Speaking Truth to Power in Tech with Dai Wakabayashi

Episode Summary

Join Corey and Dai as they explore the world of tech reporting and Dai’s recent article on AWS in particular while touching on a number of topics, including how AWS evolved from a platform everyone built on top of to one that runs everything built on top of it, why it’s incredibly difficult to capture all the nuances of the world of open source in a single article, the collaborative nature of writing the news, how a journalist can tell when they’ve written a story that doesn’t have mistakes, why Amazon as a trillion-dollar company should expect more scrutiny, what it was like to try to get people to go on the record talking about AWS, and more.

Episode Show Notes & Transcript

About Dai Wakabayashi
Dai Wakabayashi is a tech reporter for the New York Times based in San Francisco whose primary focus is all things Google. Prior to joining the Times, Dai covered Apple and Japanese tech companies (e.g., Sony, Nintendo, Panasonic, and Sharp) for The Wall Street Journal for almost eight years. He also worked for Reuters for nine years, focusing on Microsoft during his time there.

Links Referenced: 


Announcer: Hello. Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Cloud Economist Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on this state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.

Corey: This episode is sponsored by Influx Data. Influx is most well known for Influx DB, which is a time series database that you use if you need a time series database. Think Amazon time stream except actually available for sale and has paying customers. To check out what they're doing both with their SaaS offering as well as their on premise offerings that you can use yourself because they're open source, visit influxdata.com. My thanks to them for sponsoring this ridiculous podcast.

Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I'm Corey Quinn. Last December, an article came out in the New York Times titled Prime Leverage: How Amazon Wields Power in the Technology World. Joining me today is Dai Wakabayashi, the journalist who wrote that article. Dai, welcome to the show.

Dai: Thanks for having me.

Corey: First, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. You are a journalist's journalist, not a journalist in the sense of it's a polite term that we're going to appropriate for someone who works in corporate comms. You are a reporter. That is what you've done for your entire career as best I can tell.

Dai: Yeah, that's definitely ... ever since I left college, that's all I've been doing. It's a job that doesn't particularly pay well. It's not one that gets a ton of respect in the broader world these days. But I do think it's an awesome job in the sense that I get to be on the front lines of interesting things happening and gets taught to a lot of interesting people. It's one of the few jobs where you can stick your finger in someone's eye and you're allowed to do it and not only are you allowed to do it, you're sometimes encouraged to do it.

Corey: It's refreshing to talk to someone who isn't trying to sell anything, which is I guess a depressing commentary on the state of the world today. So this article came out, I want to say December 15th. In fact, yes, it was December 15th. It's a lengthy article. The general thesis is that in the technology world, AWS more or less winds up having a product strategy that distills down to yes and effectively strip mines open source projects and companies for a lot of their innovations and then rolls it into first-party services. Is that an effective summary? Have I missed some of the salient points?

Dai: Yeah, I think so. I mean I think part of it is that what we saw as one of the main ideas here is that Amazon has created this incredible platform, which is now essentially taking over the way people buy and spend and use technology. Now instead of just being a platform and being the thing that everyone just builds on top of, they're also now offering everything else that runs on top of it. So all these companies and many software companies we spoke to who felt like maybe five, six years ago thought, here's an opportunity for us, a new frontier for us, is now increasingly finding that, well, this frontier may not be as lucrative because we're competing with the very company that is the platform. So I think that notion of the responsibilities of a platform is something that generally we have been kind of looking into at the Times about big tech companies, whether it's Google or whether it's Facebook or whether it's Apple. Certainly this is our look at what Amazon is doing in the cloud.

Corey: What's interesting to me is seeing the community response to this in various corners. There's of course the immediate knee jerk response of, well, that isn't accurate. There was an agenda, yada, yada. It comes off as the people immediately saying, "Well that article is great, but there's 40 years of nuance go into the whole open source world that was largely passed by in the article itself." My position on that is the nuances of the open source world are something I don't fully understand despite having been actively involved with it for roughly 15 years. The fact that some of those nuances and edge cases didn't make it into a front page story of the New York Times isn't the most surprising thing in the world to me. What is your perception of the feedback then since this article was published?

