Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Uber

The Uber Achievers

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In 1997, the computer scientist Niklaus Wirth, best known as the creator of Pascal, conducted a fascinating interview with the magazine Software Development, which I’ve quoted here before. When asked if it would be better to design programming languages with “human issues” in mind, Wirth replied:

Software development is technical activity conducted by human beings. It is no secret that human beings suffer from imperfection, limited reliability, and impatience—among other things. Add to it that they have become demanding, which leads to the request for rapid, high performance in return for the requested high salaries. Work under constant time pressure, however, results in unsatisfactory, faulty products.

When I read this quotation now, I think of Uber. As a recent story by Caroline O’Donovan and Priya Anand of Buzzfeed makes clear, the company that seems to have alienated just about everyone in the world didn’t draw the line at its own staff: “Working seven days a week, sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m., was considered normal, said one employee. Another recalled her manager telling her that spending seventy to eighty hours a week in the office was simply ‘how Uber works.’ Someone else recalled working eighty to one hundred hours a week.” One engineer, who is now in therapy, recalled: “It’s pretty clear that giving that much of yourself to any one thing is not healthy. There were days where I’d wake up, shower, go to work, work until midnight or so, get a free ride home, sleep six hours, and go back to work. And I’d do that for a whole week.”

“I feel so broken and dead,” one employee concluded. But while Uber’s internal culture was undoubtedly bad for morale, it might seem hard at first to make the case that the result was an “unsatisfactory, faulty” product. As a source quoted in the article notes, stress at the company led to occasional errors: “If you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?” Yet the Uber app itself is undeniably elegant and reliable, and the service that it provided is astonishingly useful—if it weren’t, we probably wouldn’t even be talking about it now. When we look at what else Wirth says, though, the picture becomes more complicated. All italics in the following are mine:

Generally, the hope is that corrections will not only be easy, because software is immaterial, but that the customers will be willing to share the cost. We know of much better ways to design software than is common practice, but they are rarely followed. I know of a particular, very large software producer that explicitly assumes that design takes twenty percent of developers’ time, and debugging takes eighty percent. Although internal advocates of an eighty percent design time versus twenty percent debugging time have not only proven that their ratio is realistic, but also that it would improve the company’s tarnished image. Why, then, is the twenty-percent design time approach preferred? Because with twenty-percent design time your product is on the market earlier than that of a competitor consuming eighty-percent design time. And surveys show that the customer at large considers a shaky but early product as more attractive than a later product, even if it is stable and mature.

This description applies perfectly to Uber, as long as we remember that its “product” isn’t bounded by its app alone, but extends to its impact on drivers, employees, competitors, and the larger community in which it exists—or what an economist would call its externalities. Taken as a closed system, the Uber experience is perfect, but only because it pushes its problems outside the bounds of the ride itself. When you look at the long list of individuals and groups that its policies have harmed, you discern the outlines of its true product, which can be described as the system of interactions between the Uber app and the world. You could say this of most kinds of software, but it’s particularly stark for a service that is tied to the problem of physically moving its customers from one point to another on the earth’s surface. By that standard, “shaky but early” describes Uber beautifully. It certainly isn’t “stable and mature.” The company expanded to monstrous proportions before basic logistical, political, and legal matters had been resolved, and it acted as if it could simply bull its way through any obstacles. (Its core values, let’s not forget, included “stepping on toes” and “principled confrontation.”) Up to a point, it worked, but something had to give, and economic logic dictated that the stress fall on the human factor, which was presumably resilient enough to absorb punishment from the design and technology sides. One of the most striking quotes in the Buzzfeed article comes from Uber’s chief human resources officer: “Many employees are very tired from working very, very hard as the company grew. Resources were tight and the growth was such that we could never hire sufficiently, quickly enough, in order to keep up with the growth.” To assert that “resources were tight” at the most valuable startup on the planet seems like a contradiction in terms, and it would be more accurate to say that Uber decided to channel massive amounts of capital in certain directions while neglecting those that it cynically thought could take it.

