Narrative: Uber's Culture is Toxic
Each narrative page (like this) has a page describing and evaluating the narrative, followed by all the posts on the site tagged with that narrative. Scroll down beyond the introduction to see the posts.
Each post below is tagged with Company/Division namesTopicsandNarratives as appropriate.
Updated: June 23, 2017
★ Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Finally Does the Right Thing and Resigns
Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick has finally bowed to pressure from investors in the company and resigned. It doesn't look like Uber has issued an official statement at this point, but Recode claims to have confirmed the news following a letter from a number of big investors demanding his resignation. At various points since Uber started melting down in January, I've both said that Travis Kalanick was the source of the company's cultural problems and therefore that it would be very hard for the company to truly change with him still in place, and also as recently as last week said that resignations of other top executives felt hollow when Kalanick had in many places been involved in or at least aware of their wrongful actions. For many years, Kalanick's closest allies within the company were protected by him even when acting egregiously, and that circle had tightened to just Kalanick himself in recent weeks, but did still include him, making all the changes Uber was making ring rather hollow
Uber Board Member Resigns over Sexist Comment at Meeting about Harassment
Though I hesitate to write yet another Uber piece this week, this one is worth mentioning just because it illustrates how all the formal investigations and programs in the world can't instantly change the individuals in a company or the culture they collectively embody. It appears that at the internal Uber meeting to announce the conclusion of the Holder investigation and how its recommendations would be rolled out, board member David Bonderman made what certainly came off as a highly sexist remark. Though he suggests the remark was misunderstood, it was almost impossibly tone deaf in the context, and he has subsequently resigned from the Uber board, which feels like the only way this could have ended once word got out. But it's symbolic of both just how hard changing culture actually is when some biases and mindsets are so deeply ingrained, and also of how differently Uber is going to approach all these issues going forward, with much less tolerance for any missteps. That's a good thi
★ Uber Investigation Recommends Many Changes; Travis Kalanick Takes Leave of Absence
The long-awaited investigation by Eric Holder and Tammy Albarrán of law firm Covington & Burling into the workplace culture at Uber has concluded and its recommendations made public. The fact that the report contains twelve pages of recommendations is evidence in and of itself just how broken the corporate culture at Uber has become, and quite how much it needs to change. That change, the recommendations suggest, needs to start at the top with the composition, independence, and responsibilities of the board, and work its way down through the CEO, Travis Kalanick (some of whose responsibilities should be handed over to others), and on from there. The changes recommended are sweeping, which seems appropriate given just how badly things have gone, and importantly they include many layers of accountability with real consequences attached to both good and bad behavior from performance reviews to financial incentives. Travis Kalanick is apparently going to take a leave of absence, partl
Uber SVP Emil Michael Leaves Company and Board Gets a New Female Member from Nestle
Any other week, I'd have made this a top post – it's momentous – but of course we're all waiting for the other shoe to drop on Tuesday in terms of the release of the Holder report to employees at Uber and hopefully to the rest of us too. As such, Emil Michael's departure merely feels like the tipoff for a week of big announcements and changes. But his departure is also somewhat problematic because many of his missteps also involved or were supported by Travis Kalanick. In other words, if his past actions merited being pushed out of the door (and they certainly did) then Kalanick staying feels like a sign of a double standard. Either those actions warranted those responsible being fired, or they didn't. However, symbolically, Michael's departure signals the end of an era in which Kalanick's top people pretty much got to stay no matter what they'd done, something we've seen signs of changing in recent weeks with several other departures, not least that of Anthony Levandowski. Also wo
Uber Fires Exec, Loses Bid to Keep Doc Private, Says Management Changes Coming
