Another View on HBO’s Silicon Valley: Is This Really What the World Thinks of Us?

Last week, I got a chance to watch the first episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley (on HBO Go, of course). More than anything, I was curious to see how the show would portray the work environment that has filled up much of my world for the last decade and a half. And just like my pal and fellow blogger Sarah Kling, I wasn’t sure I’d like what I saw.

My first reaction was based on the extremes – and how people outside of the tech industry would perceive them. The tech haters have had a pretty loud voice in the Bay Area lately, and I personally don’t want to see the tension get worse because of caricatures in a television show.

Besides the dorky, “navel-gazing” coders (Sarah’s words) and the strange lack of women, several things stuck out to me about the environment portrayed in the show:

  • The extravagant parties: I have been to some, but not since the first dot com bubble.  And it turns out that Mike Judge, the series creator, based the party scene in the first episode on an event that also took place during that earlier era.
  • The toe-sock wearing executive: I saw that once in a corporate setting.
  • The cynical coworkers at Hooli: Those people show up in my life from time to time, although the way they are portrayed in Silicon Valley reminded me that Mike Judge is the same guy whom we can thank for Office Space.
  • The stocked corporate kitchen: Yeah, that is real…
  • The incomprehensible, jargon-filled language: Something that I hear almost every day.

“Yes, we’re disrupting digital media, but most importantly we’re making the world a better place through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.”

What?

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????But the underlying pulse of the story—and I couldn’t figure out exactly how to describe it until I heard Mike Judge being interviewed on Fresh Air—is that the smell of money is everywhere, peppered lightly with statements about making the world a better place. Is that how we really live?

We hear all the time about how the rich in this country have gotten a lot richer while the lower and middle classes have seen their real incomes/ buying power go down. In Silicon Valley tech, insane valuations are here again – crazier than ever. Super-wealth is pretty visible if you live in the Valley itself. The person who got into Google at the right time might live next door to someone else who didn’t – until he buys a big house in Atherton. Even if the “have-nots” are way better off than the “average” person in many other industries and geographies, it’s hard for the smell not to float over to those of us who work, commute, try to save for our retirement and kids’ college, and have the nerve to go on a ski trip in Tahoe.

But here’s another view, which came to me as I ready fellow blogger Kylee Hall’s recent post:

“I, admittedly, have been following the carrot quite a bit since I left that first company–all in search for the next big payout that will give me that long-term security.”

In our world (and most other Americans’), you can’t count on having the same job for more than a few years. You can’t count on anyone else paying for your retirement. But here in Silicon Valley, some people have found the path to long-term security: the tech equity/ buyout machine. And that seems like something that is in our control, if not in our grasp. It’s different, and could seem obnoxious if you don’t have that control in your own life.

So what does all of this have to do with Silicon Valley the show? I think that Mike Judge is trying to create characters, not caricatures. Individuals with exaggerated personality traits and faults that are magnified by an environment soaked in money and success. (And in trying to make the world a better place – which, even if it sounds corny, I think a lot of people in Silicon Valley are genuinely trying to do. Take a peek at my friend Jack Kingsley’s latest Habitat for Humanity build in Cambodia—his 12th—for one example.) But what the non-Silicon Valley world will most likely see is the caricatures of money-driven nerds, pot-smoking capitalists, and people who like to hear themselves talk. The real Silicon Valley Tales will have a much harder time getting out.

 

A Review of “Silicon Valley” or Does Tech Need More Female D-Bags?

When Mike Judge’s latest satirical comedy, Silicon Valley, debuted on HBO a few weeks’ ago, I deliberately postponed watching it.

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HBO’s Silicon Valley: Cast Photo

While it’s hard to resist watching any new series from HBO (even those that don’t feature softcore vampire porn and men with the surname Skarsgard), part of the reason was just plain, old-fashioned dread of what I would witness.

On the one hand, it could turn out to be just another clueless attempt to capture the wonderful essence of the tech world while basically remaining pretty fact-free  (remember the “The Internship” and the Disney-meets-technology representation of Google. Okay, maybe that wasn’t so far off in its depiction.)

Or, it could just flat out be a lame series reality TV take on life in the Valley which actually had nothing to do with life in the Valley, didn’t even take place in the Valley, and followed a bunch of incredibly insipid 20-nothings living in impossibly expensive houses in San Francisco while attempting to raise 1 MEEELLION dollars to develop a free life -coaching app for housecats or whatever. (Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg’s sister for that, um, program…I’m not even sure what to call it).

Or maybe, just maybe, it might hit a little too close to home, turning my everyday Valley work experiences into groaning moments due to the little nuggets of truth contained in the story lines and the witty lines.

