Tech by VICE

DataCamp Teachers Boycott Their Own Classes Following Sexual Misconduct by Executive

Instructors say that the online data science learning platform has failed to meaningfully address an incident that happened at a company gathering in 2017.

by Arielle Gordon
Apr 22 2019, 7:59pm

Image: Shutterstock

Instructors at DataCamp, an online data science learning platform, have begun boycotting the service and asking it to delete their courses following allegations that the company did not adequately address sexual misconduct by a senior executive there. Following months of failed attempts at accountability, many instructors are publicly asking prospective data science students to not take their courses, which, per their contracts, are hosted on DataCamp’s platform in perpetuity.

For those interested in data science—be it knowledge of data analytics or specialized language skills like Python and R—online courses have been a decidedly reliable path to a career in the field. DataCamp, founded in 2014, was one of several successful startups built around this desire for data education, offering more than 200 courses and, along the way, raising more than $30 million dollars. But many instructors say the company’s mishandling of sexual assault perpetrated by a company executive has complicated their relationship to the company.

On April 4, DataCamp shared a statement on its blog titled “a note to our community.” In it, the startup addresses 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.” After the complaint was reviewed by a “third party not involved in DataCamp’s day-to-day business,” DataCamp 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.”

In fact, the company posted its blog a day after more than 100 DataCamp instructors signed a letter that they sent 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.”

The letter did not identify the executive, and DataCamp has also not publicly identified the executive. Several instructors who have spoken out about DataCamp’s response to the situation have named the executive but Motherboard has thus far been unable to independently verify the specifics of the sexual misconduct.

The letter also outlined steps that DataCamp could take to regain the trust of instructors, namely, “a public acknowledgment of past harm done (without identifying individuals), affirming that DataCamp does not tolerate sexual misconduct, and summarising the actions the company has taken to prevent further problems.”

But as instructors read the statement from DataCamp following the letter, many found the actions taken to be insufficient.

“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,” one contractor, Ines Montani, told Motherboard via Twitter DM. Due to their contracts, many instructors cannot take down their DataCamp courses. But in lieu 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.

“I'm in the very fortunate position that money wasn't my main motivation for building the course, and I am able to give up all my future royalties [from DataCamp],” Montani acknowledged. She, like many, was contacted by an acquaintance asking her to create material for DataCamp, based on her experience developing the popular Python library spaCy. For Montani, the choice to make her course available off the DataCamp platform was a no-brainer.

“My contract only granted DataCamp a non-exclusive license to my content, so it was still mine and I thought, why not just self-publish it?” she said. She also created open source software for other instructors to publish free versions of their course materials.

Other contractors, like Os Keyes, gave up a significant source of income by speaking out against DataCamp.

“I'm a graduate student, and the DataCamp royalties were a non-trivial amount of the money I use to cover medical costs,” they told Motherboard via email. By boycotting their own courses, Keyes said they also wanted to “put financial pressure on the company, and in doing so make clear to them that not turfing the [executive] responsible—getting him to account for his actions, compensate the victim and compensate those quite clearly fired for complaining—is ultimately going to undercut their bottom line.”

Julia Silge, a data scientist who co-authored the letter to DataCamp, said that going public with these demands for accountability was a last resort.

“We have personal relationships with people internal at DataCamp, and it is not our first choice that those people's careers are damaged,” she told Motherboard. “We're proud of courses we made, and we think it's good content.”

But Silge said it was one of the only options after months of failed attempts at meaningfully engaging in accountability processes with DataCamp. Silge remembered seeing the victim of the assault start working at DataCamp and then leave abruptly, which raised “red flags” but did not lead her to reach out.

But after she heard about the incident from a mutual friend, Silge began to raise the issue with people internal 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. Silge said when she finally did hear back, DataCamp responded by saying “I think you have misconceptions about what happened,” and eventually by adding that “there was alcohol involved” to explain the behavior of the executive. “We also heard over and over again, ‘This has been thoroughly handled.’”

But those who have spoken out say that DataCamp hasn’t properly handled the situation and has tried to sweep it under the rug. Silge said she also began to experience personal ramifications for her affiliation with DataCamp: “I have people I don't know, strangers, come up to me at conferences and say, ‘Hey, you're associated with DataCamp, I heard something bad happened there, what was it?’”

Silge said around November of last year, she and several other DataCamp affiliates made a private Slack group to communicate and coordinate their efforts. Eventually, frustrated with the responses they received from one-on-one conversations with DataCamp, they suggested a group video conference, to which DataCamp eventually agreed in late February of this year. But when they signed on to the virtual meeting, Silge said every participant except DataCamp was put into “listen-only” mode, meaning they could not speak in the meeting, and were effectively siloed, only able to see questions that they typed into the chat.

“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).

“When we became aware of this matter, we conducted a thorough investigation and took actions we believe were necessary and appropriate," a DataCamp spokesperson said. "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.

When instructors saw DataCamp’s response, they not only found it inadequate, but technologically telling: as contractor Noam Ross pointed out in a blog post, DataCamp had published the blog with a “no-index” tag, meaning it would not show up in aggregated searches like Google results. To many, that tag represented DataCamp’s continued lack of public accountability.

“The ‘no-index’ tag is in line with what I have experienced from DataCamp in the past year,” Silge said.

In a phone call, a company spokesperson told Motherboard that the company believed that it initially handled the situation properly but because of the pressure from its instructors said it will be making more public statements sometime in the next two days. The company declined to tell Motherboard whether there would be any consequences for the executive involved or whether it would allow instructors to take their courses offline.

At this point, Os Keyes said, 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.

Silge said the path forward with DataCamp is less clear.

“Six months ago, I would have said, ‘They need to communicate their values,’ and I wonder—have they done that this whole time?”