This week on Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode invited Recode Senior Transportation Editor Johana Bhuiyan to join them for some Uber talk. Bhuiyan provided some background on the current mess Uber is in, then the trio answered write-in questions about whether Uber can recover from its current difficulties or whether it will “implode.”
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Lauren Goode: Kara, you and I were roommates for a couple of days at South by Southwest.
Kara Swisher: Sure, that was so delightful. Wow.
That was so fun, wasn’t it? We painted nails. We took naps. I really did take a nap.
No, we did not. We did not cuddle in any way.
This is what ... We did not cuddle. We had two separate beds. We were cramped at the same hotel room because South by Southwest is a notoriously bad place to try to book travel to or around. I will say I have this one moment, it was like Sunday afternoon and we had just taped a bunch of podcasts and I was tired and I wanted to take a nap before the evening events I had to go to and I’m pretty sure Kara chose that moment to call her insurance company. So, I was napping and she was all, “Hi! I need to talk to you about my insurance policy.” And I was like, what is she doing?
I was doing a favor for my friend, so anyway ...
In any case, it was nice sharing rooms. I hope never to do it again. But we’ve other things to discuss. And we liked South by Southwest. We had a really good time. We had some great podcasts there with Mary Lou Jepsen. I interviewed the cast of “Veep” and the guys from Crooked Media. But in general, we had a really good time there.
And you’re burying the lead. You got inducted into the South by Southwest Hall of Fame. That’s pretty ...
Well I don’t want to brag on myself, Lauren, you know.
Yes, you do. And I will brag for you.
She’s in the Hall of Fame.
We have another voice there in the room. You’re hearing another voice there. Explain who’s here, Lauren, please.
Yes. Well today in Too Embarrassed To Ask we’re going to be talking about the elephant in the room and that is Uber, which you’ve probably heard of before. And so we decided to bring Recode’s Johana Bhuiyan on to the show. Because she and you, Kara, have done a ton of great reporting on the company lately along with our old friend Mike Isaac from the New York Times. There’s just been a lot going on the world of Uber. And so this is what we’re going to talk about today.
KS: Yeah, they’ve been in the news for not-so-good reasons. And when they try to get out of the limelight, Johana and I keep shoving them in there. We’ve done a lot of reporting, including this weekend the COO of Uber left. But there’s all kinds of news. So Johana, welcome to the show.
Johana Bhuiyan: Thanks for having me.
LG: Thank you so much for coming on.
Yeah, I love talking about Uber. So ...
KS: Oh I know. It’s all you can talk about now. In case you’re interested. That’s all you do. You’re on the Uber beat. So, I know Johana has a wide range of beat on transportation but Uber’s really the biggest company right now and the one’s that imploding in a lot of ways. So why don’t we start with the basics? Why don’t you tell us what is happening at Uber, Johana? Why don’t you go through what’s happened and a little bit of the history of their controversies and then get right to what’s happening now?
Sure, yeah. I mean, not to go too deep into the chronology at a very high level. What you’re seeing is Uber’s notorious, take-no-prisoners, aggressive approach to both its internal culture as well as its external relationships coming to a head in a way that Uber has never seen before. The company has had public scandals before, but unlike those, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has not been able to manage his way out of it this time. That’s because a lot of that is bringing to light internal issues that is sort of emblematic of the tech industry as well.
That started with Susan Fowler, who’s a former engineer at Uber, posting basically an account of working at Uber for a year where she had male managers, basically sexually harassed her. She also saw rampant sexism throughout the company and reported to HR as well as a number of higher-ups and nothing was really done. Because this male manager was a high-performer or a top-performer or as Arianna Huffington calls it, a “brilliant jerk.” That started what you’re now seeing, which is Uber basically trying to overhaul their public image.
They are searching for a COO or a second in command to be a partner to Travis Kalanick, who also for the first time in the history of Uber has admitted that he needs to grow up and become a better leader.
But you’re also seeing a couple of other strings of things play out. Uber’s self-driving arm is in turmoil now because Waymo — which is Alphabet’s self-driving company — filed a lawsuit against Uber and the tracking company that they acquired — which is Otto — alleging that the co-founder of Otto, Anthony Levandowski, stole a number of proprietary designs that are really a key to a self-driving system before leaving Alphabet to join or to start Otto.
So that’s happening as well and then you mentioned Mike Isaac, he also reported that the company has a tool that tracks usage of their app in order to evade local authorities. Uber says, “They’re not going to do that anymore.”
LG: Have people known about these problems for a long time? Because I actually just finished reading Brad Stone’s book, which is about both Uber and Airbnb. In years ... We’ve actually all reported on Uber at some point in our careers. In years past, there certainly have been plenty of references to Travis as a kind of pugnacious person. Right? And combative and aggressive in his approach. But in terms of some of this specific claim around the sexist nature of Uber. Has any of this been known or reported about before?
