Uber and the Troubling Ethics of Silicon Valley

Image credit Forbes

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber (Image credit: Forbes)

That Uber is a brilliant innovation and has brought about much needed disruption into the taxi and transportation industry is not in question. But how their CEO runs the company, the culture he has created and the business practices he promotes are an issue that investors, customers and the press have turned a blind eye to for far too long.

For years, it has been an open secret in Silicon Valley that Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, is a completely unethical man who also lacks integrity and leadership skills. That he runs Uber like a misogynistic frat house is a well-documented fact. Kalanick has boasted to GQ magazine about how Uber helped increase his sex appeal; he deflects with a wisecrack about women on demand: Yeah, we call that Boob-er.

Now, I am a whole hearted capitalist pig and an ardent advocate of being competitive and winning by all means but not at any cost. It should be done through innovation, improving your products and services to beat your competitors fair and square; but we should never condone winning by cheating or using unethical and underhand tactics like Uber has also done to try and derail their competitors.

Uber employees ordered and cancelled more than 5,000 rides from rival Lyft since last October. This was done in an effort to reduce availability of Lyft cars, and thus push their users towards Uber. There have been reports of abuse of rider location information through a technology called God View, which allows Uber to track the movements of every single vehicle and the passenger. Former employees have confirmed that God View was easily accessible to staff across the company.

In 2011, venture capitalist Peter Sims penned a blog post about being tracked and sent text messages from someone he barely knew; all this was done without his knowledge or consent. When Sims expressed his outrage, he was told by an Uber employee “to calm down, and that it was all a ‘cool’ event and as if I should be honoured to have been one of the chosen. Turns out his movements were being projected on a large screen at an Uber event and nobody at the company thought this was wrong.

However, while all this information has been in the public domain for many years, it has done nothing to slow down the company’s growth or attract investors. Investments have continued to pour in from the biggest names in venture capital to investment banks and even governments all over the world. Everyone seems happy to turn a blind eye to the company culture and willing to dismiss unethical practices, blatant violations of privacy and misuse of personal information; as long as it helps Uber’s commoditized offering stay ahead of its competitors. Even the tech press has remained silent or looked the other way as the company became the darling of Silicon Valley and a unicorn, a start-up valued at more than one billion dollars. Uber’s current valuation stands at around $66 billion.

For me the last straw came when Uber personally threatened a female journalist who had been writing about the consistent pattern of misogynist behaviour at the company and their unfair and possibly illegal business tactics. Her revelations followed a dinner party where a senior executive at Uber was caught on the record, boasting to his guests that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media — and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company.

Ironically, the first time Uber faced any backlash from customers was for something Travis Kalanick did, which I actually applauded – being part of Trump’s advisory council. I believe the best way to safeguard democracy is by having diverse and opposing viewpoints around the President, but that is a conversation for another blog. What is ironic and tragic is that, irrespective of people’s polarising views about President Trump, prior to this point nobody seems to have had any moral, ethical or principled objections to all the things that have been openly transpiring at Uber for years.

Nobody cared about the sexist and misogynist culture Kalanick has routinely boasted about. Nobody cared about the silencing of a female journalist and others in the media. Nobody cared about violating every code of competitive ethics or unfairly hurting the income of drivers. Nobody cared about Uber’s repeated violations of privacy, and abuse of personal information to stalk and intimidate people the company did not like.

It seems that now, only when it is no longer conscionable to look the other way that people are finally expressing some shock and outrage. This follows a perfect storm of events, from seeing a video of Kalanick berating an Uber driver, to a NY Times story about Uber using a tool, called Greyball, to identify, track and evade law enforcement officials, and a compelling blog post by a former female engineer. She writes about her harrowing experiences of constantly being berated and sexually harassed by senior managers, and Uber HR and senior management’s reluctance to take action despite her repeated complaints.

It seems perfectly clear that everyone was aware, and has been complicit in encouraging this culture by doing nothing to object to it; despite the repeated and many lines crossed. The bottom line is that they were all protecting their investment and hoping that these things could be ‘handled or contained’ until an IPO happened and they were free and clear, having made hay on their initial investment.

In response to the video’s release, Uber’s CEO has said he needs leadership help, and Uber has hired former attorney general, Eric Holder, to investigate the claims of sexual harassment by the former female engineer. As of last week, only one investor publicly penned an open letter, saying that the company needs to change its ‘toxic’ culture.

The problem is that all this is too little, too late. The fact that nobody felt the need to act before, despite being aware of all these issues indicates that what is happening now is nothing more than a PR exercise to do damage control on a prized unicorn investment; now that they have absolutely no choice due to the growing negative PR.

If Travis Kalanick, or his investors, had genuinely felt the need for him to grow up, it would have happened after he called his company boob-er. If investors had truly wanted to clean up the company’s act, surely the last straw would have been Uber threatening a female journalist.

At this stage, promising to fight to change Uber’s culture and all other talk that results in no real consequences for the CEO and others in management with whom the buck stops, are totally meaningless. It is akin to letting a murderer go scot-free because he apologises and promises never to murder anyone else in cold blood.

