Why bril­liant jerks may just be jerks

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Sunday Special -

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

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