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