It seemed like such a simple proposition. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wanted Ben Ling to lie for her, and get rich doing it. Ling is — was — the director of Facebook's applications platform, which had garnered the social network much of its buzz over the past year. But he'd been supplanted by Elliot Schrage, Sandberg's PR guy, as head of the platform, and had gotten a job offer to return to Google. For the search engine, Ling's return was an invaluable PR victory, after a string of defections — including Sandberg herself. It was likewise a blow to Facebook's image; the company has lost a string of technical leaders since Sandberg started her reign of terror.So Sandberg asked Ling to lie. The fib she demanded: That he was taking a two-month vacation, not returning to Google. In exchange, she'd let him vest his shares in Facebook — a small fortune for less than a year's work. Ling, it seems, declined. His integrity was worth more than whatever Sandberg had to offer. Technically, Facebook doesn't owe Ling anything. His shares wouldn't vest until he reached his one-year anniversary. But the reality is that Sandberg, by promoting Schrage above Ling, effectively squeezed him out. And Silicon Valley companies often let departing employees keep some of their shares, even if they've been at a company under one year, to keep good relations (and sometimes, buy silence). Facebook has routinely accelerated departing executives' vesting, a maneuver which lets them keep more shares than the calendar would say they've earned. Sandberg's high-pressure tactic was a foolish overreach. She was trying to manage perceptions, and combat the idea that her version of Facebook is an inhospitable place for brilliant technical talent like Ling. Instead, she's created an even worse perception — no, rather, a reality. Joining Facebook, always a chancy venture, is more dangerous than ever. Those who take a job there now bear the risk that the manipulations of a power-grasping executive will make all their work worthless. (Poor Mike Schroepfer, who just joined the company as VP of engineering; did he have any idea what he was getting himself into?) There's another perception that now exists, as a result of Sandberg's actions: That the COO herself is a glib liar, who expects those around her to glibly lie, too. Less than a month on the job, she had underlings fibbing to Fortune for a puff-piece profile. It seems obvious in retrospect that the paeans that executives like Matt Cohler and Adam D'Angelo offered on the way out must have been fictional, too, bought by Sandberg with Facebook shares. Sandberg's explanation, tossed off with Clintonian brio: "There is no specific underlying story behind the few execs leaving our company." The key word in that sentence is "underlying," minus the "under." Silicon Valley's corps of engineers have little tolerance for dishonesty. The implicit bargain they strike with the MBAs who turn their work into money: Keep the lies over on your side. Lie to investors, partners, reporters; just don't lie to us. There's no room for lies in the world of code; software works, or it doesn't. That may be a Pollyannaish belief, but it's a common one in the idealism-choked cubicle farms which sprawl along 101. Sandberg, with her clumsy cajoling, has broken the pact. She tried to turn one of the geeks into a smiling fake, just like her. He didn't bite. One would think that with Sandberg's political training, she'd at least bring the talents of a skilled prevaricator to the Valley. Instead, the Ling affair has revealed her as the worst of both worlds: a clumsy liar.
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