How Silicon Valley's star engineer earned himself 18-months prison time?
Anthony Levandowski was once Silicon Valley's most sought-after engineer, all thanks to his enviable resume. This week, he fell from grace and was handed over eighteen months of prison time by a court in the United States for stealing trade secrets from Google. His story now serves as a cautionary tale, with he himself asking young engineers to not tread on his path.
Levandowski's career was equal parts dreamy and inspiring. Having obtained a Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from the University of California, Berkley, he was hired by Google X in 2007. In 2009, he became one of the co-founders of Google's self-driving project, internally named Project Chauffeur. This project came to be known as Waymo.
When he was with Google, Levandowski was blessed with unprecedented favors, including a $120 million bonus. He also shared a wonderful equation with co-founder Larry Page. In 2016, after a splendid run, Levandowski left Google to start Otto, a self-driving truck start-up. In this new phase, three Google veterans — Lior Ron, Claire Delaunay, and Don Burnette — joined him.
In 2016, the engineer sold Otto to Uber for $600 million, but soon after that, a story of betrayal surfaced, one spun by Levandowski. Waymo, Google's brainchild, sued Uber in 2017 accusing the latter of stealing trade secrets to bolster its self-driving project. The two companies reached a settlement with Uber handing over $245 million to Waymo. Uber assured to let Google's secrets be.
The consensus between Uber and Google didn't mean that Levandowski got a clean chit. Waymo filed a separate case against him alleging that he illegally poached employees. Further, federal prosecutors said that Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files from Google before exiting the company. He faced 33 charges of theft/attempted theft but pleaded guilty to only one count, saying he downloaded files for "personal use."
This March, a San Francisco County court directed Levandowski to pay $179 million to Google, but he filed for bankruptcy saying his assets would be somewhere between $50-100 million. Then on Tuesday, one of the most high-profile criminal cases of Silicon Valley concluded with a federal judge handing him over 18 months' prison time, nine months less than what the DA's office had recommended.
District Judge William Alsup said this was the biggest trade secret crime he ever saw. Calling Levandowski a "brilliant engineer," Alsup said he failed to understand why the 40-year-old did so. He ordered that Levandowski should impart "Why I went to federal prison" speeches to the public. In a letter to Alsup, he said the last few years of grueling legal battle taught him humility.
Last week, Levandowski's lawyers came up with a way to save him the embarrassment of going to prison. "He proposes to offer himself as an object lesson in 'what not to do,' by candidly sharing the story of his misdeeds," the lawyers said in a filing, but Waymo pressed for harsh punishment. Reportedly, Levandowski will serve his time when the coronavirus crisis gets over.
As his long and disrespectful battle ended, Levandowski said, "Today marks the end of three and a half long years and the beginning of another long road ahead. I'm thankful to my family and friends for their continued love and support during this difficult time."