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Yahoo Accused Of Raiding Workers 118

wellington map writes "Nuance Communications, a Menlo Park maker of speech-recognition software, has sued Yahoo for unfair competition and theft of trade secrets, accusing the Internet giant of raiding all but one of Nuance's research and development engineers. Nuance said 13 engineers from its Menlo Park and Montreal offices were 75 percent finished with a project that would allow people to search the Internet by speaking their queries into a telephone, rather than typing them on a computer keyboard. Nuance planned to sell the technology to companies like Yahoo."
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Yahoo Accused Of Raiding Workers

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  • ok... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gcnaddict ( 841664 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @04:07AM (#13697288)
    Its not like yahoo will benefit. All they did was screw another company over. In the end, Google will buy Nuance Comm. and life will be good :)
  • by monkaduck ( 902823 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @04:09AM (#13697291)
    This guy doesn't pay his employees enough, fails to include any clause in their contracts (if they signed any) that prohibits them from making off with tech developed under his banner, and he gets mad at Yahoo! for it? He should be mad at his former partner for setting this up. I get the feeling from the article that he didn't follow through with obvious business procedure (procuring the rights of all technology devolped by the company's employees under contract to said company). There must have been something to make everyone jump ship to Yahoo!.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 02, 2005 @04:09AM (#13697292)
    Treat your devs right and you wouldn't have this problem.
  • by wfberg ( 24378 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @04:23AM (#13697331)
    So, these people realise their on a sinking ship and get out, taking a job with another company. Apparently, conditions are bad enough that once one guy got the idea, everybody sees fit to join him. Probably they forsaw the product never getting finished, the company being unable to attract new hires, and tanking. So then the company gets in trouble, isn't able to get people to fill the positions left vacant, and who's to blame? Of course, the people who saw it all coming and got out of there; and the company that hired them..

    Would I be wrong in thinking these engineers probably warned management multiple times that they weren't happy, that their employer should be doing a better job, that they should be getting the sort of facilities they now have at yahoo? And would I be wrong in thinking their employer just shrugged and said "meh", since what do these engineersy, non-MBA type people know? In other words, that they're a really shitty employer? I think the fact they're sueing their barely ex-employees almost proves it.
  • by putko ( 753330 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @04:54AM (#13697394) Homepage Journal
    OK, for whatever reason, all your engineers desert one day.

    Do you look in the mirror and figure that you really fucked it up big? Are you really going to tell that to the shareholders --- sorry guys, I lost your company.

    No -- you reach for your lawyer, claim you got "raided" and try to build the biggest sympathy case you can.

    And if it works, when you are over, you tell folks, "I went up against Yahoo!. They got horribly dirty and tried to raid us. They succeeded in raiding 92% of the staff. But I fought back, we settled and the investors were happy. The only reason we didn't lose everything was due to my nerves of steel."
  • by sfcat ( 872532 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @05:07AM (#13697425)
    So Nuance already has a speech engine with telephony support. And they were going to tie it in with a Yahoo web service. It is both an easy thing to implement (ignoring the speech recognition for a moment) and an impractical use of the technology (from both a marketing and engineering perspective).

    The problem is accuracy of the speech recognition which is known to be less than usable. And it is expected that anyone, with no previous training of the speech recognition engine is going to be able to speak any query including proper names into a low bit rate channel (telephony) and the engine will work? I think a few people are getting the cart before the horse on this one.

    Speech recognition is really, really, really, really, really, really, really hard. And only usable under optimum conditions and when you can give the engine hints on what the user might say. Neither of which will be true for this usage of the technology. So this is a tempest in a teapot to be sure.

    And do these guys get to leave with the entire speech recongition engine? That doesn't sound right. It is Nuance's flagship product. I would imagine that Yahoo will still have to license a SR engine from Nuance (since they just merged with Scansoft) or IBM.

    And finally, why is this better than some WML or similar application designed for a phone that can leverage graphics and text on the screen? It seems that this is a complicated piece of technology looking for a problem to solve.

  • by Bad to the Ben ( 871357 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @05:34AM (#13697479)
    If they were going to allow querying of search engines via telephone, how where they going to have the results returned to the customer? Where they going to have the computer at the other end "read-out" the results? Surely that would take a large amount of processing power, be hard for the user to take in (too much information being spoken without the ability to ask to repeat, like you would with a human), and take forever (computers talk slow: "You...have...(pause) [new voice]three[/new voice] (pause) (pause) If they were planning on using it with mobile phones and displaying the results on the screen, why not just browse with WAP (or a similar tech) to Yahoo's site and search the normal way?