Yeah, a lot of it has seeped out into the public in different ways. Uber’s SVP Emil Michael was quoted saying that he “wanted to dig up dirt on one particular female journalist.” A lot of different journalists were tracked. Uber also had an advertisement in France that basically paired riders with “hot chicks.” Travis Kalanick has called Uber Boob-er, which is a car service basically that gets you hot girls.
KS: Yeah, we got that part. We got the Boob-er part.
Yeah, I just didn’t know if I needed to explain it to Kara.
KS: It’s just a classy way to talk about your company. You know what I mean? If you have a $60 billion company, that’s how you talk about it?
And to talk about it publicly and on the record. It shows some level of disregard for equality of gender. So if that’s happening publicly, you can only really assume what’s happening on the inside. So the public reporting on that, it reflects the internal culture.
KS: Right, exactly. I think one of the things that help that were these firings and that they actually took action in what’s happening. Although a lot of it was prompted by our reporting, Johana, like they didn’t know about the Google executive who they hired had had a history.
LG: I was going say, take us through some of the firings, the movement that’s happened over the past few weeks.
KS: Go ahead, Johana.
Sure. The company has seen a lot of executive departures, which is not great considering they’re trying to overhaul their image and restructure the internal workings of the company. First, I believe, there has been so many, but Amit Singhal who was hired as the SVP of Engineering in January was asked to resign by the CEO because we went to them with allegations from his previous employer Google of sexual harassment and he never disclosed that to the company. So Uber CEO Travis Kalanick asked him to resign which is good on him to do that.
KS: It does bring to mind as why they didn’t know.
Yes, there are a lot of questions about that.
KS: At one point, one of the people was like, “We didn’t know. Why didn’t I know?” You know what I mean? It was like, “Well, I’m one person. You’ve got a whole recruiting organization that’s not doing their job.”
Right, and they also have close connections to Google. A lot of Uber has current high-level-ranking executives or they’re head of Comms, they’re head of HR, they’re ex-Google employees. Silicon Valley, they’re, people like to gossip. I can’t imagine that this is something that hasn’t been talked about in some way, shape or form.
LG: What are some of the other executives that have happened you just reported last weekend? I think, it was about the president who stepped down.
KS: Well, before Ed Baker, the head of product. A similar situation, bad behavior that we brought to their attention which was ... I mean, they knew it, but they didn’t do anything about it.
Right, and so that’s another case where Ed Baker, his resignation statement is basically, “I’m resigning to focus on my family.” Or something like that. But timed with that resignation was a number of people reporting that he tried to hit on them, I believe, or he was seen making out with employees at different parties. This was brought to light in an anonymous email that an Uber employee sent to Arianna Huffington when the investigation into Susan Fowler’s allegations began. It was also forwarded along to a number of reporters, including us. So we brought that to their attention and he resigned. But he resigned about two weeks, I want to say, after that email had been sent. There was a little bit of a lag. Then last weekend, Jeff Jones, he was the president and was hired away from Target, he basically headed up both the driver and rider marketing stuff and operations. He resigned as well because he, in his statement, says that his “values are not in line with Uber’s operations.”
KS: He didn’t outline what those values were, but I think to everyone it was clear that he thought it was awful now. There were also, Uber was putting out that he didn’t get ... There’s a search for a COO right now. That he didn’t get the COO job or he wasn’t offered this. So he was angry since he had been No. 2, that he was in line to get the job. So they were putting that story out. It’s ugly all around, like really it’s kind of like not. You don’t want to see this stuff in public, really, within a company.
LG: So now there is this internal investigation going on. You mentioned Eric Holder, Arianna Huffington and others who have been brought in. In Silicon Valley, we call this bringing in the “adult supervision” to see what’s really been going on inside the company, what could possibly be done if this is all kind of ... if you can recoup from this, if it’s salvageable. Talk a little bit about the search for the COO. Who’s on the shortlist for this? What’s that going to do at this point?
So they’re hoping that’s going to be ... that person in that role will serve to complement Travis’ skills, expertise, I guess talents. And they keep throwing out this word “partner, partner,” which is a weird word to throw out in relation to Travis. Because he’s known notoriously as being incredibly combative, as we’ve said before. He likes to be really involved in a lot of the company’s operations and decision-making. He doesn’t like to share. He wants to be the one who makes the decisions and calls the shots.
A lot of people says that’s probably why he’s kind of holding off on going on public. They’re still in the midst of the search. They mentioned yesterday on a press call that they are really impressed. The search is being led by Bill Gurley and Arianna Huffington — who are both are on Uber’s board — as well as Travis, obviously. They said they’re really impressed by the caliber of the people that they’re seeing. I don’t know that there’s a shortlist yet. They had a number of meetings and the search just started, I believe, last week.
