Protocol | Workplace

Meet the tech companies that don’t keep secrets

These tech companies think the best defense against criticism is radical transparency, but experts warn against "transparency theater."

Levels Co-founder and CEO Sam Corcos

Sam Corcos, co-founder and CEO of health startup Levels, believes the greatest weapon a company has against criticism is transparency.

Photo: Levels

This week as journalists pored over the Facebook Papers, it became increasingly clear that the social media giant has been harboring serious secrets. While Facebook attempted to release some internal documents before the press could, the company's defenses were no match for Frances Haugen. But what if in today's tech world, the best defense against all the scrutiny and criticism is no defense at all?

Sam Corcos, co-founder and CEO of health startup Levels, believes the greatest weapon a company has against criticism is transparency. Corcos, for one, has nothing to hide. A self-proclaimed open book, he carries his personal philosophies on transparency into the way he governs his company. "When you can see on the inside, we're not hiding anything," he told Protocol. "We're not holding anything back."

Levels is one of a few tech companies that live by the notion of radical transparency. The company posts weekly team meetings, strategy documents and investor updates online, where you can see everything from revenue numbers and fundraising targets to hiring plans and web traffic, albeit with a 12-month delay.

It's a startling approach in the wake of public fights between private information and the public's right to know. In the age of tech scandals and the Facebook Papers, is radical transparency the answer?

You still need some secrets

Levels doesn't put just anything out into the ether. There's still information the company won't release, such as "time sensitive information, pending agreements and announcements, people in our hiring pipeline, etc." the team wrote in their transparency strategy, released publicly in February of this year.

Even with these constraints Levels has lost investors who felt the company was being overly disclosive and even negligent. But Corcos isn't afraid of this. "We're not looking to convince people that transparency and honesty is important. If they're not on board with that, then that's fine, we'll find the ones that are and we'll go from there," he said.

Not everything Levels does release is raw, unfiltered or unedited. In its transparency strategy the team also wrote that documents should be scrubbed and receive buy-in from the author and all contributors before being made public. "I would say, once a quarter we have to edit something in a video or document," Corcos said. And when it does happen, it's usually related to issues around data privacy, such as mentioning a member's name.

Working in a panopticon

Internally, Level's ideals of transparency didn't immediately resonate with everyone. "Getting our culture to this point was a struggle internally," said Corcos. "People fought it every step of the way."

One of the biggest opponents was Corcos' own co-founder, David Flinner. In the spirit of openness, Levels allows the public to see the team's thoughts, objections and concerns to their own transparency strategy. Flinner, who was against the move to transparency, wrote that "there needs to be space to be open and not feel like your name & everything else will be live streamed to the world."

(Update: After this story was published, Levels made its Team Thoughts page private.)

Mike Ananny, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California, agrees that the relationship between transparency and privacy can be complicated. He noted how Google has a "pretty powerful surveillance system" that can track when you open specific documents. In those cases, Ananny said, "If I know that somebody knows when I open that document, I might think twice about leaving that trail."

Levels Co-founder David Flinner Levels Co-founder David FlinnerPhoto: Levels

Michael Mizrahi, the head of operations at Levels, wrote on Notion that making a document public, even after a delay, essentially makes it non-private to begin with. "If you know that unknown others can or will see the space, whether in that moment or later on, this is no different from a panopticon," he wrote.

Corcos claims transparency wasn't a dealbreaker for most employees. "I can say that there were only maybe three people at our company who don't want to be reported, or have their information shared publicly," he said.

Levels employees did raise some notable objections however, particularly when it came to confidential information slipping out or being taken out of context. Corcos knows that a mistake is going to happen at some point, but he's not overly concerned. "What I hope is that we will have enough information available, that people who are knowledgeable can clearly see that whoever is misrepresenting us is doing so in bad faith," he said.

The threat of regulatory scrutiny doesn't seem to phase Corcos either. At the same time he acknowledges the very real fear that out of thousands of documents, a regulator could hone in on one where there's a mistake or someone misspoke, and then have the attitude of, "It doesn't matter, we found the one quote, we're gonna pin them to the wall," he said.

Still, Corcos believes that context is his protection. "Being transparent insulates you from criticism born of lack of context because the context is fully available for anyone to see," he wrote in a blog post.

Hailley Griffis, head of public relations at Buffer, a social media management company that is also radically transparent, agrees. When it comes to incidents or challenges the company faces, customers aren't "judging us based on that one incident, they're judging us based on overall how they know us as a company, and the trust that we've built over time," she said.

Buffer releases information on diversity and salaries and even posts their product roadmap on a public Trello board. The idea for a public spot where users could comment on product ideas online came from Trello itself, who also hosts its product roadmap online. Another thing the company is willing to share – even when it's damning – is internal research. In a report, Buffer shared that in terms of uncontrolled numbers, men were paid almost $10,000 more than women in 2016. Rather than hide it, they posted it for everyone to see. The gap has shrunk considerably since then, but "we've done work over many years of improving that number, and I think transparency is part of that," Griffis said. "External accountability is some pretty powerful accountability."

While transparency is great, it can be overstated. Ananny for one, is wary of "transparency theater," where companies release information that isn't necessarily impactful or beneficial in the vein of being transparent. He's also skeptical of information that isn't timely or doesn't provide enough information to make decisions. "It needs to be meaningful transparency, it can't just be transparency as theater or as performance," he said. Ananny still thinks the tech industry should be more transparent, "but it's not sufficient," he said. "It's potentially a red herring in a way."

Through the looking glass

As private companies, Levels and Buffer don't owe it to anyone to be so transparent.

Mizrahi said as much in a post on Notion. If Levels were a public institution, they would owe it to the public to not keep secrets unnecessarily, "but we're a private company and don't owe this looking glass to anyone outside of our team/investors," he wrote.

Though there's no obligation, Ananny does believe the public has the right to know about some private information. "The kind of transparency we need from [Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon] is fairly massive and needs to be tied across different pieces of what they do," said Ananny. But there are smaller companies that should be transparent too, he says. He gave the example of a company with access to health data, and how they should provide visibility into the ways they use consumer information. "So that's a different kind of transparency than a massive behemoth like Facebook or Google," he said.

The risks of transparency can increase dramatically with scale. Corcos knows that at Levels, upholding his value of radical transparency may become more difficult as the company grows. He knows that if it were a larger tech company like Google, things would already be vastly different. "People are paying attention to the things that Google is doing. Nobody is paying attention to what we're doing," he said.

No one may be paying attention now, but what happens when they do? As companies grow the level of criticism and scrutiny rightfully increases. And when that happens, the temptation to keep secrets may increase. But the bigger the secret is, the harder the fall.

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