    Unless, of course, they meant for users to query by microphone whilst sitting at the computer. In that case, why not just use existing voice recognition software to tell your computer to go to Yahoo! and search for what you want?

    Doesn't make sense to me. IMHO, it's redundant and it's not even finished yet. I can see why the engineers left.

  • Dude, you lost! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lheal ( 86013 ) <(lheal1999) (at) (> on Sunday October 02, 2005 @06:10AM (#13697546) Journal
    Scenario: this startup approaches Yahoo to be bought out. Yahoo, being a survivor of the Bubble, feigns interest (or perhaps is genuinely interested - we may never know). Nuance previews the technology they've developed to apply search queries over the phone. Yahoo doesn't care for that particular technology, but likes the engineers. They don't like all the engineers, and they don't like the management.

    Rather than fund technology that won't fly, paying millions of dollars to a bunch of know-nothing empty suits, they decide to hire the engineers to work on something else, or on a better way to do the same thing.

    The reason we may never know whether this was an underhanded theft of technology or a bunch of valiant sailors deserting a sinking ship is that Yahoo may now offer a settlement to the Nuance suits. They'll get their money, shut up, and go away. Yahoo gets the good parts of Nuance, but doesn't have to pay really big bucks to the parasites.

    Or Yahoo could play hardball and stick to the story I've just painted. They could end up paying less to the lawyers than the Nuance suits would cost. And any publicity is good publicity.
  • by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @06:25AM (#13697574) Journal
    I've personally seen only one company before where the employees pulled a mass exodus like that, and let me tell you the boss was a _total_ asshole. He treated people like dirt. He just had to remind everyone that he's the boss and you're the peon, he pulled unreasonable demands like that everyone brings a sleeping bag and noone leaves until they're ready with some piece of software that the idiot fancied he wanted until tomorrow, he overrode any decision of those he delegated to do something, and berating was for him apparently like breathing.

    It was one experience that made me feel a _lot_ better about my own employer at the time. I mean, geesh, whatever minor complaints I had, by comparison to that asshole... ooer, I was having a dream job.

    And that's the thing that's IMHO necessary to really see an exodus like that.

    Otherwise people leave, yes, but gradually. Just being in an useless project takes some time to sap your will to go on, and it takes different time for different people. People can go on for years just being comfortable in one place. And while there's a visible minority that just jumps from job to job for more pay with no regrets, a lot of us nerds prefer not taking a risk if we don't have to. A workplace that's not quite perfect can be preferrable to plunging into the unknows. So again, any turnaround for minor grievances and boredom will tend to be slow and gradual.

    What we have here is basically a situation where everyone leaves as soon as the first one tells the others "hey guys, I got hired at Yahoo and guess what? They're hiring! Blow that joint and come over here." That tells me that they already wanted badly to leave, and probably just uncertainty kept them there.

    The wake of a dot-com bust has left a lot of people just too affraid to leave even a bad job, and has given a lot of managers the idea that they can finally be the assholes they always wanted to be. And it even works for a while. But it just begs this kind of situation to happen: it only takes one "hey guys, this other company is hiring and they're not assholes" to just remove that barrier of fear, uncertainty and doubt keeping everyone in.

    And much as I'd like to think that at least one manager has now learned a valuable lesson, he didn't. He'll blame it on Yahoo, he'll blame it on the employees, etc, and the go back to doing the same again.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 02, 2005 @06:25AM (#13697576)
    There are other ways of sending information to a mobile phone: SMS would be the logical alternative.
  • by Almost-Retired ( 637760 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @07:26AM (#13697701) Homepage
    I doubt that yahoo would be interested without more time to investigate. Who knows, maybe he was part of the problem.

    I've seen this happen before and the one who commented that it was probably slave driving management that caused the exodus is usually spot on. I mean come on now, Nuance just got bought, and these guys don't have a clue if they have a job next week. Refining your running skills just plain makes sense. As to taking their knowledge with them, as long as its not in the hardware form, and only wetware, I can't see as Nuance has a good leg to stand on.

