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July 22, 2015

6 shock resignations from Silicon Valley’s most controversial CEOs

After the scandal at Toshiba we investigate other strange executive exits.

By Jimmy Nicholls

The defenestration of Hisao Tanaka, the chief executive of Toshiba, is but the latest example of a technology chief executive forced out of a job in exceptional circumstances.

For Tanaka, an accounting scandal had spelled his end, in what he said "could be the biggest erosion of our brand image in our 140-year history."

The past few years have seen a number of notable corporate leaders quit or retreat from the stage in Silicon Valley or another of the world’s tech clusters. Here is a rundown of some of the more memorable examples from recent history.

1. Ellen Pao – Reddit

Perhaps the freshest example of a quitting Silicon Valley chief executive, Ellen Pao decided to resign from leading the content aggregator Reddit only this month, following a rolling controversy over the limits to free expression on the site.

Writing in a goodbye note, the woman who had risen to prominence off the back of a sexual discrimination lawsuit said: "I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly on Reddit. The good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity."

In the wake of her departure her predecessor Yishan Wong argued that Pao had in fact been defending free speech against the board, an amusing irony if true.

2. Mark Hurd – HP

HP has entertained its fair share of controversial chief executives in the past, Carly Fiorina and Leo Apotheker having both been forced out over the last decade or so after the board decided they were not up to the job.

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Yet even more controversial was the departure of Mark Hurd, now of Oracle. His five year stint at HP came to an end in 2010 when the firm learnt that Hurd had been falsifying documents to conceal a relationship with a former contractor, who had accused him of sexual harassment.

Following an investigation HP concluded that Hurd had not violated its sexual harassment policy, even if he had flouted their standards of business conduct. Even so, he had to go.

3. Larry Ellison – Oracle

For nearly 40 years Larry Ellison headed up Oracle, a tenure that left him as one of the ten wealthiest people in the world and his company one of the leading software vendors.

As such Ellison’s resignation as chief executive was always set to be a major event, at least until September when he decided that he would move into the executive chair and chief technology officer roles instead of retiring to his Hawaiian island.

Who really controls the firm is thus still open to interpretation.

4. Dick Costolo – Twitter

Dick Costolo’s abrupt departure from the executive of Twitter at the start of July came after two years of staggering net income losses, totally some $580m during 2014.

The chief executive’s tenure at the social network was marked by stalling userbase growth and controversy over harassment problems at the service. Despite this Jack Dorsey, co-founder and now interim Twitter chief executive, emphasised that the move had been Costolo’s decision.

"One thing I do want to make clear is that this transition is not the result of anything more than Dick deciding to move on from his role as CEO," Dorsey said.

5. Brendan Eich – Mozilla

Mozilla’s board would have struggled to find somebody with a better technical pedigree than Brendan Eich when it came to choosing a chief executive, the man having created JavaScript and worked with Mozilla from the start.

However his political leanings proved incompatible with the ethos of the nonprofit, and Eich’s donating to a campaign against gay marriage led to boycotts from many of the firm’s fans. He resigned in April 2014, shortly after he had taken up the role.

"Brendan was not fired and was not asked by the board to resign," Mozilla insisted in a statement. "Brendan voluntarily submitted his resignation."

6. Steve Ballmer – Microsoft

Steve Ballmer had worked at Microsoft for some 20 years prior to taking command of the world’s biggest software company in 2000, succeeding his friend Bill Gates as only its second chief executive.

Ballmer’s leadership at Microsoft has a mixed record, with many feeling it failed to grab hold of the burgeoning phone and search markets. Central to this failure was the continued focus on a new version of Windows, which Gates concentrated on between 2000 and 2006.

Arguments between the pair continued over the course Ballmer’s leadership, culminating in a dispute over his proposed purchase of Nokia in 2013. By the time he left in February 2014 he and Gates are alleged to have not been on speaking terms.

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