A.I. Expert at Baidu, Andrew Ng, Resigns From Chinese Search Giant – The New York Times (Mar 22, 2017)
This story is notable for two reasons. Firstly, Baidu especially and Chinese companies in general are often overlooked completely in discussions of who’s making big investments in AI and machine learning, and yet Baidu has made massive investments in this area, and recently hired former Microsoft exec Qi Lu to be its COO and to oversee its AI efforts. Secondly, despite Qi Lu’s recent arrival, the trend of former Silicon Valley execs joining big Chinese tech companies still has fewer long-term success stories than short-term fizzles, as this article points out. Both Hugo Barra and Andrew Ng’s move to Chinese companies were seen as highly symbolic, and as such it’s inevitable that their departures should be too. The big Chinese companies are doing good work, and in some cases pioneering new product and service categories, across a number of different areas, but attracting and keeping high-profile talent from the US (even those with ties to Greater China – Ng was born in the UK to parents from Hong Kong) remains tough.
via New York Times
Uber president Jeff Jones is quitting, citing differences over ‘beliefs and approach to leadership’ – Recode (Mar 20, 2017)
This is the first high-profile departure from Uber’s executive ranks which is being explicitly described as a response to the toxic culture at the company – Amit Singhal was forced out, while Ed Baker’s reasons for leaving were at least somewhat opaque. But Jeff Jones is, at least by his telling, leaving precisely because of the toxic culture and an unwillingness to stay at a company where he clearly doesn’t feel comfortable. Travis Kalanick’s explanation – which I think can probably be dismissed as face-saving – is that Jones decided to leave after Kalanick announced that he was hiring a COO. The fact that Recode had sources saying Jones’ reason for leaving was cultural even before Jones himself spoke out certainly reinforces that fact. Kalanick’s response just reinforces the sense that he hasn’t changed at all, and that if Uber’s culture is going to change meaningfully, that COO had better be a very strong individual, able to stand up to Kalanick and force real changes.
Given the brevity of Moore’s tenure at Loon, it looks like things didn’t turn out so well, which is a bit surprising given he was thought to be the kind of business brain who would align well with Alphabet’s new, more focused strategy. It’s also a bit surprising because Loon had recently announced that it was making progress in streamlining its technology and therefore getting closer to the point where it might make money. In the end, Moore seems to be either another executive who didn’t jive with the way Alphabet is being run now, or perhaps merely had conflicts with other managers around him.
Small follow-up on yesterday’s Information piece about Uber trying to hire a number two for Travis Kalanick. That news is now official, though Kara Swisher here also reports that Uber is looking to put another woman on its board, and that the board would prefer the COO to be a woman as well. That echoes both what I said here yesterday and what I implied last week in my Techpinions piece on CEOs and corporate culture: fixing Uber’s problems will be a lot easier with a woman in a senior executive role.
In my Techpinions column last week, I argued that it’s enormously difficult to change corporate culture when the CEO is part of the resistance rather than driving the change, and also pointed out that the cultures that have often been least friendly to female employees are those without women in senior leadership roles. Uber fits the bill perfectly on both counts here, so bringing in a number two to Kalanick, ideally a woman, would be a great next step in helping turn Uber’s culture around. This article suggests Kalanick is looking to bring in a number two, but there’s no explicit mention of bringing in a first female exec. I’m still not convinced he’s capable of making the changes he needs to make, so if that second in command isn’t a powerful person in her own right, there’s a danger that this ends up being just more window dressing.
My apologies if you’re getting sick of Uber news this week, but here’s yet another. This one is tough to read, because the tie to the current investigation and fallout from the Susan Fowler post is more tenuous than with Amit Singhal – there’s a brief reference to an allegation of impropriety in this report, but it’s not substantiated or detailed. And unlike Singhal, who had barely got his seat warm, Baker had been at Uber for three years and been an integral part of its growth over that time. In general, as that Information article I just linked to indicates, he’s been a very well respected member of the team at Uber, so I’m inclined not to over-emphasize the link to sexual harassment issues. It’s possible that the timing is coincidental, though it’s obviously a particular loss coming right now with everything else that’s going on.
It looks like Yahoo is finally announcing the results of its independent investigation into the security breaches of the last few years, and as a result its general counsel is stepping down and CEO Marissa Mayer is losing her bonus and equity grant for the year, a decision apparently made by the board. Yahoo’s 10-K, also released today, gives a little more detail on the investigation, which was carried out by members of the board, assisted by outside counsel and a forensics expert. The investigation concluded that senior executives “did not properly comprehend or investigate, and therefore failed to act sufficiently upon, the full extent of knowledge known internally by the Company’s information security team.” That implies that it was executives and not security specialists within the company who messed up here, which explains why Mayer and general counsel Ronald Bell were punished. The paragraph on the findings is worth reading in full as it’s fairly damning about internal communication at Yahoo at the time. And yet this is all part of clearing the decks before Verizon takes over, at which point it will be hoping to put all this behind it. Not the best way for Mayer to go out, but I think that was inevitable at this point.
