This year has been a brutal trial-by-fire for Uber's newest senior executive hires

By Michael Carney , written on December 17, 2014

From The News Desk

It’s tough to be a new executive at Uber. The second half of this year has seen several of the company’s high profile senior hires, namely Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy David Plouffe and Head of Global Safety Philip Cardenas, face trials by fire within weeks of joining the ride-sharing giant.

For Plouffe, who Joined Uber in August following two successful stints as Obama'd campaign strategist, his first few months on the job have been marred by one highly public crisis after another. In addition to Uber’s numerous ongoing regulatory battles, including outright operating bans in several states and countries, the company has seen drivers across the globe protest their wages and working conditions, as well as riders crying foul over Uber’s often opaque surge pricing system. In October, the company’s Lyon, France office also launched a tone-deaf and offensive campaign encouraging male riders to choose from among a curated selection of hot female drivers.

Most damaging, however, has been two recent scandals involving privacy and corporate ethics. In the first, an SVP of Business boasted to a room full of journalists about the company’s plans to spend $1 million to spy on the families of critical journalists. Days later, it was revealed that several other senior executives used a so-called “god view” mode to view the real-time location data of high profile passengers, including journalists, venture capital investors, and DC power brokers.

All this before Plouffe even had the chance to settle in and lay out a plan for creating a kinder, gentler image for Uber and its hyper-aggressive founder, Travis Kalanick.

It’s not just Plouffe who can claim a rocky introduction to Uber-life thanks to the above privacy scandals. Cardenas, who joined the company in September from fellow sharing-economy juggernaut Airbnb (a job listing for the position first appeared on LinkedIn in early June), has seen Uber’s challenges extend from simply the realm of bad-business, to bad ethics and subsequently unsafe conditions for riders. This reality came to a head earlier this month with reports coming out of Dehli that a female Uber passenger was raped by a driver who, it turns out, had previously been jailed for sexual assault

Today, Cardenas made his first public appearance of sorts since joining the company by publishing a blog post under the headline, “Our Commitment to Safety.” Surely it’s not the kind of “hello world” moment he wished for when accepting the new role.

In his note, Cardenas writes:

We owe it to all our riders, driver partners and communities around the world to examine what we can do better and then do everything we can to make more progress on safety. ...

But we have more work to do, and we will do it. Uber is committed to developing new technology tools that improve safety, strengthen and increase the number of cities and countries where background checks are conducted and improve communication with local officials and law enforcement. This marks a significant departure from Uber's earlier position with regard to its performance around safety. The company has in the past argued that it utilized “industry-leading background checks” that meet or exceed standards of the legacy taxi and limousine industry. Cardenas continues:

To that end, in November, Uber’s safety team began a global review to assess the areas where greater investment is required. As we look to 2015, we will build new safety programs and intensify others. The review is still underway, but here is our current roadmap:
The post goes on to highlight technology, background checks, service & support, and advisory & training partnerships as areas of planned improvement. Specifically, Cardenas’ roadmap mentions rider panic buttons, and the use of lie detection tests, biometric sensors, and voice verification in the process of driver screening and ongoing authentication. Each of these measures, he adds, might be applied in select markets, but not others.

Unlike most technology giants, Uber is dealing with the movement of real people not bits of data. Making the task at hand more challenging, the company asks its users to trust their movements to a rapidly expanding workforce of minimally trained individuals operating under a set of still uncertain regulations. Acknowledging as much, Cardenas concludes his coming out message with a sobering, albeit realistic assessment of the challenge at hand:

Of course, no background check can predict future behavior and no technology can yet fully prevent bad actions. But our responsibility is to leverage every smart tool at our disposal to set the highest standard in safety we can. We will not shy away from this task.
It turns out there’s another new senior exec who appears posed to begin his time at Uber in the deepest of ends of crisis management. In the same blog post, Cardenas sneaks in the announcement of the company’s new Head of Global Support:
We are thrilled to announce that Tim Collins is joining Uber to lead Global Support. Prior to joining Uber, Tim spent 15 years at Amazon leading operations and customer support teams. Most recently, Tim led Amazon’s Europe Operations with over 18,000 employees, so look for more updates soon in this important area.
Like many high-growth technology companies, Uber has always favored email over the telephone or other more instant communication channels – not exactly the most comforting thought when you're being kidnapped, attacked, or raped. Understandably, the impersonal and slow-moving approach to customer service has drawn the ire of users, not to mention a NYC design firm of the same name. The company has also earned a reputation for viewing its riders and drivers alike as disposable. With the recent rise in consumer complaints – both deserved and not – and confusion about Uber’s policies and behavior, the path ahead for Collins’ looks to be no more welcoming than that of Cardenas or Plouffe.

Uber is a once in a generation company, both in terms of growth and the wealth it appears likely to create for its senior leaders. Putting aside mounting ethical concerns, it’s no surprise that the company is attracting the best and brightest to confront these thorny issues under the brightest of lights – all while presumably riding a rocket ship to fame and fortune. But it’s hard to imagine that any of the above executives – all of which joined Uber in the second half of this year – expected things to get this ugly, this quickly. I guess that’s the price you pay for joining a confederacy of assholes.