The data science community is reeling after data science learning startup DataCamp penned a blog post acknowledging that an unnamed company executive made “uninvited physical contact” with one of its employees.
DataCamp, which operates an e-platform where aspiring data scientists can take courses in coding and data analysis is a startup valued at $184 million. It has additionally raised over $30 million in funding.
The company disclosed in a blog post published on 4th April that this incident occurred at an “informal employee gathering” at a bar in October 2017. The unnamed DataCamp executive had “danced inappropriately and made uninvited physical contact” with the employee on the dance floor, the post read.
The company didn’t name the executive involved in the incident in its post. But called the executive’s behavior on the dance floor “entirely inappropriate” and “inconsistent” with employee expectations and policies.
When Buisness Insider reached out to one of the course instructors OS Keyes familiar with this matter, Keyes said that the executive in question is DataCamp’s co-founder and CEO Jonathan Cornelissen.
Yesterday Motherboard also reported that the company did not adequately address sexual misconduct by a senior executive there and instructors at DataCamp have begun boycotting the service and asking the company to delete their courses following allegations.
What actually happened and how did DataCamp respond?
On April 4, DataCamp shared a statement on its blog titled “a note to our community.” In it, the startup addressed the accusations against one of the company’s executives: “In October 2017, at an informal employee gathering at a bar after a week-long company offsite, one of DataCamp’s executives danced inappropriately and made uninvited physical contact with another employee while on the dance floor.”
DataCamp got the complaint reviewed by a “third party not involved in DataCamp’s day-to-day business,” and said it took several “corrective actions,” including “extensive sensitivity training, personal coaching, and a strong warning that the company will not tolerate any such behavior in the future.” DataCamp only posted its blog a day after more than 100 DataCamp instructors signed a letter and sent it to DataCamp executives.
“We are unable to cooperate with continued silence and lack of transparency on this issue,” the letter said. “The situation has not been acknowledged adequately to the data science community, leading to harmful rumors and uncertainty.”
But as instructors read the statement from DataCamp following the letter, many found the actions taken to be insufficient.
I stand with Kara Woo and I support the Rstats & broader data science community in taking a strong stance on this critical issue. I am deeply saddened that the community has not yet been sufficiently listened to by DataCamp. 1/
— Hugo Bowne-Anderson (@hugobowne) April 23, 2019
As a former employee, I echo Hugo’s feelings. I too am disappointed in the DataCamp leadership team’s handling of this. I am hopeful that they will take substantial action to rebuild the community’s trust and make amends for the harm done. https://t.co/QBlULOfYfw
— Nick Solomon (@NickSolomon10) April 23, 2019
Motherboard reported this case in detail taking notes from Julia Silge, a data scientist who co-authored the letter to DataCamp. Julia says that going public with our demands for accountability was the last resort.
Julia spoke about the incident in detail and says she remembered seeing the victim of the assault start working at DataCamp and then leave abruptly. This raised “red flags” but she did not reach out to her. Then Silge heard about the incident from a mutual friend and she began to raise the issue with internal people at DataCamp.
“There were various responses from the rank and file. It seemed like after a few months of that there was not a lot of change, so I escalated a little bit,” she said. DataCamp finally responded to Silge by saying “I think you have misconceptions about what happened,” and they also mentioned that “there was alcohol involved” to explain the behavior of the executive. DataCamp further explained that “We also heard over and over again, ‘This has been thoroughly handled.’”
But according to Silge and other instructors who have spoken out, say that DataCamp hasn’t properly handled the situation and has tried to sweep it under the rug.
Silge also created a private Slack group to communicate and coordinate their efforts to confront this issue. She along with the group got into a group video conference with DataCamp, which was put into “listen-only” mode for all the other participants except DataCamp, meaning they could not speak in the meeting, and were effectively silenced.
“It felt like 30 minutes of the DataCamp leadership saying what they wanted to say to us,” Silge said. “The content of it was largely them saying how much they valued diversity and inclusion, which is hard to find credible given the particular ways DataCamp has acted over the past.”
Following that meeting, instructors began to boycott DataCamp more blatantly, with one instructor refusing to make necessary upgrades to her course until DataCamp addressed the situation. Silge and two other instructors eventually drafted and sent the letter, at first to the small group involved in accountability efforts, then to almost every DataCamp instructor. All told, the letter received more than 100 signatures (of about 200 total instructors).
A DataCamp spokesperson said in response to this, “When we became aware of this matter, we conducted a thorough investigation and took actions we believe were necessary and appropriate. However, recent inquiries have made us aware of mischaracterizations of what occurred and we felt it necessary to make a public statement. As a matter of policy, we do not disclose details on matters like this, to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.”
“We do not retaliate against employees, contractors or instructors or other members of our community, under any circumstances, for reporting concerns about behavior or conduct,” the company added.
The response received from DataCamp was not only inadequate, but technologically faulty, as per one of the contractors Noam Ross who pointed out in his blog post that DataCamp had published the blog with a “no-index” tag, meaning it would not show up in aggregated searches like Google results. Thus adding this tag knowingly represents DataCamp’s continued lack of public accountability.
OS Keyes said to Business Insider that at this point, the best course of action for DataCamp is a blatant change in leadership.
“The investors need to get together and fire the [executive], and follow that by publicly explaining why, apologising, compensating the victim and instituting a much more rigorous set of work expectations,” Keyes said.
#Rstats and other data science communities and DataCamp instructors take action
One of the contractors Ines Montani expressed this by saying, “I was pretty disappointed, appalled and frustrated by DataCamp’s reaction and non-action, especially as more and more details came out about how they essentially tried to sweep this under the rug for almost two years,” Due to their contracts, many instructors cannot take down their DataCamp courses. Instead of removing the courses, many contractors for DataCamp, including Montani, took to Twitter after DataCamp published the blog, urging students to boycott the very courses they designed.
Please don't take or pay for my @DataCamp course. The company let its executive off the hook for sexual misconduct. We can't change behavior without incentives, and for companies those incentives are financial. https://t.co/UlTFXdoI6B #python #rstats #datascience #MeToo
— Noam Ross (@noamross) April 12, 2019
I was so proud & excited to be mere *days* away from my 1st #DataCamp course being hard-launched! After learning about the organization's actions 🤬I have asked for my course to be withdrawn & my contract terminated. I'm waiting for a response & very unsure of the legalities.
— Danielle Quinn (@daniellequinn88) April 15, 2019
I was developing a course, but have indefinitely suspended development until the leadership makes a big change in their behavior. More honesty, transparency, and accountability are what I asked for before resuming development. @DataCamp #python #rstats
— Nate George (@_tetration_) April 18, 2019
Instructors put financial pressures on the company by boycotting their own courses. They also wanted to get the executive responsible for such misbehaviour account for his actions, compensate the victim and compensate those who were fired for complaining—this may ultimately undercut DataCamp’s bottom line. Influential open-source communities, including RStudio, SatRdays, and R-Ladies, have cut all ties with DataCamp to show disappointment with the lack of serious accountability..
CEO steps down “indefinitely” from his role and accepts his mistakes
Today Jonathan Cornelissen, accepted his mistake and wrote a public apology for his inappropriate behaviour. He writes, “I want to apologize to a former employee, our employees, and our community. I have failed you twice. First in my behavior and second in my failure to speak clearly and unequivocally to you in a timely manner. I am sorry.”
He has also stepped down from his position as the company CEO indefinitely until there is complete review of company’s environment and culture. While it is in the right direction, unfortunately this apology comes to the community very late and is seen as a PR move to appease the backlash from the data science community and other instructors.