Apple exec for business sales departs – Reuters (Feb 7, 2017)
John Solomon certainly isn’t a high profile figure outside of Apple, but he’s been managing an important aspect of Apple’s overall business: enterprise sales, which make up around 10% of total revenues. His appointment was met with some raised eyebrows among the Apple faithful – a printer salesman as Apple employee? – but the key here isn’t product expertise but knowing how to navigate the enterprise procurement world, which Solomon no doubt understood well. The point is, there are lots of people that understand that world, so he shouldn’t be too hard to replace, and Apple could probably use some fresh help here in supporting their recent partnerships with IBM, Cisco, Deloitte and others with a really solid sales approach.
Periscope CEO Kayvon Beykpour is now running all of Twitter’s live video products- Recode (Feb 6, 2017)
Live video is a big focus for Twitter, arguably to the exclusion of almost any other major innovation in the core product, and so it makes sense that it has a leader who reports directly to Jack Dorsey. But Twitter has always had two approaches to live video: Periscope, the original play, is a standalone app focused on user-generated content, and then there are all Twitter’s live video partnerships with existing content owners like the NFL and Bloomberg. It makes sense to start bringing these products together under a single leadership to make sure they work together effectively, but I think it’s also quite possible that we start to see Periscope integrated more into the core app and lose some of its identity as a separate product. Hopefully this will also free up Keith Coleman, who runs product at Twitter, to focus on all the other things that need fixing.
Another departure from Apple who now shows up elsewhere, this time Nest, itself the subject of recent executive departures. Matsuoka has a long history at Google/Alphabet, and was only at Apple for a brief time – it sounds like the role there just wasn’t a good fit, and perhaps Tony Fadell’s departure at Nest reassured her that the sometimes toxic culture there is changing for the better. In and of itself, not an enormously significant departure from Apple, but obviously now part of a recent string of departures, something that’s worth watching for any signs there’s anything more going on than the usual turnover of talented people on the hunt for the next challenge.
Hugo Barra is leaving his position as head of international at Xiaomi after 3.5 years – TechCrunch (Jan 23, 2017)
I attended Xiaomi’s press conference at CES earlier this month, and once again the company disappointed by not bringing more of its big products to the US. Although Hugo Barra has been in charge of Xiaomi’s international expansion for three and a half years, it has mostly expanded into other markets like India rather than major mature markets like the US or European countries. Ostensibly, Barra’s reasons for departing now are personal – he misses friends and family in the US, and wants to return there. But I wonder if he’s also been frustrated by Xiaomi’s lack of progress in pushing into some of those big markets. It’s impossible to know who’s been making the final decision on some of those moves – whether Barra or CEO Lei Jun – but not making it into the most high profile markets outside of China as head of international must feel like something of a failure. As with other recent high profile executive moves, it’s tempting to see this as a sign of broader troubles at Xiaomi, and things do seem to have been going poorly there recently, but this is so far something of an isolated case.
Join Our Board: Companies Hotly Pursue New Wave of Women in Tech – The New York Times (Dec 30, 2016)
Board positions are one of the most visible aspects of a company’s commitment to diversity (or lack thereof), and this means competition for women to sit on boards is at an all-time high. That’s a good thing, but it’s still far less common at lower levels in companies to have this kind of commitment to hiring women or other underrepresented groups in tech.
Jack Dorsey sought user input on what Twitter needs to do next today through Twitter itself, and one of the big requests was an editing feature, which it appears he’s inclined to support. He also conceded the company needed to do more on harassment, which continues to be a big turnoff for potential users. And yet I suspect the changes Twitter needs to make most won’t be suggested by existing users because they relate to on-boarding and capturing a new slice of users that don’t currently see value in Twitter or find it too hard to use.
Another day, another negative story about Faraday Future. At this point, I’m wondering whether there will even be anyone left to present at FF’s CES press conference next week. Certainly, all this bad press is unhelpful both to FF itself and to its major investor, LeEco, which is making its big push into the US too.
This is definitely part of the Twitter is Stuck narrative, one that I have argued for myself. Twitter seems unable to retain senior executives, and late 2016 saw a real exodus from management ranks. I suspect 2017 will make or break Jack Dorsey as CEO – the paradox here is that he seems to want to control product, but is also running two companies at once, leaving him unable to dedicate enough time to the project while also squeezing out those who could devote the appropriate resources to the job.