back to article Uber engineer's widow: Stress and racism killed my husband ... Uber: Let's make flying cars!

Uber can add racism to its long list of corporate culture failings, say lawyers representing one of its software engineers who killed himself last year. Joseph Thomas took a job at the taxi-hailing app in 2016, turning down an offer from Apple in the process, and moved from Atlanta to San Francisco, in the US, with his wife …

  1. kain preacher

    "Joseph Thomas took a job at the taxi-hailing app in 2016, turning down an offer from Apple in the process, and moved from Atlanta to San Francisco with his wife and two kids."

    You turned down a job from Apple, moved across the country to work for a sketchy outfit. I'm not an apple fan boy but i'm will to bet the job at apple would of paid more and is more stable.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You turned down a job from Apple, moved across the country

      One has to move for Apple too. You need to be at a very senior engineering level in Apple to be allowed to telecommute as an exception. Even that is extremely rare. I know ONE. A grand total of ONE engineer in Apple who telecommutes and even that happened after Apple had him on-site for a couple of years. Based on his salary the victim would have been on one of the relatively junior levels so he would have had to be a cubicle dweller in any Silly Valley job.

      So from that perspective, probably Apple offered him less and he compared just on money, not on perspective. And, unfortunately, he paid the price.

      The real lesson is money (both up-front and equity) is not everything. Some places you need to avoid and stay outside the blast radius.

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Some places you need to avoid and stay outside the blast radius.

        Therein is the problem. Some places are very good at masking the mine field. Been there myself a couple of times and once I sorted it out, I was gone, usually in a matter of weeks. However, there are some people how just accept the abuse and stay point. Sort of like the "deer in the headlights" situation where staying is the worse but easier decision than running away.

        1. FuzzyWuzzys

          "Sort of like the "deer in the headlights" situation where staying is the worse but easier decision than running away."

          There lies the problem, right there. It's not "running away" to admit you can't handle too much stress from a job where you're way in over your head through no through of your own. Admitting to a mental illness does not make you some sort of sissy who can't cut it. We need an attitude change, we need blokes to cut the macho bullshit crap of workplace and admit we have a problem when we have a problem. Male suicide rates are through the roof in western society 'cos of the perceived pressure to perform in all walks of life.

          1. Hollerithevo Silver badge

            Male suicide rates

            @FuzzyWuzzys, I am glad you raised this point The story obviously is about one, and it's a problem that I see way too many men not wanting to talk about -- I guess they think that even being concerned hints that they might have 'issues' and non-manly tendencies -- but the silent/stoic machismo kills good men. I speak as one who lost a colleague through indirect suicide: he drank to relieve the increasing stresses and died in an alcohol-related accident one night.

            1. Peter2 Silver badge

              Re: Male suicide rates

              Speaking as somebody who has dealt with "mental illness" as a result of being a First Aider and having seen things that would have been cut from a horror film for being too graphic, I'd personally prefer that people accept that having extreme reactions to extreme situations is actually a normal reaction to an abnormal situation rather than a disorder or illness.

              If companies are encouraging bullying at work in violation of existing laws then those laws ought to be used as a sufficiently painful hammer to drive a point home that it's unacceptable.

    2. veti Silver badge

      The job at Apple may have been a better environment, but there's no reason to suppose it would have paid more. It may have been a significantly lower level job. We don't know.

      Anyway, even if it was (in retrospect) a mistake to turn that down - bad career choices should not be subject to a death sentence. Well, except in a very few edge cases.

