Hey everyone! Mike Isaac here, a technology reporter over at the NYT and author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber – recently adapted into a series now streaming on Showtime.

I began writing about Uber in 2014, when I joined the New York Times. I watched the company during its early days as an unstoppable ride-hailing phenomenon with a near-endless war chest of billions. But by 2017 I saw the story shift as scandal after scandal poured out of Uber, rocking the company to its core and ultimately ending in the fall of its founder. A lot of my book is the story of Uber and the rise and fall of Travis Kalanick, the company's former CEO. But as I was writing it I realized the book is really about how a large part of society has fundamentally shifted its view of tech's impact on the world, and how that has dramatically changed the way companies will be built in the Valley for years to come.

In February 2022, my book was adapted into an anthology series by Billions creators, Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Kalanick, Kyle Chandler as VC-titan Bill Gurley, and Uma Thurman as entrepreneur Ariana Huffington, the series follows Kalanick’s win-at-all-costs approach to forge the fledgling start-up into a multi-billion-dollar tech titan. You may have even caught me playing myself in last night’s episode. Ask me about pitching and making the show (it involves a Twitter DM), writing the book, or any other burning tech-questions.

—Edit 12:01 pm PT/2:01 pm ET: Woof, lotta fun questions! I have to go do my actual day job now, but feel free to leave any more and i'll swing back in later this evening to try and answer some others.

Thanks all for coming and keep watching Super Pumped on Showtime!

Comments: 173 • Responses: 38  • Date: 

President_A_Banana187 karma

When is 'fake it till you make it' healthy ambition, and when is it toxic fraud? What is the line?

MikeIsaac122 karma

I really like this question!

I think everyone probably has a bit of "fake it till you make it" in them, at least until they build the confidence of finding that they're at home where they work, or wherever they need to do it. I certainly have that feeling every time I start a new job! (This is why I haven't left the NYT in like 7.5 years)

Agree there's a line, and it's difficult to see. I'd imagine the people around you begin to let you know when you've stepped over it, unless that is you've surrounded yourself with an unhealthy cohort of folks. That probably speaks to a larger company culture issue, which is hard to know until you're inside a company.

I always ask around in the Valley to get the scoop on different companies, because everyone talks around here about what it's like to work at different places. Look before you leap, I guess!

DPedia23 karma

I think it should be eliminated at every possible level and we should instead normalize healthy, reasonable standards. And I say that as a manager who hires candidates. But hey, what do I know.

MikeIsaac15 karma

Healthy, reasonable standards sounds good to me!

JacobNWolf75 karma

So I find it interesting that your forthcoming Facebook book project has already been optioned off as the next season of this Showtime run, even though the book's not completed or published.

I remember a few years ago that Jeff Maysh, who wrote the McDonald's Monopoly scam story for the Daily Beast that was optioned by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, got a lot of shit for selling work during the reporting & editing process.

Obviously books are different and your author work isn't bound by the Times or their ethical policy, but how do you feel about the practice of doing both in tangent? And more broadly, how do you think what seems to be a massive uptick in interest from Hollywood in longform stories by reporters is and will change our industry?

MikeIsaac63 karma

For what it's worth, I still stick to my NYT ethics policy while I'm doing any outside projects. It's a good rule of the road so things don't get complicated later. Plus, I really do believe in the tenets we abide by at the Times.

As far as one informing the other: I've been wanting to do a Facebook book for years now, but the time hasn't been right for one reason or another. After Super Pumped, the next project was always going to be Facebook, I just needed to take a year off to chill (and not think about writing all the time) before I dove in to the next thing.

The timing ended up working out with the showrunners, who were fortunately interested in what I was doing next. But I would have done this project regardless, if that helps answer anything.

I answered a bit of this in a different question, but I do find the surge of interest curious now, and don't think it's going away any time soon. It's very difficult to do tech shows and movies right in a way that can break things down for people in a digestible and interesting way. I think the SP showrunners did this quite well — and hired a technical consultant to get the details right — but again it's going to be interesting to see how it continues going forward.

It's on journalists, to be clear, to keep the paths separate. We aren't screenwriters, we're doing journalistic work that may or may not be adapted at some point. But adaptation should be nowhere near the forefront of one's mind while doing the work of story collection.

For me, at least, I've always tried to report and write in a visual way — people appreciate scenes, color, building rooms and meetings and situations in their mind's eye — because I think that's how people remember things. And that can ultimately lead to different ways of other people telling that story on the screen.

kt_irl63 karma

What was Travis’s reaction to the book?

MikeIsaac143 karma

He did not like it, though I didn't expect him to.

It was funny, folks I talk to who are close to him said they thought i was much fairer to him than they thought I would be, which I agree with. I thought doing the book would be a chance to give a deeper dive into what TK was like throughout the ten or so years he built the company, rather than just at his worst in 2017.