Rather than treat each of yet another set of Uber news as a separate item, I'm bundling three together into a single grab-bag item here. The most notable (and damaging) is the revelation that one of Uber's senior execs in Asia led an effort to obtain the medical records of an Uber passenger who was raped by her driver and shared the records with CEO Travis Kalanick and others. He wasn't fired as part of the 20 terminations that resulted from the first investigation which concluded this week, but has apparently been subsequently, allegedly as a result of the digging by Recode reporters. That's somewhat absurd given how far-reaching and aggressive the investigation was said to have been, but may reflect a slightly higher bar for executive behavior being set as a result of recent
★ Uber Fires 20 and Takes Action Against Others Over Inappropriate Behavior
The first of two concurrent investigations at Uber has resulted in the termination of over 20 employees over harassment and other inappropriate behavior, while 57 incidents are still under investigation, and some 100 of 215 HR claims have been dismissed without action. That such extensive action should be taken only as a result of an independent investigation by a law firm even though Uber's own HR department took no such action on these issues is pretty shocking. But in some ways even more shocking is the fact that Uber's head of HR played down harassment and other similar issues in comments as recently as last week, when she and other executives at Uber must have known this was coming soon. Her comments last week no longer seem merely disingenuous or tone deaf but downright misleading, which raises real questions about why she would make such claims jus
Uber’s HR Head Disingenuously Downplays Harassment and Discrimination Issues
In what's really not a great sign ahead of the release of Uber's "independent" investigation into its workplace culture, it's HR head has said she has found that discrimination and harassment really weren't major issues internally relative to other employee concerns. That doesn't really answer several other questions including whether they are issues at all, and whether perhaps employees don't feel comfortable sharing their real feelings with internal management for all the reasons others have said. It's still possible that the investigation will reach different conclusions, but this quote feels tone deaf and designed – as with past comments from board member Arianna Huffington – to get the retaliation in first. That doesn't seem likely to be successful: the reaction I've seen on Twitter today to the quotes in the piece has been very negative.
Uber’s Relationship with Pittsburgh Worsens
I've covered this story twice before, when it's been covered in a lower-profile way by Quartz. There's not a ton that's new here, but this article in the Times does indicate a further worsening of the relationship and an even greater willingness on the part of officials in the city to speak out. Uber basically made a set of promises when it first courted the city as a hub for its self-driving efforts which it has failed to keep. Unfortunately for the city, the mayor seems to have been so starstruck and/or desperate that he failed to get any of those commitments in writing. But that Uber would fail to deliver on many of its promises shouldn't surprise anyone at this point – the company's relationsh
Uber Had a Program Called Hell Designed to Undermine Lyft
It sounds like this it has now ended, but Amir Efrati at The Information has a report that Uber used to run a program named Hell which was designed to undermine its major US competitor, Lyft. The program pretended to be multiple Lyft customers and was therefore able to track where Lyft's cars where in an effort to lure drivers to drive exclusively for Uber. One interesting side effect was that Uber actually offered bonuses to these non-monogamous drivers compared to what it paid those who drove for Uber exclusivity, which must seem a little perverse to those loyal Uber drivers. Amir also argues that Uber's misuse of Lyft's app was a violation of its terms of service and might also have broken the law, though I doubt Lyft will sue over it. This certainly isn't the first time we've heard about Uber engaging in underhanded tactics to beat Lyft – there were lots of stories a couple of years ago about Uber reps calling Lyft cars and canceling, or getting in the cars and then trying to get
Uber’s first diversity report is not the worst thing ever – TechCrunch
TechCrunch wasn't the only publication to go with a headline like this, and it makes sense: Uber's diversity report in many ways mirrors those from other big companies in the tech industry, and doesn't appear noticeably worse on several of the big metrics. Indeed, if you were reading the report itself including the commentary about the various efforts Uber is engaged in, you'd get the impression that Uber was a forward-looking, tolerant, diverse, and vibrant place for people of all backgrounds to work. And that's the problem with these reports – they say nothing about what it's actually like to work at the company if you're in one of the underrepresented groups, and we know from recent news that Uber can actually be pretty awful if you're a woman, especially in a technical role. So even though Uber comes off not much worse than other big tech companies from the report alone, that shouldn't be all that reassuring. Since this is the first of these reports, we also have zero data about
