Ethics Class Part 2: How it went

University of San Diego campus

My nerves were on edge as I took the wheel of Rich Marin’s Tesla Model X. We were driving from his Escondido hilltop home to old town San Diego for an early dinner. The car wasn’t what was worrying me. My issue was about after dinner when we would drive to the University of San Diego campus and I would guest lecture in Rich’s graduate class on Law, Policy, and Ethics. Agreeing to speak in his class a month before meant choosing a case to study (I chose Theranos), doing the research, and structuring the two-hour class to allow the key ethical considerations to emerge. I also wanted to impart a few invaluable nuggets from my years in business.

My nervousness was mostly due to typical public speaking jitters and so many unknowns – what does the classroom look like, how will the audio/video work, will we arrive early enough or be rushed, how will the audience behave? Knowing myself, nervousness rarely helps bring out my best.  As we rode, I told myself: “You’ve got this; these situations typically go well for you, you’ve done your homework, now just relax and have fun. Things will all work out.”  Slowly I relaxed and by the time we found the classroom, my frame of mind was where it needed to be.

My preparations had involved reading about half a dozen books  and watching the movie. It is the one I mentioned in The Ethics Class Part 1 newsletter and, Rich assigned to the class as preliminary work. The movie, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” was done in 2019, about two years after Theranos ran into all its trouble, but before Holmes and Balwani were indicted for fraud.  It is terrific and I recommend this documentary.  I also found a link to a video deposition Holmes did in 2017. This was revealing as I was able to hear Homes directly contradict, under oath, nearly all of the claims she’d made about Theranos and its technology.

In addition, one of the subscribers to this newsletter and a good friend, recommended “The Business Ethics Field Guide,” by Brad Agle, Aaron Miller, and Bill O’Rourke. It bypasses all the often boring “why’s” regarding ethics and focused instead on the how’s, creating 13 categories of ethical dilemmas, real-life stories for each situation and a basis for analysis and signposts for finding your way through each of them.

While practicing my presentation with Maggie, she gave me another example, closer to home than I had realized.  Some years ago, while editing a manual for the documentation company where she worked, she found a part number had been entered incorrectly.  She corrected it and sent the document back to the writer on the project. The next day she noticed he’d rejected her correction, forwarding it to the client uncorrected, with the wrong part number.  Confronting him on why he’d not taken her correction, he said it was a matter of “malicious obedience,” justifying his action by saying he’d been instructed, in no uncertain terms, to never make changes to an engineer’s mark-up.  He’d been told technical writers were not to second guess engineers – ever.  Maggie was furious and reported the incident up the chain of command and assumed the manual would be corrected prior to publication.  She was incensed when she later discovered it was not.  Should she contact the client directly and smear her company’s reputation or not? Choosing to be (or not to be) a whistle-blower is a very tough choice.

On the day before the class, Rich told me more about how this single class on business ethics fit into the storyline for the full course, Law, Policy & Ethics.  If you’ve not guessed, legal choices can be unethical and vice versa and policy can go either way as well.  The course will touch on not only ethics but impacts that need to be considered for stakeholders, which include shareholders and creditors, employees and consumers as well as suppliers and competitors. Arbitrage, markets & ethics get a deep dive as do a look at ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance, including anti-discrimination and socioeconomic investing).  He’ll end the class with a look at some of the fundamental concepts in business ethics, individual liberty vs. the common good, and how that affects capitalism, public policy, and civil society.  I hope Rich will be able to get me Zoom access so I can audit the entire course.

You can read Rich’s summary and impressions near the end of his recent newsletter here.  My favorite comment from Rich was this: “In twelve years of teaching I have never seen so much student engagement as we had during this debate.” My assessment is completely the same as Rich’s, although with a twist. My best college teaching experiences were always with highly engaged students.  For Wednesday’s class, I tried two approaches I’d used in the past to help move things in that direction.  The first was before the class began.  As students filed in I spoke to as many as I could. I asked where they worked, why they’d decided to enroll in this program, and what it was like taking classes at night while trying to hold down a job. Rich watched me as if he thought I was running for mayor.  The second step was to begin my presentation with an anecdote to subtly communicate it was okay to speak up, and their thoughts and ideas would be welcome. The above, combined with a contemporary and compelling case and the intelligence, preparation, and interest of these students, resulted in the unusually high level of involvement Rich’s comment points to.  The two hours flew by, all the key points were made and it was great fun.  As in nearly every interaction with graduate students in this age group, I came away having learned things I did not know and impressed with the generation who’ll take over for us when ours is gone.

Oh, one last thing.  Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes are about to get hot. Remember, you read about it here first.  An eight-episode series from Hulu called “The Dropout,” will go live March 3. There will also be a “Bad Blood” film based on John Carreyrou’s book directed by Adam McKay and starring Jennifer Lawrence scheduled to show up on AppleTV.   And last, if you have access to Apple Podcasts, you can follow “Bad Blood: The Final Chapter”, where John Carreyrou and Emily Saul discuss the testimony of witnesses in the trial and everything said by the lawyers and judge.

