Eileen Burbidge, arguably one of the most prominent figures in the UK tech scene, has shed light on why she was fired by Skype in its early days, after just over a year at the company.
Burbidge, a London-based venture capitalist with close ties to the UK government, revealed that she was asked to leave Skype in April 2005 after tensions grew between herself and CEO at the time Niklas Zennström.
“Niklas and I started seeing things from a different point of view,” Burbidge told Techworld after talking about the firing publicly for the first time in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “We worked really closely together because I was heading up product but towards the end it was getting difficult."
Burbidge (Skype's third employee) said there are two main factors that led to the breakdown of her relationship with Zennström.
The first relates to salary, or more specifically, a lack of salary. Despite occupying a leadership role, Burbidge went unpaid for her first eight months at Skype.
“I was working on a consultancy basis but we just never sorted my employment contract or my payroll and we had never actually agreed what my salary would be," said Burbidge. "For me, I was like I’m sure I’m going to have this conversation with him [Niklas] eventually.
"I’m excited to be here, let’s get cracking. For him, I think it was probably the same. What we didn’t realise is the [salary] expectations from both of us were so different. It came up every once in a while, and there’d be a bit of tension, so we’d be like: ‘Ok we’ll talk about it in our next one-on-one, let's talk about the product now.’”
Burbidge, who carved out her career in Silicon Valley at the likes of Apple and Sun Microsystems before moving to London to work for Skype in 2004, said she was eventually forced to address the salary issue for visa reasons and a number of other factors.
“There was a big difference in what I wanted from a package and what he was willing to offer,” she said. “What’s really interesting is I wasn’t the only person on the leadership team not on a contract.”
Burbidge - who has recently been appointed as the UK's "special envoy to fintech" and a member of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group alongside the CEOs of companies like Asda, Easyjet and BP - said Zennström was also unhappy with her because she wasn’t hiring people at the pace he and the Skype board wanted her to.
“I remember there was a lot of pressure,” she said. “We needed not just two, not just four, but maybe six new product managers and a 10-20 person product team to be able to do more faster. 11 years ago I found it extremely difficult to recruit for product people, they genuinely didn’t exist.
“Niklas was extremely, extremely annoyed or disappointed by the lack of pace in me hiring. I came from Silicon Valley and because I have a high bar anyway I am extremely discerning and I want to hire only the best people. I didn’t want to compromise by hiring what I thought were unqualified or mediocre people.
"From my point of view it felt like he just wanted bums on seats. From his point of view maybe it’ll look like I didn’t want to lose control, not wanting to delegate, not wanting to hire, maybe being resistant or simply just being difficult.”
Burbidge describes the whole episode as a "bit unpleasant".
"I didn’t want to be let go," she said. "I don’t think Niklas liked the whole way it escalated. It didn’t make anybody look good.
"The way I had to insist I got what I felt I was owed means I had lawyers."
Burbidge confirmed to Techworld that she secured 0.3 percent in stock options at Skype, which was sold to eBay in September 2005 for $2.6 billion (£1.68 billion) and eventually Microsoft in May 2011 for $11.5 billion (£7.43 billion). It's unclear how much Burbidge made on her Skype options as a result of the acquisitions.
Skype cofounder Jaan Tallinn said: "I did not work with her that much, actually, since she was in London, while i was in the Tallinn engineering team and there was one layer of management between us.
"I do remember my discussions with Niklas and Janus though where they were on the edge about whether eileen was adding enough value for the (allegedly) significant compensation she asked for. Also, i seem to remember that she was valued higher in Tallinn than in london: Toivo Annus (head of engineering at Skype), especially, liked her and we ended up working with her in http://asi.ee/ for a while after Skype was acquired."
Skype declined the opportunity to comment on this story.