Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Book review: Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, Mark Isaac (2019)

A couple of months ago I reviewed a journalist’s account of a Silicon Valley startup that was run by a woman who used, let’s say, less than ethical means to achieve her aims. Theranos didn’t survive the backlash that revelations of the CEO’s tactics produced. In Uber’s case investors wanted to get rid of the company’s founder so that it could prosper. This was tied to a strategy characterised by self-interest. If investors wanted their shares in the company to keep their value, they had to get rid of the CEO. This book is the story of how Uber grew large and how the poor behaviour of its CEO almost led to the firm crashing, and burning.

It’s a tale well-told in short and drama-filled chapters but the point has to be underlined: Uber was a creature of a large group of people who sought to make money at all costs. If you decline to accept the theory that Travis Kalanik alone made the company what it was – a toxic place to work, especially if you were a woman, and a place that lacked consideration for the wellbeing of secondary stakeholders, principally drivers of the cars that relied on its app to do business – then you are on the right track.

But Isaac shows how the worst aspects of Kalanik’s temperament and character bled into other parts of the company through close associates who ran things on a day-to-day basis. The strip-club nights and the paid escorts and the expensive alcohol, the parties on yachts and dinners in tony restaurants: all of this appears in the light of what happened at Uber to be tawdry and cheap. As though the only things worth doing in life were things that are paid for with loads of cash. This story is an indictment – like journalist Carreyrou’s account of Theranos – of an entire class of people. Silicon Valley culture is sick. The ways companies abuse their power, companies like Uber and Facebook that allow people to communicate online, is symptomatic of an illness.

But if you read Isaac’s account you’ll find that in the early days of Uber’s existence even bringing in people from outside the small world of Silicon Valley didn’t help things. Kalanik recruited many bods from industries beyond the confines of IT but they quickly morphed into super-pumped bros with nothing but pecuniary gain on their minds.

The get-rich-quick and winner-takes-all mentality that underpinned Uber’s success is symptomatic of Silicon Valley more broadly. Kalanik’s mistake was not that he was driven and ambitious and unethical, but that he was just a bit too driven and too ambitious and excessively unethical. The error was merely a matter of degree, not of intent. Kalanik was on the right track, it’s just that he went too far. 

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