Susan Fowler and the End of the ‘High Performer’ Defense

It’s me again, Steven Levy, WIRED’s editor at large, with another Plaintext newsletter. I hope reading this every Friday is becoming a habit with you all. If this isn’t in your inbox—we’re still trying to entice stragglers with a web version, but that won’t last forever—make sure you never miss an issue by subscribing to WIRED at a 50 percent discount. You’ll get all we have to offer in print and online for just $5 a year.

Oh and don’t panic if there’s no Plaintext next Friday. I’ll be busy with my book tour and plan to skip a week. If you come to one of my appearances, feel free to complain—ideally, when you present your purchased book for me to sign.

Now here’s how the term “high performer” became a pejorative….

The Plain View

Susan Fowler was to Uber what Cambridge Analytica was to Facebook. In the latter case, the revelation that the personal data of over 50 million users fell into the hands of a political operation opened the door to heightened scrutiny. At the ride-sharing service named after the German word for superiority, the trigger was a blog post by a 25-year-old engineer who had left the company. Within days of Fowler’s post, which described firsthand how the company tolerated sexual harassment and ignored discrimination against women, Uber was under siege, forced to authorize an outside investigation that would lead to the departure of its bro-tastic CEO Travis Kalanick. Apres Fowler, le deluge.

Fowler has now written a book, Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight For Justice at Uber. It’s part memoir: the early sections of the book, where she describes her hardscrabble rural Arizona origins reads like Tara Westover’s Educated. Once she gets out into the world, first at the University of Pennsylvania and then in Silicon Valley, it’s autobiography as indictment, as her path to realization is consistently thwarted by sexism and harassment, both at Penn and then at two startups before she begins her “dream job” at Uber.

Prior to joining, she’d vetted the company online. “I remember sitting there at my computer and typing like ‘Uber sexual harassment,’ ‘Uber gender discrimination,’” she told me when I interviewed her this week, exactly three years after her blog post. “If I could go back, I would have googled a lot more things.” Like for instance, articles written about her prospective Uber-boss Kalanick. They would have revealed the time he called the company “Boob-er” because of the sexual opportunities it presented. “I didn’t find out about that until afterward,” she said.

Still, she was on alert that when, on her very first day, her manager propositioned her in a corporate chat app. She captured screen shots and headed straight to the HR department, which quickly verified that she’d been harassed. But, she was told, her manager would not be removed. She was given a choice of staying, and inevitably receiving a negative review (because she reported the bad behavior of the man who would assess her) or joining another team. The reason?

The manager was a “high performer.”

Thus began what she called “One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” which included more injustices, including an episode in which Uber bought the male engineers in her group leather jackets to wear as a sign of team pride; the women didn’t get jackets because they might have cost a little more. All of this was devastatingly documented in the blog post that would change her life—and Uber’s.

Things worked out for Fowler. She is now the technology op-ed editor at the New York Times and takes screen-writing classes in her spare time. She won’t be writing the movie script for Whistleblower, though. “Allison Schroeder, who wrote Hidden Figures, is writing the screenplay for that,” she told me.

I hope that between her blog post, book, and movie, we see the end of Silicon Valley’s pathetic High Performer rationale, which posits that someone who contributes mightily to a company’s growth should not suffer consequences for bad workplace behavior. It is a syndrome not limited to Uber. Presumably at Alphabet/Google, the high performance of Android creator Andy Rubin, led the company to give him a generous buyout despite sexual misconduct charges against him. It also seemed to be the reason that when Alphabet’s chief legal officer David Drummond impregnated a subordinate, violating company policy, it was she who had to find a different job at the company. (We learned about this in the employee’s Medium post, perhaps inspired by Fowler’s blog-heard-round-the-world.) Drummond eventually resigned.

As Fowler put it, “I can’t imagine that someone could actually really be a high performer—meaning like a good employee for the company—if they’re mistreating other people.”

Think of those so-called high performers as chefs who create delicious dishes but include toxins among their ingredients. The meals are exquisite—until the diners are hospitalized. You’d think that no one would consciously retain a chef like that. Yet it happens all too often—until some courageous woman goes public with her complaint.

Maybe one day we won’t need the whistle.

Time Travel

In December 1979, a group of Apple Computer employees including co-founder Steve Jobs visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center to look at an innovative office system. The person assigned to give the visitors a tour of the technology—which included bit-mapped displays, a mouse, and on-screen windows—was computer scientist Larry Tesler, chosen because he was one of the few PARC people who didn’t think PC’s were a joke, and actually had bought one for himself. Still, he thought that Jobs and company “wouldn’t understand what we were doing and [would] just see pretty dancing things on the screen.”

But he was surprised. I would later recount in my book, Insanely Great, how he told me that no other outsiders had so quickly grasped that a new paradigm in computing was operating at PARC. “It was almost like talking to someone in the Group,” he said. “But better, they wanted to get it out in the world.”

That technology found its way into the Macintosh, and into our lives. Tesler himself left PARC to work for Apple, where he eventually became its chief scientist. He later became a force at Amazon, Yahoo, and 23andMe. We lost a vital contributor to tech history when he died on February 17.

Ask Me One Thing

Hawkins, who is an MD in Illinois, asks, “I would be interested in hearing your perspective on the qualities of successful founders and other leaders you have interacted with. Not silly things about their morning routines or whether they like intermittent fasting, but more about things like personality traits that may link them.”

Hawkins, I’ve given a lot of thought to that. (Some of my thinking, I should say, was shaped by a conversation with Ray Kurzweil, who has done even more thinking about this than I have.) All those super successful founders work hard. All are very smart. But the most extraordinary have two things: one is an ability to recognize when something that sounds impossible is actually achievable, because of some advance in technology or some other breakthrough; the other is a courage to persist when people say they’re nuts. Jeff Bezos once said, “If you’re going to do anything new or innovative, you have to be willing to be misunderstood.” I’d go further and say that the great ones have world-class stubbornness and resolve. It also helps to be right.

You can submit questions to Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

The world tilted at a more precarious angle for me when I learned that people will come to your home to style your houseplants. Minimum fee: $2,000.

Last but Not Least

After reading Arielle Pardes’ jaw-dropping piece about a scam involving fake plants, maybe that $2,000 doesn’t seem so crazy.

The headline reads, “Meet the Sulfur Miners Risking Their Lives Inside a Volcano.” Wouldn’t YOU click?

One more Susan Fowler note—after her 2017 blog post I noted that the leather jacket that Uber denied to Fowler was not just corporate swag but a powerful symbol.

Thanks, folks, see you in two weeks!

Don’t miss future subscriber-only editions of this column. Subscribe to WIRED (50% off for Plaintext readers) today.

More Great WIRED Stories

Read More