But it was also right, until it wasn’t. Human beings are extraordinarily resilient, as long as you can convince them to push themselves past the limits of their ability, or at least to do work at rates that you can afford. In the end, they burn out, but there are ways to postpone that moment or render it irrelevant. When it came to its drivers, Uber benefited from a huge pool of potential contractors, which made turnover a statistical, rather than an individual, problem. With its corporate staff and engineers, there was always the power of money, in the form of equity in the company, to persuade people to stay long past the point where they would have otherwise quit. The firm gambled that it would lure in plenty of qualified hires willing to trade away their twenties for the possibility of future wealth, and it did. (As the Buzzfeed article reveals, Uber seems to have approached compensation for its contractors and employees in basically the same way: “Uber acknowledges that it pays less than some of its top competitors for talent…The Information reported that Uber uses an algorithm to estimate the lowest possible compensation employees will take in order to keep labor costs down.”) When the whole system finally failed, it collapsed spectacularly, and it might help to think of Uber’s implosion, which unfolded over less than six months, as a software crash, with bugs that were ignored or patched cascading in a chain reaction that brings down the entire program. And the underlying factor wasn’t just a poisonous corporate culture or the personality of its founder, but the sensibility that Wirth identified two decades ago, as a company rushed to get a flawed idea to market on the assumption that consumers—or society as a whole—would bear the costs of correcting it. As Wirth asks: “Who is to blame for this state of affairs? The programmer turned hacker; the manager under time pressure; the business man compelled to extol profit wherever possible; or the customer believing in promised miracles?”

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2017 at 8:29 am

The luxury of disruption

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Uber Apps

What we maybe should’ve realized sooner was that we are running a political campaign and the candidate is Uber.

—Travis Kalanick, to Vanity Fair

Earlier this week, Susan J. Fowler, a software engineer, published a long post on her personal blog with the pointedly neutral title “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” It’s a gripping read that exposes a corporate culture that is dysfunctional both toward women—with its sexism, rampant sexual harassment, the dismissal of such concerns by human resources, and a steadily diminishing percentage of female employees—and toward just about everyone else: “It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job.” The piece, or at least its reception, has prompted Uber founder Travis Kalanick to hire former Attorney General Eric Holder to look into these allegations, a measure which is presumably intended to impress us with its seriousness, but which comes off as an unintentionally hilarious way of investigating one’s own company. (As Thornton McEnery of Dealbreaker puts it: “Travis seems to only have one move: Hire a former Obama administration official and hope that’s what caring looks like.”) The news doesn’t really affect me personally: as I’ve explained elsewhere, I deleted Uber a long time ago for other reasons. But what strikes me the most about Fowler’s essay is its tone, which is calm, controlled, and understated, even when she relates incidents of profound humiliation. For instance, when she reported her manager’s inappropriate sexual advances, she was told that her only options were either to find a different team or to continue to report to the man who harassed her, at the risk of a poor performance review. In response, Fowler writes: “I remarked that this didn’t seem like much of a choice.”

That “remarked” is what sticks with me. It casts Fowler as an objective observer to her own story, and it isn’t just a rhetorical device, although she maintains it masterfully throughout the essay. (The only place where she falters is at the end, where she writes, not altogether convincingly: “I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was. Such a strange experience. Such a strange year.”) Even at work, from the very beginning, Fowler did exactly what she had to do: she took screenshots of her interactions with her manager, kept records, went through proper channels, and was good at her job. In the end, it didn’t matter, at least not at Uber itself. When she requested a transfer to another project, she was told that she had “undocumented performance problems,” and after asking for more information, she was told, bewilderingly: “Performance problems aren’t always something that has to do with work, but sometimes can be about things outside of work or your personal life.” But even if the discipline that she displays here didn’t lead to the professional results that she deserved, it’s indispensable when it comes to sharing her experiences. As my wife pointed out, when a woman comes forward with this kind of story, she has to do everything right. Any perceived shortcoming or compromise will be seized upon as an excuse to undermine her credibility. Fowler, to her credit, appears to have conducted herself with unwavering intelligence and integrity—but if she hadn’t, we probably wouldn’t have heard her account at all. Silicon Valley loves to talk about “failing faster,” but a woman in her situation doesn’t get to fail and try again. She gets exactly one chance. And the fact that she pulled it off isn’t an accident, but a reflection of the inhuman standards that we impose on all those who dare to speak out.