I will only be convinced that Uber’s investors are serious when they ask Travis Kalanick to resign or they fire him. In my book, this is the only way to send a strong and clear message that this type of behaviour will no longer be tolerated by Silicon Valley.

Business success devoid of integrity and ethics is a failure for all of society.

Has LinkedIn Lost Its Relevance?

For now there is no question that LinkedIn remains the go to platform for business and working professionals. It is often said that you will no longer be able to find employment without a LinkedIn profile; a whole industry of so called LinkedIn profile builders has also mushroomed around it. People who charge serious money to help navigate the platform’s features; everything from creating a profile to claiming to help you get higher search rankings and better visibility with prospective employers.

In the early days, I found LinkedIn an extremely valuable tool for professional networking. It was the best way to connect with friends from school and college, on a professional level, and with people connected to your industry. It was a tool for networking and making valuable and relevant new connections through the small degrees of professional separation we all had but never knew how to tap into. And it was the greatest way to showcase your background and professional experience, without geographic limitations, or the far more cumbersome and time-consuming alternative of physically mailing or dropping off a CV to each and every prospective employer.

Today, it is a vastly different network. For one, everybody and their uncle has a profile. Tons of random people are now able to click a button and ask to connect with you for no rhyme of professional reason; from banana farmers in Bolivia to bakers in India. I cannot count the number of times, when I ask someone why they want to connect, they tell me they accidentally hit the button or had no real reason other than finding my profile interesting. A large number of people seem to feel that by just connecting with as many people as possible, it will help them boost their career prospects and/or search rankings. I for one cannot fathom this logic because it does more damage to their prospects, if they serially invite friends of friends and random strangers to connect for no legitimate business reason.

When LinkedIn first introduced the InMail as part of their premium offering I was excited and willing to pay monthly fee to be able to reach out to people I wanted to do business with and vice-versa. It offered a professional method that did not entail having to go find common connection to get a soft introduction, or simply email someone cold. However, this feature has also turned into spam marketing of sorts. While I do still get a number of legitimate emails, I get many more from telemarketing and lead generation companies looking to sell me databases; they now just as unsolicited as those pesky tele-marketing calls we get at home.

LinkedIn is now trying to become a publishing platform; taking a page out of Amex OPEN’s book. Unlike OPEN theirs was originally a closed platform. In order to publish content you had to be classified an ‘Influencer’; and unless you were the likes of Richard Branson you were not be granted this rarefied title. I guess they realised pretty quickly that being successful did not mean that people were good writers, or able to offer meaningful content on a routine basis; at least not enough to keep it fresh and interesting for the rest of us non-influencer minions. LinkedIn has since learned this lesson and opened content posting to everyone with a profile and an internet connection. Sadly, this step in the right direction has also been rather catastrophic.

While I laud the decision to be democratic, the problem is that not everyone who has something to say has something of value to say. So while I am not suggesting that they close the doors and once again allow only super successful people or great writers to post; I do believe they urgently need to find some method to curate the vast volume of mediocre and useless content that now invades our streams every hour. The point of this curation is not to play judge and jury but to find some smart crowd sourced way to weed out the utterly useless content that only bubbles up and gets eyeballs because of sensational and provocative headlines with the content rarely ever delivering on the argument suggested.

I have found the vast majority of ‘popular’ and ‘recommended’ posts lack substance. They simply offer a provocative headline, based on recent high-profile events in the news, to bait the reader and then at best offer an extremely tenuous (and most often nonsensical) connection to the subject matter they are sensationalizing in their headline.

Recent examples of such posts are one that used the iCloud celebrity photo leak to try and link Jennifer Lawrence’s decision to bare her breasts in Vanity Fair to faulty PR and marketing decisions. Another was about sexual harassment in a CVS store that tried to make a link to sexual harassment at the workplace (which is a serious issue that this article made feel less serious). The same author just recently posted an article about the Uber PR fiasco and then halfway through started talking about the issue of rape with no relevance to her argument.

I have nothing against provocative or controversial points-of-view but the problem is that none of these articles come close to delivering on their headline’s premise; they are merely sensational for the sake of sensation. Sadly, these have overwhelmingly become the posts that seem to garner the most attention and get recommended in the Pulse stream.

If LinkedIn wants to be regarded as a destination for business-related, thought-provoking content, then this is doing nothing to further their cause and in fact damaging their credibility. It has seriously reduced my opinion of both the articles and the quality of the posters. It seems that publishing on LinkedIn is designed purely to drive eyeballs and offer no other real business insight or value; a BuzzFeed for business.

I am not suggesting that this is the end of LinkedIn by any means but that its value proposition for people like myself will erode over time if this level of ‘clutter’ and ‘noise continues to grow without substance. Even forum posts and discussions have started to suffer the same malady with people consistently asking deep and penetrating questions like “Would you rather be a good person or a good CEO” and “How do you define power in one or Two words?” As a result, I have started to drop my membership to many of these professional forums and groups on the site.

It is also not just me they should fear losing but the fact that they are about to face some serious competition for the first time; with Facebook announcing the launch of a “at work” professional network and WeWork (shared workspace for startups and freelancers) also planning to launch a networking site that would allow their physical entrepreneurial tenants, all over the world, to connect online. I suspect LinkedIn is about to get a run for my eyeballs!