Uber has dominated the Valley’s conversation for years. A revisitation (and update) of my first post on the company.
Two and a half years ago I wrote a thought piece of sorts about Uber, which at the time was dominating the conversation in the Valley and beyond (it continued to do so, for increasingly negative reasons). I titled it “Uber, the Rashomon,” and ran it on my personal blog, Searchblog.
In the piece, I argue that like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook before it, Uber had become a cultural touchstone of sorts — a shared narrative debated by nearly everyone in the industry. But this time the conversation had moved well beyond “tech” — Uber stood in for larger debates around the future of work, the role of “public goods” in our society, and the existential questions of what we expect from the companies we extol as “world beaters.”
I’m consider myself lucky that I’ve been able to call many places home over the years — Utah, California, Maryland, and DC. I recently had a chance to go back home to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) where I received my undergraduate degree and spend time with the students and faculty. And I’ll be honest, it was awesome.
Not just because UCSD was also nice enough to give me an award (because I’m the one should be thanking them), but there’s something about being able to visit a campus where so much of your early thinking is framed (especially with your kids in tow). For example, meeting the students reaffirmed my faith that we’re on an awesome path forward if we keep investing in the future. The next generation of scientists, innovators, and artists are breaking new ground in ways that I could have never anticipated (there are also many more people skateboarding on campus which I fully endorse!). And here are my thoughts that stuck with me:
We need make opportunities available for everyone
There’s nothing like being part of the club called being an alumni, but what about those that didn’t even get a chance to try? What about their shot?
We need to think about our education system with greater flexibility. And I’m a prime example, when I first graduated from high school, I wasn’t ready for college. Lucky for me, I had a great community college that got me ready by teaching me how to write and set me up for a love of math and getting ready to make the most of UCSD. There are too many people out there who need a shot. Their access to opportunity shouldn’t be determined by the zipcode they were born in. The answers to these issues aren’t easy. We need to be aggressive and have the courage to make provide opportunities for everyone. As a country we’re a team; and a good team never leaves a teammate behind.
5 questions to figure out which brands are LEGIT ✌🏼
As a responsible shopper looking to do the right thing, you might think if a brand is openly talking about their environmental or labor practices, they’re probably legit. And if they show you a picture of a happy worker or an NGO partner, it’s probably a sign of good intent and practices, right? Swipe that credit card. 💳
Buyer beware — greenwashing is definitely a THING, and it’s not just the big fast fashion brands.
In 1919, as the White and Red armies fought a brutal, seesaw war for control of Russia, British War Secretary Winston Churchill prodded his government to commit troops to the fight. The Bolsheviks, he declared, were “swarms of typhus bearing vermin.” They “hop and caper like ferocious baboons amid the ruins of their cities and the corpses of their victims.” Churchill’s rhetoric was so inflammatory that, after he addressed the House of Commons on the topic, Tory Party leader A.J. Balfour felt compelled to comment. With quintessential British coolness, the former Prime Minister told the future Prime Minister, “I admire the exaggerated way you tell the truth.”
Unfortunately, exaggerated truth-telling is as commonplace in business as in politics. Walter Isaacson cites Steve Job’s “reality-distortion field” repeatedly in the go-to biography of Apple’s mercurial chief. “[Jobs] would assert something — be it a fact about world history or a recounting of who suggested an idea at a meeting — without considering the truth,” writes Isaacson. He would conjure up an impossible production date, for instance, and demand it be met. Surprisingly, as Isaacson recounts, it often was.
A good organization complements its leaders’ weaknesses; a bad one magnifies their flaws. Under President Trump, the entire executive branch of the U.S. government has turned into a feedback loop for the man’s moods and outbursts, as an extraordinary account in The Washington Postmakes clear.
The White House team is on a bipolar roller-coaster that rises and falls with Trump’s state of mind — and we’re all along for the ride. If you’ve ever worked for someone with Angry Boss Syndrome, you know how dysfunctional this can get. The organizational focus narrows down to assessments of the boss’s psyche and efforts to influence it, while everyone scurries to buffer themselves from executive whim and rage.
I swear. If Silicon Valley had to invent a ball point pen, they’d say “it’s just really hard getting the ink to flow smoothly and at a consistent rate out of the pen. You don’t understand how hard it is.” They seem to be under the impression that anything not invented in Silicon Valley does not exist. They also seem to be under the impression that we haven’t been dealing with the nuisance of fake news for hundreds of years.
I am going to say this up front, because I have friends working on these problems: no one is saying the technical challenges to perfectly arbitrating truth and fiction are easy. I am not saying that. And there are good people — at Facebook and elsewhere — who are working very hard on this problem. I believe, however, that management is tying their hands, because they are only looking at a single solution set, and ignoring history. And, I believe, humans don’t expect perfect arbitration. What they expect are openness, context, and labeling, along with the neutering of even the most blatant, clear-cut cases of lying.
The real reason Wells Fargo’s CEO had to go. Why did Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf lose his job while so many other banking bosses never paid a price for their company’s malfeasances during the financial meltdown? In Slate, Helaine Olen argues that the Wells scandal, unlike the mortgage-finance fiasco, involved easily comprehensible bad behavior. Derivatives and credit-default swaps are tough to understand. Opening fake accounts without people’s permission? Easier. Stumpf’s old-school blame-throwing and responsibility-ducking didn’t help him. The Wells story gives us one more reminder that if your desk is where the buck stops, don’t try to duck.
What we can learn from Zenefits vs. Gusto. Zenefits was a hard-driving startup that provided software for human-resources management and that was growing like crazy until it smashed into a wall. The revelation that Zenefits had created a tool for salespeople to cut corners on insurance-licensing requirements toppled the firm’s founder and left the company in crisis. Now it’s seeking a comeback (Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times), promising more transparency and a revamped product. But while Zenefits was doing its move-fast-and-break-things act, a smaller competitor named Gusto that provided similar services took a slower, less flashy route, emphasizing trust over meteoric growth. Now Zenefits is desperately trying to persuade the marketplace to give it a second chance — while Gusto snaps up some of its customers. This story is as close as we may ever get to a controlled lab experiment in the long-term value of business ethics. The findings are exactly what you’d expect: Playing fast and loose just doesn’t pay.