Uber president Jeff Jones is quitting, citing differences over ‘beliefs and approach to leadership’ – Recode
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 J
Alphabet’s Waymo filed an injunction against Uber for allegedly stealing intellectual property – Recode
The fact that Waymo is suing Uber isn't new, but this new step of filing for an injunction is, and that's important because it could speed things up considerably. Judging the case in full could have taken months if not years, but a request for an injunction will involve convincing a judge in a much shorter space of time that there's enough merit to the case for him or her to intervene in the near term. So we'll know rather sooner how solid Waymo's case here is, and will likely also get additional details from both sides about exactly what's been going on. Importantly, we'll get more from Uber than its brief initial statement about the accusations being baseless, which will be intriguing because from where I sit the forensic evidence looks fairly compelling. As I've said before, though, the toughest aspect of this for Waymo and its lawyers is proving that Levandowski actual
Uber Changes Policy on Greyball App for Evading Law Enforcement
Uber has issued a statement announcing that it is ceasing the use of its Greyball platform for evading law enforcement and regulators, and that it's in the process of responding to "organizations" (presumably regulators and law enforcement personnel in the cities where the platform previously did operate) who have enquired about it. This is striking because Uber's initial response to the New York Times report was brazen in its lack of contrition – it had acted as though it saw nothing wrong, but has clearly now had a change of heart. The wording of today's announcement certainly seems to concede that it did use the tool for evading regulators in the past, and even suggests it may continue to do so in the near future because of unspecified elements of how it works, which seems bizarre.
Actually, Uber’s PR disasters aren’t that great for Lyft – Recode
This is interesting data which confirms something that I've always suspected but never had more than gut feel to go on: that matters of principle rarely cause large scale and lasting changes in consumer behavior. In other words, even with the high profile and almost continuous coverage of everything going on at Uber at the moment, only relatively small numbers of people seem to be switching to Lyft, and they seem to be doing so fairly temporarily. The article cites spend data from a company called TXN which shows only a brief and switch of spending from Uber to Lyft in a couple of cities, which appears to represent roughly 5-10 points of market share at its peak. Convenience, habit, peer pressure and a myriad of other factors all likely weigh as heavily or more so in decisions to use a service or not, and Lyft's big problem is that in many cities it's simply not as big as Uber is. In the two cities cited here, it looks like Uber had two thirds and four fifths of spending at its nadir f
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick just told staff he’s hiring a COO to help him – Recode
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.
Uber’s VP of product and growth Ed Baker has resigned – Recode
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 th
How Uber Used Secret Greyball Tool to Deceive Authorities Worldwide – New York Times
I think there may have been one day in the past week when there wasn't some new negative story about Uber, and that's just based on what I've written about here. The latest is reporting from the New York Times that Uber has a program called Greyball which identifies app users who may not be who they seem and serves up fake cars or otherwise obfuscates the real activity going on with drivers in the area. Although there are some legitimate reasons for Uber to do something like this – for a time, competitors were frequently ordering and canceling cars – it was deliberately used to evade law enforcement in places where Uber was breaking local laws. Its statement in the article suggests it sees nothing wrong with this behavior, but characterizes this last scenario as "opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers". One might, I suppose, make a similar argument about police running speed traps, but radar detectors are illegal in some places anyway. T
In Video, Uber CEO Argues With Driver Over Falling Fares – Bloomberg
I know I used the phrase "another day, another ugly story about Uber" yesterday, but it's literally another day and yet another story today. This time, it's CEO Travis Kalanick recorded by one of his drivers who asked him some questions about pricing for the black car tier Uber offers. I'd actually argue that most of the conversation is pretty reasonable on Kalanick's part, but right at the end he apparently loses his temper and we get to see how he really feels about all this, reinforcing the sense that Uber doesn't really care about or understand its drivers and their needs. Here's the point I made with regard to the sexual harassment allegations, and