“Silicon Valley” is a Mike Judge creation, after all, and for those of us who still worship at the alter of the late 90s cult classic, “Office Space.” And Mr. Judge is known for one thing above all, and that is creating great satirical dude-bro-geek characters who are watchable and amusing just because they contain JUST ENOUGH truth and droplets of kindness to make them both believable and not hate-able. officeSpace

So has Judge once again created winner of a show by using his special sauce satirical success recipe in “Silicon Valley?”

Well….ummmm…..it does…sorta kinda…and not….

Judge definitely delivers an entertaining half-hour that is nailing it – the characters stutter through the latest in Valley lingo and wallow convincingly in the general culture of the tech startup lottery.

The show proves itself to be a quick study in how startups and larger companies interact – the nerdy-but-oh-so-earnest startup “kids” are hungry; they’re desperately trying to get the attention of either VCs, successful companies, angel investors, or all of the above to pitch their latest technology in MVP form (that’s “minimum viable product” for your civilians.)

Judge’s writing deftly and humorously corrals the locations, lingo and largesse of the Valley through witty one-liners that almost slide past you they go so quickly. A true insider can hear those words and groan or laugh, or in many cases, both.
Whether these startup scrappers win or lose the tech lottery depends a lot on timing and luck and hustle — you see them chasing down VCs after TED Talks to give a 30-second breathless pitch at the valet stand. They meekly let other, less-brilliant engineers (aka ‘brogrammers’) bully them into show them their brilliant work in hopes of getting their feedback that just might lead to a better product. They make “hard” decisions about who really is on the founding team (hint: it’s not the guy who can’t code or do squat), what your initial name is, and how to get your product to market faster than the competitor who just ripped off your idea and your code. And of course – changing the world, one keystroke at a time. Borgrammer

The show also features a evil-ish Google-like organization called Hooli that’s more of a blend of several companies, featuring a CEO character who may (cough,cough) be channeling a lot of traits from the founder and CEO of a well-known and philanthropic San Francisco-based software behemoth18033

But that’s about where the kernels of truth taper off….the characters are generally 1.5-dimensions (okay, 2.0 dimensions), with approximately 90% of their characteristics being completely stereotypical and about 10% being something unique…really more of a unique tic in the case of most characters.

And the womenses? Where ARE them hardworking, company-founding tech womenfolk?

As much as I enjoy the show (and I do), I don’t see myself, or any of my female friends and colleagues represented in this whatsoever.

This is where “Silicon Valley” seems somewhat out of touch with the reality of the male-female make-up of the Valley.

To wit: There’s only a single repeating female character, Monica, and while she is clearly intelligent and socially adept, has the retro-secretary roles as the assistant to the weird billionaire venture capitalist. The other female that makes a short appearance is a stripper with the cliche name of Mochaccino; in less than 1 minute of screen time, the stripper presents as much more interesting character than the main dweebs (If I had have a drink with one of the show’s characters, she’s my choice hands-down, for the simple fact that Mochaccino could look me in the eye when she speaks.).Mochaccino

It’s not clear if Judge’s decision to basically leave any substantial women characters out of the show is that it’s simply hard to make women look like clueless stupid-smart d-bags. In other words, male characters are just easier targets for the one-dimensional caricaturing that he does so well.

Or does he really believe that the Valley is so male-dominated that there just aren’t enough women in early stage startups, or in middle management, or in executive management, or in any real contributing role to make it worthwhile to have a strong female character on the show?

I suspect it’s actually for a different reason: The male characters as portrayed in the show are just annoying and navel-gazing enough that no self-respecting woman would willingly choose to work (or sleep) with them, no matter what their Series A valuation is or how big their, um, market cap is. And while these male characters are not the whole of the Valley by far, they do exist in here.

And that is where I think Mike Judge’s creation may have really nailed a kernel of truth about the Valley (however inadvertently)….

He’s deliberately chosen to satirize the segment of Silicon Valley who are, frankly, the most easy to poke fun at precisely because of their self-absorbed, navel-gazing ways. These characters are truly socially awkward or just plain anti-social; their idea of a wacky wild night is staying up all night writing code, drinking Red Bull, and playing role-playing video games with their closest dude friends.RED-BULL_Rail-Kombat_Couch-Split_Both

And it’s those very same annoying traits that those of us who are in the Valley, in “La Tech Famiglia”, make fun of from the inside out. We’re aware of the cliches about engineers and startup kids and weird tech billionaires and douchey CEOs who preach social good while ignoring the poverty around them…and we make fun of them, too. Probably a lot more than we know. (But, hey, it’s our ‘family,’ so we get to do that).

