Why brilliant jerks may just be jerks
Silicon Valley has a split personality about ‘brilliant jerks.’ These are the kind of abrasive, boundary-pushing executives whom the industry lionizes — until they push boundaries too far and are kicked out of the tech Garden of Eden.
Consider Anthony Levandowski, a former executive in Alphabet’s self-driving vehicle project whom the U.S. government charged this week with stealing the company’s trade secrets.
Alphabet’s Google for years rewarded Levandowski as he flouted company rules and government regulations. He formed several startups while he worked at Google and then sold them to the company. He lobbied for driverless car legislation in Nevada without telling his bosses, and sidestepped the permissions required to test autonomous vehicles on public roads.
Levandowski thrived with actions that would have gotten most employees fired — until his boundary-pushing involved pilfering Alphabet documents on his way to start his own autonomous-vehicle company and quickly selling it to Uber.
People like Levandowski, Travis Kalanick, the co-founder of Uber who had to quit as its CEO, and Elizabeth Holmes, who founded the now-bust Theranos, are regarded as scrappy, visionary entrepreneurs, until they go too far, receive unwanted attention or someone with power (or courage) stands up to them. After that, they are sometimes seen as outliers and monsters who sully the tech industry’s reputation.
But can it be a surprise that if rule-breaking executives are rewarded for this behavior, they
ROGUE TECHIES: might break rules to the point of stealing from the company, misleading board members, orchestrating a massive fraud or committing sexual misconduct? If people have evidence that normal rules don’t apply to them, it seems natural that they could exploit that permissiveness. Sidestepping conventions can sometimes make a good company great. The question is whether the benefits of a boundary-pushing outweigh the harm from applauding bad behavior from a chosen few.
While the technology industry is not alone in promoting this culture, it isn’t healthy to one minute applaud and enable visionary rogues and then be surprised when those people do terrible things. What if “brilliant jerks” are just plain jerks?
Silicon Valley enables ‘brilliant jerks’ like Anthony Levandowski and Elizabeth Holmes