  2. Erik4872

    I'm not surprised

    I'm sure many here will say that the widow is just trying to collect some lawsuit money from Uber before dotcom bubble 2.0 pops, but bad employers really can work people to the bone. I've never really had the desire to work for a tech startup, but people I know who have describe an...interesting...experience. Stories I've heard usually revolve around one or more of:

    - Founders/CEOs with major ego or anger management problems who are absolutely miserable to work for

    - Very young executives with little or no experience running a large business, leading to all sorts of HR nightmares

    - Very young workers with little or no experience working, so they don't know they're being taken advantage of

    - Chummy fratboy culture that excludes anyone who isn't down with the rest of the bros

    - Constant death marches inspired by any one of the above items

    People forget that there are a lot of people who take pride in their work and can't just say no when given unreasonable requests. That, or they feel that they're missing out on the startup lottery if they don't pull their weight and stay employed until IPO day by any means necessary. I'd have no trouble buying the idea that a pressure cooker environment like Uber plus a few external stressors would cause someone to snap and just want out.

    Add to that the fact that the guy moved from Atlanta to San Francisco. I live in New York and we constantly have people going down to Atlanta or North Carolina because they don't care where they live as long as they don't have to pay taxes. The cost of living difference between ATL and NYC is stark; ATL and SFO is orders of magnitude worse. $170K a year barely treads water in San Francisco or Silicon Valley. Imagine the stress of having to support a spouse/family in an environment like that.

    1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: I'm not surprised

      I work for a well established not-IT company as an internal programmer. The basic policy is to allow anyone with 1 year of seniority to telework (max 3 days a week) if your position allows it. Some positions require one to work onsite. The entire group I am in everyone teleworks 3 days a week. Also, there some who are home-based (100% telework). So morale is good, work-life balance is good, and the work gets done with minimal fuss.

      Also, I live in ATL and my salary allows for nice place to live in a good area; a salary that would need to considerably higher to live in SF or NY.

    2. Flakk

      Re: I'm not surprised

      Yep. "Tone at the top" is a real thing. I've experienced both the good and the bad. A bad CEO can, at a minimum, slow the company down as they are forced to collectively drag him over the finish line. I consider myself fortunate that I've never had to suffer under the likes of a Travis Kalanick.

      Condolences to the Thomas family.

    3. Tim Seventh

      Re: I'm not surprised

      All the available factors leading to this event seem to point to the fact that "the guy moved from Atlanta to San Francisco". It is cheaper in Atlanta compare to SF, so it makes sense employees are attracted to the higher numbers. After getting his new house, it could be the point where he got trapped mentally.

      It is very possible that

      1. he felt being limited as a minority (African American) in SF compare to Atlanta where there is a larger community of minority.

      2. he felt less confidence after presented with difficult works very different from the previous environment

      3. he fear losing his job as he was unable to meet work deadlines (could be provoke by Uber employer )

      4. he fear losing his house and everything if he do loses his job (could be provoke by Uber employer )

      5. he felt less confidence to get a new job or get back his previous job after his experience on different and difficult works

      6. he felt that he is unable to get a new job with similar salary to sustain his family (could be provoke by Uber employer )

      7. he tried to add additional time on his job hoping reach some work deadlines but barely make them, causing further lost in time and confidence.

      8. Uber employer racism encouraged his idea of failure.

      9. Uber policy / SF law encourage him from quitting too early.

      10. he felt that as a man, he cannot fail his family.

      When you repeat those mental pressures, you get mentally trapped. He really should have either choose to go to the psychiatrist or forgot about everything and move back to Atlanta.

    4. h4rm0ny

      Re: I'm not surprised

      I've done one start-up in my career, the rest has been established companies. I fortunately didn't have the problems you listed - indeed, our founder and director worked shockingly hard and was extremely driven - which is one of the reasons it was so hard to give less than my all myself. It's one thing to hold back when you're being asked by a hypocrite for extra effort. A different thing when you know your boss is working just as hard and is taking huge personal risks. But I doubt that applies in Uber's case!

      I think you nailed it when you talked about people who take pride in their work and just can't "fail" at something. I'm like that. When the expectations are out of control, that sort of professional pride can destroy you. We don't deal well with being set up to fail. Ironically it was after the start-up stage when other people came in who were essentially reaping the harvest planted by others that the problems you talk about (Old Boy's club, inexperience and ego) started to manifest. I eventually resigned my position because I felt I was unable to do a good job at my work. I think as many engineers have probably quit over that as have quit over money.