But the reason Judge focuses on those characters stems from one simple truth: There just ARE NOT that many humorous cliches about women who work in Silicon Valley.

It’s not that there aren’t women who are just as self-absorbed and out of touch with reality (again, read: Mark Zuckerberg’s sister).

It’s just that no one takes those [precious few] women characters seriously.

The female heroes of the valley, the ones who found and build companies (and there are many), who ascend to the helm of large companies, such as Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, are generally held in very high esteem or in the last, present themselves in a way that aspires to be the best in leadership and visibility.

But factually speaking, there are still relatively few of these iconic Valley women compared to the number of icon Valley men.

So perhaps this lack of female cliches and caricatures in Valley culture is a solid indicator of how far women still have to go in the Valley and how many more women really need to be deeply ensconced in tech culture.

After all, one could reason – if the number of women in tech were on a par with the number of men, surely we, too, would have our share of navel-gazing characters whose quirkiness (or worse) lent themselves well to satire.

So thank you, Mr. Judge, for making “Silicon Valley” such a dude-bro-geek-centric satire. Not only does it give those of us in the Valley a little something to chuckle self-reflectively about, but it also serves as a reminder that we still have a long way to go, baby. images (1)

If we strive for female equality in all things tech, we’re going to have to have a few dude-bro-chick characters we can all roll our eyeballs at.

Talkin’ ’bout my generation

I am on the cusp of being categorized as a Millennial. I was born at the end of 1979 and according to the Population Reference Bureau, Millennials are those born between 1983 and 2001. I honestly didn’t even know there was a Population Reference Bureau (PRB) until I was writing this post and doing some research. It’s a pretty fascinating site if you have a few hours to kill on some articles and webinars.

GenerationsAtAge30

The PRB has one of the best descriptions as to how and why these generations have been defined:

“…By virtue of when they were born, members of each generation live through unique times shaped by unexpected historical events, changing political climates, and evolving socioeconomic conditions. Generations also come in different sizes and changing mixtures of ethnicity, helping to shape the choices individuals will make in life. A generational perspective offers fresh insights into contemporary society by emphasizing both the distinctiveness of each generation in its particular historical context and the persistence of such distinctions across an individual’s life. When different generations respond in unique ways to common problems and choices, businesses, governments, and we as individuals need to recognize and understand such distinctions.”

A segment I heard this evening on Marketplace called “What kind of jewelry goes with a tattoo?” was what started me down this path on the different generations. It basically talked about how the Millennial generation is growing up and that marketers need to start paying attention. The piece stirred quite a few emotions: pride in the fact that I wasn’t part of the Millennial generation; annoyance at how trivial marketing sounded (I took this personally having always worked in marketing); and there was part of me that just felt out of touch with the way they were describing this generation. I was in denial that just a few years could make that big of a difference in the way our lives and attitudes would be shaped.

Over a few glasses of wine, I’ve started to look back at the last 10-20 years and realized that I really was at the cusp of some pretty major milestones:

  • Two-handed typing – I am 18-months younger than my sister. We’re 2 years apart in school. In the time between when she and I were each in 7th grade, they had switched the curriculum from learning short-hand (seriously, short-hand?) to taking a class on how to do two-handed typing on a keyboard. My sister can type faster than most people I know even with her hunt-and-peck style, but I appreciate the speed/dexterity two-handed typing has afforded me. . .especially since I spend 10-15 hours a day doing just that. So I realize now that every class after my year has been trained to type with two hands. I wonder if my 8-month old niece will only know touch screens and two-thumbed typing.
  • Computers at college – It was a very big deal to have computers with any kind of internet access at school. It’s hard for me to even think about what life was like before having everywhere access to computers and search engines. I think the major turning point was from 1997 to 1998. My classes started requiring work be typed up on computers–and a small start up called Google launched in 1998. I got my first computer that year: a Gateway 2000. Remember those? My family had had an Apple IIGS in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that I felt computers really became commonplace and a necessity.
  • Mobile phones – I knew mobile phones existed. I thought it was very cool that a friend of mine in high school even had a car phone, but they were definitely for the more well-off families. I do have to admit that quite a few kids in my high school had beepers, but that was for a different reason. In college, I *rarely* saw a mobile phone. It wasn’t until my senior year that any of my close friends got one. They were super expensive and landlines worked just fine. I actually got my first phone only after I got my first job. In the span of 4 years, we went from mobile phones being a rarity to the opposite being true–you’d be hard pressed to find an incoming freshman without one now.
  • Pension plans – Believe it or not, I had a pension plan at my first (real) job out of school. This may be why I stayed at that company for 7 years. Pensions and similar retirement programs no longer exist (or rarely exist) except for public sector jobs for the most part. I see my friends in these public sector jobs struggle with job satisfaction yet not leaving because of the retirement security. Would you call this job loyalty? Debatable, but when there’s actually a long-term benefit to sticking around, I’d say people are more incentivized to stay. I, admittedly, have been following the carrot quite a bit since I left that first company–all in search for the next big payout that will give me that long-term security. I think this is one area where I can relate to the Millennial generation. What’s the benefit of staying at a company for 20 – 30 years? Or even 2 – 5 years for that matter?
  • Social – There were chat rooms when I was in high school, but they were typically for “alternative” behaviors, interests, etc. I never jumped on the social train. Friends of mine are heavily immersed in the social world and dealing with the same withdrawals as my fellow blogger at times. I proudly have a traditional mindset about keeping in touch with my friends and relatives. And by “traditional” I mean phone calls, emails and texts.

