I always wondered what sort of place Theranos must be (have been) to work at, and now this piece at Vanity Fair answers the question: hellish. The treatment of chief scientist Ian Gibbons, as presented in the article, will illustrate the point:
Gibbons, who was diagnosed with cancer shortly after joining the company, encountered a host of issues with the science at Theranos, but the most glaring was simple: the results were off. This conclusion soon led Gibbons to realize that Holmes’s invention was more of an idea than a reality. . .While Gibbons grew ever more desperate to come up with a solution to the inaccuracies of the blood-testing technology, Holmes presented her company to more investors, and even potential partners, as if it had a working, fully realized product. Holmes adorned her headquarters and Web site with slogans claiming, “One tiny drop changes everything,” and “All the same tests. One tiny sample,” and went into media overdrive.
There, fellow scientists, doesn’t that sound like fun? Gibbons himself attempted suicide after getting a phone call from the company that he believed meant that he was about to be fired (and died soon afterwards); the pressures that he was working under sound absolutely intolerable. The first official communication his widow got from the company afterwards was a demand that she immediately return any confidential Theranos property.
The company’s focus on secrecy is also worth noting. Here’s what the article has to say about Elizabeth Holmes’ right-hand man, Sunny Balwani (emphasis mine):
When employees questioned the accuracy of the company’s blood-testing technology, it was Balwani who would chastise them in e-mails (or in person), sternly telling staffers, “This must stop,” as The Wall Street Journal reported. He ensured that scientists and engineers at Theranos did not talk to one another about their work. Applicants who came for job interviews were told that they wouldn’t know what the actual job was unless they were hired. Employees who spoke publicly about the company were met with legal threats. On LinkedIn, one former employee noted next to his job description, “I worked here, but every time I say what I did I get a letter from a lawyer. I probably will get a letter from a lawyer for writing this.” If people visited any of Theranos’s offices and refused to sign the company’s lengthy non-disclosure agreement, they were not allowed inside.
Sounds like a productive R&D environment to me! Honestly, folks, any time you see this nobody-talk-to-anyone stuff going on in what’s supposed to be a research-driven company, it has to be a gigantic warning buzzer. You can’t work like that. You shouldn’t be expected to work like that, and anyone who thinks that it’s a good idea should be avoided.
The whole article is well worth reading, and it will increase your admiration of the Wall Street Journal‘s John Carreyrou, who broke the story of Theranos’ troubles. There’s mention of a talk that Holmes gave to the assembled employees when this all first hit the papers, a meeting that ended up in what sounds a bit like a 1984-style Two Minutes Hate directed at Carreyrou. So there’s another tip: when someone criticizes your company and the response is to chant insults in unison, some very important things have gone wrong. Run, do not walk. Save yourself while you can.