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Travis Kalanick says Larry Page was upset Uber was poaching self-driving talent

Kalanick and Page: It’s complicated.

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick walks out of the Federal Building where the Uber-Waymo trial is taking place.
Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Elijah Nouvelage / Getty

If former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s strategy was to be restrained and compliant on the first day of his testimony in Alphabet’s lawsuit against Uber, then the strategy on the second day was to play the chump.

Kalanick, who took the witness stand for the second time on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, has fielded much of the attention from Alphabet’s legal team. Alphabet is eager to convince the jury that the overly ambitious, often-competitive Kalanick worked with a former engineer, Anthony Levandowski, to bring over trade secrets from the company’s self-driving arm, Waymo.

Alphabet is suing Uber for allegedly conspiring with Levandowski to bring over self-driving trade secrets from Waymo to Uber to help accelerate Uber’s slow-to-develop autonomous efforts. The company filed the lawsuit after discovering Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files before leaving Waymo to start a self-driving trucking startup, Otto, which Uber later acquired.

Uber calls the lawsuit baseless and says no files ever made it to the company.

While Waymo works hard to point the finger at Kalanick specifically, saying his winner-take-all attitude fueled a burning desire to beat Google at all costs, Uber, on the other hand, is keen on painting Kalanick as an executive passionate about solving transportation problems, especially those related to self-driving.

“When we first got started, imagine like six people being around a table and that’s your whole team,” Kalanick said when Uber attorneys asked what it was like to be the CEO of Uber. “Day in and day out you just dream what Uber could be. But as it grew you just have this huge thing. 15,000 people in basically every city in the world. Your job goes from being the team of six in the trenches ... to empowering literally thousands of teams of six.”

Kalanick, as he testified, was not the rapacious executive Waymo portrayed. Quite the contrary, he said. His was a story of betrayal on a number of fronts. He was betrayed by Alphabet CEO Larry Page and, eventually, by Levandowski, who he called “a brother from another mother.”

According to Kalanick, when it came to Alphabet — which is an investor in Uber — he was the slighted younger brother eager to work with his “big brothers,” Alphabet CEO Larry Page and chief legal counsel David Drummond.

Drummond served on Uber’s board before he stepped down over a conflict of interest in August 2016.

Kalanick says he wanted badly to work with Alphabet and Page on self-driving cars. Email evidence presented at the trial, indeed, shows Kalanick attempting to contact Page and set up a meeting with him about rumors he heard that Alphabet would be operating a competing ride-share service instead of working with Uber.

An email from Travis Kalanick to David Drummond about rumors he heard.

In fact, Kalanick testifies, it was Page, not him, whose decisions were fueled by a competitive nature. After making multiple attempts to work on a self-driving ride-hail network with Alphabet, Kalanick and Uber acquired a team of engineers from Carnegie Mellon University to start their own driverless efforts in 2015.

Page, Kalanick said, was “super unpumped” about that.

“Larry made it clear he was upset we were doing autonomy,” Kalanick said.

“Larry was upset we were doing his thing,” Kalanick also said.

That’s why Kalanick said he thought there was a possibility Alphabet might sue Uber over its acquisition of Otto, co-founded by a number of Waymo engineers, including Levandowski.

Page was “upset” Uber was poaching Alphabet engineers, Kalanick explained.

A big part of Uber’s strategy is to convince the jury that Waymo and Alphabet were upset Levandowski left and were also concerned over losing ground in the self-driving race to Uber. That, Uber is claiming, is really why they sued Uber — it wasn’t about files, it was about talent and competition.

“He kept saying, ‘You’re taking our people and you’re taking our IP,’” Kalanick tesified.

That raises an important question that will likely come up time and again as the trial continues: How do you ensure people are not bringing the ideas or intellectual property that they have in their head from their former employer to their current employer?

According to Kalanick, he conceded he was in fact recruiting Alphabet engineers, but said “people are not IP.”

It turns out Levandowski had a similar concern. As part of his agreement to sell his company to Uber, he and his co-founder Lior Ron required that Uber protect them against any litigation that came out of “bad acts” committed or other issues before the deal occurred.

But Kalanick says he had little knowledge of what either the acquisition agreement or the indemnification agreement said. After all, he was the busy executive of a 15,000-person company with little time to read through documents like the agreement to acquire Otto and the accompanying agreement to protect Levandowski and his team from any lawsuits.

That he didn’t read through important documents pertaining to a transaction that was valued at around $590 million is an odd admission to make under oath. Especially since, as Waymo’s attorney pointed out, Kalanick signed both those documents.

Kalanick said he trusted his legal team to handle the formal matters related to acquiring Otto. But, that’s not to say he didn’t deliver his own warning to Levandowski. According to a due diligence report cybersecurity firm Stroz Friedberg put together on Otto before Uber acquired it, Kalanick told Levandowski he didn’t want any information to get to Uber. Levandowski said he had discs with Waymo information on it, the report says, and Kalanick told him to destroy the discs.

Uber contends none of those files made it to Uber and eventually fired Levandowski for not cooperating with the suit a few months after Waymo filed it.

When asked how he felt about Levandowski now, Kalanick said: “Look, this has been a difficult process ... This makes it not as great as what we thought it was at the beginning.”

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