Still, can't win everyone over! Sure wish he would have talked to me for the book...

-lemonlyman-42 karma

The expansion of Uber and other gig companies is built on a strategy of (mis)classifying drivers as independent contractors and generally avoiding labor and employment law obligations at nearly any cost, including spending hundreds of millions of dollars in multiple states to exempt themselves from those laws. At the same time, many of the people who have helped them along the way have had prominent posts in the Obama administration, including David Plouffe and Tony West. How, if at all, have you seen people in the company grapple with this tension?

MikeIsaac64 karma

Very good question.

I often wonder how Dems who parachute from past administrations into tech companies square some of the ethos with what they were pushing for previously.

A few things:

  1. There is a very well-trodden and lucrative path from the White House to Silicon Valley, and that's not going to stop. Head of Comms at any big Unicorn on the path to IPO is practically always staffed by someone formerly of a presidential admin.

  2. Even post-administration Dems with a capitol D aren't all what I'd call leftists, but Obama-era Dems are far more centrist than where the party seems to be today. (Or at least some portion of the party.) Still, you don't see Robert Reich joining Doordash or whatever, so it's not for everyone!

  3. Some folks genuinely believe some of these labor models are good or at least inevitable, and sign up for what they see is the future.

  4. I think some of them like the challenge.

  5. I think a boatload of money and the fact you get to move to California instead of DC helps a lot, too.

IndianGuyMan40 karma

were there any scenes from the book that you felt would be too over-the-top or seem fake in a TV show, given how exaggerated and wacky TK and Uber's antics were IRL?

has Uber expressed any feedback on this new television program?

MikeIsaac61 karma

All of the Vegas stuff you see in the show was real. Verified by internal folks in the company.

There was an angry twitter thread from an ex-uber guy who swore up and down that he did none of that stuff, but he seemed to not realize that the company had thousands of workers and many of them got up to a lot of insane stuff on that employee outing. I had folks texting me how funny the thread was because the guy clearly had no idea what was going on.

I think part of why folks in Hollywood were attracted to the story was exactly because some of the things that happened throughout uber's history were so wild. They faced a LOT of challenges, even outside of the sphere of what went wrong inside the company in 2017, which I thought were really worth depicting onscreen. Especially the violence the drivers had to encounter in different countries.

What most folks don't understand is just how difficult it was to build this company. which I think the show gives a better idea of.

ZOdotAI39 karma

there is an interesting boom in tech series recently (the dropout, wecrashed) - why do you think this has suddenly become so en vogue?

MikeIsaac51 karma

Has been fascinating to see the adaptations flow in.

My opinion is that it's a lagging indicator of what Hollywood is doing. A few years ago they started snapping up all sorts of book intellectual property around tech and Silicon Valley.

I think 2016 was a turning point for how tech coverage from journalists became more oppositional and more about tech's more problematic effects on the world, whereas much of tech coverage before then was mostly about young whiz-kids changing the world from their dorm rooms.

This obviously makes for good dramatic arcs, from a Hollywood POV. And I think they've gotten wise to it.

What I'm more curious about is if the trend continues after this current boom. Seems to be no shortage of company flameouts and drama.

F6x31 karma

Can you share your thoughts on “walled gardens”? Whether it’s Facebook in general, or Twitter Communities, or even the “Super Pumped” audio book being exclusive to Audible and not available to local libraries, it seems we’re moving to fewer and fewer broad, shared experiences. Will that hurt us in the long run?

MikeIsaac28 karma

Great Q. I think with the rise of streaming and content like video, audio, books, etc, all of the biggest content companies are going to continue pursuing exclusives to get the exact sort of walled gardens you're referencing. Everyone wants to keep users within their own ecosystems, and usually the way to do that is to lure them in with marquee talent or exclusive shows/artists to get new signups.

I don't see this going away any time soon, if ever!

Stainless_spiel20 karma

How has being the infamous Uber/Facebook-guy impacted your work-life? Do other sources and companies treat you differently? Do you have more or less access than you did as a regular foot soldier in the NYT?

MikeIsaac45 karma

It is very weird how much my career changed after 2017. I'm proud of my work that year — I worked harder than I ever have in my life, and it was one of the most impactful and high-profile stories in tech over the past decade. And it was just the sort of insane story you always hope for as a writer.

I definitely have a reputation now around tech companies. Sometimes I do these emails to comms folks at different companies I cover with a subject line of just "can you talk?" and no body text, and get these harried phone calls back a few minutes later from PR people who are terrified I'm about to drop a haymaker of a story on them.

I will admit that is fun.

