Can This Man Help Uber Recover From the Travis Kalanick Era?

In January, Uber shareholders agreed to sell $8 billion worth of stock to a group of investors led by Softbank. The deal also eliminated the super-voting stock rights that gave some board members, including Kalanick, heightened decision­making control. And a few weeks later, the company settled its lawsuit with Waymo, paying between $163 million and $245 million in company shares, depending on how you count Uber’s worth, to Waymo.

With those issues wrapped up, Khosrowshahi was ready to focus on his idea of quality. In February his deputies appeared at an all-hands meeting to sell the company’s 18,000 employees on the importance of one metric: the ratio of driver or rider complaints to rides booked. That ratio needs to be reduced—a lot—in 2018, he told them. (He won’t specify the company’s 2018 target, but he said, completely deadpan, “Zero is zero.” Note: Even the Pershing didn’t have zero defects.) He believes the ratio is a good metric to use because it can be improved only if operations, technology, and customer service work together. “It’s a unifier,” he said. At Expedia, he worked on reducing a similar complaint metric, and the experience cemented his belief: As the measure improved, so did sales.

No one I talked to described Khosrowshahi as charismatic. I watched him at an all-hands meeting in January where he took the stage for less than five minutes to introduce speakers, then stood along the wall with colleagues, arms crossed, apparently listening. His message—“driving quality is just as important as driving new features,” as he told me—offers a steady reassurance, but his deliberate pace has made some people uncomfortable. Among the product teams, in particular, there’s still some question about his acuity. Though he has a degree in electrical engineering, he’s a business guy. One former executive told me that there were many people “carefully watching whether Dara can step into and excel in the role of product leader and visionary.”

One current employee, who largely approves of the new leadership, said he also misses the adrenaline rush that came with working under Kalanick. At Khosrowshahi’s Uber, people go home for dinner.

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Then there are employees and alumni who believe the worst aspects of the culture Kalanick created can’t be so easily uprooted. “In everything from the way performance reviews were geared to the way bonuses were distributed, people were incentivized to backstab and undercut each other constantly,” says one longtime employee who left recently. “They were incentivized to be assholes.” That’s not something that changes in six months, even with new performance review metrics, new leadership, and an emphasis on getting things right the first time. Already, some people have moved on. Aaron Schildkrout, who started Carbon’s development, resigned in December. He’s now in New Zealand, meditating. In February, Graf announced he was leaving too.

Replacing Graf turned into a bit of a blunder. The company rescinded an offer it made to a former Amazon executive to fill Graf’s product chief role after discovering the guy wasn’t working for Amazon when Uber hired him. He’d left in 2017. This is the type of information you’d expect a company to know before extending an offer for a crucial executive position. Nor has Kalanick completely disappeared. He no longer has super-voting rights, but he does still sit on the board. The relationship between the two men, Khosrowshahi told CNBC in January, is “fine, but strained.” (Kalanick declined to be interviewed.)

For most of last year, Uber’s efforts to develop self-driving cars were under scrutiny while the company faced allegations it had stolen Waymo’s technology. I spoke to the head of the unit, Eric Meyhofer, early one February morning as he was preparing for the trial in the case1. He said that the distraction of the suit had slowed his team down. “It’s like pulling an anchor along,” he said.

Settling that case should have provided some relief. But then came the fatal accident in March. After the Tempe police released a dashcam video of the woman being hit by an Uber Volvo, several academics suggested the self-driving technology should have prevented the accident. The human operator in the car, whose role is to step in when the tech fails, didn’t stop the crash either. The incident suggested deeper problems. The New York Times reported that Uber’s self-driving cars were having trouble with basic maneuvers, like operating next to big rigs, and its safety drivers had to intervene far more often than those of competing autonomous car projects. Then Reuters reported that Uber’s Volvos lacked enough sensors and so had a blind zone. (An Uber spokesperson said, “Safety is our primary concern” in developing self-driving technology.) In late March, Arizona governor Doug Ducey demanded that Uber suspend its road tests in the state indefinitely for its “unquestionable failure to comply” with the duty to prioritize public safety. The accident and Uber’s conduct was becoming a political issue as well as a corporate one. The company had intended to offer driverless cars within 18 months, but with testing suspended, that’s unlikely.

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