Key Ideas Flew in a ‘Jam Sesh,’ Uber’s Ex-Chief Testifies
Posted February 6, 2018 10:14 p.m. EST
SAN FRANCISCO — Basketball players have pickup games. Rappers have freestyle cyphers. Tech entrepreneurs, according to Travis Kalanick,the former chief executive of Uber, riff on big ideas in something they call a “jam sesh.”
Kalanick, who is known for pushing boundaries in business, kept his answers short and his demeanor neutral as he testified on Tuesday in a high-profile court fight between Waymo and his former employer over intellectual property.
Waymo, the self-driving-car unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, called Kalanick to the stand during the first full day of testimony in the federal trial. It hoped to reveal how Uber’s win-at-all-costs attitude had pushed the company to acquire Otto, an autonomous-vehicle startup created by a former Google engineer, Anthony Levandowski.
Waymo contends — and Uber denies — that the deal was part of Uber’s plan to steal intellectual property from Google’s self-driving-car project, which would later be renamed Waymo, in order to close the gap in an area of technology essential to its business.
As he waded through questions from Waymo’s lawyers, Kalanick, who resigned in June as Uber’s chief executive, offered unusual insight into how deals get done in Silicon Valley and the freewheeling — some might say self-parodying — business culture at the biggest technology startups.
Kalanick said he and other Uber executives had a “jam sesh,” or jam session, with Levandowski on a Sunday while Levandowski was still employed by Google. In fact, Kalanick was such a fan of these sessions that a 2015 profile of him revealed that his home was called a “Jam Pad.”
A jam sesh, as Kalanick explained it, is a business meeting akin to a session in which a jazz ensemble spontaneously works out music. Creative people come in with their own ideas and create “beautiful music.” Or business plans. The group discussed laser sensor technology that was critical to the operation of self-driving cars. A handwritten note on a whiteboard read, “Laser is the sauce.”
Kalanick didn’t deny in court Tuesday that Uber had wooed Levandowski and met with him at Uber’s offices before he left Google. He said he was “a big fan” of the engineer, one of the first employees at Google’s self-driving-car project, and wanted to hire him.
But there was a hang-up: Levandowski wanted to venture out on his own.
“I wanted to hire Anthony and he wanted to start a company, so I tried to come up with a situation where he could feel like he started a company and I could feel like I hired him,” Kalanick said, choosing his words carefully between long sips of water.
Uber acquired Otto for a reported $590 million in 2016, just six months after it was started. It is unclear how much Levandowski, already a wealthy man thanks to a $120 million bonus from his time at Google, personally made in the deal.
Waymo contends that the clever solution — let Levandowski create his own company and then buy it — was simply obfuscation for a plot to steal important technology from Waymo.
While the deal was unusual, it’s not rare for an executive to want to ensure his independence inside a larger company. Technology giants often have to sell founders of startups on the idea that they will maintain some independence, as well as a big payday, in an acquisition. Facebook, for example, acquired Instagram and kept the photo-sharing app a separate unit within the company.
Otto is still an independent unit within Uber and is technically a separate defendant in this case.
Waymo is trying to portray Kalanick and Levandowski as a pair of aggressive, money-hungry conspirators who worked together to steal Google’s intellectual property.
Before Kalanick testified, Uber’s lawyers objected to Waymo’s presenting a text message that Levandowski sent to Kalanick with a clip from the movie “Wall Street” in which Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, passionately argues that “greed, for the lack of a better word, is good.” No ruling was made.
On Wednesday, Kalanick is expected to be asked how much he revealed to Uber’s board about Levandowski and what the engineer had taken with him from Google.
In deposition testimony before the trial, Bill Gurley, an investor and a former board member at Uber, said the company’s board had not been shown a due diligence report before the acquisition of Otto.
Gurley, who stepped down from Uber’s board in June, said he wouldn’t have voted in favor of the acquisition had he known the report indicated that Levandowski possessed files from Google.
Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Levandowski, said after the session in the federal courthouse in San Francisco that “although a great many things have been said about Anthony over the last two days, we are confident that he will eventually be vindicated.”