I mostly appreciate that the rep I have from my past work has really helped in future reporting. People sometimes come to me on all different sorts of companies with different tips, which I sometimes pursue and other times give them to colleagues who might be better suited to looking into it. It's really great being part of a team of other reporters who are also good at digging, and it's been a nice way to support the team overall.

ComradePalmer17 karma

Will Bruna be making a cameo appearance on the show?

MikeIsaac41 karma

Bruna sadly is too high-maintenance for a hollywood set. Her rider insisted that she had kibble on-hand 24/7 in her trailer, and "constant pets" from production assistants that needed to be hired on full time.

I told her she needs to get a less intense agent, but she never listens to me.

maybe next season....

20720716 karma

The show is incredibly disingenuous/inaccurate about the origin of the safe rides fee. Additionally, the show’s timeline is really jumbled/inaccurate as well (as it relates to Travis’ personal life, Greyball and other tactics, along with a bunch of other details about the evolution of the company). As the writer of the book off of which the show is based, what’s your reaction to that deviation from the truth?

MikeIsaac32 karma

Hey there, appreciate you watching the show and asking the question.

I can't speak to direct reasoning, but can give you my impressions just based on watching some of how they think. A lot of the choices that were made were in service of a few things:

  1. Narrative. Just squeezing in a lot of different things in a way that make them intelligible and engaging in a way that exists for TV. The book is 450+ pages long and encompasses decades of experiences, which is very difficult to put onscreen even when you've got seven episodes of time to fill.

  2. I think sprinkling in other characters is a way to do narrative exposition, a way for characters to explain where their heads are that in a book would normally be done using the authorial voice or perhaps interviews.

  3. I have had to be less precious about stamping my foot down when it comes to exact reality on every beat of the show. Part of it is just that it's based on the true story, and I do urge people to read the book if they want it all laid out chronologically and in detail. It's a dramatization, not a documentary. But I do think they capture some of the dynamics well throughout — I hope you watch through to the end, some of the later fights with other companies are instructive.

formicatile16 karma

Hey Mike!

First off, loved the book. Given the never-ending scandals and PR gaffes that Uber dealt with under Kalanick, do you think that there was any point along the way where he could have done something differently and saved his job and control over the board? Or was his ousting always inevitable given his nature and leadership style?

MikeIsaac8 karma

I often think about whether there was a different version of the future in which Travis could have changed and evolved from the one mode he seemed to exist in his entire life. But I'm not sure he'd still be the same Travis if that had happened.

ZOdotAI12 karma

what is kyle chandler like?

MikeIsaac23 karma

Absolute sweetheart. Coach Taylor vibes for sure. Spent a whole day together shooting my cameo scene and he was just a great dude to hang out with. Zero ego about him.

BooyahSquad11 karma

Can you recount what it was like to become sort of a character in the book? Specifically when writing about the impact inside the company of stories you broke, or when the board used your writing as a thread when forcing Travis out?

MikeIsaac12 karma

It was very strange and I was honestly hesitant to do it, if I'm being honest.

One thing my book editor told me was that while journalists find themselves and their experience infinitely interesting but that most normal people do not!

I couldn't avoid it because I did end up becoming a part of it, whether I liked it or not. I will say that normally I wouldn't want to be a part of the story — that's journalism 101!

kt_irl10 karma

How involved were you in adapting the book for the series?

MikeIsaac26 karma

I was fortunate enough that the showrunners asked me to be in the writers rooms, which was super fun.

I maintained my position as a journalist, though, which meant that I was basically the facts guy and explained what actually happened in reality, what different tech companies and leaders were like, etc. Basically acted as a resources based on my 12+years as a tech journalist covering Silicon Valley.

I loved how Brian, David and Beth (and the team of writers) were so curious how things are in the Valley. They brought a real spirit of learning to the whole thing, which I think they also do on Billions, their other awesome show.

I let them do the creative stuff, which is their domain. But it was very fun to watch them do it.

alexrkonrad10 karma

Did Showtime ask you to change your Twitter avatar to your real face?

MikeIsaac28 karma

if my book publishers couldn't make me do it.....

malibu_gas_station9 karma

Why did you stop arguing with Farhad? Now more seriously... Can you tell us something surprising about the NYT that isn't widely known?

MikeIsaac9 karma

I actually miss the Farhad and Mike newsletter. He hopped over to Opinion side so i'm not sure we could keep it going. (Plus we stopped when I went on leave to write the book.)

Maybe someday we could bring it back.....

cntlswvs7 karma

What do you know about Travis Kalanick's cloud kitchen business? Has he changed at all?

MikeIsaac22 karma

I hear a lot of rumors pop out of there from time to time.

He seems to be the same ol' Travis, for better or worse (depending on who you ask)! What has changed is his proclivity for press coverage. Definitely trying to stay under the radar this time.....

pants67895 karma

What's your favorite sentence you wrote in Super Pumped?

