It was Lao Tzu who said that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
In the case of complete and utter change reeling through Uber right now — culminating in the resignation of its once untouchable CEO Travis Kalanick — it turns out that it began with one of the most epic blog posts to be written about what happens when a hot company becomes hostage to its increasingly dysfunctional and toxic behaviors.
It was clear from the moment you read the 3,000-word post by former engineer Susan Fowler about her time at the car-hailing company that nothing was going to be the same. Titled simply, “Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber,” the essay deftly and surgically laid out the map that the media and others would use to prove to its out-to-lunch board and waffling investors that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick had to go.
In her account, Fowler was neither mean nor self-righteous, although in reading the story that she laid out about her horrible time there, it would have been completely fair for her to have taken that tone.
Consider what she started with:
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.
Oh no. No. No. That was my first reaction upon reading that, because I knew that it was just the beginning of a downward journey into the belly of the beast that we all knew — we knew — was there all along. It was a tale that could only be told by an insider, really, especially one who could render the horrible misbehaviors with a kind of cool efficiency that felt completely genuine.
And what a subject. Uber was the quintessence of the kinds of sexism and sexual harassment problems that pop up all over Silicon Valley all the time. There was all of it, concentrated: The unchecked arrogance, the fucked-up power dynamics in which the talented tech-holes always get a pass for their bad acts, the we’re-busy-so-we-can-ignore-the-basics attitude and, most of all, a culture ruled by the equivalent of badly raised boys who eschewed the kind of discipline and rigor that is the real requirement of success.
As I noted in a piece titled, “Hell is Silicon Valley people who won’t grow up”:
It’s often referred to as a Peter Pan mentality, in which its denizens are trying to remain forever young in a land of perpetual boyhood, making things like photo apps and social media and new ways to play old video games.
Personally, I think there is a far more sinister comparison to another fairy tale, that of Pinocchio’s transformation into a jackass on Pleasure Island. It’s a place where boys are indulged with endless fun, until it becomes clear that there is actually a price for all that indulgence.
Yes, that was it: Susan Fowler showed us the donkeys that were worshiped as kings by the VCs and investors and boards and, yes, the media, too.
But post-Fowler, you could not ignore it, because she pulled off what poet Louise Gluck wrote about in her poem, “Circe’s Power”: “I never turned anyone into a pig. Some people are pigs; I make them look like pigs.”
Which is to say that Fowler did everyone in tech a public service by doing nothing more than making pigs look like pigs.
Others had tried before her, of course, but they had flamed out before there was serious conflagration. There was that creepy situation at Tinder, the appalling treatment of a female techie that unfolded at GitHub, the train wreck at HP. And, of course, the trial that pitted Ellen Pao against her former employer, venture firm Kleiner Perkins.
But because that story was more complex — and also because Kleiner had more and pricier lawyers — the case became too confusing for many to resonate with it. Pao got caught up in the story, and was put through the wringer in a way that was depressing to watch. Small mistakes she made were writ large, and she, too, went on trial.
To anyone watching it closely, it was not fair. But it was also the way things too often are in Silicon Valley, a place that regards itself as a lot better than it really is. You know the drill: Its denizens say they are changing the world, but the world is actually changing them, and not often for the better.
Is it the wealth? The acclaim? The way the critical need to push past the doubt that mutates into a delusional intractableness that only reinforces itself and almost always turns ugly?
That is what worries me about the current kudos being given to the investors who finally turned on Kalanick and demanded that he step down. Good for them, the cry goes up!
But it completely ignores the fact that every single one of them had been utterly complicit in what came before.
Is that harsh to say? Maybe so, but while Kalanick was riding high, he could do no wrong, even if he did an awful lot of wrong getting there. Why didn’t those investors care as much then? To pretend they did not know just doesn’t cut it.
(The same for me and many others in the media, too, but I think we all more than recovered the high ground with regard to Uber. In my case, after I was pushed to do so.)
And once it was seeping out — seeping is an excellent word for the slime — they most definitely knew, and still did not act. I can clearly recall a series of conversations I had with several of them only weeks ago, when the investigations into the badness at Uber were coming to an end. I was insistent that if they showed the malfeasance that I and other reporters were already finding in droves, that Kalanick had to go. I said that over and over to them, and it was met by an insistence that he needed to stay because Uber was him and he was Uber.
“That’s the problem,” I replied. Not to them.
And not of true concern to them, I believe, were the myriad of allegations that Fowler made about sexual harassment and sexism and overall retaliatory mistreatment of employees. It’s an awful thing to think of many people that I consider good people, but when it comes to concerns like gender or racial equality, there is too often a willingness to let it go.
The real truth? What they mostly cared about — as they drew their virtual knives to take care of Kalanick, complete with a high-horse letter declaring their rectitude — was simply that this was not the guy who could get them all the riches they had counted on in an IPO, and had subjected them to lawsuits, some possibly criminal.
In other words: Follow the money. Until that was at risk, Kalanick was safe.
Fine, that’s capitalism, but excuse some of us for hoping for better. We are all flawed and cross lines, but not like the execs at Uber have done.
Which is why I take heart that Fowler had the guts to step forward anyway. She was appealing to our ethics and our morals, aiming at entrenched power, even if what actually ended up taking down the many bad actors in the Uber drama was nothing more than basic greed.
Greed is good, as it turns out. But it was Susan Fowler — perhaps the only brave one in this sorry story — who was even better.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.