Dai: Yeah. I knew that that was coming. Look, I don't think we ever thought we could fully capture all the nuance of something like open source. I mean, it is akin to like a religious war on some level, that you will never fully capture all the history and the back and forth of the industry. But we're trying to give a flavor of it and we're trying to give enough of a flavor of it that people can get a base level understanding of what's at stake and then read the article for what it's worth. I do understand that people feel like there was some nuance missing. But I think one of the things, one of the challenges with journalism, is always writing something very nice for a very general audience can be the challenge.

It's how far back do we pull back the lens? Do we pull it back so far that it becomes almost impossible to distill what specific thing you're talking about, or do we go too narrow and sort of alienate a broad part of the audience? Look, there's never a right answer to exactly how far back to pull back the lens. We tried what we thought was the right level of altitude from which to write about this.

Corey: That's one of the more interesting parts of I guess seeing articles on things that I tend to be relatively well traveled in. I see certain shortfalls are papering over of complex issues. I guess as I went through the maturation process in so far as I ever did, it really was an eye opener for me as far as realizing that, okay, if this is an area in which I have subject matter expertise, well, there are shades of nuance and journalism aimed at the mainstream doesn't necessarily pick up on all of that nuance. The next logical step for any was I wonder with all these other things in which I don't have subject matter expertise, is this going on there as well? The answer of course is obviously. Nothing is going to act as a in-depth primer to a field of study. Reading a newspaper does not make you a subject matter expert on anything other than reading that day's issue.

Dai: I mean, I think one of the things that's really eye opening about the process of writing a fairly long story like this is the collaborative nature of it. I speak to a ton of people, right? 40, 50, 60 people for this. I get that deep perspective. When I go to write it, I feel like, well this is very important. I need to explain the nuance of the licensing deal and why this licensing agreement is different than that licensing agreement. Then my editor looks at it and says ... I mean, she looks at it and says, "If we're talking about licensing, we've lost. Like the specific different licenses. We've lost people." That's the collaborative effort, right? I go and I get really steeped in it and I get really granular, but as I write it, I think, okay, I need to pull this back a little bit. Usually the editor pulls it back even more. We have a fantastic editor. Her name is Pui-Wing Tam.

Her job almost always is to make us be ... We're looking at something at 5,000 feet. We need to be looking at it at 10,000, 15,000, 30,000 feet. Pull it all the way back and tell us what it is about the industry. For us, this story was always about power and influence. Here's a company with enormous power and enormous influence now in the technology world and how do they wield that power and influence? She always kept us on that North Star, for lack of a better phrase. But that's part of the collaborative effort. So that's always really interesting to me where I feel like sometimes I'm in there saying, "Well, this is losing too much nuance." And she says, "Well, what is the real nuance here that you're trying to make?" Then we'll rephrase it. It's a back and forth process.

Corey: Well, what's interesting to me as ... The response that I heard from this article from my friends at AWS was it mostly came back to the position of that's not accurate at all. My argument in response to that is I agree with what they're getting at in that I do not personally believe that there's someone at AWS, or most people at AWS for that matter, are sitting around figuring out, okay, how can we completely undercut various people that do business with and rely on us? I don't believe that is the starting point that anything reasonable or rational comes from.

But when you're building that out, you don't have the luxury of understanding how actions get interpreted in the broader marketplace. At this point, Amazon is give or take a trillion dollar company. They deserve a increased level of scrutiny as a result. While that isn't how we intended this to come across, well then you should've done a better job of telling a story around it because people don't see the world the way that you see it internally at your company. The actions you take reverberate throughout all of society at your scale. It's important that people are aware of the outweighed impact their words carry.

I was having this conversation recently when I turned to a peer and say, "Hey, I wonder what this line on the graph means." That's just an idle question. If I say that as someone's manager, it can very easily be interpreted as you should find out what that line on the graph means. The fact that there is that power disparity completely changes the context of the exact same statement.

