Verkada Faces Sexism, Discrimination, And Cultural ChallengesBy Charles Rollet, Published Oct 13, 2020, 08:46am EDT
Photos of female employees taken from Verkada's own video surveillance system were passed around by Verkada sales managers captioned with graphic sexual comments, causing strife within the Silicon Valley unicorn.
Verkada, which has received $100+ million in funding over the past two years, was built on a recipe of hiring "great sales athletes", "copying" the old EMC model of hiring "half the football team" and making "the culture really fun for sales", according to Verkada Chairman Hans Robertson. Indeed, Robertson boasted of hiring "a lot of" Verkada's "sales athletes" from one small and wealthy Bay Area suburb.
However, this has created a working environment that many allege is reminiscent of a frat house, rife with sexism, drinking, and discrimination. Current and former Verkada employees say these issues all came to a head with the Slack incident, which exposed Verkada's favoritism towards this elite "crew" of sales staffers.
Update, December 2020: IPVM has released a video summarizing the events:
In this post, IPVM examines Verkada's workplace challenges in-depth:
- The Slack Incident
- Fallout from the Slack Incident
- The 'Danville Crew'
- "They Can Do Whatever They Want"
- Sales Playbook of Hans Robertson, Verkada Chairman
- Other Director Terminated
- Sales Party During Coronavirus
- Discrimination Concerns from Employees
- Sales vs Culture Challenge
- Verkada Responds to IPVM
- Verkada Email to Employees about IPVM's report
For background on Verkada, see previous IPVM reporting including The Fastest Growing Video Surveillance Sales Organization Ever - Verkada, Verkada Speaks On Disrupting Security Sales Channel, Verkada 2020 Cameras Image Quality Test and Verkada Video Analytics Tested 2020.
The Slack Incident
Verkada is headquartered in a large new office building in downtown San Mateo which (naturally) has a Verkada video surveillance system. However, the surveillance system is particular among other Silicon Valley tech firms because it is easily accessible by regular Verkada employees so they can show it off to potential customers.
Last year, a group of men at Verkada accessed the system to capture images of female employees without their knowledge and share pictures of them captioned with sexual jokes in a Slack channel, multiple sources independently confirmed to IPVM.
"It was a piece of [Verkada] software that highlighted faces and gave, like, a Brady Bunch view - one of things Verkada does is face match and search," a source said. One picture sent by a sales director was of particular concern as it consisted of a female sales employee captioned with a joke about 'squirting', multiple sources confirmed.
Fallout From The Slack Incident
When screenshots of the Slack channel came out, "there was nothing but proof" of its contents and participants, a source said. Although the 'squirting' photo sent by the sales director struck a chord, multiple men were part of the channel and multiple women were targeted, sources said.
In response, Verkada announced that some employees had had their stock reduced, but many did not think this was enough. "I was shocked. To me that's not just a fireable offense, that's a career-ending offense," one source said; another called the stock reduction "a slap on the wrist". At an all-hands company meeting, over 100 employees upvoted a question about the incident, pushing it to the top of the list, but it was not addressed. Overall, the incident "has been strategically avoided", a source told IPVM.
The "Danville Crew"
At least five senior sales staff are white men who went to the same high school in Danville, California, San Ramon Valley High, where they played sports (chiefly football). This contributed to a feeling among some female and minority staffers that moving up in the company was harder for people who were not white men from Danville.
"If you weren't part of the same five or six people who all grew up with each other in Danville, then you wouldn't get far", one source told IPVM, adding that "there were some exceptions of course, but the ones that got the easiest promotions were all within the same circle".
"They Can Do Whatever They Want"
The perceived lack of action taken after the Slack incident was viewed by many as evidence of favoritism towards the Danville employees from upper management. "There's a certain crew from Danville, they can do whatever they want - the company will [turn] a blind eye basically," one source said, adding "it's because these guys bring in a ton of revenue. They're in the upper echelon and so you can't get rid of one of them, you'd have to get rid of all of them."
The Slack incident "set a pretty awful precedent", another source said, noting "if you're part of the group of guys then you're protected. At any other tech company in Silicon Valley, you'd get fired."
Multiple sources told IPVM they felt that Verkada's upper management was "removed" and "aloof" from workplace climate issues. "There is a frat boy culture, it is driven by the co-founders and it's entrenched in the sales leadership who are all referral hires that the leaders know personally and who they are friends with", another source said. Notably, out of 13 people on Verkada's Leadership Team page, zero are women.
'Frat Boy Culture'
Multiple sources said Verkada's sales department was reminiscent of a frat house, noting that drinking and yelling to celebrate sales were commonplace:
[sales staff] were allowed to drink during company hours, whenever they made a sale they would yell, kind of like a frat house. It seemed like management supported and allowed this to happen too. They were too permissive with the sales team. Always giving favor to them. I did see when there would be a lot of meetings they would cater to the sales team. It was a Ra-Ra, cheerleading kind of culture.
Another source confirmed this, saying "frat boy culture" is "deeply ingrained" and that drinking was "taken to the next level" at Verkada, with "a lot of champagne" and alcohol to celebrate deals regardless of "what time of day it is". For some, this was part of what made Verkada an attractive place to work: "[the culture] was, 'you're gonna work very hard and it's OK that your job is somewhat miserable because we party really hard and we have a good time'."
The source also confirmed a permissive attitude towards frat-house style behavior, saying there was "a group of guys at the company who have worked together in the past or have been there for a long time, and they definitely protect their own and it's somewhat a group that can get as drunk as they want - and say whatever they want - to their employees, customers, partners, and there not be penalties for them".
