Zynga Stock Scandal Prompts "In Defense of the Google Chef"

[ Former Google chef Charlie Ayers is now a successful restaurateur in Palo Alto. ]

We won't get into the debate around Zynga's policy of getting certain employees to give up stock options [ see the original Wall Street Journal article and the response from Fortune's Dan Primack. ]

But here's how the WSJ describes the rationale behind Zynga's intention to keep certain early employees from benefiting too much from their options: "Many in Silicon Valley cite an early-hired Google Inc. cook whose stock was worth $20 million after the firm's 2004 IPO. Zynga attempted to avoid such pitfalls. In meetings last year, Zynga executives said they didn't want a 'Google chef' situation, said a person with knowledge of the discussions."

Now a blog post entitled "In defense of the Google chef"  -- a response to the WSJ article and written by early Google employee Ron Garret -- is burning up Hacker News.

Ron writes, "As someone who was there in the early days I can tell you that [chef] Charlie Ayers contributed more to Google's success that I did, and I was a senior software engineer." He also recommends readers go to Charlie's restaurant in Palo Alto, Calafia Cafe.

Among the top comments on HN siding with Ron: "My sister's a french trained chef and I've been writing software most of my life. She works probably 3X harder than any geek I know including me," writes Mark Maunder, founder and CEO of Feedjit.

Some are making the economic argument: "It’s good to be reminded of this from a standpoint of empathy, but at the same time I think it’s missing the fact of the matter: we don’t get paid more money because we work harder. That’s just a remnant of the Puritan work ethic. The economic fact is that we get paid more money because there are fewer people available to do what we do," writes Cody Robbins, a developer and founder of Define, a New York-based startup.

Here's an excerpt from Ron's blog. Read the complete post here.

In defense of the Google chef

I'm on the road with very limited internet connectivity so I can't do the homework I normally would before posting this, so it's possible that what I'm about to say is based on unreliable reporting. There is a lot of grumbling in the blogosphere in the last day or two about reports that Zynga is using strong-arm tactics to claw back employee stock options. Zynga's argument is that they don't want people who joined the company early to get disproportionately large rewards compared to someone who joined the company later but contributed more. CNET reports, citing the WSJ:

Zynga executives were especially concerned with not creating a "Google chef" scenario.

That reference relates to Google's 2004 IPO when one of the company's chefs, who was hired in the firm's early days, walked away with $20 million worth of stock after the shares went public.

This really bothers me. It presumes that a chef cannot be a significant contributor to the success of a company. As someone who was there in Google's early days I can tell you from firsthand experience that this is not true. If someone at Zynga actually did say this on the record, they owe Charlie Ayers an apology.

Working at a startup is hard. The hours are long, the stress can be brutal, and there is no guarantee of success. In fact, the odds for a raw startup (which is what Google was when Charlie joined) are very much against you. I have no idea what Google's deal with Charlie was, but typically you take a pay cut for a shot at the brass ring. Charlie didn't make $20M for cooking, he made $20M for taking the risk that the company he was joining would fail and that he could end up five years older, unemployed, and with nothing to show for his trouble.

But it is not Zynga's failure to grasp this basic fact of startup economics that bothers me, it is their singling out of Charlie in particular because he's a chef. As someone who was there in the early days I can tell you that Charlie Ayers contributed more to Google's success that I did, and I was a senior software engineer.

Continue reading here.


Ron Garret
Twitter: @rongarret
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/ron-garret/0/148/22
Blog: http://rondam.blogspot.com

Charlie Ayers
Website: http://www.chefcharlieayers.com/
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/charlie-ayers/0/1b/129
2005 New York Times profile of Charlie: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/20/business/businessspecial/20alexander.html