Dai: Totally. One of the things that I thought was interesting, I mean Amazon clearly, they put out a blog post. If your listeners haven't gone and read it, they should.

Corey: We'll put a link to that in the show notes.

Dai: Yeah. In response to the article. One of the things companies are very good at is if they find a story that they especially don't like and they find an error in it, they will gently prod you to correct that error in the sort. There were no requests for corrections. Granted they did not like the way I interpreted a certain set of facts. That I understand. They might think that we had a certain agenda. That I understand, but the notion of accuracy is something that we take very seriously, obviously. When a story goes out like that, the thing that I'm sitting there also very worried about is, well I wonder if people are going to find a mistake in the story. We did not get a request for a correction.

The one thing we did get, which I thought was interesting, and I guess I should make the disclosure now, I didn't even think to check to see if the New York Times is an AWS customer. It turns out, yes. Yes, we are an AWS customer along with the GCP. That disclosure was not in the story. In hindsight maybe we should've had it in there, but it was the farthest thing from my mind to even think about that, which probably is a shortcoming.

Corey: Well, the other side of it too. Whenever the Washington Post has any article that even touches on Amazon, they have to disclose, "Oh by the way, the founder of Amazon owns the entire paper." That doesn't stop them from being overwhelmingly critical from time to time, but those disclaimers in there from a journalistic integrity point of view are incredibly important. I would argue that I don't think anyone thinks that you took it easy on AWS because the New York Times is an AWS customer based upon the response I saw to that article.

Dai: Yeah. I don't think that's the concern. I do think that disclosures are incredibly important. Look, a lot of people talked about the reaction then and everyone ... Part of the privilege of working for the New York Times and part of the responsibility is that we have sort of a bullseye on our backs and that when we write something, a lot of people read it. We have a huge platform, and that's really a privilege. But with that comes an incredible responsibility that we have to be able to weather the criticism of that story.

For us, I was not surprised that a lot of people had criticism for the story. I think that's totally fine. Amazon's response, I think it's totally within their right to do so. I don't take it personally. I don't think Amazon took the story personally either. They realize, I think at some level, that as they get bigger, people are going to start looking at them a little closely. Certainly this year we've seen a ton of great work, not only from the Times, but also from the Wall Street Journal and other publications. I think Buzzfeed also had a great story recently that looks at the reverberations of the Amazon world that we live in that that goes beyond AWS and obviously on eCommerce and this notion that everything should be delivered to you the second you want it. We live in an Amazon world, and so I think it's only fair that reporters get more and more interested in looking very closely at that world. Amazon is totally within their right to be very aggressive in responding back.

Corey: I find their entire blog post that responded to your article to be a little on the interesting side. I mean they of course have the trotting out the hostages of all of their large partners who are active in the open source work. "These people are great examples who love working with us." Well, yeah. I mean, what else are those companies going to say? You can't ever speak out against one of your largest partners and expect to live. But I guess pushing back on this of, oh, companies aren't actually afraid that Amazon is going to move into their space. No one has actually said that statement aloud because it's provably untrue. Whenever I talk to people even on this podcast and occasionally in the pre show discussion I'll have, "Oh, are you worried about AWS? I'm releasing a product next week to put you out of business." And their response is, "Don't even joke about that."

People are incredibly sensitive to that. There's a palpable sense of tension in partner meetings when people are preparing for large conferences at Reinvent, for example, when they have their big annual event and their giant keynote where Andy Jassy more or less gets on stage for three straight hours and recites new services. It's just what it feels like sometimes. There's a palpable sense of tension of is this going to be the thing that more or less fundamentally drives our business in an unexpected and unwelcomed direction?

Dai: I mean I've covered technology now for almost 20 years. I've covered Microsoft in the 2000s. I've covered Apple. Now I'm covering Google as my main sort of beat. I've never seen companies more scared to talk out about another company than I saw with Amazon and AWS. It was really fascinating. There were a bunch of companies who off the record or on background would really just tee off on the company on Amazon and AWS's practices. But if you tried to push any of them to talk either on the record or even the on the record things you ask them to make that ... Or when they were willing to talk on the record, it was a total whitewashing of the things that they would say privately.

