Amazon has an 80-person orchestra just for employees

Chief Tech Correspondent
Yahoo Finance

Amazon’s corporate culture is widely known for its dog-friendliness, its free community banana stands, and, notoriously, a challenging and even bruising work environment.  

Less well-known is how Amazon (AMZN) — Yahoo Finance’s Company of the Year — helps employees channel their inner artist. In the last several years, Amazon has expanded its efforts so employees with artistic streaks have more creative outlets to let loose, including the Amazon Symphony and the a cappella group Vocally Self-Critical — a riff off of Amazon’s now retired 10th principle of the same name.

“About this time last year, one of our oboists looked through our employee directory and looked through people’s interests, particularly in classical musical instruments, and he just sent out this massive email, asking ‘Hey, who wants to start an orchestra?’” recalls Beau Curran, a technical account manager on Amazon’s digital music operations team and an oboist in the Amazon Symphony. “The first day of rehearsal, we were really wondering whether we’d just end up with a saxophonist and a keyboardist, and that would be our orchestra.”

The 80-person Amazon Symphony performed a winter concert at the Seattle tech giant’s headquarters in early December. Source: Yahoo Finance
The 80-person Amazon Symphony performed a winter concert at the Seattle tech giant’s headquarters in early December. Source: Yahoo Finance

To Curran and Amazon Symphony conductor Fred Clarke’s surprise, about 200 employees expressed interest in the group, with 80 instrumentalists now rehearsing weekly on-campus and performing at least twice a year. The company, for its part, contributes a budget sponsored by Amazon business teams, as well as rehearsal and performance space. It also opened up its large employee meeting center on-campus for the groups to perform their winter concert. The joint performance drew over 500 people and raised more than $18,000 in donations and ticket sales for Mary’s Place, a nonprofit that operates a shelter for homeless families in a building at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.

Alexander Simms, an Amazon software engineer, joined the company in 2016 after his three-month internship at the company ended, in part because the company had an a cappella group. (Yes, really.)

“At the end of that internship, I actually heard that Amazon had an a cappella group called Vocally Self-Critical, which is a great pun that nobody gets anymore,” explains Simms, referring to the now defunct Amazon principle, which was folded into another leadership principle, Earn Trust. “It definitely influenced my coming back.”

“Amazon’s culture allows you to be creative in and outside of your job role, and that’s something I really enjoy,” says Alex Rogers, a marketing program manager at Amazon. Source: Yahoo Finance
“Amazon’s culture allows you to be creative in and outside of your job role, and that’s something I really enjoy,” says Alex Rogers, a marketing program manager at Amazon. Source: Yahoo Finance

Alexandra Rogers, head of global customer insights and strategy for Amazon Prime Now and a member of Vocally Self-Critical, expressed a similar sentiment.

“It’s amazing to be involved in Vocally Self-Critical and get to spend the day working on data and creatively putting it together and synthesizing insights and then get to come sing,” Rogers says. “Amazon’s culture allows you to be creative in and outside of your job role, and that’s something I really enjoy.”

The Amazon Symphony and Vocally Self-Critical follow other efforts by Amazon over the years, including the Expressions program. The five-year-old program is focused on employee programming and team-building projects that let Amazonians express themselves in different ways, from crochet night to a snow globe-making classes. Two years ago, Amazon opened the Expressions Lab — a facility dedicated to those classes and projects — now peppered with workshop tables, paint canvases, computers and 3-D printers. It also rolled out (literally) an Expressions cart, which gets wheeled around Amazon’s Seattle headquarters at least three times a week so employees anywhere around campus can briefly take part in activities.

Two years ago, Amazon opened the Expressions Lab — a facility dedicated to those classes and projects — now peppered with workshop tables, paint canvases, computers and 3-D printers. Source: Yahoo Finance
Two years ago, Amazon opened the Expressions Lab — a facility dedicated to those classes and projects — now peppered with workshop tables, paint canvases, computers and 3-D printers. Source: Yahoo Finance

For those hard-working Amazonians, such opportunities may prove short but welcome diversions. As recently as 2015, the company was criticized for some tough working conditions at its corporate headquarters and fulfillment centers. Since then, the company has offered more employee programs and more flexible work arrangements, like 30-hour salaried work weeks for some teams.

Which is not to say working at Amazon still isn’t tough, but now there are more options and outlets for employees to take advantage of to make working at Amazon work for them.

Click here to read more about why Yahoo Finance chose Amazon as its company of the year and here to learn more about Amazon’s plans for Alexa. And here, you can see our timeline for Amazon’s path to domination in 2017.

JP Mangalindan is the Chief Tech Correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Email story tips and musings to jpm@oath.com. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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