I just started to watch the HBO show, Silicon Valley, and so far I like it a lot (though not as much as Betas, an early Amazon Prime show that it rips off liberally). The case is full of quirky characters, and overall it seems like Mike Judge (Office Space, Beavis and Butthead) has finally found a voice that leans more on good writing and less on sledgehammer gags (Parker and Stone, you’re next). It’s funny, but more importantly, it has a compelling storyline that makes you want to see what happens next.
But how real is it? Is life in Silicon Valley really like how it is on Silicon Valley? You might think that I am unqualified to answer this question, given the fact that I have never actually been to Silicon Valley. And for the most part, you would be right. I can’t say for certain what it’s like to work at a giant search engine company where you ride a branded company bus to work and play dodgeball over your lunch break. But I can tell you one thing that the show gets completely right: Silicon Valley is all about business.
On the show, the leader of one large search company preaches relentlessly to his cult of followers about how their job is to make the world a better place. His true colors show quickly, however, when he loses out to a rival in a bid to acquire the main character’s new search algorithm. He quickly switches to bribery, intellectual property theft and overall dirty tricks (his so-called “spiritual advisor” is hilarious, a yogi yes man who simply agrees that everything the tech mogul says is “right” and then jets off to Aspen to spend his rewards).
At the same time, the kindly billionaire benefactor who saves the day by helping our hero start his new company turns out to be a jerk in his own right, a savant with limited social skills (he never looks anybody in the eye) who demands a business plan and a cap table without any guidance or advice. A cross between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, he is clearly meant to show us what the hero will become once he has given into the dark side (they share the same mannerisms, etc). In some ways, he is Darth Vader in a bad sweater and a tiny, ridiculously narrow Tango commuter car – nerd on the outside, all business underneath.
As someone who deals every day with Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., I can tell you with 100% accuracy that the main priority of all of these companies is to make money, not to make the world a better place. Their mission statements may disagree, but their actions speak louder than words. Facebook’s lack of oversight on Cambridge Analytica illustrates perfectly where the company’s focus is at, for example.
So while I can’t tell you if the programmers in Silicon Valley are really bullies from a 1980s coming-of-age movie (they seem like it on the show), I can tell you that the business models on display seem to be rooted in real life. In many ways, that’s a bad thing, with decisions being made solely based on financials. On the other hand, however, there is comfort in knowing that even Silicon Valley bows to the mighty dollar, giving the industry a sense of predictability that helps people like me do our jobs with a degree of confidence.
I may not live in Silicon Valley, but my job is Valley-adjacent, and that makes life interesting enough as it is.