So where do all of these observations land me on my view of the Millennial generation? Honestly, I’m in a much better place about it compared to when I first heard the NPR segment. I still have some processing to do, but I like to think I could be a bit more sympathetic to this generation given how I’m sure the Baby Boomers and generations before them view their successors. Who knows, maybe I am closer to the Millennial generation than I like to think…I did find myself doing a double-tap on a map in a travel book to try and make it expand.

 

Life Lessons Learned While Job Searching

Currently I’m a full-time job seeker – and it’s possible I’ve read a thousand career advice or job seeking articles recently, even though I didn’t exactly seek them out. They just seem to find me!  Actually I can lay blame, it’s the LinkedIn Homepage.  But there were some really good tidbits that have resonated with me about all aspects of a career…so may I share?
1.  Don’t put life on pause just because your searching. 
Keep making connections, attend conferences, workshops or webinars.  Take those weekend trips, keep in touch with your friends and very, very importantly continue to get exercise.  Window shopping or CrossFit, it all counts.  Exercise, travel, and doing other activities that make you super happy are even more important during this time.  Simply put they improve your spirits, which is key since it’s a time well known to be filled with ups and downs.  Also, being able to share recent happenings in your life while interviewing allows your personality to shine through, part of what the hiring team wants to see.  The worst thing you can do is go in a hole heads-down, spending every waking moment scrubbing the job boards – that will do no one any good.
2.  When leaving a company, don’t burn bridges.
Yes you’ve heard this one, but here’s an add on – go the extra mile by keeping in touch with colleagues (and more than just on LinkedIn.)  Simple gestures will be sure to make them your biggest fans when you need a hand or recommendation down the road.  “Like” their company Facebook updates, send congratulatory notes when they get promotions, mail your old team a case of beer when they have a major project launch.  They may still be at your previous job, but they won’t be forever.  Guaranteed.
3.  Know exactly what you want in your next job – size, location, project specifics.  You certainly don’t see yourself as a fill in the blank employee so make sure you don’t let it happen.  Don’t take the first job offer that comes along for fear of missing out.  Every company you join is a reflection of you, and if things don’t work out you’ll have to “explain away that year” once back on the market.  Look at your resume now – are you proud of that company list?  If the search takes longer than you’d like, have faith … you can surely find a way to make it work by getting creative:  cut back on expenses, take side projects, Task Rabbit, oDesk anyone?  If you have expensive taste in companies, that’s probably a good thing. If you’ve applied to a company you consider a “10”, well at a minimum your enthusiasm and desire will come through in the interview, which is always a win.
4.  OK, so you’re happy in your job – Don’t get complacent.
It’s easy to get complacent, but from time to time remind yourself that You Won’t Be There Forever.  Ask yourself what you’d want to show a future prospective employer.   A great updated portfolio?   Expertise in a new area?   To have attended that amazing conference?   If so, make sure you’re going after those things all along the way.  While job searching full time, I’ve picked up writing for my design blog again, and tweeting more professionally – but really it’s something I should have been doing even while working.  These things do take a time commitment which is easy to brush off when you’re in a job with a demanding schedule.  But it’s your life so make sure you’re focusing on long term career goals as much as short term.
In case you’re curious, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says on average that workers tend to stay in the same position for about 4.4 years.  With millennials, it’s almost half that – 2.3 years per job on average.  And I don’t even want to imagine what it will be like for my 4 year old one day…a single year for each job?  If that turns out to be true, then for her sake I hope health insurance switches and 401k rollovers become way more simplified!  But this topic is starting to sound like a new blog post…
Happy hunting! Whether its now or in 4.4 years.

