Whitman and Fiorina: Silicon Valley’s shabby side

This article was originally published on Salon on June 9, 2010.

The top California Republican candidates are a reminder of the tech industry’s less-admirable values

Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, who won their primary races to become California’s Republican candidates for governor and U.S. senator, came to great public visibility — and wealth — in the technology world. They represent elements of a Silicon Valley culture that was most evident during the bubble years of the late 1990s.

The culture had evolved by then. Getting rich was always a motivation for people in the tech industry, but so was innovation and competition that could be fierce yet fair.

Whitman, at least, knew how to run a company. She was a strong leader at eBay, a company that innovated in many areas as it became by far the largest service of its kind.

Like some other big tech companies of the era, however, eBay also resorted to over-the-top tactics to stifle competition. In 2000, itpersuaded a federal judge in California that Bidder’s Edge, a company that offered price comparisons across multiple auction sites, was “trespassing” on its servers — a ruling that threatened “the very foundations of the Web,” according to some of America’s top cyber-law experts. (An appeal was dropped in a settlement, and a California Supreme Court decision in a different case appeared to contradict the district judge’s ruling.)

But my chief recollection of Whitman was her participation in the culture of greed that overcame Silicon Valley. While she was CEO of eBay, her company sent lots of business to Goldman Sachs. Goldman put her on its board of directors, “paying her an estimated $475,000 for little more than a year of part-time service” and — in a practice known as “spinning” — it gave her “insider access to the initial public offerings of hot stocks worth millions,” according to California Watch’s recent round-up of the Whitman-Goldman ties. (Whitman has denied any connection between her eBay role and Goldman’s offering her IPO stocks at insider prices.)

Now, I agree with Whitman and her defenders who say it’s absurd to blame her for Wall Street’s hugely cynical, and in some cases probably illegal, manipulations during the housing bubble of the last decade; she was on Goldman’s board for only 15 months, after all, and that stint ended in 2002. It’s all the other stuff of that earlier era– especially the spinning — that speaks to her personal values.

One of her defenses has been that, well, the spinning didn’t bring her much money (about $1.8 million, which later went back to shareholders in a lawsuit settlement) in the context of the enormous personal wealth her eBay holdings had provided, as if it’s OK to do something unethical as long as the relative numbers are small. And in April, she told the AP that she wouldn’t do it again, but called the practice part of the “normal course of business” of the era.

That’s the point: Spinning was normal for all too many of Silicon Valley’s hotshots back then. It was also cynical and outrageous, part of the dismal value system of the time that went, roughly, “What’s acceptable is what you can get away with.”

Fiorina, for her part, was part of an ascendant valley culture of a different kind. She wasn’t as terrible a CEO of Hewlett-Packard as her critics maintained, but her pay certainly dwarfed her performance. The board had ample reason to force her out in 2005, and her platinum parachute of more than $20 million made more than a few admirers of the old HP gag even though it had become (and remains) a too-standard practice in corporate America.

For those who remembered the old HP, Fiorina’s tenure was marked most dismally by her  dismantling of something core to the valley. This was a vision and practice called the “HP Way” — a corporate culture created by the founders, William Hewlett and David Packard, who believed and acted as though employees and communities were as important as shareholders and executives. More than a few of the companies that rose in the valley in the wake of HP’s pathbreaking success held some or all of these notions as foundations, too.

Fiorina didn’t start the process of ending the HP Way, but she pretty much finished it. Even if she’d been a good CEO in other ways, that part of her tenure will remain her most lasting contribution — and not a positive one.