This week, two huge tech companies experienced some newsworthy shakeups. Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down, and Swift mastermind Chris Lattner left Tesla. Both departures come at critical times, and highlight the importance that culture has on a company.
After what feels like months of internal turmoil that spilled into the public sphere, Kalanick did what most thought he’d never do in leaving Uber. The latest leg-sweep for the perpetually embattled company began when an engineer detailed rampant sexual harassment, which led to months’ worth of people sharing tales of Uber’s toxic culture.
Things got salacious, too. Leaked emails of Kalanick all but blessing inter-office flings at work retreats was a gut-punch. A leaked video of Kalanick berating a driver gave us all a glimpse of an abrasive personality, while the court case over the theft of autonomous car technology from Google’s Waymo division illuminated just how far Kalanick might have been willing to push the envelope to get ahead.
In the wake of such revelations, Uber began doing damage control, hiring an oversight committee to audit how bad the culture was internally. It led to this week, when Kalanick bowed to shareholder requests that he step away from his creation.
Over at Tesla, things are a little more opaque. Lattner, who famously spawned the rising Swift programming language, left Apple mere months ago in search of something more exciting at the electric-car company. Both he and the company say the departure was a result of Lattner not being a “good fit.” (Lattner via Twitter, while Tesla said as much in a statement.)
Lattner updated his résumé a day after leaving Tesla to note: “In the end, Elon and I agreed that he and I did not work well together and that I should leave, so I did.” He later removed the line entirely.
Turns out that Tesla isn’t a good fit for me after all. I’m interested to hear about interesting roles for a seasoned engineering leader!
— Chris Lattner (@clattner_llvm) June 21, 2017
Lattner was leading autonomous car projects at Tesla, and tweeted his support of such endeavors as recently as June 14. His proclamation that he was leaving Tesla also came at an odd hour (7:00pm PDT). If we’re being speculative, that sounds like an evening meeting gone awry, with both parties agreeing the relationship just wasn’t working out.
Tesla’s aggressive culture is well-known to onlookers. CEO Elon Musk is mission-driven to the point of obsession, and reportedly expects the same from his charges. Coming from Apple, Lattner may have experienced a rude awakening. We should note neither party is discussing why Lattner left Tesla, but calling someone a ‘bad fit’ is indicative of a culture clash. When it hired him, Tesla praised Lattner’s “reputation for engineering excellence.”
The autopilot division at Tesla may be drawing Musk’s ire, too. The Wall Street Journal reports several key people have left the program of late, suggesting the eagerness to create the world’s first completely autonomous consumer-ready vehicle platform not tagged as ‘beta’ is forcing turnover. Lattner’s replacement has already been hired, and this is the second time in six months Tesla has overhauled its autonomous driving team.
Corporate Culture Starts at the Top
One thing we tend to forget is both Uber and Tesla are essentially startups. Neither company is long in the tooth. Uber isn’t even publicly traded. Both have tinges of Silicon Valley startup culture, too. Tesla’s drive (pun intended) drains talent, but ultimately has a rewarding product people are enamored with.
Uber doesn’t quite have the same synergy as Tesla. It’s a raw, easily-disrupted product that’s subject to the whims of its users and the platforms it does business on. People might be able to #deleteUber, but you can’t just scrap your Tesla because Elon Musk is a hard guy to please. (As an aside, I recently took a trip to San Jose and booked about eight Lyft rides. Only one driver also worked for Uber. When I asked the other seven drivers why they were Lyft-only, each pointed to Uber’s recent turmoil as a reason they no longer wanted to associate with the company.)
One Twitter engineer may have hit the nail on the head, too. Uber has long been a Silicon Valley punching bag for everything wrong with the “tech bro” culture, but didn’t face consequences until those shouts became deafening. Now, Kalanick is out and there’s no real management structure in place to encourage a seamless transition – in large part because of the culture itself:
Let’s not forget that any (potential) change at Uber only came about when investors’ money became threatened.
— Avi Cieplinski (@sf_avi) June 21, 2017
Both companies highlight how and why culture is important, just in different ways. Tesla is known to have a work-life balance problem, and Uber is just plain toxic. For the companies involved, such issues lead to suspect reputations within the tech pro community; if you can endure sleeping at the office to build the next great automotive feature, Tesla might be for you. If not, at least you knew ahead of time how strenuous the work may be.
Uber’s tale is much more common, which might be the most problematic part of its story arc. A loose-knit ethical standard led to too much wiggle room. That’s fine when you have a dozen employees, but less adorable when you’re responsible for thousands. The stain of what’s in the rearview mirror will haunt them for some time, which could ultimately lead to their demise or acquisition. Having Uber on the résumé is no longer cool; the panache that kept Uber interesting has slipped away.
We just have to wait and see if the toxic culture at Uber and unbending drive at Tesla ultimately compel long-term change. Cultural issues pose big threats that companies typically don’t bounce back from. IBM and the like may seem boring, but there’s a reason they’re able to avoid salacious headlines and endure for the long term.