21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com – A Review

“21 Dog Years” (alternatively subtitled “A Cube-Dweller’s Life”) is a book by Mike Daisey about his experiences working at amazon.com, first as a customer service grunt, then as a business development executive.

You may know Mike Daisey for his recent piece on public radio’s “This American Life”, about horrific working conditions in an iPhone factory.  It was moving, eye-opening, and largely made-up.  TAL investigated, and disgrace followed, with Daisey being interviewed and condemned on-air by host Ira Glass.  At the end of each episode of TAL, Ira has a little jokey aside, saying “Management oversight by Torey Malatia, who says…” and he uses some humorous quote from the show to gently make fun of his boss.  I only remember him deviating from this formula twice – once when Torey’s father died, and once for the Daisey-excoriation episode.  The shame was so great that Daisey considered suicide, but is now back onstage story-telling in NYC.

All this is to say that reading this book is like watching the first episode of a TV show after you’ve seen the series finale.  Can we look at it on its own terms, or do we have to read it in the context of what’s happened later?

Is the book truthful?  Daisey says that “Some facts were injured in the telling of this story,  The truth, however, remains unharmed.”  Who knows what that means?  Were there really sirens that went off in the customer service department whenever metrics fell below a certain level?  Or is that like the armed guards Daisey invented for the iPhone factory – something that paints a vivid picture and gets to the essence of a situation without being “true” in the sense of having actually happened?  The problem is compounded by Daisey’s being admittedly untrustworthy – he shortens his average customer response time by simply hanging up on people after a few seconds, and is promoted to BizDev on the strength of a PowerPoint using completely fictitious data.  When someone explains their deceptions to you, are you sure that they’re not just playing a long con?

Truthful or not, Daisey does know how to tell a story, and the main thrust of what he says matches what’s more recently described in Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store”.  It makes an interesting complement to that book, with Daisey giving low-level details that Stone doesn’t talk about from his C-level perch.  Daisey also skillfully incorporates another point of view via the skeptical interjections of his fiancee, who likes that he finally has a job, but not that he works so hard at it.

When Daisey wrote the book, just after the dot-com bubble burst, amazon.com looked to be on the verge of collapse.  His writing reflects this, painting amazon as just one level above a scam.  The overall tone is “How could we have been all so blind?”  Of course, with hindsight he underestimated the company, but was not out of the mainstream in this.  “21 Dog Years” is not a business book, but using his experience at BizDev, Daisey quickly and entertainingly demolishes CueCat (a forerunner to QR code scanners) and pets.com.

Should you buy this book?  Daisey is a liar and con artist, but so are many people with interesting stories to tell.  Your surfing the web probably generates as much revenue for many more unsavoury types.

How do I rate this book?  Following amazon’s review system, I give it 4 stars out of 5 – dropping a star because it’s not quite clear what’s fact and what’s fiction.  But perhaps we should view it as a novel in the same insane-workplace genre as “Microserfs”, “The Circle”, or “The Devil Wears Prada”.  For this I give it 5 stars.

“21 Dog Years” is available at Powell’s, Barnes and Noble, and other online bookstores.

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