      I'll say one minor counter-point, which is that the figure of 8.8% isn't evidence of racism. Do people just tout such things because it sounds like a small figure? The proportion of Black people in the USA between twenty and thirty (prime hiring age) is around 7-8%. Now I can well believe it's possible that there is racist culture in Uber given the evident sexism at the company (-isms are often found together), but the 8.8% figure isn't evidence. And that's just comparing it to the population as a whole without allowing for the fact that Black people are disproportionately poorer in the USA and less likely to be applying.

    5. Tom Paine

      Best of times, worst of times (Re: I'm not surprised)

      I've worked in four startups (the biggest one was well on the way when I joined, with several hundred employees; the smallest had ~20). IME, in the wise words of Ali G, "there is a high, but there is also a low". When it works well, it's better than any employment experience I've ever had; working with really clever, knowledgeable people with a genuinely inspiring attitude, where stuff you'd expect to take a week (or months, in a big corporate enterprise environment) were done and dusted in a day or two. Oh, and the boss used to tell me off and order me to go home when he spotted me still working past 6pm.... and they PAID OVERTIME. (Imagine that!)

      OTOH... when it's bad, it's horrid. A toxic manager or coworker, for instance, can (in general, in the UK anyway) make your life much more miserable in a small firm than a big organisation. On top of that you've much less job security: of those four, one went bust owing us two months' pay, holiday and severance, at three hours notice; another was acquired by a horrible US megacorp (cue everyone around me whooping and cheering because when the mail announcement arrived, they all realised they'd cleared their mortgages - sadly I arrived 6m too late to get stock); and the other two made me redundant when they had a few bad quarters (read: less explosive growth than the made-up charts in the business plan had predicted.)

      A pint either to celebrate paying off your mortgage or drown your sorrows from missing out.)

  3. ma1010

    How much more do we need to hear?

    Everything one hears about Uber seems to indicate that it is a completely toxic company without a single scruple and of little or no benefit to anyone (except their high-ups), least of all their drivers. I'd suggest that everyone everywhere just avoid them. Don't use them. Use a "real" cab or use Lyft or some such.

    Hopefully, between the lawsuits and government regulators, Uber will be held to account for their actions. I'm hoping they will just go bankrupt and disappear. I haven't been hearing this kind of thing about Lyft, so hopefully they aren't as bad as Uber, so maybe the "ride sharing" concept has some validity. But I doubt that Uber can do anything without contaminating it with their evil.

    Icon because Uber's management belongs at ground zero, where it's definitely "disruptive."

    1. DropBear

      Re: How much more do we need to hear?

      Granted, Uber is certainly an easy target to hate. That said, if you're looking for, uh, unbiased news on Uber you're definitely in the wrong place here - I'll just leave it at that, seeing as how even this much might get me censored.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: How much more do we need to hear?

      But Uber are cheaper and they have sexy advertising.

      Here in Vietnam, they just settled their government tax issues and can operate legally. The cabs here are not bad but twice the cost.

      The alternative (Malaysian owned) Grab taxi / motorbike is better than Uber but again their motorbike taxi cost is 1/4 of the local cost and with the app there is no "white face" tax... you pay what the app says, not the inflated amount the local can try and extract from you.

      I doubt there is a single Vietnamese person who has any clue about all the problems with Uber the company, and probably would just say "yeah like some companies here". Meanwhile it is cool to be using an app like you Americans to order your cab....

      1. fuzzie

        Re: How much more do we need to hear?

        They used to be very cheap here (South Africa) when they started, but prices have been slowly creeping upwards to the point where they're probably within 10% of radio cab fares. Granted, and one has to credit them, the app makes hailing and paying extremely slick.