Uber’s SVP of engineering is out after he did not disclose he left Google in a dispute over sexual harassment allegation – Recode
Another day, another ugly story about Uber. This time, it's that its brand-new SVP of engineering, who joined Uber just last month, appears to have left Google under a cloud surrounding allegations of sexual harassment. There was an initial investigation and apparently some planning towards firing Singhal, but as he resigned proactively those plans were never carried out, which certainly helped keep the allegations under wraps. But Singhal apparently failed to inform Uber of these circumstances when he left, and he's now been asked to resign from Uber. I suspect that, were Uber not having the month it's having, Singhal might have survived, but in the circumstances there was no way he could be allowed to stay. Singhal's hiring was seen as a coup when he arrived (see the comment linked above), and it's into such a senior role I wonder how Uber is going to fill the gap. Clearly, it though that
Uber’s Car Was Driving Itself When it Ran a Red Light in San Francisco – NYTimes
During the very brief period when Uber's self-driving cars were operating in San Francisco, one of them ran a red light. However, the company at the time engaged in some audacious spin and claimed the car was being driven by a human at the time and that the incident just highlighted the benefits of autonomy. Now, however, the Times is reporting that the car was supposed to be driving itself at that time and the human driver merely failed to intervene in a timely fashion. If validation were needed that the California DMV made the right decision when it stopped Uber from testing its cars without a license, here it is. But this is also yet another case of Uber acting like the rules that apply to everyone else don't apply to it, and outright lying when it gets caught. And that in turn makes it very hard to believe it when it claims it's in compli
Waymo Sues Uber over Stealing of Confidential Information
Alphabet autonomous driving subsidiary Waymo is suing Uber and its Otto subsidiary over alleged stealing of confidential information by Anthony Levandowski, who was one of the early executives at Waymo and subsequently left abruptly in early 2016 and immediately unveiled a self-driving truck company, Otto. That company, in turn, was acquired just a few months later by Uber. Waymo has done some fairly detailed investigate work that's outlined in the complaint, and discovered that six weeks before Levandowski's resignation, he downloaded lots of files from Waymo's servers, and it argues that these in turn informed Otto's (now Uber's) LiDAR designs. As this blog post from Waymo says, fierce competition in autonomous driving technology is a good thing – it's pushing the market forward rapidly and leading to some great innovations that should benefit consumers. But there are obviously lines companies shouldn't cross as they compete, and this would be one of those, if it's proven to be tru
A former Uber employee’s disturbing claims of workplace sexism reignite calls to #deleteUber – Recode
On the one hand, this is an awful set of accusations regarding Uber and a culture of misogyny and damaging internal politics, and on the other I suspect most people who follow Uber won't be surprised. The company has long been known for a bro culture which starts at the top with Travis Kalanick, and it seems to have done very little to change that culture. Corporate cultures are very powerful things, and very hard to change once established. Uber early on created a culture of intense competition both internally and externally – a culture where winning at all costs is what matters – and no matter what executives have said in formal settings since, their early actions have spoken much louder, and it appears that the culture at Uber is deeply toxic, especially for women. Travis Kalanick has predictably responded with feigned outrage, despite the fact that at the very leas
Uber’s public Q&A with drivers was a disaster – The Verge
Uber's relationship with drivers has often been contentious, and it appears that even when the company is trying to "listen" to its drivers more, things often go wrong, as in this case. The big problem is that there are simply too many deep-seated frustrations and problems in Uber's relationship with its drivers for them to be substantively addressed during such a public Q&A session, and Uber's management should have known this. Without first establishing a level of trust and ongoing communication over a longer period of time, these occasional opportunities become venting sessions for drivers who feel like they're not being heard, which makes them unproductive for all concerned. Uber needs to do better at really listening to its drivers regularly (something it sounds like Jeff Jones does at least try to do semi-regularly in smaller groups), but more importantly it needs to get better at actually addressing their big concerns.
