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“It’s important that you don’t share the details of this meeting—or that this meeting even happened—until after the investigation has concluded.”
Sitting directly across from me, asking me to keep our meeting secret, was the former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder. His hands were clasped together, his elbows resting on the table, a plastic binder filled with notes open before him. To his left sat Tammy Albarrán, a partner at the corporate law firm Covington & Burling. She stopped combing through her own notes for a moment and held her pen in her hand, staring at me over the dark rectangular frames of her glasses, awaiting my answer.
“I understand,” I said, nodding. Albarrán crisply put her pen back down to her notes.
Two months earlier, I had written and published a blog post about my experiences as a software engineer at the ride-sharing company Uber Technologies. In the blog post, which I had titled “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” I described being propositioned by my manager on my first official day on Uber’s engineering team; the extent to which Uber’s managers, executives, and HR department had ignored and covered up harassment and discrimination; and the retaliation I’d faced for reporting illegal conduct. It was a meticulously, cautiously, deliberately crafted portrait of the company, one that I had constructed with almost excruciating care, every sentence backed up by written documentation.
My story quickly caught the attention of the media and the public. Several hours after I’d shared a link to it on Twitter, it had been retweeted by reporters and celebrities and was a “developing story” covered by local, national, and international news outlets. Travis Kalanick, then the CEO of Uber, shared a link to my blog post on Twitter and said, “What’s described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.” He then hired Eric Holder and Holder’s firm, Covington & Burling, to run a thorough investigation into the company’s culture. It was clear that Kalanick wanted to send a message: he was taking this seriously—so seriously that anyone involved in what had happened, anyone responsible for the story that was now being repeated by every major news outlet across the globe, would be fired.
Three days later, The New York Times published its own damning account of Uber’s culture. The day after that, Waymo, a subsidiary of Google that was developing self-driving cars, sued Uber for patent infringement and trade secret theft. Less than a week later, a video leaked of Travis Kalanick berating an Uber driver. And that was only the beginning. By the time I found myself across the table from President Obama’s attorney general, the public consensus was that something was very wrong with Uber, but nobody was quite sure of the extent of the problem or who should be held responsible for it. “Some people,” Kalanick had shouted at the driver in the grainy dashcam video, “don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit.”