MikeIsaac25 karma

Gotta mull that one. I had a few turns of phrase that I like revisiting.

One thing that was fun was seeing them pop up in the show. Joseph Gordon-Levitt may exclaim something like "The laws don't apply when they're bullshit in the first place" and I'll be like "holy shit i wrote that!" while watching from the couch. It's surreal.

es_price5 karma

How do you assemble a research organization that enables you to create a deeply researched book?

MikeIsaac14 karma

the research organization consisted of me and a bunch of scattered documents and slowly going insane. (I had an assistant for a few months but did most of it on my own because it was hard for me to let go of control).

When i develop an actual method I'll let you know.

F6x5 karma

Hi, Mike. Can you talk about music selection for the show, specifically how heavily Pearl Jam shows up and why?

WhoTookPlasticJesus6 karma

And, more generally, just how big is their music budget? It's shocking. Beyond the surfeit of Pearl Jam they've had Priest, Queen (twice), REM, freaking "Dust in the Wind"...

MikeIsaac4 karma

Don't know the music budget but am certainly grateful for it!

MikeIsaac5 karma

Brian Koppelman has amazing musical taste (and comes from a music family background) and wanted to go heavy on Pearl Jam from the beginning. Artistic choice than I think really pays off in tone and momentum.

Beyond PJ, he really went with an array of just amazing artists from across many decades, which i think brings a depth to many scenes that wouldn't otherwise be there in simply a score alone.

boston_shua3 karma

Did your research ever take you to other gig companies? What were the similarities between the founders?

MikeIsaac7 karma

talked to a lot of "Uber for X" companies over the years. They all do seem to share an appreciation for breaking up incumbents while embracing a new (controversial) labor model.

MrSeeYouP3 karma

How long did it take you to write the book?

MikeIsaac15 karma

I agreed to do it in a year, and it ended up taking 18 months.

writing a book sucks! super hard. do not recommend.

XomokyH3 karma

Is there a pricing model that Uber could adopt that would allow them to provide adequate pay to its drivers while keeping costs low for customers?

MikeIsaac17 karma

Honestly do not know. Those seem to be fundamentally at odds. I think it would be more about finding an equilibrium of a livable wage for drivers without turning off too many riders. eventually people accept higher prices over time, though, and since the services are dominant i think customers may accept higher fares.

-Kaldore-3 karma

When someone options work from a author do you get anything in return?(royalties etc) or is it like being paid in exposure?

MikeIsaac6 karma

We get money! Usually film and TV options are not super lucrative, and few of them actually get made. When a film or show is made then more money comes into play.

Dr_Solo_Dolo2 karma

Are we going to have a sustainable self-driving car service soon?

MikeIsaac12 karma

They've been saying "within five years" for the past 10 years. So I don't expect it anytime soon.

(A.I. challenges are real, and much harder than you or I might think.)

brianfagioli2 karma

Will Bruna make a guest appearance at some point?

MikeIsaac2 karma

brian come babysit her!

saeglopur232 karma

  1. Do you take Ubers yourself?
  2. What’s Joseph Gordon Levitt like?

MikeIsaac14 karma

  1. I don't really rideshare much these days since the pandemic. Maybe once every six months, especially since I bought a car.

  2. Lovely guy. Very sharp. Very hard worker. Would work together any day of the week.

thepoopyboi2 karma


MikeIsaac3 karma

You are asking the wrong guy. But if you find out lmk.

Prandr941 karma

What time period will the facebook book cover?

MikeIsaac8 karma

keeping this one pretty close to the chest. stay tuned....

Ghezo1 karma

Any chance of an Anthony Levandowski deep dive for the sequel? I spend way too much time thinking about the intervention that precededThe Way of the Future’s shuttering.

MikeIsaac2 karma

Oh gosh, I think I'm Uber'd out. would love if someone else did one though!

5B12651 karma

That’s great and all but how’s Bruna?

MikeIsaac2 karma

she's been kinda bratty this morning tbh....

NeasM1 karma

Hi Mike.

How long have you been rocking the beard ?

MikeIsaac3 karma

since the pandemic started! it may never leave.....

joeljohnson1 karma

What's your favorite truck?

MikeIsaac4 karma

my own. come over and fix it please

ZOdotAI1 karma

who will play you in season 2?

MikeIsaac4 karma

Obviously The Rock or Vin Diesel.

Mooseymax0 karma

Hey VSauce Mike Isaac here.

Do you realise you have a slight resemblance to Vsauce’s Michael?

MikeIsaac1 karma

I have no idea who or what that is. Should I look into it?

bluekeyspew-8 karma


MikeIsaac4 karma

and yet you showed up, congrats!