That's what I thought was really eye opening to me is that a lot of companies are just deathly afraid of even saying the most innocuous thing about Amazon. The trotting out of the partners I found to be less useful. Obviously Amazon tried to get us to talk to the partners who were happy. Certainly I don't doubt that there are some partners who are genuinely happy about working with AWS. But I also doubt that even the happiest partners would voice their concerns to the New York Times in a frank way. That was one thing I thought was sort of interesting.

The other interesting thing that I found about their response was the way a large story like this works, Amazon is not blindsided by that story. We worked with them for a week before the story ran going over every detail of the story. They voiced their concerns, some of which we put in the story. Their rebuttals and such. But companies also play games. There is a lot of, well, you can talk to our executive here, but it'll be on background and you can't use it. You can use the things we talked about, but you can't attribute it to that person. Then after the fact, they have this very long and exhaustive blog post. The notion that somehow that we didn't give them a chance to really talk and rebut is sort of misleading I think. They have ample opportunity to respond to the story, and their response was in the story. This notion that somehow that they were caught off guard, if that was the intent, that's I think misleading.

Corey: I think that it's easy to fall into the trap for a lot of these companies as well. I mean certainly I was in this when I was starting my business and it's, well what happens if I upset Amazon? I have nothing even remotely resembling a survival instinct. So I started a newsletter called Last Week in AWS giving them even trademark grounds if they wanted to come after me on that perspective. Then more or less made fun of them every week in an email newsletter. I expected that it was going to basically make me persona non grata as far as anything AWS oriented. What I learned from that, which was shocking was that first they love that. They have a bit of a corporate beat the crap out of me fascination, so okay, we'll roll with that.

But also there is no one person who is I guess responsible for the viewpoint of an entire company at that scale. I'm used to small business where a big company has 200 people. There's no Ted Amazon sitting there deciding whether they like someone or hate them. It's a bunch of very small teams that are largely independent more so than at most other companies. Some of those folks love what I'm doing. Some of them despise everything about me. It's one of those things where I've learned that you can't make people happy all the time. As long as I continue to have people take my calls, I assume I haven't gotten it entirely wrong.

Dai: No, I think you walk that very fine line. I think you are incredibly fair. I'm a big fan of the newsletter. I think you have a very ... I'm also a big fan of your Twitter account. You have a very good tone to it. I think the reason why, I imagine the reason why, people don't dismiss you is because you come from an incredibly informed place. You know what you're talking about and it's obvious. So that makes it a harder to dismiss you as some kind of kook or someone with an agenda because I think it's obvious that you've done the homework. Now I think when someone like us stops in and writes something critical, it's easier to dismiss us. Especially when we compare cloud computing to a coffee shop. Sorry, open source to a coffee shop. I think it gives them more fuel for the fire.

But I don't think they take it personally. I mean I think that this is part of the back and forth and they'll become better for it. I think their message will become sharper and they'll think about, hopefully, how their partners will respond to certain decisions they make about products hopefully. I think that that's all part of learning the responsibilities of being this major tech platform. They're not up and coming anymore. I mean I think it was very clear [inaudible 00:22:05] that they are now the big dog. I think this year more than other reinvents that I watched on YouTube, it was clear to me that they saw sort of themselves as the big dog in a way that I don't think they did in the past.

Corey: I still think internally they struggle with that. They tend to pride themselves in their two pizza teams. So you have a team of 20 people or so, give or take, that are launching an entire service. I'm not sure that they realize that this is something that millions upon millions of people are going to see. I am big enough to admit to more than a little professional jealousy of you at this point. I have never had a same day blog post come out from AWS, penned by a VP to the theme of screw this guy over something that I've written. We all have bucket list items. That is definitely one of mine.

Dai: As a reporter, nothing makes me more uncomfortable than when someone that you wrote a story about or a company that you wrote a story about comes back to you and tells you, "Oh, we love that story." That probably means I wasn't critical enough, that I wasn't analytical enough. So getting a response like that, well look, it's not the thing I was hoping for. It also doesn't bother me at all. It probably means that I was sufficiently critical or sufficiently analytical.

