ATN: Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber

InsightaaS: Those of us who don’t live in Silicon Valley (and maybe many of those who do) tend to view it as a giant playground for kids who are good at math, a place where work only interrupts the Foosball and gummy bears when there’s a deadline to be met – and then, to the accompaniment of pizza and other junky meal-substitutes.

Even by Valley standards, Uber is an outlier. Everyone is familiar with the high points of the story: a company that has an app but no cars disrupts the entire taxi industry, creating $40 billion in shareholder value (for themselves – certainly not for the owners of taxi plates, but this group, like the music labels that were quashed by Napster, isn’t a terribly sympathetic foil in the narrative). There have been persistent whispers of unscrupulous behaviour, but these haven’t really detracted from Uber’s momentum; if anything, they gave it an edge of ‘bad-boy cred’ that most tech firms lack.

It turns out, though, that the boys are much worse than might have been imagined. In a post that is getting quite a lot of attention both in and beyond Silicon Valley, former Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler documents a culture where HR exists only to cover up the misogyny of ‘high performers’ – men who were successful at winning glowing reviews from other men who (according to Fowler) they were busy trying to undermine in hopes of wrangling a promotion for themselves. She tells of an organization where women accounted for 25% of staff when she joined, and just 3% when she left a year later; where management “wouldn’t feel comfortable” disciplining a man for the “innocent mistake” of propositioning a new female hire by talking about his “open relationship” and need for new sexual partners; of a culture where complaints were deemed ‘unprofessional’ and led to retroactive downgrades of performance review scores.

It’s good that this post is attracting so much attention. Behaviour like that chronicled in Fowler’s post isn’t a prank: it is illegal, and it is wrong. Especially in light of the low standard set by the US commander-in-chief, it’s important that thoughtful citizens of all political stripes, from the Valley and everywhere else, explicitly support lawful conduct and common decency, both.

As most of you know, I left Uber in December and joined Stripe in January. I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like. It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go.

I joined Uber as a site reliability engineer (SRE) back in November 2015, and it was a great time to join as an engineer. They were still wrangling microservices out of their monolithic API, and things were just chaotic enough that there was exciting reliability work to be done. The SRE team was still pretty new when I joined, and I had the rare opportunity to choose whichever team was working on something that I wanted to be part of.

After the first couple of weeks of training, I chose to join the team that worked on my area of expertise, and this is where things started getting weird. On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR…

Read the entire post here: