SAN FRANCISCO – How do some wealthy, Silicon Valley executives pump themselves up to conquer the business world?
By watching – and then sharing – a YouTube link of the “greed is good” speech from the 1987 film “Wall Street.”
That curious detail surfaced when Travis Kalanick – Uber’s former chief executive – testified during the third, and most climactic, day of the Uber-Waymo trial in a San Francisco courtroom Wednesday, offering rare insight into the competitive spirit of two Silicon Valley power brokers.
Listening intently in the audience were dozens of lawyers, reporters, PR people and curious law students who had lined up outside the courtroom before sunrise in hopes of witnessing the Silicon Valley equivalent of a tech Super Bowl.
Most of Kalanick’s nearly two-hour testimony settled on his relationship with Anthony Levandowski, a onetime star engineer who left Google and was later hired by Uber, unleashing a cloud of suspicion among Google executives who allege that the two men plotted to steal trade secrets.
Google’s self-driving car project, which was started in 2009, became Waymo in 2016.
Amid their text messages was a link to Michael Douglas’s iconic movie moment in “Wall Street,” which made for a bizarre piece of court room theater when it was played for jurors.
“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, said in a YouTube video shown in court.
“Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Kalanick – who seemed amused by Waymo’s focus on a cinematic speech – said he didn’t know if he clicked on the link when Levandowski texted it to him in 2016. “here’s a speech you need to give ;-),” Levandowski texted.
Kalanick said Wednesday that it was just a movie and that it’s fake.
“Wall Street” helped spawn the villainous capitalist archetype cited by left-leaning politicians ahead of every election cycle. More than three decades later, Waymo used the film to cast Kalanick in the same light – a Gordon Gecko for the digital age.
Wearing a Navy suit and frequently swigging bottled water, Kalanick’s demeanor was generally relaxed, ranging from mildly amused to slightly confused during his appearance on the stand. The winding, sometimes humorous testimony – spawned by exchanges with Waymo’s no-nonsense attorney Charles Verhoeven – covered everything from the billionaire’s texting slang and hiring decisions to his frayed relationship with Alphabet chief executive Larry Page amid rumors that both men were simultaneously trying to build flying cars (a Silicon Valley no-no, apparently).
Waymo’s legal team is trying to convince jurors that Kalanick, who has a reputation for flouting rules, conspired with Levandowski to create a fake company that would be purchased by Uber and used to steal eight trade secrets from Google’s self-driving car team.
The goal was not only to “leapfrog” Google in the race to build self-driving cars, Waymo lawyers allege, but to keep Uber alive.
Kalanick – who used to refer to Levandowski as his “brother from another mother” – flatly denied those allegations Wednesday when lawyers grilled him about text messages between the men, including: “Burn a village” and “I just see this as a race and we need to win. Second place is first looser.”
Aggressive rhetoric aside, Kalanick said Uber hired Levandowski for his skills, not his secrets.
“We hired Anthony because we felt that he was incredibly visionary, a very good technologist, and he was also very charming,” Kalanick said, noting that the goal was to “make driverless cars a reality.”
“How do you feel about him now?” Verhoeven asked.
“This has been a difficult process,” Kalanick sheepishly replied. “This makes it not as great as what we thought it was at the beginning.”
The testimony also revealed that the Waymo-Uber relationship could have had a very different ending. Kalanick said being picked up in one of Google’s self-driving cars ahead of a meeting with Larry Page in 2013 inspired him to begin thinking seriously about autonomous vehicles.
Kalanick said he was hoping the two companies – which he described as having a “little brother, big brother” relationship at the time – could find a way to partner. Around the same time, Kalanick said, he began to hear whispers that Google was planning to start their own ride-hailing business.
“We were optimistic in finding a way to partner,” he said, pointing out that Uber’s ride-hailing expertise and Google’s autonomous knowledge seemed like a promising collaboration at the time.