When we look at Uber itself, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. I won’t even get into the instances of illegal or unethical activity by individual drivers, or the legal actions and protests the company has weathered from taxi companies, both of which were probably unavoidable. But even when we set these aside, Uber’s corporate track record is exceptionally toxic. It misled prospective drivers by exaggerating potential earnings and minimizing the cost of leasing or buying a car. Its employees ordered thousands of rides from its competitors and canceled them, both to waste the drivers’ time and to lure them into joining Uber instead. One project focused on inserting moles into Lyft to learn about its launch plans and recruit its drivers. As I’ve discussed at great length in my previous post on the subject, an executive at Uber threatened to dig into the background of a journalist who was critical of its policies, and another shrugged off the ensuing outrage with the hashtag #HatersGonnaHate. They’ve even used their internal tracking system to follow the movements of reporters and politicians. You’d expect to see an intense level of scrutiny directed toward any startup that grew as quickly and had as much of an impact as Uber has, but even if you account for this, the company has demonstrated in half a dozen different ways that it’s an ethical mess. Unlike Fowler, who had to retain a laserlike focus to tell her story in a credible way, Uber gets to fail and flail endlessly on the assumption that it will eventually be forgiven. And maybe it will be. I’d be the first to admit that Uber is built on a transformative idea, a useful service, and a beautiful app, which means that it had to screw up to a truly remarkable degree to convince its users to delete it. Well, as Angelica Schuyler once said to Kalanick’s favorite founding father, congratulations. It has invented a new kind of stupid.

And its culture is inseparable from the idea of “disruption,” which has saturated Silicon Valley to the point where it stands as an article of faith. You’re supposed to break down entire industries and rebuild them in your own image, an approach that favors grand, risky bets rather than systematic growth. But it also tends to attract people, at least on the executive level, who can afford to fail repeatedly because they’ve been granted unlimited second chances, like Fowler’s manager, whose every act of harassment was treated as his first offense. It’s a luxury that isn’t granted to women, or to employees who don’t look more or less like the guys who hired them. Disruption itself is a creed that could only be embraced by those who have their existing cultural and social safety nets firmly in place, and who know that they can’t fall far. Not surprisingly, rather than enforcing the difficult sort of discipline which depends on an endless series of invisible ethical choices, Uber’s usual response to controversy is to radically overcompensate in the other direction, usually by throwing money at it. After Kalanick, who until recently was a member of President Trump’s economic advisory council, expressed only mild criticism of the executive order on refugees, the founders of Lyft announced that they would donate a million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union—to which Uber retorted that it would establish a fund of three million dollars to defend its affected drivers. Hiring Eric Holder is a similarly flashy gesture meant to correct the slow drift toward the bottom that the company seems fated to repeat, as if it were settling to its natural level. Like a politician granted a free pass by his base, Uber seems convinced that we’ll overlook everything else if it delivers the services we expect. And just as in politics, that’s probably true, up until the moment that it isn’t.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2017 at 9:34 am

My Uber Ex

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Uber Apps

Yesterday, I canceled my Uber account. Many of you probably already know why, but on the off chance you don’t, I can only quote the original report on Buzzfeed:

A senior executive at Uber suggested that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media—and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company…

Over dinner, he outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press—they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

[Senior vice president Emil] Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry…Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.

