Uber is boring now

A CEO who wears a suit!
A CEO who wears a suit!
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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Remember 2017?

Uber never had a dull moment. Former employee Susan Fowler sparked a company- and industry-wide reckoning with sexual harassment. Waymo sued Uber for allegedly stealing self-driving-car trade secrets. Co-founder and chief executive Travis Kalanick berated an Uber driver and was caught doing it on tape. Reporters broke stories on “Greyball,” a covert program Uber designed to evade law enforcement in cities, and about how, on a visit to Seoul in 2014, Kalanick and a small team of executives went to an escort-karaoke bar. All that, before the end of the first quarter.

Over the next several months, Uber’s troubles compounded. Top executives quit. The US government opened probes into Greyball and another Uber program code-named “Hell” that targeted competitor Lyft; and Uber’s possible violations of a US law against bribing foreign officials to do business. Kalanick was pushed out in a messy power struggle. Board member David Bonderman resigned for making a sexist comment at a meeting about sexism. Benchmark Capital, one of Uber’s largest investors, sued Kalanick for “gross mismanagement and other misconduct.” Dara Khosrowshahi took over as CEO. In one of his first acts, Khosrowshahi revealed and apologized for a massive 2016 data breach that Kalanick and his head of security had chosen to cover up by paying a $100,000 ransom to hackers.

By comparison, 2018 was positively boring. After a 2017 like Uber’s, boring is a big win.

In 2018, Uber settled the trade-secrets lawsuit with Waymo. It regained a license to operate in London after a six-month appeals process and good deal of contrition from Khosrowshahi. It paid $148 million in penalties to state and city attorneys general for failing to disclose the 2016 data breach. Uber ended an arbitration policy that had prevented customers and employees from taking sexual harassment claims to court, months before Google and Facebook made the same decision. It made design updates and product changes and press announcements that were decidedly unmemorable, because there were no scandals to remember them by. Uber acted like a mature company, instead of an impulsive startup.

That’s not to say Uber’s year was trouble-free. The federal probes that started in 2017 dragged on in 2018; more executives left; new lawsuits were filed. The Oct. 2 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul called into question the billions of dollars in financing Uber had taken from the Saudis, directly and indirectly through mega-investor SoftBank.

The greatest scandal of Uber’s 2018 occurred in late March, when one of its self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian crossing a road at night in Tempe, Arizona. The incident led Uber to suspend testing of self-driving cars on public roads in US cities for nearly nine months and sparked an existential crisis at Uber’s driverless-car division, which Khosrowshahi reportedly considered shutting altogether (paywall) after he took over as CEO. But by the end of the year, even that crash had started to fade into the background, and in December Uber resumed self-driving car operations everywhere except Arizona.

Uber benefited from scandals that engulfed other technology giants in 2018. Facebook took centerstage, with its connection to Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, the user-data scandal connected to consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, various senate hearings, departures of top executives, and a security breach affecting 30 million users. Google employees staged a global walk out over a New York Times investigation revealed that Android guru Andy Rubin left the company with a $90 million exit package after being accused of sexual misconduct; Google ended its forced arbitration policy for sexual harassment claims shortly after. Amazon drew ire with its game-show-like search for a new headquarters, a prize it eventually split between Long Island City in New York and Crystal City, Virginia.

As the biggest tech companies struggle, morale at Uber is improving, with more employees saying they feel they’re treated fairly and believe the company is socially responsible, according to a leaked internal survey of more than 18,000 Uber workers. The question dominating the Uber news cycle these days is when the company might pursue a much-anticipated public offering. The most exciting thing I have learned about Uber recently is that the company made changes to how it reports contra revenue, a deduction from gross revenue, as it moves toward GAAP best practices ahead of a potential IPO.

When the most exciting thing about a company is a modification to its accounting practices, you can safely say that company has left the wild startup west and entered boring corporation territory. Ahead of an IPO that could value Uber at up to $120 billion, boring is just what the company needs.