The Uber circus has been in full swing lately. The resignation of a high level executive due to lack of disclosure around sexual harrassment, the disturbing picture of an embedded harrassment culture there, to the quite powerful lawsuit that Google’s Waymo is swinging against Uber, to the video of their CEO Travis Kalanick acting like a complete twat and his cringing apology afterwards…(and that’s not even including the #deleteuber hashtag that has more lives than Dracula)…and most recently the scandal of a Greyball program to identify, target and deceive police…it’s been #crazytimes
What does this mean though, besides Uber jumping the proverbial shark? Or, could it mean that we may be hitting a maturity peak in the innovation technology industry? What do I mean by that? Are we seeing the start of these corporations being called out, and having to actually act like corporations, and less like the insider clubs that they believe they are.
This is somewhat of a difficult topic to write about. Not as much because of any sensitivity, but that it is quite broad in its reach, such that I’ll end up rambling like a drunk uncle commandeering the microphone at a wedding. Bear with me.
We’re starting to see some really big shifts.
And no, I don’t mean the 44% markup on Snap’s share price after their IPO (I’ll get to that).
Nor the innnovation side of things, which is still rolling. It’s more around the protection(ism) and scrutiny. To date the innovation technology industry has been typefied by a fluid resource (ie people) base, working on a general zeitgeist of future opportunities, and enabled by an internal culture focussed on their whims and personal growth more than governed by a bureaucratic or centralised authority.
Let’s start with this exploration of the difference between Google and Apple invention cultures – the centralised patent approach of Apple vs the more dispersed nature of Google. While serious questions are raised about Apple’s ability to innovate with their recent products lately, they’ve been able to take a strong, unified corporate approach to shifting towards a becoming a services organisation more than a product one. Google, on the other hand, still seems to struggle with an actual identity, looking to offer equally a range of products from search, to collaboration/workflow, maps, AI, self driving cars, rockets, internet provision. All powerful, but it takes diversified to almost ridiculous level.
It has also left them more open to cultural manipulation. As Google’s Waymo discovered, treating staff too well will end up funding their startup. Encouraging everyone to be an independent innovator both encourages innovation, and undermines loyalty by encouraging individualism. The tendency for staff to spin off their own startup and wait for a big buyer also undermines the controllability of staff as an asset. Google/Alphabet’s brand is a mashup of startups, lacking a central focus.
There’s more light being thrown on organisations such as Uber, Snap and Magic Leap, who have yet to turn a profit or real innovative product, and yet can claim to be worth many billions of dollars. Snap’s IPO, all estimated $33 billion of it, even notes that it may ‘never be profitable’, even as it seeks to shift from chat app to a ‘camera’ company. Vox attempts to build a case for Snap being worth the money, a lot of it being built around the anticipation that Snap’s work in cameras and visual media will transform and disrupt into encouraging higher engagement despite the stagnation in users and platform. For me it’s a flawed argument, given the general understanding that camera companies are a struggling breed and secondary to communication/community and actual engagement driven companies (by which I mean – it’s not the camera, but the content of the photos, and the sharing of the photos). Additionally, the general stagnation of innovation in the wearables market, and struggling AR market, don’t give a lot of confidence in this corporate shift. I’m open to being amazed if/when this shift for Snap bears fruit.
Organisations that have established product in these markets are fighting stagnation. Oculus faces a massive $500m penalty after losing a lawsuit to Zenimax. With Zenimax now pursuing an injunction against the sale of Oculus hardware, this is massive event already involving some extremely well known minds in the industry, but threatens to sink the entire brand. What I find interesting though is the relative silence from the Facebook mothership – silence speaks volumes, as they say.
While we’ve seen many lawsuits before, mostly built around IP and trademark protection (cough, Apple vs Samsung, anyone?), we are now seeing more stringency around the movement of people, ideas and exceptionalism. After being stung in 2015 following the high profile anti-poaching lawsuit against Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe, it’s clear that the organisations are realising the need to openly and legally protect their owned assets (eg the code produced under contract) and rely less on being a kickass place to work.
For this reason, the Waymo vs Uber lawsuit goes deeper and with probably more impact than ever before. Industrial espionage is a sign of moving beyond excitement into actual impact and influence – it’s a sign of growing self-regulation. Attempts at flat hierarchy, high paypackets and treating engineers like rock stars, transparent GitHub, are all great – if/as long as they’re managed in a mature manner – and until now it seems that the movement of employees has been both too fluid, and too unquestioned.
And what happens when it’s no longer a kickass place to work. But toxic? This is the problem facing Uber.
With more harsh light thrown on the behaviour of employees, that are enabled by the lack of a mature corporate vision, the industry will have to grow up. So let’s hold that thought, and wheel Travis Kalanick back into it. The self-inflated celebrity CEO who wanted to influence a President but now admits he needs help on leadership. Let’s compare that to Mark Zuckerberg, who I’ll admit is rapidly maturing into a CEO to admire. Mark Zuckerberg is in a jacket as often as not these days – as his influence has grown, so has his corporate presentability. There’s a distinct difference there – not as much in his suit-wearing, but more around the acceptance and interpretation of influence.
Facebook fights accusations that it influences elections, while Uber fights accusations that it is rife with serial abusers (and Kalanick’s video just encourages that).
That’s not to say that traditional corporates act with any incredible maturity. Far from it, a suit and tie don’t mean maturity, as many bankers, industrialists and more, will evidence. However, the structural protectionism behind the facade is an indicator of a mature industry (without getting in too deep into arguments about how mature industries abuse that structured protectionism). The existence of the AI Ethics group is a definite sign of this growing regulatory maturity that is becoming a necessity in the innovation technology industry.
Technology has long evolved out of the garages of innovators, and as much as the corporates like to pretend they’re different, a multi-billion facility is a multi-billion facility whether it looks like a hipster campus, or like a big block of concrete and glass (in Apple’s case, both!). As the innovation and technology industry has matured into having an actual impact on our economies, the world view is now catching up to believing that tech industries may end up with the same regulatory observance that was once delivered to other industries. We’ve seen that battleground matured across physical product IP battles, and across communications and connectivity (to the point where it’s being asked in court – is access to Facebook a human right?)
And that is the maturity peak.
And so here we are at the end of my drunk wedding speech. And like most drunk uncles, I don’t know when or how to finish. It’s a big topic and I’ve wasted your entire dessert rambling on. I’ll uh, take my seat and come back to this one with a later post.
I’m going to follow this up in Part 2, out…uh…hopefully soon.