        What most punters don't realize is, that those good fares are paid for and subsidised by huge wads of VC cash. They're operating on a "lose money on each transaction/trip, but make it up in volume" model. Once they've bled out any competitors, they'll have to raise prices by 100% or more.

        Taxify recently arrived. They at least appear to run a better-behaved ship, do better driver vetting and pay their drivers better.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: How much more do we need to hear?

      Uber is doomed by its culture, but so is most of the valley as it currently exists.

  4. kain preacher

    Oh and don't they have uber in Atlanta ? Why did he have to move ?

    1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      @kain preacher - Uber is based out of SF and that is where most of the key staff is.

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge

      One word: Control. Given what they do and how they do it, management wants to control the employees for "security". Not only of their "product" but the methods. Then there's the little revelations we've seen here at El Reg about some of the goings on....

  5. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    $170,000-a-year position is not a lot of money on the West Coast - You may not be at the point of living off road-kill at that pay-scale but the thought does cross your mind occasionally - look up SF house/rental prices.

    1. Trilkhai

      Actually, $170k is a lot of money not only on the West Coast, but even within the SF Bay Area. The isolated pockets of affluence just skew the statistics, while shock at the prices in those locations is what generates headlines.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Try renting in London (as a family) on £70K . Sounds a lot if you're outside London, doesn't it?

        *cries into cheapest beer available

    2. Phukov Andigh Bronze badge

      if 170K is bad

      then the 80K my wife and I live off of in San Jose (about a half hour south of SF) must be poverty level LOL

  6. The Nazz Silver badge

    Evidence of racism?

    I'd be interested to see the evidence put forward to support the claim of racism. There's precious little sign of it in the article.

    1. tom dial Silver badge

      Re: Evidence of racism?

      The tendency is to compare employee group membership percentages to those in the population as a whole, and and draw conclusions about discrimination from it. That would quite inappropriate. The relevant comparison, if there is one, is to the corresponding percentage in the applicant pool, noting that if the employment statistics are stratified by job type, that needs to be done for the applicant pool as well.

      Nothing about Uber suggests to me that I ever would have wished to work there, but the evidence described in the article does not by itself indicate a pattern of discrimination.

    2. Tom Paine

      Re: Evidence of racism?

      I'd be interested to see the evidence put forward to support the claim of racism. There's precious little sign of it in the article.

      The case hasn't been heard yet so the details aren't public, so obviously she must be making it all up, Right?


  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Just 8.8% African Americans"?

    African Americans are 13.2% of the entire US population, and if you consider just the tech world I'm pretty sure it is well under 8.8%.

    Uber seems to actually be doing pretty well, at least on that one metric...

    1. bjr

      Re: "Just 8.8% African Americans"?

      It's a good number for tech. If you look at the population of engineering schools, especially elite engineering schools, second and later generation Americans as a whole are under represented. Immigrant and first generation Indians and Asians are there in huge numbers and even among so called "White Men" you will find a disproportionate number are either immigrants from or first generation former Soviet Union. I've been in tech for 40 years, my generation, Boomers in general parlance, are better described as the Sputnik babies in tech, was the only group of engineers who were mostly native born. The US has never been good about producing it's own engineers, it's always imported them whether it was Bell or Tesla in the 19th century, or the Indians and Asians today. For a single short period between the launch of Sputnik and the moon landing the US put aside it's natural fear of math and produced a single generation of native born engineers, after that the trend has been to return to it's natural state where about a 1/3rd of the engineers are immigrants or first generation. If you apply a .66 multiplier, to represent the percentage of multi generation Americans, to the percentage of Blacks in the US population you get .66 * 13.2 = 8.7, so the Uber number is right on the money.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Just 8.8% African Americans"?

      heh, and what percentage overall of America is first-generation "Indians" or any "asian" demographic?