    Cheers, Gene
  • by Tarwn ( 458323 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @08:02AM (#13697779) Homepage
    I was going to respond to one or two other posters, until I realized that about 90% didn't make it past the first section ofthe article...either that or we are reading completely differant articles...Somehow I am missing the "they should have gotten a raise", "the company was a sinking ship", "the company was looking to get bought out by Yahoo", etc comments that I have seen so far...

    Tech company that already has speech products on market and is working on better one, is bought out by competitor. VP of R&D ``began agitating for more authority'' as company is being acquired. Denied. Pissed off VP. Said VP then emails his resume and list of 13 coworkers to himself as well as a proposed organizational plan for a new R&D dept. Also starts swapping emails with Yahoo. Goes off to a job at Yahoos brand new speech lab, soon followed by all of the people on his list...

    To me this sounds like they were gutted by yahoo, but passively. It doesn't look (from this one article) that Yahoo actiavely recruited them away, but that one pissed off manager asked Yahoo to more or less bribe him, then took everyone he needed to build a new speech lab...I think, if this article portrays things acurately, that the VP is at fault, but that Yahoo might be a little complicit for accepting his plan.

    As far as the article claiming this type of litigation is "emerging over the last year", I have to disagree. Maybe it was only newsworthy for the past year, but it was going on before that. Hell, my company was sued two years ago because one of our guys got two other previous coworkers hired on. Their original company attempted to sue us, though I believe it was thrown out since we are in another field completely, didn't actively recruit them, etc. Kind of the opposite of the article in fact (even numbers wise, we hired 3 out of 30+ I think).
  • by Mostly a lurker ( 634878 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @08:12AM (#13697816)
    I have a feel for what was happening here, reading between the lines of TFA. Top management was busy negotiating a merger with ScanSoft under which they stood to make a fortune. To maximise their profit from the deal, they wanted to make the company's financials look as good as possible. So, postpone any remuneration increases for staff and any capital expenditure on new equipment. Basically, the executives could not have cared a dime for whether the staff was happy provided they got their dream deal.

    The R&D department, after bitching about what is happening for months, finds a way that they can cut themselves a much better deal. Now the executives are bent out of shape because the employees will not agree to get shafted for their benefit.

  • by hummassa ( 157160 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @08:51AM (#13697901) Homepage Journal
    Nuance had every opportunity to keep the guy (give him more control, better wages) and to keep the other guys (bump their wages, work conditions). If I had a good work relationship with my boss, and the execs were being trumping him over, and other company offered to encompass the whole team, I would go with him... especially if that meant a wage bump, and good work conditions.

    Contract work is NOT slave work. Everyone can leave at the moment he/she wants. It's the frecking JOB of a company to keep workers interested in staying.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 02, 2005 @10:13AM (#13698174)

    Firstly, it's not contract work. Second, it's at-will employment. Anyone can leave or be fired, anytime.

    The lawsuit is not about people leaving Nuance. It's about an employee colluding with his future employer to hire away an entire department at a vulnerable moment. It's a pretty serious betrayal.

    If Heck couldn't get what he wanted, fine let him go to Yahoo. But Heck bringing along the entire R&D dept in his back pocket to make his transition to Yahoo a slam-dunk is clearly going to far.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 02, 2005 @10:46AM (#13698287)
    There seems to be an increasing amount of forced retention [] in the industry, where employees get sued over leaving. Microsot seems to be doing it wholesale, and now some startups are too... Usually, if employees leave, it means that the company they left has a problem -- not that the new company is doing something wrong (although there are examples of the latter). I've seen mass exoduses where a big company wants to kill a little company, so they hire away key employees (often making up jobs). It is a way of throwing money at the problem of a startup undermining your business. Microsoft did that to Borland, if I recall correctly. I'm wondering which this is.
  • by Glonoinha ( 587375 ) on Sunday October 02, 2005 @11:34AM (#13698487) Journal
    And the moral of the story is : If your VP of R&D has an excellent working relationship with all the Senior Software Engineers working on the flagship project your company is developing (this guy is known as Enterprise Technologist where I work) - don't piss him off.

    Pretty simple.

    Lets face it - most hard core tech geeks don't work for a specific company or even a specific technology ... we work for a great alpha-technologist. I would follow my alpha-tech into a burning building and not even ask why until after the fact. Those of you that are truly happy at work know the guy I'm talking about - those of you that don't know what I am talking about are either the alpha-tech with a devoted following, or probably pretty unhappy at work.

    Sounds like Nuance should have made the guy an executive.

Forty two.