Uber C.E.O. Leaves Trump Advisory Council After Criticism – The New York Times
Uber has been by far the tech company hardest hit by the combination of its overall relationship with Trump and its response to the immigration actions last week, in some cases perhaps unfairly. But it was Travis Kalanick's position on one of Trump's advisory councils, and his apparent complete willingness to be close to the administration, which set the context for all that followed. Without his perceived indifference to what many others in the tech industry have seen as a deeply flawed administration, I suspect Uber's actions over the past week wouldn't have been seen in the same light, and as such his position on the advisory council was at least as much to blame as specific actions taken since last Friday. His departure from the council comes fairly late in the game, and so it's not clear what difference it will make now – the narrative is fairly set at this poi
Silicon Valley’s responses to Trump’s immigration executive orders, from strongest to weakest – The Verge
This is a good summary of the responses from the tech industry so far to President Trump's executive orders on immigration from Friday. It also does a nice job sorting the responses by strength – there's quite a range in the responses, from those focusing narrowly on the practical impacts on employees of each company to those issuing broader moral condemnations of the policy. This certainly won't be the last we hear on this topic. It's notable that as of right now Amazon is one of the major holdouts among the big consumer tech companies.
via The Verge
Note: this narrative was the subject of the Weekly Narrative Video for the week of June 19-23, 2017. You can see the video on YouTube here, or view it embedded at the bottom of this essay.
Uber’s first six months of 2017 have to have been one of the direst half-years in any big tech company’s history: between political controversy, its treatment of women, its attempts to circumvent law enforcement, and its attitude towards drivers, the last few months have brought to a head just how awful Uber’s culture is both as regards its own employees and others from drivers to regulators. And if there’s one common thread in this Uber meltdown, it’s that Uber’s internal culture is toxic, and it’s toxic largely because of its CEO.
This isn’t actually a new thing – Uber has been accused of immoral and illegal behavior for years, and I have a whole separate narratives about its treatment of its drivers and its flouting of regulation which each cite histories of bad behavior. I also wrote back in 2014 about Uber’s competition with Lyft and the way in which its approach to that competition has fostered immoral and illegal behavior.
Let’s review the specific history here (there’s a detailed timeline with links to individual posts from its early-2017 meltdown above as well):
- Uber offered one of the weaker and more equivocal responses among major tech companies to the Trump executive orders, reinforcing perceptions that Travis Kalanick was fairly happy with the administration’s policies
- That, in turn, was made worse by perceptions that Uber was attempting to break a strike by New York City taxi drivers during the ensuing immigration protests, leading to calls to delete Uber, which resulted in 200,000 customer losses and ultimately Kalanick’s resignation from the Trump advisory council
- Things got markedly worse for Uber when Susan Fowler, a former engineer at the company, posted a detailed but very measured account of her mistreatment while an employee, sparking a formal semi-independent investigation
- It then emerged that recently installed SVP Engineering Amit Singhal had left Google under something of a cloud relating to sexual harassment claims, which in turn prompted his resignation from Uber
- A video recorded by an Uber driver showed Travis Kalanick first arguing with the driver and then ultimately insultingly dismissing the driver’s concerns while storming off, reinforcing perceptions about his and Uber’s disregard for drivers
- The New York Times reported that the self-driving car Uber had strongly implied was being driven by a human being while it ran a red light during Uber’s very brief stint of testing in San Francisco in late 2016 was in fact driving itself
- Another senior executive resigned amid some more tenuous connections to past sexual harassment allegations.
- As a result of all this, but especially the driver video, Travis Kalanick finally conceded that he needed to change, and subsequently announced that he was formally looking to hire a COO to help him run the company.
- Two separate investigations by different law firms were then launched, on the one hand into specific allegations of wrongdoing within the company, and on the other hand into the culture that allowed those things to occur without repercussions. The investigation into specific actions resulted in the firings of a number of employees and less dramatic action against others, with quite a few cases still being investigated. The Eric Holder report, meanwhile, led to a 12-page report full of recommendations for change, which the board unanimously adopted.
- Eventually, Travis Kalanick was pressured by investors to resign and stepped down as CEO, though as of this writing he remains fairly involved in the company, not least as part of the search committee to appoint a new CEO in his place.
The reality is that Kalanick is at the root of Uber’s cultural problems, which stem in part from his naturally combative and aggressive personality and in part from a prioritization of winning over all else at the company. Uber has essentially no moral cultural values at all – success in achieving its corporate goals is the single overriding value, and that has led it to both implicitly and explicitly devalue all else, including diversity, proper treatment of employees and drivers, respect for the law, and much else besides.
That raised a big question: is it possible for Uber to change while Kalanick remains in charge, given that he has made past promises to change both himself and Uber which remain unfulfilled? Is appointing a second in command – perhaps even a woman – going to be enough to change things? I’ve always been skeptical that sufficient change could come to Uber without a change at the top, but Kalanick remained one of only a handful of shareholders with the power to keep him in place, so absent a board revolt it seemed unlikely he would be pushed out. And yet even without a formal vote, pressure from enough big investors was enough to move him out of his role at the head of the company.
Uber’s biggest domestic competitor, Lyft, has appeared to take advantage of Uber’s troubles, first making hay out of the public backlash over the immigration orders and related issues, and then accelerating its expansion into new US cities. Early evidence suggests that its bounce from Uber’s meltdown may not have been either all that significant or long lasting though more recent evidence has suggested a greater impact.
Here’s the thing: Uber’s culture is toxic – there’s been ample evidence of that over the past few months. The narrative is, to that extent, an accurate one, and it’s also a powerful one which Uber will have to counter with real change. But Uber is also far from the only tech company with such a culture, and even if other tech companies’ cultures aren’t quite as toxic as Uber’s, they likely share some of the same hostility towards women, disregard for regulation, and a win-at-all-costs mentality which causes them to act in ways which are often immoral if not illegal. So there’s a risk that by focusing so much on Uber’s toxic culture, we ignore the fact that these issues are far more widespread and let other companies off the hook. So even as we allow the narrative about Uber’s culture to take root, we need to ensure that it doesn’t get seen as the exception rather than the rule.
For more on all this, see:
Uber has formally lodged an appeal against its ban in London, on the day the deadline to do so would have passed, allowing its service and drivers to continue operating until the matter is resolved. As I suspected, though this kicks off a formal legal process, it seems the situation is most likely to reach a resolution through negotiation between Uber and Transport for London, the body that regulates cabs and ride sharing services in the city. My guess is that Dara Khosrowshahi’s recent visit will have shed light on specific changes Uber needs to make to pass regulatory muster going forward, and that it’s actively working on a plan to ensure it can continue to operate there.
via London Evening Standard
Uber apparently recently kicked of an internal project to reorganize its engineering teams in order to make them more efficient and coordinated and less duplicative or competitive in their work. It sounds like the prior structure and approach grew partly out of Uber’s aggressively competitive culture and partly out of a lack of proper structure, both of which need fixing if the company is to make the best use of its resources, a consistent theme in its strategy over the last few months. The historical culture around engineering sounds a lot like that which prevailed in the various Google fiefdoms which built hardware for a long time, with little cohesion or coordination between then and teams often working on similar projects without talking to each other. Fixing that should not only make the company more efficient but more effective, and it may also help to fix the diversity and other issues if the team is run as a single unit rather than a disconnected set of engineering clusters.
The Uber board met yesterday and approved proposed changes to the company’s governance, which limit Travis Kalanick’s power, commit the company to an IPO by 2019, open the door to an investment by SoftBank, and resolve some simmering issues among the board members. That’s a great step forward, and was followed by a somewhat bizarre statement from Kalanick welcoming the changes, which was rather odd given that his two appointments to the board late last week were widely seen as a petulant response to the proposed changes. Still, the changes should allow Uber to move forward on a more solid footing, with Benchmark apparently backing down from its lawsuit, Kalanick apparently on board, and therefore much of the recent drama starting to cool off. It would be great if the board could now focus on implementing all the other changes recommended in the Holder report and get on with transforming the company into one with a healthy culture.
via The New York Times
Waymo has finally succeeded in getting the due diligence report on Otto which Uber commissioned as it planned to buy the company unsealed, allowing many details about what Uber knew and when to emerge. However, like earlier disclosures in the lawsuit, it mostly confirms that Anthony Levandowski, the executive at the center of the case who is nonetheless not named in the suit took documents and other information with him from Waymo, while not providing evidence that Uber benefited from that. Uber, meanwhile, continues to say that when it found out about the document haul Levandowski had, it ordered him to destroy it all and not bring it to Uber – proving that assertion false is Waymo’s biggest challenge. Of course, Levandowski as an individual might still have used that information in developing at least one version of LIDAR technology he worked on at Otto/Uber, but that would only cover some of the claims Waymo has made in the case.
The latest round of controversy at Uber erupted Friday night as Travis Kalanick unexpectedly appointed two new members to the Uber board as part of an earlier agreement, albeit without the knowledge or approval of either the existing board members or new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. This is best seen as further evidence, if it were needed, that Kalanick’s main objectives continue to be serving his own self-interest rather than Uber’s best interests, and that if he’s using these appointments to bolster his power on the board, the rest of the board should resist that effort. The Recode piece I’m linking to below has a great overview of what all this means at this point and how it might play out, and importantly says that the board members don’t object to those nominated as much as the process. The context is that the board has been working on governance changes that would formally limit both Kalanick’s voting power and his ability to come back in a management role, changes he naturally opposes. At this point, I can’t imagine Kalanick actually thinks he’s doing what’s best for Uber, and in the meantime he continues to do the company substantial damage and distract it from the real changes which need to be made, including governance changes recommended in the Holder report. It’s ever clearer that Kalanick hasn’t changed and and indeed hasn’t taken any of what’s happened over the last ten months or so to heart.
There’s been reporting for months now about SoftBank being interested in taking a stake in Uber, both making a new investment and buying shares from existing stakeholders, but a major sticking point was said to be worries on both sides of the deal about a potential return by Travis Kalanick to a senior leadership role at the company. It appears that those worries are being resolved by a commitment on all sides to keep Kalanick out of those roles as a condition of SoftBank’s investment. Both the potential new funding and that guarantee are good news for Uber, as we’ve seen plenty of evidence recently of the ongoing fallout from Kalanick’s toxic tenure as CEO, not least Uber’s pending London ban. The funding, meanwhile, will be helpful as Uber continues to lose money, though its belt tightening should lower the need to raise many additional rounds before its IPO, especially if that happens as soon as new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi seems to think it should.
Transport for London, the entity that oversees public transportation and taxi services in the UK capital, has refused to renew Uber’s license to operate a private ride for hire service in the city, citing several examples of bad behavior. It’s perhaps the most tangible sign yet that Uber’s toxic culture, disregard for regulation, and general willingness to do what it takes to win in the market have come home to roost. The timing is unfortunate given the ouster of Travis Kalanick and the recent appointment of Dara Khosrowshahi as CEO, but clearly stems from behavior that took place long before those recent changes. Uber has said it plans to appeal and Khosrowshahi has said both in communications to employees and in public on Twitter that the decision is in part Uber’s own fault, which is heartening. It’s important to note that this decision isn’t about ride sharing services in general but specifically about Uber’s bad acts, so Uber needs to address those specific concerns even as it makes its usual arguments about the benefits to society a service like Uber provides. This is an unusual situation for Uber to be in – being banned in a city where it’s well established and generally well regarded, without a broader ban on ride sharing services. If I were Dara Khosrowshahi, I’d be on the next plane to London to talk to TfL, understand exactly what the issues are, fix what still needs fixing, and promise to do much better in future. Losing its presence in a city like London could be enormously damaging to its business in the UK and Europe more broadly because so many people travel through London.
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