This week has not been a great one for employees in Big Tech. Twitter laid off half of its staff, Meta laid off 13% of its workforce (though a larger number of people than Twitter, which only had 7500 when Elon purchased the company). Now, Amazon has reportedly begun its own round of layoffs. Among these layoffs was the Robotics Team, which has been responsible for the company's robotic ambitions, according to Jamie Zhang, a former member of the team.
According to Zhang,
My 1.5yrs tenure at Amazon Robotics AI came to an end in a surprising layoff (our entire robotics team was gone!)
It was a great journey to work alongside the amazing leaders and engineers, and for my part to help build out large-scale distributed systems via AWS for our robotics CI / CD pipelines. Thank you all for making me a better software engineer in the process.
Robots Team's value to Amazon
It isn't easy to truly analyze the team's value within the company. Many of their successes are internal projects that exist within the company's own warehouses. Outside of the warehouse, the team has also been responsible for the company's delivery technology. This includes the rolling delivery bots, as well as the controversial delivery drones. The company's drones even received an upgrade this week, shortly before the layoffs, to address some of the natural issues with the technology.
However, the team's value lessened significantly recently, as Amazon purchased iRobot, the leading designer and manufacturer of consumer robotics. iRobot makes the Roomba line, among others, showing that they can not only design and build a winning product, but they can also market that technology to customers. After spending $1.7 billion on the acquisition of a successful robotics brand, putting them in charge of the company's robotic ambitions actually makes sense.
Other team troubles
The Robotics Team isn't the only one with employees on the chopping block. Other Amazon divisions have been having financial issues due to over ambitious plans without consumer demand, while costing the company billions. For example, the Alexa team appears to be in danger of major layoffs. The company put a lot of effort into creating and planning interesting enhancements to the platform while the majority of consumers use Alexa for simple tasks.
So, why expend the resources to create experiences that users aren't using when they could, instead, enhance the parts of the platform that are currently in demand. Imagine if a smaller team could focus on not making major and high profile mistakes, like telling people in Tennessee that all polling locations were closed on Election Day 2022. Or giving more control over the way Alexa answers questions, which users have been asking for. It would make people more engaged with the platform while costing less money. Currently, the Alexa team costs Amazon about $2 billion annually, as the brand does not turn a profit.
All of this could just be the beginning, if other Big Tech companies are any indication of how things are going.