by Thomas Wailgum

Eight Signs of Evil in High-Tech Companies

Nov 14, 200711 mins
InnovationIT Leadership

Microsoft has been branded as immoral for years, and Google famously pledged that it would never be evil. But as many have learned, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Here are eight signposts on the path to wickedness.

We don’t ask perfection of the companies we deal with. But we all like to believe that, at least on a philosophical level, our employers, suppliers and customers are inherently good. An occasional faux pas can be pardoned (we’re all human beings, right?), but moral degeneracy is something else again. Evilness will not be tolerated.


Microsoft is no stranger to the evil moniker. (C’mon: It’s the first company you thought of, wasn’t it?) Microsoft has been called the Evil Empire, a “big bully” and “a killing machine without soul or conscience that only knows its own hunger and appetites,” though some would argue it’s softened its image of late. Oracle founder Larry Ellison reportedly said, “It’s Microsoft versus mankind, with Microsoft having only a slight lead.”

But, of course, Oracle and Ellison aren’t immune from the evil label—just ask PeopleSoft devotees. (Ellison once famously said in an issue of CIO magazine that if he were an animal, he’d be a red-tailed hawk because they only kill to eat.) Or how about SCO and those it has fought against in the courtroom? At one time, IBM was considered evil (though many might argue it has redeemed itself…sort of).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Google angelically promised that it would never be evil (“Don’t Be Evil,” to be exact). The jury, however, is still out on whether Google has been able to stick to its mantra or has become Evil 2.0.

There are several useful indicators that a company may be leaning in a malevolent direction. If you see your company doing any of these, beware: You might be working at an…evil company.

1. Arrogance Is Bliss

A wealth of arrogance does not necessarily mean your company is evil. It’s simply a necessary preexisting condition to becoming an evil enterprise.

One way in which corporate arrogance manifests itself is through the tried-and-true press release or corporate statement. The gestalt of pre-evil press releases is basically, “Hey! Look at what we’re doing! Please notice us!” or “Will pimp myself and company for publicity.” You’ll know your company has made the switch to the dark side when the PR department has no problem issuing a release that has this cooperative feel to it: “How dare anyone inquire about our alleged stock-option backdating inquiring from the SEC! Back off, stupid infidels. We know what we’re doing!”

This transformation does not happen overnight. It is bound to occur, in small increments, at most every growing company. But the evil company goes to great lengths to protect itself and to disregard outside noise. The best way to identify the relative evilness of a company is how defensively it responds to perceived threats, slights and legal actions—such as its short and dismissive pronouncements to the world.

Here are two excerpts from high-tech companies that, while they may or may not be evil, exhibit this trait. The first release is nothing if not to the point and brief: “We are not going to enter into a public debate with Fred Anderson or his lawyer. Steve Jobs cooperated fully with Apple’s independent investigation and with the government’s investigation of stock option grants at Apple. The SEC investigated the matter thoroughly and its complaint speaks for itself, in terms of what it says, what it does not say, who it charges, and who it does not charge. We have complete confidence in the conclusions of Apple’s independent investigation, and in Steve’s integrity and his ability to lead Apple.” That’s all of it, and thanks for asking!

The next one comes courtesy of a 2001 Wired article that revealed that, according to the terms of use of Microsoft’s Passport service, the company has the right to “use, modify, copy, distribute…or sell” your personal information. It turns out it was all a simple misunderstanding, said Microsoft’s PR rep. (Cough, cough.)

2. For Me to Win, You Must Lose

Rather than just displaying zealous pride in the spirit of friendly competition, evil companies knowingly try to destroy their competition by any means necessary (especially diminutive companies that do not appreciate the opportunity to join their souls with the established vendor). These companies play dirty, and they follow their own rule book. A “win-win situation” isn’t in their vocabulary.

Microsoft has been known to revel in the “I win, you lose” attitude. One such recounting of Microsoft’s past claims that “Apple wasn’t the only partner Microsoft exploited, turned on, and then tried to drive out of business. The earliest and most obvious example was IBM, which had launched Microsoft into significance as a reseller of DOS. Microsoft betrayed IBM in the development of OS/2, first by pulling out of the operating system partnership, then by canceling Office for OS/2 after shipping an initial version for it in 1992. IBM later bought up Lotus and worked to compete against Microsoft’s growing influence with Office. Microsoft responded by using its new monopoly positions to punish IBM.”

3. You Compete More Often in a Courtroom Than in the Marketplace

Suddenly, having a staffer’s father-in-law who is a part-time lawyer as your de facto in-house counsel doesn’t cut it anymore. You’ve got real legal headaches, and due to your growing importance, only a team of lawyers that could rival Mr. Burns’s scary bunch of sharks will suffice. You also find yourself agreeing with one of Mr. Burns’s quotes: “What good is money if you can’t inspire terror in your fellow man?”

The money formerly spent on innovating your products is diverted to the “legal defense slush fund.” For you, the more suits—with nasty attitudes and huge billable hours—the better. And, secretly, you get a small thrill each time your lawyer publicly responds to frivolous allegations and requests by competitors, congressmen and ex-wives.

