Book Review: Whistleblower

Susan Fowler's memoir and some thoughts on whether VCs can play a role in improving the culture in technology companies

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Many of you may recognize Susan Fowler as the woman who wrote the blog post about her experience as an engineer at Uber that kicked off a firestorm in Silicon Valley by exposing multiple instances of sexism, sexual harassment, and a culture that would not support addressing those problems.

If you are wondering what she is up to nowadays, she is an Opinions editor at the New York Times and has written a memoir called "Whistleblower" that came out yesterday. I’m glad that she has the opportunity to share her story and advocate for change.

Fowler’s life story by itself is compelling and this book details her upbringing, education, early career, and finally her time at Uber. What comes across clearly is how Fowler pushed to fight roadblocks at each step of her journey from of a homeschooled kid from a poor family in Arizona to an undergraduate student at ASU & University of Pennsylvania (which was a particularly painful part of the story), to a career as an engineer, and ultimately as a writer.

This book was painful to read at times, but ultimately empowering. You might think the book is about harassment at Uber but it is more than that. It is the story of someone who has been fighting for space within systems (both academic and professional) that would rather see her silenced and stifled for the majority of her life and how she was able to ultimately fulfill her dreams.


Thoughts after reading:

Can VCs help?

I’m genuinely not sure. Before reading this book I thought about VC firms that I would trust with this role of being the forcing function for better cultures within tech companies, and Kapor Capital was one of them (run by Mitch Kapor and Frieda Kapor Klein) but I realized that they were investors in Uber. They published an open letter after Fowler’s post saying that they were attempting to make a change from the inside, but weren’t able to make progress. In the book Fowler talks about how knowing that investors knew that the culture was broken but did not/could not do anything meaningful just made the whole experience even worse.

  • Could VCs (given their financial interest to support portfolio companies) effectively be another back stop for whistleblowers? I’m skeptical.

  • The power of venture firms within late stage companies is weak, especially in the age of founder friendliness and abundance of capital. Even to stage an intervention at the board level requires overcoming a lot of inertia. Agreeing not to fund founders who fail reference checks will not prevent a less scrupulous fund from investing

  • Many VC firms themselves aren’t exactly known for their approach for D&I within their own firm, though things are improving. How much we can trust a firm to extend help on this front to portfolio companies is unclear.

  • What could VCs actually do: Encourage industry wide reporting of employee turnover and form an independent ombudsman organization with the power to receive (and investigate) complaints of harassment or discrimination within portfolio companies.

  • It’s tricky to introduce simple metrics like # of HR complaints when you consider the incentives that new metrics will create (simply reporting # of HR complaints will create an incentive to discourage employees from lodging a complaint)

  • Example of something positive: Brianne Kimmel meets with “every new female hire of her portfolio companies to ensure her companies are thoughtful about D&I from the beginning”

Tech Perks?

Tech companies offer a lot of perks from the food, to “unlimited vacation”, to the massages at work, but the only thing that seems hard to find is a supportive environment that allows people to do their best work, grow professionally, and management that does not tolerate those who would create a hostile environment. All of the other perks should be the cherry on top. It doesn’t matter how many micro-kitchens you have and what kinds of fancy standing desks your employees are being forced out of the teams that best match their skills because their manager propositioned them or incurring significant damage to their mental health.

The other more visible perks (“nap pods anyone?”) are easy to spot but the ability to detect a culture that is genuinely supportive is hard to find. When people ask me for help choosing between companies, I often suggest contracting with companies first to get a better picture of the working environment (if their financial & health care situation supports that possibility).

Whisper networks

Whisper networks work great for someone already well connected, but they are difficult to scale. How do you get into one when you are not already part of the group? As a result, your ability to do research on companies is limited to interviews and internet searches for lawsuits. As Fowler discovered (multiple times), it’s not possible to do this effectively. To formalize and make whisper networks more accessible, you might need some kind of central agency.

Credit Score for Reputation
Initially Credit Bureaus would form dossiers on people by asking their neighbors and associates about the trustworthiness of an individual. This was subject to natural problems where others could exert undue influence on your ability to gain access to credit. The Fair Credit Reporting Act banned this practice.

Could you have a clearing house for employment verification and reputation from co-workers that doesn’t fall victim to the same problems as those early credit reports? Companies (and employees) may have to agree to do this, and there are natural issues that emerge (libel, coercion, reformation, identity, privacy). Considering Uber was unable to track multiple complaints against the same manager internally, the odds that company would adopt such a service is unlikely.

Who becomes a whistleblower?

Fowler’s prior life experiences from her childhood, her time at UPenn, and other companies prepared her logistically to respond with harassment, to a point where her response to being propositioned on her first day at Uber was almost routine (document, establish a written trial). That’s incredibly sad to think about but her regret from having her research & graduate track effectively yanked from her from no fault of her own at UPenn and not doing something about it is what made it possible to hit “Publish” on her blog post.

Being a good person in Silicon Valley

The primary lesson that living and working in Silicon Valley taught me is that some of these systems are so corrupt, and the only way to succeed in a very corrupt system is to also yourself become corrupt. You can’t be a good person and succeed in a system that is fundamentally broken, that values above all money, power, greed, aggression — Susan Fowler in the SF Chronicle

This quote from an interview with Susan Fowler made think of something that I remember John Vrionis (a VC) once saying (and I’m paraphrasing here): “I deeply believe that it possible to both be a good person who helps others and also succeed in Silicon Valley”. I so hope that he is right.

It seems like we could do with more reminders that it is possible to do both and continue to work towards making that true.

Ultimately, I’d recommend reading (or listening to) the book because Fowler’s story itself is powerful and worth hearing.

View the book


Footnotes:

1) As a side note, the “Op-Eds From the Future” series that Susan Fowler edits at the New York Times is a great read if you are a fan of science fiction.