KS: There are some names that have been brought up. Tim Armstrong from AOL, Susan Wojcicki from Google who runs YouTube, although she’s in hot water right now around the ads. There’s a whole bunch of different names that are in ... Nikesh Arora from Google. But what’s interesting, what I heard recently is that the person who takes over as COO will not have engineering under them. That’s going to stay in Travis’s area.
So it will be interesting to see, like Johana said, if he can share, if he can be a partner to anyone. They’re trying to make the reference to Mark Zuckerberg bringing in Sheryl Sandberg because they had a lot troubles, Mark did during the early days of Facebook. And when you brought in Sheryl you got a true partner. She really did upgrade the entire place, pretty much. But you know, Mark Zuckerberg is a very different animal than Travis Kalanick. Travis is much older and probably set in his ways.
I do think the names that have been floated are a little bit encouraging, because it makes it clear that they’re not looking just for a figurehead. They want someone who actually can do things that would help Travis and actually run the company.
LG: Kara, have they asked you yet to be COO? Just curious.
KS: No. I think that would be one of the ugliest and shortest tenures in history. But they do need ... there’s a whole question whether they should bring a woman in and will they bring a white guy. There’s all this ... Unfortunately, Uber’s gotten sucked up into a really bad situation. They can’t make good choices. A lot of it has to be optically correct at the same time, too.
You may still go, “Oh, PC, PC,” but the fact of the matter is they’ve just got a terrible perception issue that’s affecting their consumers. They also have this lawsuit, and the people are focused on this sexist and sexual harassment. But the lawsuit, Johanna had said, is very serious and troubling for that company. So it’s a wholesale management that’s in total dysfunction and needs some major overhaul by someone who’s a very strong operator.
Yeah, I think that it’s not a perception issue anymore. A lot of their past issues have been perception, PR, public image. This is a very real issue within the company that actually has to be fixed, not just telling reporters, “This is what we did and why and how we’ve changed.” There has to be a change within the company because it’s now a $70 billion company that operates around the world. Your employees are just not going to stick around just because you are this startup that’s really hot and people really like. No, that’s not going to work anymore.
LG: Right. Do you think there’s any chance that Travis Kalanick’s role would change in some capacity? Would he step down? Or that the COO could be a precursor to something else?
I think all signs right now point to “No” because right now Travis has a lot of allies and loyalists on the board: Garrett Camp, co-founder; Ryan Graves, the former president of Uber; and now Arianna Huffington. I think what could change that is if Arianna Huffington — who is really smart about her image, really good at managing her PR and stuff like that — if it becomes too toxic to be on Travis’s side, if she flipped, you know up until now she’s defended him. Really staunchly said that he’s evolving, she’s seen the change in him. If she decides that that’s no longer the way to go, there is a chance that maybe he’ll be pushed out in some way, but right now definitely not.
KS: She just went on CNN to say that he would absolutely not be replaced. She and I have a back and forth in email and I was like, “You’re kind of prejudging. What if something comes out that is awful?” You know what I mean, like if they’re having a true investigation by the former attorney general of the Unites States, they should keep their mouth shut until the investigation is finished, because now it looks like something could come up, you just never know in these things.
So that was discussed during the press call yesterday. Arianna Huffington was on it. She said over and over again, “I don’t think that anything will come out of the investigation that would warrant his stepping down.” Then we also have the context of the investigation that’s being held, conducted by Eric Holder, who has previously worked with Uber.
LG: And Airbnb as well.
And Arianna Huffington, who’s on the board, it’s not entirely independent in the way that you would hope an investigation into company’s internal practices would be.
LG: It doesn’t feel totally objective, is it what you’re saying?
LG: Because they’re people that are on the board who are involved and so they have vested interests. Eric Holder has an ongoing relationship with the company.
KS: Everyone got that message. It feels like congressional investigation into Russia, wire-tapping, certain things. It does remind you, like, “Can we please have an independent investigation that is actually believed on the problem that Uber has?” And so then I was telling Arianna Huffington that no one believes them no matter what they do. Even when they do things that aren’t wrong, people assume the worst of them. So they have to be purer than Caesar’s wife. That’s what I wrote her. I said you just have to be. I mean, that’s an expression, but you really do.
No, that’s exactly what I meant when I said their notoriously take-no-prisoners attitudes finally coming to a head because they have no good will. They’ve developed literally no good will. And not with the regulators, not with the press, not with consumers. You saw things like the first #DeleteUber campaign, when Uber really didn’t do anything wrong but people were so quick to delete their accounts because they assumed Uber was in the wrong. Because Uber typically is always in the wrong. When in fact, they really, honestly did not do anything to profit of the backs of these taxi drivers, which was the claim originally.