Embracing Ambiguity

Rich Marin

My good friend and riding buddy, Rich Marin, writes a daily blog post/newsletter called The Old Lone Ranger.  Rich is highly disciplined and writes 1,000 words, every day.  Rich and another friend, Philip Richter, inspired me to start my newsletter.  Philip’s site and blog is the Turtle Garage.  On Saturday, January 9, 2021, Rich’s post was titled “Getting Big Enough. It again made me recognize and appreciate different ways people look at the world.  While ostensibly about his size and the sizes of people in general, toward the end of the piece Rich crossed into a discussion about the changes 2020 and COVID have brought to our world, the disorientation and unpredictability of things and reactions to that.  You can read his full post here.

The part of his post inspiring this response is:

“And yet, who among us does not know people who surprise us with their ability to handle the whirlwind in ways that startle us. I know people who get frazzled in steady states, but who blossom and thrive in chaos. That seems counter-intuitive and almost inexplicably unnerving, but it’s true. I attribute it to a phenomenon I observed long ago in someone close to me. I concluded that I am a linear thinker for whom logic adds clarity. This other person did better handling chaos than order. They were random thinkers, people who could sense patterns rather than reason through sequential logic. I am certain I hit on a very real attribute characterization with this observation.”

While fairly certain Rich is not talking about me, I thought, “Well, I resemble that remark.”   One of the many things Rich and I have in common is being self-aware. But my trait of tolerance for ambiguity and desire to keep pushing ahead in times of uncertainty was something I only became aware of later in life.  Even after becoming aware of it, years passed before the implications of how it might affect my career dawned on me. Eventually, I figured it out after leaving the stable cocoon of employers like AT&T, CDC, and IBM and into the world of early-stage tech startups.  I was finally professionally fulfilled in this environment where the arrival of new technology or a competitive announcement could require an overnight reassessment of every assumption about our business.

In his post, Rich observed that some people “get frazzled in steady states.”  Frazzled wasn’t how I would characterize my feelings.  My dissatisfaction when working for large, “steady-state” companies was frustration with the agonizing slowness of getting anything done, the number of people required to buy-in before moving forward, and my colleagues overwhelming satisfaction with the status quo and rabid fear of upsetting the apple cart.  So, maybe it was frazzled, but it felt more like frustration, numbness, and exhaustion to me. It was probably why I only lasted about 5 years each in these big companies.  The daily grind of working with people who did not appear to care or understand the key drivers of the business and what we needed to transpire to move forward drove me crazy.  Working side by side with people who got their professional fulfillment from an ability to leave the office at precisely 5 pm every day with an absolutely clear desk, is what eventually did me in.  And just so we are clear, not everyone in large organizations behaves or thinks this way, and certainly not Rich Marin.

It was just six months after leaving IBM that my recognition of the “Aha moment” Rich describes occurred.  We were living in Croton-on-Hudson, NY.   I was acting as the half-time VP of Marketing for a start-up in global trade in Connecticut and had a consulting contract with a venture firm in New York City and spent one day a week there.  Many evenings I’d attend events on what to do about this new, weird, chaotic, nebulous, and probably powerful new thing called the Internet. It was at that point I realized professionally, for the first time in my life, I was completely happy, satisfied and thrilled with my job. I couldn’t wait to get up every morning.  It was non-linear, unstructured, totally lacking in certainty, and yet, in my mid-40s, I was finally doing what I was good at.

To be fair to myself, earlier life circumstances had forced me into a professional life of only working for large companies. The risk to my family of not having health insurance was too high. My health history and what insurance companies viewed as adverse “pre-existing conditions” made me uninsurable, except when bundled into a huge group policy only available through large employers. I remember riding the train back from the city one afternoon, staring out the window at the cakes of ice floating in the Hudson River and thinking how if every one of my current income sources were to instantly dry up, I would be able to find something else quickly, and it would probably be better than what I was doing now.

I spent the rest of my working life with early-stage start-up companies.  While far from dependable in the long-term sense, my work was always satisfying and gratifying. I hated to lose and felt real angst and fear when we’d run out of options and had to close up shop.  But even then, I knew I was doing the right thing.  Rich is correct about the new pressures coming from a world seeming to be constantly evolving, complexities of the web and where to go for reliable information, and a polarized political landscape that keeps getting worse even when we think it is already as bad as it can get.  Rich concluded that the biggest challenge may be to find something that isn’t changing. He may be right, but I’m not sure it matters to me.  While I may not thrive on ambiguity, I’ve learned to get comfortable with it.  Perhaps he’s right – it’s my nature.