SCO has garnered its share of notoriety for its legal battles over what it alleged as violations of SCO’s copyrights related to the Unix operating system. SCO’s PR group is something of a rarity: An entire section of its site is devoted to showing “corrections and clarifications to recently-published articles about The SCO Group,” of which there are many. In addition, it has a brief, 4,000-plus word legal FAQ that is as enjoyable to read as a root canal is to endure. A sample:

“…Section 4.16 (b) contains language that gives Novell certain limited rights to protect its royalty stream in regards to the then existing UNIX SVRX licenses. Further clarification to this is found in Amendment No. 2 Section B (5) which states, ‘This Amendment does not give Novell the right to increase any SVRX license’s rights to SVRX source code, nor does it give Novell the right to grant new SVRX source code licenses.'”

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?

4. You’re Not Joining Alliances and Coalitions Anymore—You’re the Company Forging Them

This trait doesn’t necessarily make you purely evil, but it does illustrate that you think your company’s ideas are damn fine and others should be getting in line behind them (like Dr. Evil’s sidekick, Mini Me, following him around). In turn, you and your company’s representatives make vague statements in the media and at tech conferences that imply “You’re with us, or you’re against us” to all your business peers.

Google arguably has recently embarked down this path with its OpenSocial developer environment and its Android announcement regarding its new Linux-based mobile operating platform and formation of the Open Handset Alliance. In response, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer dutifully noted that Google’s new mobile platform was nothing more than a “press release”—which seems quite appropriate.

It’s not as though Microsoft has never tried to influence computing standards. In the last few years, the company has had its run-ins with industry committees on such topics as OOXML standards and on programming language standards. We didn’t try too hard to look for other examples; we expect you could supply your own.

5. You Ignore the Customer and Bow to The Street

Companies that want to avoid Evil simply cannot forget who pay the bills, who are unfailingly loyal, who simply love your products: your customers. If your company acts as though its immediate financial needs (your stock options, for example) are more important than creating customer value and in growing that relationship, then your company is in the process of selling its soul.

Innovation and R&D are key to keeping the faith from the customer base, so what are you really doing to promote that? During 2007, many vendors in the enterprise application, middleware and business intelligence space have tap-danced on this very fine line. (Hello BEA Systems?) Beware: Evil is lurking just around the corner.

We must be fair here. If investing in R&D is a sign of goodness, we should point out that Microsoft invested something like $7 billion last year.

6. You Can’t Help Noticing That Everyone Is Stealing from You

Which is actually not the case, but reality be damned. This signpost relates to your need for a bevy of lawyers, and that’s because you know you are being attacked on all sides and you need to shore up your defenses. And what does that usually entail? Lots of overt threats, including making use of those hordes of lawyers, and perhaps you file a few patents for technologies or business processes that are your intellectual property (like, say, how you should get royalties for the qwerty keyboard configuration). Conversations that start off with statements like, “Our suppliers have been riding our coattails for too long. What should we do about it?” can be heard in your boardroom and conference rooms.

IBM’s recent attempt to patent “patent licensing” immediately jumps to mind (though IBM had the good sense to back off soon after the announcement was made).

In addition, you might suspect that all your star employees, once the lifeblood of your burgeoning enterprise, are leaving because your competitors are stealing them away to gain access to all of your most precious secrets (see: Gollum). Call the lawyers!

7. You’ve Become Much More Secretive and Thus Inspire Loads of Rumors

Your newly hired PR manager makes a lot of sense when she implores you to halt the impending “day in the life” interview for The New York Times. She strongly suggests that you not cooperate with that writer from The Wall Street Journal who’s asking tough questions about your hiring practices. You find yourself making statements like, “I’m never taking his calls again!” regarding old acquaintances, or “Why should I ever do business with you?!” to former business partners. (“And don’t even think about putting my Mom through again,” you frequently scream at your assistant.)

All of the goodwill you’ve developed over the years with suppliers, partners, vendors and journalists seems threatened-and you couldn’t care less. (Thoughts like, “I’m drunk with power and loving every minute of it!” are common.)

8. You Become Too Grandiose for the General Public

You’ve conquered the tech industry and you’ve moved on to invading pop culture. Your company’s product is a proper noun, a verb, sometimes an adjective, an expression of abundant wealth in certain social circles—and a swear word in 12 countries. You and your cofounders have way too much money (your stock price soared past $300 a share months ago), and the publicity and fawning news coverage is too much.

The fact is, your amazing success has made everyone sick of hearing about you (even while that same public readily accepts and acknowledges that your company provides a service that is exceptionally good). You may even get a little complacent. And while in your heart of hearts you believe you are not evil—and maybe you’re actually not—somebody somewhere now perceives that you are. And that person will start an anti-you website. And you will become “evil.” Let’s call this the Wal-Mart Effect.

In many cases, everyone can feel the schadenfreude that’s brewing (watch out: $600-a-share Google). Everyone, of course, except for you. Because it’s hard to feel schadenfreude looking at your new wife as you’re speeding down the freeway in your new Ferrari.

So, you’ve read our list. Which signs did we leave out? And which evil companies did we neglect to mention? Let us know.