KS: Yeah, everyone, they get blamed for everything and sometimes they deserve it and sometimes they don’t, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve got a real problem both with consumers, with everybody. You’re right, with the press, I was talking to someone yesterday for Uber and there was a noise in the background and the person said, “Oh, that’s ...,” you know, one of the press people yelling, getting in a fight with the reporter, and I was like ... it was funny. It’s that kind of ... We don’t yell. Right, Johana? We’re very polite when we call them horrible names.
LG: Kara? Polite?
I’m always polite. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
KS: It’s not a pretty situation for them.
LG: And Johana, speaking about this idea of trust being such a big issue now. You had another scoop about the self-driving car pilot where you basically found out that it really didn’t go as well as Uber would like people to have thought. Now we’ve got internal strife, for lack of a better term, their concerns about their ethics, their concerns about all kinds of things going on just inside of the company, but now you’re talking about autonomous vehicles on the road that could potentially run a red light and hurt somebody. Tell us a little bit about that.
Yeah, I want to start with, Uber is very early in its testing of its autonomous cars. They started working on them in 2015. They didn’t put them on public roads in a commercial sense where people could actually hail them until September 2016. So it makes sense that the cars aren’t totally great. The issue here is that people can hail these cars and so basically I got a hold of internal documents that showed that an average of once per mile a human driver had to take back control of the car from the robot system essentially; this was in Arizona as well as Pittsburgh, and they’re just starting to ramp up in San Francisco. So that’s not great and, in fact, that’s actually worse than the company was doing in January. So what little progress they made before has actually declined in the last couple of months. You’re seeing that humans have to still be fairly involved and you’re seeing that it’s not getting better over time. So that’s not totally great.
That said, they have racked up a lot of miles. In just the second week of March, the company put on 20,000 miles with their autonomous cars. They’ve done about 940 commercial self-driving rides. So they’re making some money off of their pilot. It’s really not great, but it is very very early to say.
LG: It’s still early days.
KS: A lot of people came up to me — I was at a thing last night. Everyone is like, “Is it going to implode?” Everyone’s using the word “implode” and obviously, besides Airbnb, it’s one of the biggest high-flyers in Silicon Valley of this era right now. It works well when you use it, stuff like that.
But everyone is talking about this because I’m thinking they’re operating this crazy complex business right now, trying to grow it and also dealing with the most epic management problems laced over with this sexual harassment stuff. It’s just, a lot of people keep using the word “implode.” I don’t know if that’s fair or not, just curious what you think.
I think all of this happening at a time where people, there’s this sort of newfound sense of activism among people — you know, the post or the Trump era — so that’s adding to Uber’s current issues. But the bottom line is, Uber is as popular as it is, is as widespread as it is, because the technology is good. It’s efficient. It’s better than all of its competitors. And it completely turned the transportation industry on its head. It’s the reason why I started covering it. Because you really have to be impressed with how great the technology actually is and how much has progressed over the last couple of years.
That said, in New York City for example, there’s a new company called Juno and all they did was ... their app is not as great, but they basically gave customers a lot of discounts and they gave drivers, they only take 10 percent commission from them and they added tipping and all of these other driver benefits and they have done more than a million rides in New York City, which is taking away from both Uber and Lyft.
So there is a possibility that another company, even if it’s not as great as Uber, can take over in small markets, in local markets. They don’t have to win in every single market around the world, but they can win local markets. And if that market share of Uber is tipped way out on a local level, maybe then we’ll see an implosion of Uber.
LG: It’s crazy. It’s a crazy story. And it’s disappointing in a lot of ways because as you mentioned, the technology is really quite remarkable. I remember covering Uber in the very early days. It was 2010 when I first wrote about Uber and had tried it in New York, had tried it in San Francisco. In New York, it wasn’t even the service that it is now, but in San Francisco, they were only hailing black cars and there was this markup of $7 or $8 per ride so it’s very expensive. It was a premium service at that time, and I remember thinking, “This is amazing. It’s amazing what we can do with our phones, and how we can get a cab.”
The value proposition at that time was that they were trying to solve driver downtime for people who ... and then it just evolved into this behemoth and what it is today, and like you said, impacting almost every facet of our transportation system as we know it to be now. The fact that all of this, just terrible management, what appears to be terrible management, mismanagement, is potentially bringing this company down in such a significant way. I feel like there will be case studies on this for years to come.
I mean, Yahoo was great at one point, right?
KS: Someone was saying Marissa Mayer should get the COO job and then I’d be so happy, I could just write and write. Anyway, yeah, think about that. She won’t be getting the job, by the way.
In a minute, we’re going to answer some questions from our readers and listeners about Uber and Johana’s going to do that for us. But first, we’re going to take a quick break as Lauren reads word for word from our sponsor and I say ka-ching.