Since the story was first reported by Ben Smith, who personally witnessed the remarks, both Michael and Uber chief Travis Kalanick have publicly apologized. But I frankly don’t trust them. And while my feelings have more than a little to do with the fact that I’m a freelance writer married to a journalist who has covered Uber in the past, they’re also reflection of larger, more troubling questions that should concern more than just members of the press and their families.

First, I should go on the record as saying that I love the service that Uber provides. It’s convenient, cheap, and has the potential to change people’s lives for the better: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s the most innovative startup concept of the decade. If anything, though, this only makes the underlying point more stark, which is how toxic values—encouraged by the culture in which they emerge—can poison even great ideas. There’s the unstated assumption, for instance, that you can draw an equivalence between a reporter covering a corporation’s business practices and that same corporation “fighting back” by investigating the reporter’s personal life. This isn’t some theoretical consideration; there are documented cases of companies doing exactly this. What really startles me, though, is Uber’s lukewarm reaction. In a series of tweets issued in response to the report, Kalanick stated that Michael’s comments did not fairly represent the company, but he also made another curious statement: “His duties here at Uber do not involve communications strategy or plans.” This seems calculated to partially absolve Michael, or the company itself, but it only makes the lack of action harder to understand. Michael, who is not involved in communications strategy, made remarks that had an instant chilling effect on the very journalists on whom Uber depends for fair coverage, and he was careless enough to make them to Ben Smith, one of the most famous media figures in the country. As John Hodgman notes in a blog post on the same subject: “If this isn’t a fireable offense, are there any?”


The fact that Michael seems unlikely to face any additional consequences for his comments makes it clear that deep down, Uber itself doesn’t seem to think that they’re particularly offensive, and that this is just a fake controversy stirred up by reporters looking for attention. (If I had any doubt at all about this, I’d only have to reread the tweet from another Uber executive, since deleted, sharing a photo of employees celebrating after Kalanick’s apology, with the hashtag #HatersGonnaHate. That’s the moment I decided to cancel my account.) And this reflects a fundamental cultural problem. Last week, I noted that the unforgiving conditions of venture funding force startups to compress the process of testing new ideas into punishing, probably unsustainable timelines. Along with everything else, this kind of corporate Darwinism leads to a weirdly insecure, adversarial relationship with the media. In many cases, a company’s brand is all it has: money is raised for an idea that may be years away from delivery, and in the meantime, a reputation has to be spun out of nothing. Press coverage plays a huge part in shaping that narrative, so a startup with nothing but a sales pitch for an app is more likely to rage against a negative story than, say, General Electric, which has more important things to worry about. And when half of your perceived value as a company stems from what journalists have to say about you, it’s easy to conclude that if a reporter isn’t your friend, she’s your enemy.

I’d be tempted to say that it’s similar to how writers feel about critics, if it weren’t for the crucial difference that most writers don’t have the resources to bully or intimidate the critics they don’t like. And Uber stands only at one end of a continuum that extends way, way down to some of the ugliest recent developments in tech culture. If nothing else, they’re drawing from the same talent pool: the current startup market has evolved so that those who are most attracted to it are likely to share a common set of principles, including a sense that any criticism amounts to a personal attack, which can only have a freezing effect on innovation in the long run. Still, it isn’t difficult to see why Uber feels so threatened. Unlike most startups, they have a sensational core idea and tons of revenue, but their entire operation is predicated on trust. When their image suffers, that trust is diminished, and we’re less likely to order one of their cars. The fact that they maintain minimal infrastructure of their own, which is a big part of what makes them so exciting, exposes them to competition from shrewder rivals. And maybe they’re right to be worried. Enough customers have started canceling their accounts because of Michael’s comments that Uber has started to respond with a boilerplate email stating that his views don’t reflect that of the larger company. When I canceled my own account, I was halfway hoping to get the same reply. Instead, it only said: “Sorry to see you go!”

Written by nevalalee

November 20, 2014 at 10:17 am

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