Although it was over three years ago when Susan Fowler’s explosive essay on harassment at Uber dropped, things at Uber have changed tremendously. For one, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is no longer in charge. Since almost all of us are in quarantine right now, it’s a good time to pick up a book and learn about the toxic behind-the-scenes at Uber! Senior RSG contributor John Ince provides this review of the Whistleblower book.
Whistleblower is a book where everybody knows the plot line – or at least you think you do.
In case you forgot, here’s the gist of what happened:
It’s February 2017 and Fowler’s 2700 word essay, Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year With Uber has just been published. The post went viral and Fowler’s story was just beginning.
Unbeknownst to her, Fowler’s life was about to get very strange. Uber’s CEO at the time, Travis Kalanick, hired Eric Holder to investigate the company, but there were also these people who kept showing up in Fowler’s life – like the investigators. She recalls being followed after work. Her Facebook page was hacked. Her sister’s Facebook page was hacked.
All of it is in this gem of a book.
Here are five reasons why it’s a great read.
Interested in learning more about Whistleblower?
5 Reasons Why You Should Read Whistleblower
1. Fowler Lived Through This Experience
Susan Fowler was there amidst all the chaos and confusion. Yes, she had only a small picture of the whole picture, but that small picture was sufficient to give her a sense of a very toxic corporate culture.
The interactions focus on the Human Resources (HR) department, but it might just have well been the entire company. The HR department clearly was not there to help. They gave untruthful answers to simple questions and the situation just gets better (or worse, if you will) from there.
2. She Captures The Confusion Behind Uber in Great Detail
The writing is crisp, clear and honest. This passage is an example:
“The power dynamics within the company seemed sociopathic. All the managers were vying for their managers’ roles and their managers were trying to get their managers’ jobs nothing was off living limits in these petty power games… We often joked amongst ourselves that it was a miracle the app even worked at all the company was in complete chaos.”
It’s one thing for an employee to be involved in a situation that creates personal stress. It’s an entirely different thing when an entire company creates a situation where groups of engineers are played like pawns against each other with little regard for the end product or the user.
3. Fowler is an Unlikely Heroine
Here we have a 25-year-old who has found herself in a dysfunctional situation, and she was looking at the world around her through the eyes of someone who assumed the HR department was there to help her.
Fowler is wide-eyed and somehow everything thing around her didn’t make sense. Fowler describes situations in which she was unclear what the objective was.
I found the chapters about working, or attempting to work, with HR especially powerful:
“I couldn’t change the company culture by myself and I couldn’t file complaints on behalf of all the other women who have been harassed or pushed HR about their cases, but I could go and ask for my own case to be reopened…”
She held out hope that the superiors would do something that HR couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do, and she pushed forward herself.
Her decision to publish her account about what happened at Uber came to the world at just the right moment.
It was part of a series of events at Uber that brought the company to its knees. Travis Kalanick eventually resigned as a result of Fowler’s letter and other events.
It was one of those moments in history where a simple event triggered something quite powerful.
4. Uber is Representative of Silicon Valley Culture
Okay, not all tech companies fit the Uber mold. But some do.
For example, in Silicon Valley, there is an emphasis placed on growth at the expense of profitability. The emphasis on growth forces the company to do things that in retrospect seem very foolish. Susan Fowler wasn’t privy to all these discussions about where the company was going, but she was one of many who was implementing them.
I can’t help but wonder after reading Susan Fowler’s account how many young people today find themselves in similar situations. When I worked on Wall Street, I found myself in situations where I didn’t know what to do. People said things to me that didn’t make any sense at all.
It’s this Orwellian interaction with a human resources department that puts Fowler on edge. Unfortunately, this culture was (and is) representative of not only Uber as a company but also Silicon Valley and its tech culture.
5. In the End, The Good Guys and Gals Win
Uber has a new CEO who has rejected many of the practices that were in place during Kalanick’s reign. Okay, so maybe the good guys aren’t in power, and maybe the people currently in power aren’t such good guys, but at least it’s nice to think that Fowler ended up where she wants to be. She’s now the technology editor of the New York Times.
Now the question awaits us. Fowler has set a high ethical bar. Her behavior at Uber set an example for all kinds of people, and many of those people are now going to her with their own stories. She has to figure out which stories to publish – and that will be interesting.
Do you think you will read Whistleblower? Do you think any of the information in the book will surprise you?
-John @ RSG
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