KS: Wow that was really ka-chingy today, Lauren. That was fantastic.
KS: All right, if you’ve been listening to the show, you know how it works. Every week we take tech questions from our radio’s listeners and we try to answer everything we can. This week we’re answering your questions about Uber and we have Johana Bhuiyan who covers Uber for us. So first question, Johanna, is a good one from @NoahKravitz. “Why are they so goddamned evil?”
[laugh] So I wouldn’t say that they’re evil. I think Travis is really aggressive.
KS: It made you laugh, Johana. Go ahead.
He’s really aggressive and I think part of that is because this is not his first company. He’s had a lot ... I think two or three other companies before Uber that he’s tried and in some ways failed. I think one of them was actually sold. But this is his last go-around to really make it as a Silicon Valley tech billionaire.
And so in order to do that they realized that they have to be really aggressive. And also you have to remember that in the beginning Uber was up against the taxi industry — which is not bad in all places, but there are a lot of places where they had a very similar kind of mob mentality going on. They had to be aggressive in the beginning in order to, when market sharing, in order expand and actually build the business, that clearly is not going to bring it to the next level.
LG: Not exactly a “why,” but you’re saying they’re not evil. And Noah, that’s Johana’s answer.
I’m not saying they’re not evil. I’m just saying I wouldn’t necessarily say that myself.
KS: Yes, okay. The investigation is ongoing on to this evilness.
LG: We have two questions from Alex Hardy.
KS: “No, we are not investigating whether they are evil.” That was Arianna.
LG: Thank you for the cameo on our show, Arianna. You are welcome anytime.
KS: “They’re not evil. What are you talking about?”
LG: No, they’re not according to Arianna. Okay, so we’ve two questions from Alex Hardy who’s written in before. He’s @canthardywait on Twitter. The first question, Alex, we already did answer who’s on the shortlist for COO. That’s in the beginning of the show. His second question’s interesting, “Though firing does seem unlikely due to the voting control, can you lay out a realistic scenario or two where Travis does resign?”
Yeah, we mentioned this earlier, but I think the most realistic scenario if Arianna Huffington realizes it’s too toxic to be associated with Travis or to be the defender of Travis Kalanick. And then she kind of flips her loyalty. Because currently Travis has a lot of allies on the board. It’s unlikely he’ll be pushed out given that. So I think that would be scenario No. 1. I don’t totally know what else could push him out. Right now the company is really defending him. They’re really standing behind him. They’ve talked about how much he’s evolved in the last couple of months. And on her interview on CNN, Arianna Huffington mentioned the change doesn’t happen without a catalyst. And the catalyst is usually pretty bad. So I guess this falls on to that.
KS: Here’s what’s going to happen if more executives leave, you’ll see top executives, like their head of comms Rachel Whetstone or their lawyer Salle Yoo. If you see those kind of departures, if you see more of those, I think that could be problematic, obviously. If David Bonderman from TPG suddenly ... and he doesn’t listen to anybody. That guy doesn’t have to at this point. Right? So there’s a lot of people who could put pressure if they feel ... to me, I think if certain people leave it’s enough, especially women executives leave, or if there’s another thing that comes out and there’s a lot of it.
Johana and I hear everything and there’s a lot floating around that’s ugly. And none of which has checked out but it’s still floating around and at some point ... Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But it’s just floating and so that’s the issue, if he can’t get through this stuff and get someone in place in time. Speed is of the essence in selecting the COO, for sure.
LG: Next question is from F. Reid @2lowtech, “Is Uber really losing riders or they’re just getting bad publicity and people are still using it?” That’s a good question because, as you mentioned earlier, there have been at least a couple #DeleteUber campaigns now. I believe somebody reported that the number of riders that they were losing was at least in the couple of hundreds of thousands. Right?
LG: Sounds like they really are losing riders. Yes.
So yeah, after the first #DeleteUber campaign, which was related to the protest, they lost more than 200,000 users. Putting in context, though, Uber gets about that many new users a week. So it was a huge loss, it was unforeseen for Uber, but at the same time it ended up evening out in terms of their user base.
On a press call yesterday, they also slipped in updates on their business. Apparently, last week they did more rides in the U.S. that they’ve ever done before. You would hope that a company valued at $70 billion was always doing better every week than it ever has been before. You also have to consider that Uber probably rolled out a lot of different promotions, but it does mean that people are still using Uber across the country. They were seeing increased growth in major markets outside the U.S., like Latin America.
KS: Okay, next one is Kaan Boluk, “How is the fallout affecting their business outside the U.S.? Can they survive that?” International growth has been important to them.
