Uber's years of reckoning may not be over, but former Uber engineer Susan Fowler's bombshell blog post of February 2017 was certainly a major turning point for the company. It would go on to become one of the most talked-about pieces of writing in a larger national conversation about sexual harassment, and out of it Fowler landed a book deal, and this week we get our first glimpses of the book.
Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber, is a memoir of Fowler's upbringing, education, and ultimately her brief stint in the engineering department at Uber ca. 2015-2016. As NPR explains, the book begins describing Fowler's unusual childhood — she grew up in rural Arizona, the product of home-schooling in a deeply religious, very poor family but ultimately empowering herself to propel her own education. She was on her way to a PhD in physics at the University of Pennsylvania when a weird experience derailed that — the episode, in which she was encouraged by professors to drop her own work in order to support another student who had attempted suicide, "clearly shaped her reaction to harassment at Uber," as NPR notes.
Becoming a software engineer was actually a Plan B for Fowler, and in an excerpt from the early part of her book published today by Business Insider, Fowler describes the gnawing feeling like she'd made an awful mistake coming to work at Uber when she did.
First, she describes an awkward orientation exercise in which new employees were divided up into groups, and each had to nominated "the most interesting person" in the group. She got nominated because of her unusual childhood, only to find that once onstage, a judge of sorts asked everyone to say something about themselves and then went through and eliminated all the women.
There's no way, I thought to myself, that this guy just eliminated all of the women by accident. I paused for a little too long, and he noticed I was still standing there onstage. He shot me an angry look and beckoned me to return to my table. I stepped down and watched as he then picked the most interesting man.
Fowler also describes how a female employee addressing "hundreds of new employees from every team and country" in a big orientation class on the first day of Uberversity announced to everyone that they were not allowed to date "TK," even though clearly many employees had no idea to whom she was referring. She said that "TK" was off limits even though the woman said she knew that everyone wanted to date him.
In an interview with the Chronicle today, Fowler says that while Uber is "a very extreme, toxic example," she sees that the "primary lesson" she gleaned from her Silicon Valley experience "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."
Fowler's moral certitude clearly guided her through her resigning from Uber and deciding to write candidly about her experience there — she's had a lifelong love of philosophy, and the Chronicle notes that "she beams now discussing Immanuel Kant."
But that didn't prepare her for Uber's "opposition playbook," in which the company retaliated against her after she published her blog post, after she had already left the company. She writes in the book about being followed, and having her social media accounts hacked. Also, she says, she's still banned from the Uber app — "I once tried to see if I could sign up because they had kicked me off. I tried to get UberEats, and I couldn’t even sign up," she tells the Chronicle.
Fowler lives in Berkeley and these days she's gotten out of the engineering game thanks to the book project and a gig as an Opinions editor at the New York Times. She'll be appearing next week in support of the book, on February 27, at the Commonwealth Club, and tickets are available here.