      I notice a trend among demographics counters, to try to separate out things into "african american", "hispanic", and "everything else is 'white'"

      all you Hawaiians, Samoans, Russians, Indians, etc-y'all "white" now! the ultimate in cultural appropriation :P

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    On the stretch assumption the allegations are true

    Employment is not a prison, you are allowed to leave.

    The culture problems described are often down to a single senior manager and become systemic downstream from them.

    Assuming the seemingly routine stream of people attempting to extract/extort cash from the company are credible then this manager should be found and removed, regardless of position.

    On the other hand, any company making a profit seems to attract vampire lawsuits attempting to suck blood from them.

    People may as well file for failing to get a girlfriend due to long hours, or suffering vitamin D deficiency for not getting daylight, or that they couldn't get to a relative in hospital because they were on a conference call.

    It is very hard without a friendly insider to get anywhere near the plausible reality of this sort of claim.

  9. PapaD


    This is what you get when you can't have unions

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Unions

      Which bring with them a whole set of new problems as bullying to people that does not want to join them, abuse of the "union leave" days by the union representatives, coercion to hire unionized employees relatives, unrealistic pretensions regarding to salaries and benefits that lead to lack of competitive product pricing and thus to massive layoffs, etc. Yeah, unions are soooo good that they are too good to be true.

      I live in Argentina, so believe me, I *do* know about unions and the multiple benefits they offer... to their mob-like bosses.

      1. PapaD

        Re: Unions

        Its a balancing act

        No unions = all power to the companies and employees treated like crap

        Too powerful unions = excessive strikes, unrealistic wage expectations, diminished productivity and union 'bullying'

        So, there needs to be a middle ground - but not allowing unions is not a valid response to powerful unions.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Unions

      you mean like Tesla?

      oh wait..

  10. Tom Paine

    How many more reasons to never use Uber could anyone ever need?

    (Or to put it another way, there are evidently enough people out there who couldn't give a flying one about living in any way ethically.)

  11. druck Silver badge

    Flying nightmare

    Uber will of course claim they have no need to take heed of any aviation regulations such as licences, flight plans, or safety.

    1. Vic

      Re: Flying nightmare

      Uber will of course claim they have no need to take heed of any aviation regulations such as licences, flight plans, or safety.

      They seem to be ignoring a number of laws - including that of Gravity, Conservation of Energy, ...

      VTOL aircraft are extremely power-hungry, for reasons I hope are obvious. Battery-powered VTOL passenger aircraft are quite remarkably unlikely.


    2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: Flying nightmare

      Flying car, working prototype in 2.5 years... sure, sure... just don't sell the bike shop yet, Wilbur.

      I call BPoBS. Looks like they are getting nervous due to pressure by some of the investors.

  12. astounded1

    Imagine How Many More...

    are living in hell over at Uber trying to figure out what to do about it and they can't say anything. I'd rather starve on the street before going through that. Oh, wait, I practically already am because I refuse to go through that. Run for your lives! It's not worth it.

  13. dhfair

    In Georgia, it's a right to work state, the federal government has exempted IT workers from labor law protection. With that one, two punch there is no protection left in Georgia, they can legally work you 24/7.without fear. So don't think this is going to be a haven for workers.

  14. dhfair

    Can someone explain how companies like Uber are claiming they don't run a taxi service?

    They hire drivers , set rates and collect the money?

    Why can't standard cab companies claim to be radio stations?

    Just don't understand.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This was clearly discrimination/racism

    Clearly this is a case of racism. Not necessarily racism as whole within Uber as an employer. The comments saying uber as 8.8% minorities employed hence it cant be racist is not a reflection of how an individual "racist" manager would make a minority life miserable at work. An SRE is a very specialist role and i have no doubt that he was probably the only black guy in that team. This is case of a manager who is a subconscious racist. All in all Uber as the employer of the manager and of the individual who committed suicide (RIP) obviously encouraged this idea of where a manager can drive (indirectly) another human being to suicide. At the least Uber should have SACKED the manager involved as a life was taken at his watch due to the related stress from the manager

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