This post is a representation of an opinion that was developed solely on my reading of Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
I don’t like Elizabeth Holmes and that annoying piss-ant “Sunny” Balwani. They are awful people. They are self-centered, ignorant, reckless, naïve, arrogant, over-emotional, self-deluded, shameless bullies who are supremely bad at their jobs. And I just read an entire book, Bad Blood, that rubbed my nose in all of their willful, unacknowledged, dangerous mistakes. The entire time I wanted them to get their comeuppance. Yet for most of the book that did not happen, it was just lie after mistake after lie after mistake until I realized that I have not been this mad at a villain in a book since Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter– may she rot in fiction hell. The only difference… these assholes are real.
John Carreyrou writes a solid book of investigative journalism. It feels like Silicon Valley’s attempt at All The President’s Men but falls short of that high mark because of the lack of intensity and pace. Most of Bad Blood is re-hashings of the same problems or off shoots of those problems from multiple source’s perspectives, which is necessary in his line of work, but not in a book. Maybe I struggled to comprehend some of the jargon (both tech and medical terms combined into a Megatron of strange vernacular), but I felt that I kind of got the point about halfway through the book, and everything up until the news broke about Theranos being the worst company of all time was beating the dead horse so badly it almost got up and ran again.
Not everything was unnecessary and boring after the halfway mark (and certainly was necessary in the upcoming trials and lawsuits against Theranos), but it was a bit like finding Easter Eggs, and the names of people who worked in the tech lab…became disillusioned…debated about quitting…quit…and then were bullied into signing NDAs… blended together.
And the research and discovery into Ther-anus (got ‘em) never felt intense for me. The problem was that this was basically done in the open as opposed to the deep deep layers involved in a book like All The President’s Men. Yes, Theranos was ridiculous on secrecy and security. Yes, people like you and me, the patients who would use the machine could have no way of knowing that this company was a sham run by two goons who probably couldn’t tie each other’s shoes without trying to yell at the laces to comply. However, so many people connected to the company knew or should have known it was garbage, and only limply did anything about it (until Carreyrou shook some people into action).
I understand the reticence of the bottom rung workers to blow the whistle. If I was being threatened to be sued for millions of dollars, I am not sure I could have done better (But I do think they could have done more inside of the company. The efforts, or lack of efforts, taken before abandoning ship always seemed week. It was like, bring attention to higher-ups about life-threatening issues… get yelled at by Sunny… RUN).
However, there were also tons of medical oversight committees and investors who would look at the machines or processes used by the company with the goal of discerning proficiency and effectiveness and absolutely got sold the Brooklyn Bridge by Holmes and Sunny. These people I cannot comprehend.
I can only imagine that Silicon Valley is the only world in which something like this can happen. Where one swinging-dick and his dim-witted girlfriend could dupe everyone into thinking a little box that was worse technology than what we currently have is worth 6 billion dollars (with a ‘B’). Silicon Valley has the recipe for this type of The Great Oz business model.
- The Steve Jobs Effect– Everyone trusted Elizabeth Holmes because she had a deep voice and wore black turtlenecks. I’m joking… but only kind of. She looked the part and acted the part, and after Steve Jobs got removed from his company only to come back and resurrect it from the ashes like MJ returning from baseball to the Bulls, everyone wants to get behind the next technology Messiah. They thought it was Elizabeth Holmes. It was not. Not even close. Swing and a miss. You got duped.
- High pressure to get on something early– Everyone wants to ride the money rocket to the stars in Silicon Valley, which is maybe one of the only places left in America where the upward mobility that made the American Dream possible still exists. But it is contingent on one thing- spot the start-up early and invest a lot. This means that you are not seeing working products that are doing useful things (by that point it would be too late). Holmes gave people a wish and a dream, and people gave her millions in return. This doesn’t happen anywhere else.
- SOOOOO much money– Lawsuits and funding allow for people to do crazy stuff. It allowed for Holmes to remain solvent and profitable when they didn’t do anything useful or do it well. And it allowed them to intimidate everyone into submission through NDAs and lawsuits. Money doesn’t provide happiness but it sure can cover your ass when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing (just ask Holmes). And there is an abundance of money in Silicon Valley
- Silicon Valley had the perfect type of person– I don’t see this type of foolish operation working without a certain type of people who are willing to follow. Everyone who worked at Theranos thought they had the job that they had been dreaming of since they first gazed into a retina display. To them, this was the next Apple or Facebook and they were working on the medical equivalent of the new iPhone. Also, these are people who want to spend their life either working in a lab or creating hardware and software and the code that goes with it, and they are really stinking good at it. But I have to imagine that those who chose a career path of individual work were not pumped to getting bullied and screamed at by a short Indian man with a Napoleon complex. Some handled it well, but most did not, because I think they are not the type of people who want to have to deal with it. So it didn’t get dealt with.
- Silicon Valley cares about technology more than people– Could someone maybe have actually followed through in seeing how these tests worked on people? No one cared. It was so consistent throughout the book it was mind-boggling. All I ever wanted was for someone to make Theranos test someone and see the results and then look at Elizabeth Holmes and say, “Your tech doesn’t work. How can you have this many people working with this amount of money and not do what you say you do? Are you an awful person who should be bagging groceries rather than running a company?” But that didn’t happen. Because people asked about the tech, people wanted to see the tech, people wanted to know how the tech would be applied someday. What everyone seemed to forget is that the tech is only as good as its impact on people. If they would have remembered that, this all would have ended a lot sooner. The Silicon Valley bubble of isolation can be a dangerous place.
So here is this fragile ecosystem, ripe for exploitation, and in walk Holmes and Bulwani who created the tech version of the Fyre Festival, and I hate them for it. Because on the other end of their very elaborate get-rich quick scheme, were real people who just wanted blood results so they could live healthy lives. That’s a simple request that should not be made difficult or complicated by a girl with delusions of grandeur and a man nicknamed “Sunny” (what is he 12?).The book took over the literary world like Theranos took over Silicon Valley, and based on some (not a ton, but just enough) of its weaknesses, I imagine it was because most people felt a similar outrage towards these two doofuses. Bad Blood is worth the read just to get a glimpse into this world, and to make sure Elizabeth Holmes never tries anything like this again, because it seems like she is… Business Insider.