I finished this book in about 1.5 weeks. I had some airplane travel time but I was riveted. I was appalled, saddened, and shocked at the same time. The book is a true story about a company named Theranos founded by Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes that appears to have falsified and misled investors, partners, and even worse its end customers: People who were hoping to get better health care.
What made me the saddest was that Elizabeth Holmes could have been what many people, including my own three daughters, could have looked up to. A brilliant charismatic leader on the forefront of the world of tech and health care, breaking glass, and making huge improvements in society. We’ve seen the tech mogul story repeated with Gates, Jobs, Musk, Ellison, Bezos, etc. But they’re all white dudes. As a culture in tech we are craving some serious diversity and we get more lip service than real results. Perhaps the reason Holmes was able to fool so many people was that she filled that void. Would she had had as much success if she were a dude? What sort of different treatment would she have received?
The book shows that her one great skill was to share a vision and get powerful people to buy into that vision. The other thing it proved to me was how important transparency is. I’ve seen it so many places where people don’t want transparency because it exposes people. I first felt this when we did peer programming with my startup company Sumavi. I was exposed for what I knew and didn’t know. It was just one other coworker but I remember there was no time to goof around or slack off. There was no time to pretend I knew something when I didn’t. However, transparency makes you better and makes you perform better. What if everyone knew what you were doing all throughout the day? Would it shame you or make you feel proud? With Holmes we learn that with that lack of transparency nobody in the company really understood what was happening.
Ironically, what aggravated me in the book was the focus on time at the desk. Sunny and Elizabeth both kept a tally of who worked long hours. I’ve been a huge proponent of life balance, and Cisco has been a great company to work for on that front. But I’ve seen so many times where time at the office does not translate to productivity. In fact, I am betting that deep focus for 4 hours trumps any of those 12-16 hour days.
Lastly, what shocked me in the book (but I guess it shouldn’t anymore) is guess who went to jail? Nobody. Nobody admitted any wrongdoing, and yet Sunny and Elizabeth are as free as you and me right now. I don’t understand this mentality. This is the same mentality our current president of the United States has: Never admit you did anything wrong. I hope this trend goes away. Elizabeth idolized Steve Jobs and tried to imitate some of his mannerisms. Having read this book and the account of Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s biography, the one thing Holmes didn’t seem to get was the passion that Jobs had. Isaacson talks again and again on how Jobs would get emotional and cry in front of different people cause he felt so strongly about certain things. It’s hard to know from this book what Holmes really cared about. And to me this is one of the saddest parts of the story: Holmes never provided any information to Carreyrou, but instead tried to destroy and threaten him. I would really like to have more of her side of the details, but I don’t think we’ll get that. For now, we can just take the lesson that being honest is really a good idea.