Verkada Founder & Chairman Touts Hiring Athletes & Danville Residents
Hiring athletes - and football players in particular - is by design, as Verkada's Founder and Chairman Hans Robertson explained in a Silicon Valley Fireside Chat. The excerpt below features Robertson touting how he copied EMC's model of hiring football players:
We copied EMC. What does that really mean, EMC was famous for hiring half the Northeastern football team [...] basically they would hire for tenacity, energy, street smarts, that was sort of what we ended up copying
Hiring football players, of course, inevitably favors men since virtually all (American) football players are men.
Moreover, in the same chat, Robertson explicitly calls out how they hired "a lot" of their salespeople from Danville:
We had a bunch of people who were local, like grew up in the area, and they just like knew a lot of other salespeople, so I guess we have like 20 from Danville, or not 20 but 10, I mean, a lot
Danville is a small, wealthy suburb that is about two times whiter (76%) than California (36% white) while being less than 7% Hispanic and less than 1% Black (California is about 40% Hispanic and 6% Black.).
Downsides Of Sales Culture
Eddie Vasquez, who worked a few months at Verkada as a contractor, said he found the atmosphere "toxic" and was "taken aback" by the regular drinking, which sometimes involved lewd comments about women:
It was one of the most toxic, unprofessional work environments I was part of. I do corroborate there was kind of a frat culture and all that
I did witness guys commenting on what women were wearing, like yoga pants or a certain top, [saying things] like that at work or while they were drinking. It was really inappropriate.
I was taken aback [by workplace drinking.] At Verkada it was a daily occurrence. Whiskey, tequila, wine.
Another source, who had an overall good impression of working for Verkada, concluded that "there are two very different cultures that exist at Verkada: that of the engineering team and that of the sales team. In my experience, the 'frat boy culture' is only a problem on the sales team."
Other Sales Director Terminated
Last month, a "third party independent investigation" found another sales director had "violated company policy" and was fired, per a company email IPVM reviewed.
Sources said this was related to Verkada's workplace issues.
Sales Gathering During Coronavirus
Also last month, sales team employees held an office gathering, with few wearing masks and no social distancing:
This violated San Mateo county public health orders that "participants of gatherings of any size must adhere to Social Distancing and Face Covering Requirements". This also violated Verkada's own COVID policy, which bans "social gatherings" with "no exceptions" and mandates masks within six feet of others, according to a company email obtained by IPVM.
Discrimination Concerns From Employees
Three sources independently told IPVM that ethnic discrimination was an issue. "If you look at the people who get hired and fired, there's an obvious track record", one source said. "For [people of color] it was be quiet, keep your head down."
In particular, sources said those who were not native English speakers/spoke accented English had a harder time getting hired and promoted. "If you're a native English speaker you will be viewed better than a non-native English speaker, even if you do the exact same work", another source said. This is particularly relevant in Silicon Valley which has many tech workers from places like India, China, etc.
Not everyone had negative experiences, with one employee telling IPVM they "love my job and the culture" and another saying she "feel[s] supported as a woman". Another said upper management was trying to fix cultural issues and "never seemed to approve of any inappropriate behavior".
Sales Vs Culture Challenge
Verkada is growing rapidly and having a determined Sales team is critical to increasing top-line revenue. This is a concrete metric that investors pay close attention to, particularly in Silicon Valley where scale is often prioritized.
However, clearly, there are challenges with such a top-line-focused strategy. As IPVM has covered, Verkada salespeople have made false claims in their pitches to potential clients. Prioritizing sales, and particularly hiring football players and residents of wealthy suburbs, can lead to a company culture where those who are not part of this group feel left out or discriminated against.
Verkada Responds to IPVM
IPVM previewed the key findings from our investigation, asking Verkada for feedback and for how Verkada is making improvements as they grow. Verkada's response is copied in full below:
As I am sure you’ll understand, we cannot discuss any details regarding individual employees out of respect for their privacy and wellbeing. We take our policies very seriously, and there have been and will continue to be repercussions for anyone who violates them. Verkada is committed to making our workplace safe and comfortable for all individuals; this is crucial to our goal of attracting the best talent in the world, and delivering the best products to our customers.
The information you collated has many factual inaccuracies, and some of it is opinion or hearsay at best. That said, we appreciate you sharing these notes with us, as we constantly strive to make our team better and to create an environment where everyone feels a sense of belonging.
We do not believe that your narrative accurately represents what it’s actually like to work at Verkada. We invite all prospective employees and candidates to connect with us directly, meet our leadership team, and make decisions based on primary data.
We asked Verkada to specify the "many factual inaccuracies" they were referring to but Verkada declined, saying:
Thank you for the offer, but as previously mentioned we aren't at liberty to discuss specific details.
Verkada Email to Employees About IPVM's Report
Shortly after responding to IPVM and before IPVM published this article, Verkada's CEO Filip Kaliszan sent an email to all employees defending Verkada's record and confirming that disciplinary action against relevant employees has been taken ranging from "financial penalties up to termination".
The email is posted below:
Verkada's CEO also contended that the lack of diversity was a result of their "humble beginnings", saying in the email:
Verkada's humble beginnings date back to 2016 and my living room, which was our first 'office'. Back, then, it was hard to get people to come hang out to check out what we were building, let along hire anyone to join us.
It was not that 'humble', as Verkada's founder is Hans Robertson, who started Verkada after he had sold Meraki, a company he co-founded, to Cisco for $1.2 billion.
That noted, Verkada clearly has grown, with 415 employees now and a growing number of diverse hires beyond the core ex-Meraki and Danville employees.
Undoubtedly, Verkada is trying to handle and rectify the sexism, discrimination, and cultural challenges they face. The question remains how well they will do with that, and how much are they willing to trade-off growing sales to establishing a better company culture.
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