Yeah, as we all know, Uber is no longer in China, which is a huge potential market and could’ve been great for the company but they were just losing too much money trying to compete there. India is very similar in terms of the dynamics. They have a really strong competitor there, Ola. They’re in a similar battle with Ola that they were in with Didi. They have to subsidize, basically, to get new riders. Then there’s all these regulatory issues. And so, India is still kind of a question mark just because ... They’re seeing growth, obviously, but it’s still a question mark because they have a very strong competitor.
KS: Have they been taking advantage of this? Have they been using ... at least sort of has, right? Have these rivals tried to say, “Look at this crazy company.”
I don’t know if they have. But I think that part of that is probably because although Uber operates globally, it’s headquarters is in the United States. The world, despite what a lot of us feel like, does not revolve around Silicon Valley. So maybe it’s because it’s characterized or feels like a Silicon Valley issue that this hasn’t gone beyond the borders of the U.S. Because yesterday they said they saw 600 percent growth in Latin America, which is a gigantic market for them. They have a pretty strong competitor in the Middle East, but they’re really doing well there, too. They’re expanding across the region. Another question mark though is Europe, they’re facing a lot of regulatory issues there. They are facing a lot of regulatory issues in Southeast Asia where they’re competing with Grab. So I don’t think that Uber would be able to survive solely on their international business right now. It’s because a lot of it is still so much up in the air because of regulation and competitors.
LG: Keep in mind, too, Uber is still a private company. So all of the data that they are sharing or little bits of data that they’re saying they’re expanding somewhere, we don’t have proof of that because they’re not getting into a room and revealing all of the data to investors once every three months.
KS: Nobody trusts them.
Lauren Goode: And there’s the trust issue, right? So the next question is from Christopher Phelps @mr_protozoa in Twitter: “Love the convenience of Uber UK but feel guilty about their questionable ethics practices, what to do?” Well, Christoper, if I may jump in here, if you feel guilty and you don’t want to use a service, you do not have to use a service. There’s nothing ... I know you like the convenience, there might be ... do some research into other services that are available in your area. Maybe it’s a matter of giving up convenience once in a while and taking some other form of transportation, and then if you ever get into an emergency situation or situation where you just really want to take an Uber, then take an Uber. But no one’s forcing anybody at this point to use the company’s services if they don’t feel good about the stories they’ve read.
KS: Johana, options in U.K.?
Gett, which is a competitor of Uber, that’s also in New York, is really popular in Europe. That’s another option, I believe. Hailo is still in London. But this sounds more like a question for your therapist, so I don’t know how to help you.
KS: People are agonizing over this. All right, same thing, “Besides the pink logo, is Lyft a more inclusive company?” from @bridgetmc. Any high-level female executives or senior managers at Lyft? Lyft has been super quiet.
They are really being quiet, which is pretty smart on their end. They don’t want to look like they’re taking advantage of all of this. It’s probably better for them to let their business and their brand speak for itself. They do have high-powered or high-level female executives. There’s VP of Product, Tali Rapaport, who’s been there for really a long time, is a woman. They just hired a new chief marketing officer from Pandora, another woman. Their head of communications, Sheila Bryson, is also a woman.
They do have high-level female executives. That said, Uber has high-level female executives: Salle Yoo, their general counsel; the head of communications, Rachel Whetstone; Rachel Holt, who heads up all of U.S. and Canada. All of this still happened even though Uber has high-level female executives, so I don’t think that that’s a perfect measure of inclusion.
LG: And also it depends on tenure too. You can bring in new hires all the time but the problems often stem from how people are treated once they’re in the system. Right?
Yeah. And diversity can’t just be measured by numbers. It’s a lot like numbers in a room, that means literally nothing. It has to be a combination of both numbers and also those people are empowered, just having their voice heard.
KS: The blocking and tackling of systems, putting a system in place, I was talking to someone last night over dinner. You have to just do the basics of creating a systematic company that ... and they haven’t. That’s the excuse they’ve been using: They’ve grown and grown and grown so fast they couldn’t possibly be bothered to stop sexual harassment. You know what I mean.
It’s not an excuse, it’s actually awful that for so long the Uber CEO has been reported ... he was actually the one who said that he doesn’t want a diversity report. He didn’t see that as an efficient measure of the company’s success. He also felt like the HR department role was really to scale the company and to help fire those people that they want to fire, moreso than it was to solve workplace issues. So it makes sense that Susan Fowler’s claim went largely unchecked and remedied while she was there.
LG: This is a good question from Daniel Bazurto. He’s @danmusic on Twitter. “Does Uber know that I use Lyft as well?”
So if you have Uber on your phone, I don’t know that they can access this while you’re not using the app. But the app also accesses things if you give them permission, like the accelerometer on your phone and the GPS and location. So it can tell how fast you’re moving in whatever directions. So it’s likely that you’re moving in a car and things like that. And they’re using that technology to offer tools for its drivers or to make sure that their driver is in or is driving properly and efficiently and safely. Is it possible that the company has capabilities to use that to determine if you’re using other services or what you’re doing? Probably. It’s a technology company. I don’t know that that means necessarily that they are.
