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Uber and Waymo is in court this week, battling over allegations that Uber stole trade secrets. But something else is also on trial: Travis Kalanick’s questionable slang.
The private texts and emails of the former Uber CEO have been endlessly pored over and scrutinized in search of insights as to his intentions and mindset following the controverisal purchase of a self-driving truck startup founded by a one-time star Google engineer.
Kalanick is often derided as a “tech bro,” and his colourful lingo while testifying in this trial – from “cheat codes” to a “pound of flesh” – has done little to discourage the notion. At the same time, Kalanick’s lexicon, as revealed in the courtroom, gives some insight into how the former CEO views the industry and the world at large.
So, in the interests of science, here are the key words and phrases you need to speak like Travis Kalanick.
Brother from another mother
A brother from another mother is someone you feel so close to, they’re like a sibling – albeit given birth to by someone else.
For Travis Kalanick, this was Anthony Levandowski, the ex-Google engineer at the centre of all this. “That’s something I said a couple of times,” he testified on Wednesday.
Burn the village
This is one of Travis Kalanick’s most aggressive phrases, and was sent in a text from him to Levandowski in February 2016. But what does mean? We don’t know. The former CEO said he doesn’t remember what it was referring to.
Whatever it was, though, Levandowski got the message. He replied with one word: “Yup”.
Cheat codes are, in common parlance, secret codes that you can use in video games to gain an advantage or skip to the next level. Now, the phrase has caused considerable commotion at the Uber-Waymo trial.
In notes taken by Uber exec John Bares in April 2016 about the planned acquisition of Otto, a self-driving truck company founded by Anthony Levandowski, Kalanick is quoted as saying: “Cheat codes. Find them. Use them.”
To Waymo’s lawyers, this is key evidence that Kalanick was prepared to do anything to win in the battle for to develop self-driving vehicle technology, even if it meant “cheating,” or breaking the law.
On Wednesday, Kalanick offered a more innocuous explanation: It refers to “elegant solutions to problems that haven’t already been thought of.” For instance, Kalanick says, Tesla gathering data from customers’ cars to improve its own self-driving car software would qualify as a “cheat code.”
Greed is good
This one wasn’t specifically said by Travis Kalanick, but it’s worth mentioning as an example of the kind of lingo and the cultural references being thrown about in the Otto acquisition.
In a text, Anthony Levandowski texted Kalanick that “This is the speech you need to give,” along with a “winky face” emoticon and a link to a YouTube video.
That video? A clip from the 1987 film “Wall Street,” in which Michael Douglas’ character gives the legendary “greed is good” speech.
Uber and Waymo’s lawyers battled over whether it could be shown in court, with Uber arguing that Waymo only wanted to show Douglas’ “award-winning performance” to “evoke an emotional response.” But Judge Alsup ruled against them, and it was screened to the jurors and the public on Wednesday morning.
Kalanick said he couldn’t recall whether he clicked on the link – but that he had seen the movie before.
Travis Kalanick loves to jam. In fact, once upon a time, Kalanick referred to his large San Francisco home as the “JamPad,” and opened it up as a meeting space and hangout for the local startup scene.
Traditionally, a jam is when musicians get together to make music and experiment on the fly. But for the former CEO, a jam session (or “sesh”) is when you get “interesting creative people in a room, talking about an idea” – like a “jazz ensemble.”
Kalanick had one of these “jam sessions” with Levandowski in January 2016, he said.
Mastermind some s**t
Reading Kalanick and Levandowski’s private messages, it’s easy to see they loved to play up to their roles as disruptive pioneers.
Just take a text from the then Uber-CEO in October 2016, declaring he was “Down to hang this eve and mastermind some shit” – apparently how they referred to sketching out plans and visions for the future.
Pound of flesh
This positively Shakespearean turn-of-phrase appeared in Bares’ notes from a meeting in December 2015 with Kalanick about what the then-CEO wanted from Levandowski. Along with a “pound of flesh,” Kalanick also apparently wanted “all of their data” and “IP” (intellectual property), which Waymo’s lawyers suggest refers to Waymo/Google’s tech.
So what is a “pound of flesh?” It’s not clear. It could refer to talent, a pledge of loyalty, some kind of retribution, or something else entirely.
Kalanick said he didn’t recall using the phrase, and didn’t offer an explanation as to what it could mean, but did say – intriguingly – that “it’s a term I use from time to time.”
“Sauce” is the key to something – the secret sauce, the special ingredient, the vital component for success.
It was used in reference to laser technology and its important to Uber’s self-driving car ambitions in notes from a meeting in January 2016.
Specifically, quoth Kalanick: “Laser is the sauce.” Tasty. And yes, that’s a singular “laser.”
If something’s better than great, it’s super. Better than great? Super duper.
Notes from a January 2016 meeting between Levandowski and Uber outlined possible outcomes of Levandowski coming on board with Uber. The highest level was “super duper,” which when combined with Uber made Uber Super Duper, or USD.
This subsequently translated into Kalanick’s codename for the plan to buy Levandowski’s new company: Project Dollar Sign.
If you’re pumped about something, then you’re fired up, enthusiastic, ready to go.
And if the opposite is true, then to Travis Kalanick, you’re “unpumped.”
Take the company’s relationship with Google, for example. When the company – which had previously invested in Uber, and was developing autonomous vehicles of its own – found out that Uber was working on self-driving cars, its executives were, Kalanick said on Wednesday, “unpumped.”
“[Google cofounder] Larry [Page] was fairly upset with us about us acquiring the [Carnegie Mellon University] team,” he said. “He was sort of angst-y and said ‘why are you doing my thing?'”
But what if someone is really unenthusiastic and negative? Well, then they’re “super unpumped.”In January 2017, Travis Kalanick made the decision to quit Donald Trump’s business council following significant pressure from political activists over his membership.
The president was, in Kalanick’s words, “super unpumped” to hear the news, according to a report from Bloomberg.
Sometimes, life is good. Life is easy. This is the “golden time.”
Whatt Uber was preparing for in the self-driving space was not that. It was gearing up for “war time.”
Notes on a meeting from April 2016, the same ones that mentioned “cheat codes,” said exactly this.
“The golden time is over. It is war time,” it read. “Going slower is NOT an option anymore. In each area what we do we need to do to win.”