Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: The Big Lie

I recently got done reading The Big Lie: Spying, Scandal, and Ethical Collapse at Hewlett Packard. I enjoyed it for a couple reasons which I’ll get into in a minute.

The Big Lie is a behind-the-scenes account of the “Spygate” scandal that rocked Hewlett-Packard a few years back, and resulted in stepping down of Patty Dunn, the chairman of the board, not to mention criminal prosecution, senate hearings, and all kinds of other goodies.

The Spygate scandal in a nutshell is this: The HP board, in trying to find the source of several leaks to the press of confidential information, authorized a number of security investigations to be conducted by their own security personel as well as some outside contractors. Some of these folks used methods for obtaining phone records and other information that were at minimum highly unethical, and at worst illegal. The information about the investigation became public after a disgruntled board member decided to inform the press. Before any explanation could be proferred, the media had framed the story assuming the worst and from that point it was no longer possible to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Its important to note that this is an accounting of the story from one point of view, one sympathetic to Patty Dunn. In this one she’s painted as the board chair that tried to institute modern day governance on HP’s board, and that stopping leaks was part of that. From that point, it was part putting trust in others, part not sufficiently monitoring methods used by underlings and contractors, and one part trusting her cohorts even as they were stirring the tar and buying feathers by the bagful.

Other books exist on the subject. Tom Perkins has one out that paints him as the board member whos moral compass impelled him to blow the whistle. The Big Lie paints him as a vindictive bully who’s disagreements with Dunn led him to wanting to destroy her. Other accounts paint CEO Mark Hurd as being distant from the workings of the investigation, where The Big Lie paints him as an intimately involved player who fed Dunn to the wolves to save his own skin.

I’m not sure which account is accurate, though The Big Lie seems very well researched. Chances are that all three of these players has their own version of the truth and that the real truth lies somewhere in between. No matter though, because the book has value regardless who’s story you believe. Here’s why:

1 – It’s a great view into the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) politics that take place on a board of directors. There are detailed quotes from email passages back and forth, along with interview commentary about why certain things were said or how they were phrased, etc.

2 – It’s a good lesson in how – especially in the age of the Internet – a media spark or two of a story can start a firestorm that is out of control. Having been involved in a few (far less serious than this one!) PR damage control exercises, this one gave me the heeby jeebies!

3 – Most of all, it’s a fascinating look at how highly professional, seemingly ethical people can embark on a well-intentioned course that inch-by-inch one day results in them on the other side of the law, or at least clearly on the side of wrong. It made me think about some people I’ve known that have gotten divorced. They start out as loving each other and well intentioned, and slide down a slope a bit at a time until one day they are hating each other and you wonder “how could they have come to this?”. Anyhow, it’s an interesting look at this facet of people’s character and behavior.

Overall, a good read and recommended for those interested in these types of topics.

No comments: