India primed: what Amazon's vast new Hyderabad campus reveals about its plans

Amrit Dhillon in Hyderabad
Photograph: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

The futuristic lobby of the new Amazon building in Hyderabad feels as though it should have a permanent orchestra blasting out Also Sprach Zarathustra. The scale is intended to awe. A large slogan on a wall suggests the company is “Delivering smiles”. The only sound that rises above the hush is a synthesised beep, coming from a giant screen playing a video of the campus at various stages of its construction.

Built on nine acres in this Indian city’s financial district, it is Amazon’s single largest building globally and the only Amazon-owned campus outside the US. It can house over 15,000 employees, but its size is its main architectural feature: it resembles the same cube of glass steel and chrome seen in corporate offices across Hyderabad, though a flash of magenta reflected in one of the top floor windows, from a billowing sari across the road, is a nice Indian touch.

Other features are typically Amazonian. A huge cafeteria the size of an airport food court offers multiple cuisines for up to 2,500 people at a time; the leadership principles of CEO Jeff Bezos (“It’s always Day One”) adorn the walls of each of the 13 floors. Breakout seating allows employees to collaborate, while for privacy there are “huddle” rooms, and other “focus” rooms for brainstorming. Even the café in the lobby has mentally stimulating games on the tables such as chess and metal loop puzzles, presumably to provide what the company calls the building’s “agile-based environment”.

The building represents something of a coup for Hyderabad, and a milestone in the city’s quest to be a rival to Silicon Valley. A study this year from Oxford Economics predicted all the 10 fastest-growing cities by GDP between 2019 and 2035 will be in India; Hyderabad is growing fourth-fastest on that list, and after Bangalore it is the country’s second biggest technology hub.

The signs of the building frenzy are everywhere: cranes dot the sky, with commercial and residential buildings rising from the stony terrain Hyderabad was once known for. Huge flyovers are being built to relieve – or perhaps foster – traffic, a dozen new shopping malls are set to open next year, and migrants are pouring in looking for work. Great clouds of construction dust swirl everywhere, enveloping the city in a pall of smog.

There are characteristic Amazon touches to the building, such as areas for table tennis, pool and air hockey. There are Zumba classes, a Treadwall and even a small synthetic cricket pitch. Photograph: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As well as a bustling economy and an educated software workforce, Amazon’s choice was also determined by the size of the almost virgin e-commerce market here. Billions of Indians still do their shopping locally: approximately 12m neighbourhood shops account for almost 90% of the country’s retail sales. Online shopping is minuscule. By 2022, however, India will have 829 million smartphone users, according to a report by Cisco Systems, and when they start shopping online, the demand for food, gadgets, clothes and music and online services is likely to explode: estimates put it at $200bn (£150bn) by 2028, up from about $30bn last year.

The world’s retail giants want some of that money. There are three main players: Amazon; Flipkart, an Indian firm acquired by Walmart last year for $16bn; and Reliance Retail, owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani.

To fight this war, Amazon has 50 “fulfilment centres” in 13 states, as well as hundreds of delivery stations and sort centres. “We now deliver to 99.6% of serviceable [zip] codes in India,” says Shashank Rathod, public relations specialist for Amazon India.

Because many streets and houses in this vast country are not numbered, Amazon has tied up with shopkeepers in small towns and villages to deliver orders. “Tens of thousands of local stores and service providers have joined as partners in our digital ecosystem and sharing in Amazon’s growth,” said an Amazon India spokesperson.

The leadership principles of CEO Jeff Bezos adorn the walls of each of the 13 floors. Photograph: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Otherwise, although there are Indian flourishes to the building – the country’s many different cultures, languages, arts, architecture, films and crafts are reflected on each floor, while the groundbreaking ceremony invited Hindu priests to perform Vedic rituals with oil lamps and the ceremonial breaking of coconuts – it otherwise very much embodies the culture of big tech multinationals.

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A dedicated play area allows fatigued coders to play table tennis, pool and air hockey. There are Zumba classes, a Treadwall and a small synthetic cricket pitch, where software engineer Mahesh Umamahesh is one of the fielders. “I come here about once a day because I feel my productivity improves after I feel fresh,” he says. “I don’t feel any guilt because it makes me more productive.”

Meanwhile the company is experimenting with using Alexa to keep employees informed: there are Alexa “pods” where employees can access information about the company’s policies and facilities. At a recent all-company meeting, the speakers were announced not by microphone but by Alexa.

Also visible is Bezos’s “Empty Chair” principle, in which the CEO insists one chair at meetings be kept vacant, to symbolise the customer. In India, the company now has another one billion of them squarely in its sights.

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