This is a story about Jeff Bezos which I’ve told many times over the years, but which I don’t think I’ve ever written down. And although he is surely a Bad Man for his stance on unions and employee rights, and history should frown upon him, Jeff is not a kick-a-puppy type of Bad Man. In person, he is a perfectly ordinary everyday dude, at least as far as living cult figures go.
Despite my general feeling that Jeff has done a lot of wrong to humanity in the name of his “customers”, I figured I would share this story simply because it was a rare experience. At least, for me.
So here is the very short story of the day I made Rick laugh in class, and Jeff showed me his stereo.
The Slip of Paper
One day, after losing 100 pounds (45 kg) over 18 months while working at Amazon, I suddenly rocketed to fame and executive-level decision-making teams. Wonder why.
As part of my newfound fame at Amazon, several years into my journey there, perhaps around 2004, I was invited to an offsite at Jeff’s house. Or more precisely, I found later, at his boathouse.
The purpose of the offsite was to bring Amazon’s technical thought leaders together to figure out if we could use machine learning to help us with systems operations.
Jeff loathed Operations, since he wanted them to be invisible, but our systems were always burning like the Chicago River. Frankly all of us would have loved a magic wand to help out, so I don’t blame Jeff for trying.
I got an email with the invite and date, and it specified that I was to report to a particular Executive Assistant from Jeff’s army of EAs, to receive my directions and instructions.
At the time, we were occupying the Pacific Medical Center building on Beacon Hill in Seattle, which is a rather formidable structure, with an equally unusual and maze-like interior. But the views all around were spectacular, and Jeff was ever the showman.
Jeff’s small office, which I did once visit, in a story for another day, was high in the southwest corner, commanding the building’s best combination of water view and defensibility from an orc invasion. It was nestled deep in a forest of turns, crevices, side offices for private meetings, and support personnel who made heavy eye contact.
In a three-minute encounter which haunted me in strange dreams for years to come, I made my way through the black-carpeted corridors into Jeff’s wing, found the specific EA, and told him of my quest.
He handed me a fortune cookie-sized slip of paper with some tiny directions, and along with it, a very stern lecture. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it left the impression I was to burn the slip, eat the ashes, and never speak of it again.
So anyway, here’s what it said: “Drive down Evergreen Point Road until you see a white rock.”
And so it was that on the intended day, with the directions firmly in hand and mind, I drove along Evergreen Point Road like an octogenarian, peering carefully at every fucking rock along this mile-long stretch of road. At long last I found a big white boulder sitting at the end of thin unkempt road adjoining the main road, nestled between two towering green hedges like castle walls.
This looked promising, so I turned right, onto the thin road. At my left as I was turning, I surveyed a huge, dirty, bi-level ramshackle structure the size of a middle class home, backed by a tall hedge leading away to the east. I gaped in wonderment, thinking that perhaps I had the wrong rock after all.
On closer inspection, the structure proved to be filled with all manner of landscaping equipment. It was his gardener’s shack. It was bigger than my house.
As I drove a bit further in, my view broadened, the hedge receded, and in a scene transition reminiscent of the movie Highlander, I emerged into the country of Ireland. As far as the eye could see, bounded by the endless tall hedge along the road, were rolling green hills, dotted with various structures: playgrounds, mini-parks, trees, and a large circular driveway leading up to Jeff’s enormous home up on the tallest hill to the left (northwest of me).
The winding road to his home was lined with black-suited, white-shirted, matching security guards, all equipped with matching sunglasses and earpieces. They stood silently, looking both impressive and menacing, as they directed me with pointing arms away from Jeff’s house. I was to continue left, along the thin road and down the hill toward Lake Washington.
The guards looked straight out of The Matrix. Jeff basically has his own Secret Service.
I craned my neck to take one last glance at Jeff’s fancy-looking house in the distance, but there was not much to see, despite my being right in his driveway. It looked like the top of a lodge, way up on a hill. Most of the home seemed to be on the other side, facing the lake, and I never did get much of a view of it.
There was, however, still a lot to take in, so I concentrated on making my way down the original thin road with the white rock, down to Lake Washington.
I had arrived.
At the edge of Jeff’s vast property grounds sat a very large boathouse, protruding out onto the lake. During the tour when we arrived, Jeff told us that the city of Bellevue had permitted Jeff to remodel it, provided he preserved the essential look of the original structure.
We had the offsite in a Great Room adjoining the covered dock room. High ceilings and large windows gave the vast room a nearly outdoor level of natural light, giving it all a comfortable last-homely-house sort of feel, with beautiful views of Lake Washington, trees, and sailboats.
The overall historical feel of the boathouse had been preserved, and the decor featured a nautical theme. One unusual feature that Jeff pointed out were the long silver chains hanging from the ceiling. They were part of the original structure, though I cannot remember their purpose now.
There were twenty or so of us, and I was sitting at the south end of the long table in the center of the Great Room, next to Rick Dalzell, our CIO. Jeff sat at the north end, with his back to the lake, and we had our discussion.
Honestly we didn’t get very far. The tech wasn’t there yet. Even today the problem is far from solved, though GPT-class models may soon change that.
At one point, during a lull in the conversation, I helpfully suggested that we should just use Mechanical Turk, which was met with approximately the same reaction as if I had farted loudly and out of turn. Everyone pointedly avoided eye contact and ignored me. That was my only contribution.
Another time, Jeff was giving a speech that he had clearly rehearsed, and halfway through he mentioned something about whales. I don’t remember the exact context, but as he said it, his eye fell on me and Rick. I leaned over to Rick and whispered, “Why did he look at us when he said whales” and Rick barked out a loud laugh and everyone stopped and stared at him. Jeff paused and gave Rick a look. Rick was still giggling and looked abashed, but he kept quiet, and Jeff continued his speech.
That was my only other contribution. I wasn’t really an ML guy at the time.
I felt the most interesting part of the offsite was the lunch break. I was over at the south end of the great room, facing the wall separating us from the docking area, admiring Jeff’s stereo. It was built into the wall, which like the rest of the room was replete with some medium-colored wood paneling, maybe mahogany or maple, and stainless steel trim and decor. The stereo itself looked… expensive.
Jeff came up to me and I complimented him on his stereo. He instantly became very animated and began to tell me all about it, showing me various features hidden within the wall panels.
I don’t remember much detail now, 19 years later, other than that he had run speaker wires through many of the chains hanging from the high ceiling. There were speakers hidden in the chains, so that the sound was not originating from one particular point in the room.
There were many other details. It was 100% custom and obviously like a million fuckin’ dollars, and Jeff was just super happy that somebody had noticed.
We never did get to listen to it, though. Lunch ended and we went back to the meeting.
Afterwards I packed up and drove back across the bridge to Seattle. This completed my side quest and awarded me some Jeff XP, but, like all Amazon missions, zero gold pieces. I mostly remembered it as the time I made Rick laugh in class, and then Jeff showed off his stereo.
I should have kept that fortune cookie slip.