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.

 

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