Confessions of a Silicon Valley Mom

Not so long ago, but long before I had kids, I had very clear visions of the type of professional parent I would one day become. I was a b-school graduate with high hopes for a world where a working mom had a career in the fast lane without having to make any hard sacrifices. I snickered at moms who left work at 5 PM sharp. I didn’t understand why they dreaded working late. How would they ever achieve their true career potential with their “I have other priorities waiting for me at home” attitude?

I was slightly baffled but mostly dismissive. I told myself I would do it differently. I would do it all, unapologetically. 

Fast forward 7 years and I am the proud parent of a beautiful 6 and 3 year old. We’ve all heard this before, but it’s worth saying that having kids truly transforms every part of you, for better or worse. If you have children you know how annoyed you get when your single friends tell you how ‘busy’ they are. You pretend to empathize, but you don’t. “Oh you had to entertain out of town friends and have dinner with your parents in the same weekend? Wow, I don’t know how you do it!” C’mon, we all do it. I’m sure there is a reason our single friends stop hanging out with us. We become slightly judgmental people who act like we carry the world on our shoulders.  You’re welcome world.

There are days it would be nice to get a medal, but for now we settle for the annual mothers day brunch.

But I digress. Back to being the perfect working mom. There are many debates on having it all and whether it’s possible, not possible or somewhere in between. I personally have gone back and forth on this. I thought I could have it all when I worked a job where I had the title, but not the growth opportunity. I fooled myself into thinking I had it all, but really I just had an easy job that allowed me to focus on my family. That was great until I got the itch to want more ‘stimulation’, career growth and the thrill of working for a start-up.

I live in the bay area so naturally it wasn’t impossible to find that job. I left behind a comfortable career and set off to find the next awesome tech company. I couldn’t be more fortunate to have the job I have today (which checks the box on all three criteria – stimulation, career growth and fast paced start-up). I get to help lead one of the world’s most successful mobile development platform’s sales team (shout out to my pals at Xamarin). These guys and gals are truly brilliant. I went from walking on the ‘mental treadmill’ to running at full speed. However, it is at this point that I started to wonder just how women in the fast lane do it.

I find myself wondering if working moms have a fair chance in this race. It’s the equivalent of running a professional race where everyone is in their best shape, and you are running with two kids strapped on your back. Sure I felt like I was winning when everyone was walking, but competing in the big leagues comes with higher standards.

While I have found this race is slightly handicapped and at times defeating,  I also feel like we working moms can succeed and have the comfort in knowing that while it’s not easy, it’s both doable and immensely rewarding (and yes tiring at times).

To succeed in this race you have to do three things:

Do your job with incredible passion and dedication. You might not be able to work sixteen hours a day in the office, but you are capable of bringing incredible experience and leadership to the table. There is no excuse for mediocrity. Find other working moms to connect with at work and share tips if you are lucky enough to have these amazing women at your company. If not, read their blogsJ

Hire people who can be in the office when you can’t. My amazing boss taught me this (sorry, let me wipe the brown off my nose). But it’s true, she reminded me hire people that complement my schedule so I can give myself the flexibility I need to be both a great professional and mom without feeling like I had compromised both or either. This was one of my biggest aha moments this year. I always thought I had to do it all. It’s freeing to know I don’t. Outsource all things that are within your control. You will regain much of your sanity when you do this.

Let you’re self off the hook once in a while. I recently threw my son’s birthday party 6 weeks late. The evite I sent out had the wrong date, three times. It took me several apologetic edits before I finally got all the details correct. Did I feel judged? Slightly….but I was determined to throw my 3 year old an awesome party regardless of the small details. Ok maybe getting the date right is important, but I eventually got it right. All the guests made it and most importantly, my son had a great time! 

So what exactly does this all mean? If you are a single women without kids, wait before you judge the mom who leaves the building every day likes its on fire. You’ll want the same consideration one day. If you are a working mom, don’t be afraid to ask for help. And most importantly, thank the stay at home moms that spend an immense amount of time volunteering at your child’s school when you can’t be there.

Also fantasize about what you would do if you ever became a stay at home mom (tennis lessons anyone) and tell yourself that you will take a year off one day and travel the world with your children.  

But in all honestly working moms do have it all. They get to experience one of life’s greatest joys –raising children while making great professional strides. I feel so fortunate every day to think I get to experience two very emotionally fulfilling experiences on completely different levels. It may not be easy, but I’d like to think that it is possible to work, raise a beautiful family and still keep your sanity!