Thursday, December 15, 2005

I Owe My Soul to the Company Store

Well, maybe not yet, but I do plan to start spending at least half of my monthly salary on before long! ;)

Note: I starting writing this entry on Saturday, 03 December, so a lot has transpired at work since then. As such, this entry will only cover my first impressions, leaving other stuff for other entries.

After having completed my first week (well, it was actually not a full week, since Tuesday was my first day) of work at Amazon (for those of you who have not been reading this blog--for shame!--I am a UNIX Systems Administrator), I now have the perspective (and energy) to tell you all about it. So grab a coffee or something and get comfortable, as this might take awhile.

Let me start out by sharing my first impressions, then move on to the specifics, such as what a normal day is like, what the facility is like, etc.

My cubicleI can sum up my first impressions with one word: impressive! :) I am really excited about work after getting a taste of what it is going to be like. First of all, the building is quite impressive, both in terms of size (it is the fifth-biggest four-storey building in all of Japan--five times the size of the Tokyo Dome) and in design. It is a brand new building, custom-built for us! It is all shiny and white and functional, inside and out. I am back in a cubicle (pictured at left), but it is quite nice. The chair is probably the highlight of the whole cube; the damned thing has more controls than the Space Shuttle, and probably works better, to boot. I have a nice, 17-inch LCD monitor and a fancy new PC (running Linux, of course) to display stuff on it. I also have a tiny, lightweight little Dell laptop (which must run Windows; the only blemish in an otherwise fantastic environment), which is primarily useful as a portable terminal for the various systems administration tasks that arise. I have a sweet IP phone, running Linux, and a sweet little VPN device, custom-made for Amazon, which also runs Linux.

In the intervening time since I wrote the last paragraph, two things have changed:

  1. I have acquired another laptop, for the testing of the Linux laptop image. Hurrah!

  2. rdesktop goodnessThrough the magic of rdesktop, my Windows laptop has been transformed into a terminal server. :) I now run "Windows" on a virtual desktop in FluxBox, as pictured at left (clicky clicky for the full-size image). Of interest, I predict, only to Unix geeks will be my rdesktop wrapper script.

There are four other chaps on the IT team: Mauro, who is the IT Manager for all of Japan (and who I have known for a few years through TLUG, and to whom I owe a huge debt of thanks for hiring me!); Sato-san, who is an expert on Unix and The Beatles (he has actually written a Japanese book on the Fab Four, which sells, but I could not find with a simple search; I could, however, find his webpage on the subject); Miyoshi-san, with whom I have had the opportunity to talk at great length (in Japanese); and Fujimoto-san, whom I have not yet met, since he wisely took a vacation when he heard I was coming. ;) These guys are all really great to work with; they are knowledgable, fun, and a bit geeky. You know, just like me?

Hey, what do you know? Now I've met Fujimoto-san! He's a cool guy, like all the rest of the Japan IT staff. :)

Thus far, most of my "work" has been getting setup to do actual work, though on Tuesday, I spent most of the afternoon in a server room in the old Fulfillment Centre (FC), gutting it of everything we might need to use in the new facility (we moved our operations from the old FC to the new one on 01 November, which was to be my original start date, before the reality of the Japanese bureaucracy intervened to push that back a month). This involved lots of climbing around on ladders, cutting plastic ties, unscrewing stuff from racks, and rolling up cable. Lots of cable! I must have rolled up two kilometres of CAT5 (network) cable that day!

Other than the odd bit of manual labour, I have been just learning Amazon's system, which is completely global. That means that even though we are in the Japan, our operation is driven by the same databases that power,,, and so on. This also means that all the Fulfillment Centres around the world (here's a fun fact: Fulfillment Centre is abbreviated as FC by all Amazon operations around the world except for Europe. Can you guess why? Because when you say "FC" to a European, he will understand it to mean "Football Club"! So in Europe, FC becomes DC, for Distribution Centre) run the same way, on the same equipment. This is a smart design, because it lets Amazon field a Global Infrastructure Team--of which I am a member--that can solve Information Technology-related problems at any facility in the world, from wherever in the world they might be.

Also of interest is that Amazon has an internal blogging system (based on Moveable Type, fellow bloggers), which I have already made use of. :)

There is also a Wiki, which is a great resource for documentation! Unsurprisingly, Sato-san is one of the top 100 Wiki editors, out of Amazon's 1500 or so employees! That man is a literal fount of knowledge: he has a seemly inexhaustible supply, and he spews it forth liberally! ;)

I have already written a few articles for the wiki, about Japanese input and Linux, mainly. No surprise there, right? :)

I have also completed training in all of the functions of a warehouse worker:

  • Receiving - unpacking boxes of books from publishers / vendors.

  • Stowing - taking said books and putting them in the stacks.

  • Picking - Retrieving the books in customers' orders from the stacks.

  • Packing - Putting orders together, placing them on the cardboard sheet that you know very well if you have ever ordered books from Amazon, and placing the whole pile on a conveyor belt, where it is shrink-wrapped, boxed, and dropped into a shipping container.

I cannot go into any more detail than this, I am afraid. What I can tell you is that if you were ever so lucky to get one of those library student jobs back in university, stowing and picking are not so different from what you would have been doing. The only difference is you probably only had to do it for 15 minutes or so before going back to a desk where you would effectively be getting paid to do your homework, and I had to do it for almost three hours!

For those of you who know me well, you will realise that it is no overstatement when I say that I love working for a bookstore! This has actually been my lifelong dream. I kid you not!

And Amazon is ever better, since they are a book store with lots of computers and network gear that they pay me to play with!

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