KS: Lauren, next question.
KS: Great name.
LG: Chocoburger is the name. “Since Uber is an awful company” — all right, he is editorializing — “is it okay to support Lyft instead or are they just as bad?”
It’s a matter of someone talking about their experience at Lyft. There is no reason to think right now that Lyft has the same problems, but there’s also no reason to give them a pass. Lyft has a lot of — not the same investors — but their investors come from that same world. Their executives come from that same world. They still are of the Silicon Valley culture. We can’t pretend it’s not possible that this is also happening at Lyft.
KS: And one thing that they’re saying about Lyft, a lot of people have pointed to, is that and Uber people are mad about it that Peter Thiel, who’s very controversial, is a major investor, not a little one, a major one. That’s another ... Do you want to back Peter Thiel? Do you want to make him more money? So there’s all kinds of things when you start to use these services to decide who benefits ...
LG: What matters to you. Right. It’s like, oh, I don’t know, Burger King or McDonald’s. But let me tell you, they’re both fast food. And if you’re looking to go on a diet, you’ll wind up with both.
That’s not really the answer here. But I guess it’s hard to sort of scale them next to each other without really knowing the full story of what’s going on inside.
KS: Honestly, if you want to feel good about yourself, just walk. Then you’ll be healthier.
Okay. “How are they doing in businesses beyond car sharing?” This is from Anne Wessing. “Food delivery, grocery, Uber Everything.” How is that going, Johana?
So Uber Everything is pretty important to them. The company has tried, in order to go public they have to be able to show that they have a diverse revenue stream that is not just coming from picking up and dropping off people, because that relies heavily on subsidies. It’s also very easy to gain market shares. Their business needs to be more than that. So they invested in delivery services, Uber Rush and things like that. But they’ve pivoted a lot in the last couple of years, or at least two years or so. They now have their UberEats App, which has expanded to places like Singapore and London and things like that. But there haven’t been real updates on how well that’s doing. So if you use UberEats, please let me know.
LG: Next question is from Adam Engelbrecht, @adamengel on Twitter: “Are Bay Area and Silicon Valley employers looking at employment at Uber as negative?” This is really a good question. For a while, I think, if people said, “I work at Uber” or “I’m applying a job at Uber,” there is a certain sexiness to the company even though they’re notorious for expecting long hours out of you. Has it changed?
I’ve heard anecdotally from people that they turn Uber or ex-Uber employees away because they believe that they’re indoctrinated now with these aggressive attitudes and approach to things. Even in the HR department — they have a rule, you’re not supposed to poach from specific companies. They have a non-poaching agreement with particular companies. But even HR people were encouraged, they would basically put letters from companies who are mad about them poaching their employees on their desk and show them off as badges of honor.
A lot of companies outside of Uber who may be interested in their talent, probably don’t want that at their companies. I’ve heard anecdotally that yes, people have been turned away because they worked at Uber. At the same time, working at a company like Uber has scale at the level ... that it has scaled and as fast as it did and as well as it did is still an advantage if you’re trying to help a smaller company grow.
KS: All right, next question is from Terri Johnson. “Has Uber ever considered the thousands of cabbies left unemployed and in debt for worthless licenses?” And also added, “It seems to me they’ve been seriously callous and uncaring that the people with few other options.” Should they care about the taxi people, Johana? This is a fraud company.
So, I mean ... It’s tough to answer because I don’t think when Uber went into this market ... they were going after the luxury car service market. They didn’t go into it thinking that they would be replacing taxis. They thought they were going to be replacing luxury black car services. Eventually, though, that is just what ended up happening.
Now the mentality — for example, the value of the taxi medallion in New York City has gone down. A lot of people are having difficulty selling them. They are in debt because of that. At the same time, it is a free market. Taxi drivers can work for Uber or they can find another position. I don’t know that it’s necessarily Uber or any other company’s responsibility to make sure that the industry that they’re replacing has some sort of new job opportunities or new opportunity in general.
KS: All right, Johana the capitalist. Okay. You’re bad.
LG: This is an email from Zach Villers. This is a good one. “I’m trying not to be a stupid male here even though I am genetically predisposed to such behavior. I’ve read the letter from the engineer who was harassed. It’s horrifying to think about it and put yourself in her shoes both from the actions of the harassers and from the simple fact that no one did anything. So here’s my two questions. How does this behavior not get dealt with? Is there not one person at the company who can do the right thing outside of the woman being harassed? I’m not talking about the chivalrous type that deals with injustices, vigilante-style.