Corey: I remember that you and I had spoken a couple of times when you were putting this article together, but that was the last that we'd really communicated. The next thing I knew is it's Sunday morning and I wake up leisurely. My toddler let me sleep until 7:30 in the morning. I wind up looking at my phone and it's exploded. I have messages from a whole bunch of people of, "Great quote in the New York Times." Wait, that was sarcastic? Oh, you're a relatively high level executive at Amazon. What the hell did I get quoted on? My only quote in the article was after the observation re-invent was called AWS red wedding. My comment was, "Nobody knows who's going to get killed next." First, of all the things I've ever said, that's the objectionable thing that you think is the problematic piece. Oh my God, don't ever look at my Twitter account.

But more than that, it's fascinating just from my perspective seeing the sheer reach that this has. The quote was near the end of the article. It refused to call me a cloud economist because the New York Times style guide and me, my God. The kerning was wrong on the AWS. The period after the A and the W and the S as well. It's just where you have gone, I cannot possibly understand it. But I still had hundreds of newsletters signups that day on a Sunday, which is okay. Lesson learned. If I ever want to pick some good place to do some advertising, the front page of the New York Times is not the worst in the world.

Dai: Initially, we went back and forth a little bit if you recall about your title. In one of the drafts of the story, I had you quoted as cloud economist. I believe my editor wrote, "Really?" I said, "He insists that's his title." Then I said you sent me some links about how there was a PhD student who ...

Corey: Oh, full PhD. His name is Owen Rogers, at 451 research. He has a PhD in cloud economics. There are entire cloud economics divisions at companies including AWS. It's a real thing. I made it up when I first started my consulting company, and then I look around and I realized, wait, other people have used this term too. When I met Owen Rogers with his PhD in cloud economics, he was very excited to meet someone else who is in the space and wanted to talk about it. I had two paths. I could either be honest and tell him I made it up or I could bluff and probably wind up with a book deal out of it. I picked the more noble path. Part of me always wonders if I'd gone down the other direction how that would've played out.

Dai: Right. Basically, it started with ... I did gently push back and I said, "Look, this is what he says his title is." But basically that was a line in the sand for my editor and she was just like, "No, we're not giving someone the title of cloud economist." I think she wrote around it basically.

Corey: Society is always one of those challenging things to wind up evolving. One of these days I'm sure we'll get there. Now I would sooner fix the period after A W and S. That is the hill I would choose to die on long before my ridiculous nonsense title.

Dai: I am not a fan of the periods either. I had to go back and write each, fix every AWS reference to include those periods. So it was laborious and time consuming. But like even when we do CEO. That's C period E period O period. For the lack, I mean that's just our style guide. At some point you you just can't fight so many battles. You've got to pick and choose and that one is not a hill I'm willing to die on.

Corey: No, and it shouldn't be necessarily. I've done a lot of interesting writing, some of which has circled the internet three times, it feels like. But this was a whole nother level of attention and people being angry about it. If you go on Twitter, professional advice, never go on Twitter, and take a look at any given day. People are raging about the New York Times. I mean I'm a subscriber, I have been for years. The argument is always this is a terrible egregious breach of public trust, journalism ethics, et cetera. I'm canceling my subscription. Well isn't that the third time this month you've canceled it? If a paper only prints things that you like and agree with, that's propaganda. I don't think that serves us well. I think that we almost have a subversion of journalism by, to be blunt, corporate comms people in some respects, but there are also larger societal challenges around that too.

Dai: I mean, I think it is a very worrying time for journalism. For us covering, for example, the tech sector, which is now where the most powerful and the richest companies and the most influential companies of the world exist, it's not crazy for us to have one beat reporter. Like I have one beat reporter. I'm the one beat reporter covering Google. There are hundreds of communications people at Google, right? It's impossible to match them in body count. It's important for us to keep these powerful people to account. There's ways to do it that's fair. A lot of these companies do incredible things. I don't discount that at all. Google has made the internet usable. AWS has launched hundreds of startups because it's a lot of whole new way of companies to buy and use technology. I don't discount the importance of that, but that also doesn't give them the right, I think not them as in AWS, but companies in general to do whatever they want.

I think that it's important for us as reporters and journalists to look at these companies with a critical eye, especially when they are so influential to society at large. The things that they do make a huge difference in the day to day lives of people who are really far removed from the seat of power. We can do a service for a lot of readers and a lot of people who rely on these companies for many, many aspects of their lives.

Corey: I think that that is one of the most impactful things that you could say at this point. You're right. Holding power to account is incredibly valuable. It is the entire purpose behind a free press. I think that that is something that we protect at almost any cost. That said, I do have sympathy for some of the corporate comms folks and the rest. I mean, on the scale of Amazon tier companies, I'm a nobody and I'm perfectly okay with that because I can shoot my mouth off about whatever I want. Worst case, I have to apologize. If you wind up saying something as a representative of Amazon that gets misconstrued and it moves the stock price 1%, that's about $10 billion. That is orders of magnitude more than it costs to have me killed. The higher you rise, the less you can say off the cuff and the more everything has to be scripted and rehearsed. They have that challenge. I empathize with them. Truly I do, but not at the expense of the larger good of society.

Dai: I mean, I think the thing that really bugs us a lot is for ages we had a really hard time getting comms people to put their names on statements. A lot of times companies will have statements that are very innocuous, just we believe in helping customers live a better life. Then when you go to the comms people and you say, "Oh, can we put your name on that?" Then it's like, "Oh, Well." It's like, well part of your job is to deal with the press. If part of that is to put yourself out there ... I don't know. I just sometimes feel like there's this whole group of comms people who see their job not necessarily as informing the process, but more in managing the press and wrangling the press. I don't know. I guess I have less sympathy for corporate comms than you. But I recognize that I'm-

Corey: It is the absolute opposite of a job that's appropriate for me. I mean, their entire role is to say no comment, and I have a comment for everything.

Dai: Yes. That's why I as a reporter enjoy talking to you.

Corey: If nothing else, I certainly stonewall. Do you have anything to say on this? Well, of course I do. I know nothing about it, but I'm thrilled to shoot my mouth off anyway. If people want to learn more about what you have to say, follow your exploits, where can they find you?

Dai: I have a Twitter account @DaiWaka. D-A-I-W-A-K-A. Obviously I publish in the New York Times, but that's probably the two key ways.

Corey: Excellent. I will put links to those things in the show notes.

Dai: Here's what I will say. I appreciate the feedback. If anyone wants to get in touch with me, wants to talk to me about the story and feels like I misunderstood something or just kind of wants to help me be better, which I can always be and I'm always open to, they can email me. That's [email protected].

Corey: You are a braver person than I. You have enough reach saying, "Oh yeah, anyone who wants to can wind up getting back to me." I can't imagine what that's like. I mean I wind up telling people they can hit reply to my stupid newsletter and it hits my inbox. The reason I can do that is because no one ever does. On a busy week, I'll get a dozen email responses. At your scale, I have to imagine that it'd be thousands.

Dai: No, but I get my share of enthusiastic people. That's a euphemism. I think it's great. I love talking to readers and I love responding to people. I respond to people on Twitter sometimes. That can be a dicey game, but often it usually ends up in a positive experience. I always love the feedback and even if it's negative, I'm happy to have the conversation.

Corey: Excellent. Thank you so much once again for your time.

Dai: My pleasure, Corey. Thanks.

Corey: Dai Wakabayashi, New York Times reporter focusing on technology. I'm Corey Quinn. This is Screaming in the Cloud. If you've enjoyed this podcast, please leave it an excellent rating on Apple podcasts. If you've hated this podcast, please leave an even better rating on Apple podcasts.

Announcer: This has been this week's episode of Screaming in the Cloud. You can also find more Corey at screaminginthecloud.com or wherever fine snark is sold. 

This has been a HumblePod production. Stay humble.

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