DataCamp CEO steps down indefinitely in wake of 'inappropriate behavior'

Following an uproar in the R community over what was seen as an inadequate response by the company — including increasing calls to avoid the platform — the CEO and its board spoke out today.

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Twitter / Getty Images

DataCamp CEO Jonathan Cornelissen is stepping down "indefinitely" in the wake of "uninvited physical contact" with an employee in 2017. The move comes after an uproar in the R community over what was seen as an inadequate response by the company and no punishment or consequences to the executive.

In an apology posted earlier today, Cornelissen said the company will establish an Instructor Advisory Board, and an independent third party will conduct "a full review of the company’s environment and culture, including its response to the incident."

Instructors had been working behind the scenes for months to get the company to acknowledge the incident internally and ensure that the executive faced some penalty for his actions. After a letter was sent to management that was signed by 100 or so instructors, DataCamp published a public blog post from "the DataCamp Leadership team." However, instructors and others in the community viewed that as inadequate.

Among the criticisms at the time: There was no apology to the victim, the victim had not been notified before the public statement, no one at the company took personal responsibility for what happened, and for days the post had a "noindex" tag to prevent search engines from showing the post in their results.

Calls to boycott the platform had been growing, and organizations such as RStudio and satRdays said they were cutting ties with DataCamp, at least temporarily. Numerous instructors went public asking people not to take their courses; and most recently several employees went on social media expressing concerns to the community.

DataCamp's Board of Directors issued a statement today as well, noting: "Our public response and this first official statement from the Board regarding this incident is long overdue. We are sorry for this delay." The incident occurred in October 2017;  management was made aware of it more than a year ago.

"We have learned a lot from the community over the last several weeks and recognize that the company hasn’t listened nearly enough to you over the last 18 months," the board said in the statement, noting that Cornelissen will be on an indefinite leave without pay.

The board also said it has hired civil-rights attorney Anurima Bhargava, who has "specific expertise on sexual harassment and climate assessments, to conduct a full review of the company's environment and culture."

One of the criticisms of the company's initial statement was that it said there had been a review "by a third party not involved in DataCamp's day-to-day business." That was seen by many as the possibility that an investor not involved in day-to-day activities — but who might be naturally sympathetic to management — could have conducted the review.

Noam Ross, one of the first freelance instructors to ask people not to take his DataCamp course, is not yet convinced by today's statements. He is also weighing the many months that instructors felt their legitimate and pressing concerns were ignored.

"After too long and only after enormous pressure from the community they built their company on, DataCamp turned a bit in the right direction," he said in an emailed statement. "We'll see if they can move that way. Any true reckoning will involve not just the CEO's actions, but every decision made afterwards to minimize them and sweep sexual misconduct under the rug. They are far from restoring trust. DataCamp has lost some of us permanently, and the rest are watching closely."

Julia Silge, a freelance instructor who led the effort to send the joint letter to DataCamp management, also expressed caution.

"I am not sure who DataCamp is planning to invite to this proposed Instructor Advisory Board," she said by email. "To have any credibility, this group of instructors would need to be trusted by the broader data science community. Many people who fit that description currently have experienced months of undermining frustration from DataCamp’s leadership."

She had outlined those frustrations earlier this month in a blog post, Writing a Letter to DataCamp.

The victim, Kara Woo, is a well-known and well-liked member of the R community. She acknowledged on Twitter after DataCamp's initial post that she had been the target. The company did not name the executive until today, although at least one blog post and one media report did so last week.

Woo told Computerworld last week: "All I have to say currently is that I am very moved by the outpouring of support, and I hope anyone else in a similar situation knows that people in this community will have their back." 

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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