I guess my inexperience here is showing,” he says, “But how does this company of this size actually foster this environment?” Then he says, “From the woman in tech I follow on Twitter, the situation said engineer at Uber had to deal with isn’t that uncommon. Obviously, if you see something, say something, be a witness, speak up, etc. Are there other indicators that someone is being harassed (like with other forms of abuse)? If there are indicators and I see them, what do I do?
This is a very personal note. He says, “As a person with Asperger’s, it’s hard for me to pick up on everything but I feel a sort of allegiance for minorities, people of color, women, anyone that gets harassed, and I want to try though. What can I do?"
For the first question, has this behavior gone unchecked at a big company? For Uber specifically, like I’ve said before, the priority was to scale and to grow. What you want to do is the mission being critical, the mission being win at all cost, beat the competitors, win against regulators, then it’s probably not worth doing and it’s probably not worth your time.
So when it comes to things helping someone who says that they’re being harassed, that wasn’t the priority at first at their HR Department. Susan Fowler also said she went to the company’s CTO with these allegations and nothing was done. So that’s kind of how things happen at a bigger company if your focus is not so much on fostering an inclusive environment and making sure your employees are happy and more on winning and growing. Then of course things are going to fall by the wayside and slip through the cracks, which is not great. That’s not how you should be running your company.
As minority, the thing that would help me if I would ever be harassed is ... you want to be able to work at a company where you feel empowered to speak up. You can create different programs that do that. Vox Media has a lot of those, where they have special interest groups. I don’t really know actually what the name of them are. But they basically, you can create this identity group that can gather together to talk about your shared interest and then try to put forward the programs within the company that would help you promote your inclusion of your particular identity. So creating things like that I think are really important for a large company. I don’t know if there’s a handbook for how to tell if someone is being harassed. But I think being able to see it, seeing if someone is uncomfortable or made uncomfortable by a particular situation or interaction, I think is probably one step.
KS: But some make excuses for these people. You know what I mean. They’ve got enormous amounts of money. How many billions do they have in their venture capital raising. It’s enormous. It’s careless and badly done. And to say, “We’re growing so fast we just can’t help her. We’re just on a scale. We’re taking such risk.” I don’t know it’s just bullshit.
No, yeah. I mean, that’s not an excuse by any means. That’s me saying that that was the wrong priority. You should be not only caring about how big your company is in lieu of caring about how your employees feel and how whether they are healthy or not.
KS: They just insult the HR function completely. The original HR person here during some of these more difficult times, who’s from Google, very well regarded, worked for Susan Wojcicki, actually, also is now ... It’s her fault? I don’t think so. She wasn’t able to report to the CEO, probably wasn’t empowered, wasn’t treated ... you know what I mean. It’s just like ultimately I think whatever happens to Travis, it’s his fault. And he wasn’t able to focus on this and he was saying, “I don’t think diversity is so important.”
He’s allowed “brilliant jerks” to thrive. It his responsibility to either change or get out of the way. Really, you know what I mean? Change and make it so it’s possible, or get out of the way. And if he can’t change, then it has ... people can certainly change, but it’s a question of if he’s willing to and he thinks he’s done something that needs changing.
LG: And I would say, too, that if you’re observing someone else in your workforce who is dealing with either mild or overt forms of harassment or discrimination, going directly to that person and saying, “Hey, I see what’s going on.” Or, “Do you want to talk about it?” is one thing. But I think it’s offering to be a second set of eyes. You say, “Hey, if you ultimately report this to HR, I’ve seen this.” is helpful, too. It could make a person feel like they’re a little bit less alone. But other than that, I think this is also very systemic, these problems, when they exist within a corporation or an organization. So there’s only so much an individual can do in some cases to really change that.
KS: So Johana, where do you think this ends? Where does this stop? It sounds odd but it feels a little bit about like what’s go on with the Trump administration and the Russia thing. Does it keep hanging over this company or can they move on? How do they move to a better place?
There has to be real change within the company. They have to not only find a new COO, they have to replace their entire C-suite of executives. I think a lot of decisions will show the public how the company’s thinking about its future. Again, they’re a private company so it’s hard to really know what’s going on internally unless we’re talking to our sources and other people who work there.
Basically it has to feel like a place where women, female engineers, no longer feel like they will be punished for reporting things like sexual harassment. The thing is, Uber has again managed its way out of a lot of its previous scandals. People will forget that this happened, but part of the benefit of the news cycle is that it moves very very quickly. If something else doesn’t happen in the next couple of weeks, if something new doesn’t happen, it’s likely the company might be able to move on from it.
Well, we’ll see. They’ve gotten through a lot of other things. This is more serious of all for sure. All right, thank you so much, Johana, for being here. This has been another great episode of Two Embarrassed To Ask and we really appreciate your insights.
Thanks for having me.
LG: Johana, tell people where they can find you online or on Twitter or your email and all that.
You can find me at recode.net or on Twitter @jmbooyah.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.