Rob Cox: Parsing the short life of Dave Goldberg

By Rob Cox
May 12, 2015

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. 

Reactions to the untimely death of Dave Goldberg say a lot about Silicon Valley. Though I never met the chief executive of SurveyMonkey, the near-universal outpourings of emotion since his tragic death a little over a week ago in a treadmill accident suggest he was sui generis. Eulogies from friends, poker buddies, fellow technology luminaries and accomplished journalists – not to mention the president of the United States – also tell a bigger story about the world he inhabited.

According to the accolades, Goldberg gave generously of his wealth and time, was a helpful source to many and acted as a mentor to young executives. Most importantly, he managed somehow also to be a great dad and the sort of husband that puts the rest of us to shame, helping buttress the career of his successful wife, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and author of the bestseller “Lean In.”

Compare it, say, to the tributes paid to Steve Jobs, whose ingeniousness, intuition and leadership were admired far more than anything that could be considered warm and fuzzy. The contrast is one reason why Goldberg’s youth – he was 47 – and marital affiliation can only explain part of the unusual expressions of emotion from the tech community that followed his passing. Is it possible Goldberg stands out as a uniquely good soul because the characteristics he exhibited are in such short supply in today’s Silicon Valley ecosystem?

That isn’t to diminish at all Goldberg’s accomplishments. As an entrepreneur, he grew SurveyMonkey to more than 450 employees and a $2 billion valuation. He also managed to inculcate a positive work culture that his friend, Adam Grant, a celebrated Wharton professor, praised in a LinkedIn post last week: “Dave built that culture by example. His helpfulness, inquisitiveness, and joy were contagious. His employees wanted to be like him.”

His professional instincts were similarly lauded, including by leading venture capitalists. “I loved chatting with him, particularly about business and Silicon Valley,” wrote Bill Gurley, of Benchmark Capital, where Goldberg worked briefly before taking over SurveyMonkey. “If we were ever on different pages, I wanted to sort it out right then and there. I never wanted to be executing a plan that cut against his better judgment.”

And in his personal life, Goldberg proved to be a standup guy to those who knew him. A fellow Midwesterner, Twitter Chief Executive Dick Costolo, said Goldberg was “one of the truly great people on the planet” and an “almost unimaginably remarkable character.” Barack Obama said “he was generous and kind with everybody, and cared less about the limelight than making sure that the people he worked with and loved succeeded in whatever they did.”

Goldberg may be remembered more widely for being the husband of one of the world’s highest-profile female executives, a tireless advocate for equal gender opportunity in the workplace. For many of his male peers, Goldberg’s support of Sandberg’s extraordinary achievements set him apart. Jason Calacanis, an angel investor, summed up the sentiment this way: “He was a better friend, a better husband, a better father, a better leader, and a better person than all of us — and we knew that.”

Without taking anything away from Goldberg’s legacy, it’s hard not to wonder if his mensch status has resonated so strongly in the collective minds of technologists and their backers because they work among so few of them. The industry’s loudest voices project a brashness, ruthlessness and immodesty that often eclipse the endemic idealism. They are people like Marc Andreessen, who in a New Yorker magazine profile published this week posed the rhetorical question: “Would the world be a better place if there were fifty Silicon Valleys?” so that he could confidently reply, “Obviously, yes.” Goldberg, from the sound of it, was something of an anti-Andreessen.

As Silicon Valley matures from a collection of startups upending the existing order and its many regulatory burdens to become the new establishment, it will need more empathetic leaders like Goldberg. That surely has been one of the lessons learned on Wall Street over the past few decades, and in earnest since the financial crisis of 2008.

There are many good and giving people working in the cradle of technological innovation who really do believe they are making the world a better place with their software, apps and gadgets, just as there are in the worlds of banking and investing. Even West Coast denizens who admittedly didn’t know Goldberg well, however, were aware of how rare a figure he was.

“Dave Goldberg – his generosity, his decency, his kindness – set an example that candidly we just don’t see enough in the Valley,” said Roger McNamee, the co-founder of both Silver Lake Partners and Elevation Partners, last week on CNBC. “The Valley has, shall we say, a very large number of hard personalities and I think frankly the role models have been very poor. And Dave was the best role model in the Valley by a mile. And the notion that he was the one we would lose early is tragic … Candidly, I don’t know who we’re supposed to look for the role model now.”

The best way to memorialize Goldberg’s life would be to reflect on the question of why there aren’t more like him. Then go out and disrupt that status quo.

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I have to believe DG was not the only mensch in Silicon Valley. Time for a few more to step up and lead. Right now, the d*uchebags seem to be running the show.

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