Travis Kalanick is a tough guy to root for. He is the CEO of billion-dollar, ride-sharing service Uber, he’s the 290th richest person in the United States and a quick Google search of his name will tell you all you need to know about his leadership style. He’s the kind of guy who inspires his employees to draw pointy beards on his photo in the break room.
I’ve read some articles from business experts who have defended Kalanick’s actions by comparing him to the likes of Steve Jobs and Henry Ford – you know, guys who excelled at leadership whether their teammates liked it or not. The folks who buy business books in airport gift shops seem to be more forgiving than the media, I suppose.
Whichever side of the fence you fall on when it comes to Kalanick, I think his shenanigans (I love that word) can teach us an important lesson about managing a technology business: it’s not really about technology – it’s about people.
I’ve done a good bit of graphic design in my life, including some work I am proud of. But I’ve also spent hours, days even, developing a design that checks off all of the boxes from a technical standpoint (asymmetrical balance, negative space, other pretentious terms that only “artists” remember) only to show it to a client and have them stare blankly and say “I don’t get it.”
My mistake was believing that the technical design work was the goal itself. It wasn’t. The goal was making an impression on the people who viewed the design.
Uber isn’t an app company or a transportation company. It doesn’t make money because it solves technology problems. Uber succeeds because its technology solves a human problem. And if you alienate those humans, everything else can fall apart really fast.
That’s why UX is so important in the web business. The greatest code in the world doesn’t amount to anything if users can’t figure out how to make it work. In many ways, the user experience is the single most important part of any modern technology, whether it involves a smartphone or a 1978 Chrysler Newport with fuzzy dice in the window and Molly Hatchet in the tape deck.
Travis Kalanick knows how to treat his tech but he’s still learning how to treat the people who use his tech, whether they are customers, journalists or his own employees. He’s said that he’s going to get help, and that sounds like a pretty good idea.
The UX – the user experience – shouldn’t only be a technology term, after all. It should be our focus in every business, every day.