I’m a software professional by trade. I’ve played just about every role in the software development life cycle, and I know all the lingo, both technical and business. So when looking for TV show to binge watch and one comes along that not only embraces but totally mocks the modern day technological boom, the choice is obvious. I (and my techno husband) spend a lot of the time subconsciously debunking the technical believability and just plain factual aspects of the shows that take on this theme and we were up for another challenge. With the exception of The Big Bang Theory, who have an actual theoretical physicist on the writing staff, almost all shows get it wrong.
Enter Silicon Valley. I must say, for a comedy driving on a totally theoretical premise of a technology that’s easily years away (if ever possible), its dead on. The obscure technical details might not be completely right at times (I say they’re more fudged than inaccurate), but that’s very small compared to the overall perfect grasp of the landscape. It gets the geek corporate culture of a startup, the eccentricities of geniuses and entrepreneurs, and the crudeness of what happens when five guys get together in a room and mix hardcore technical engineering with basic male physical needs (you know what conversation I’m talking about). But it doesn’t forget the basic rules of TV comedy either. You need an entertaining ensemble that interacts well, has great timing, and most of all is given great lines to work with. Check, check, and check.
The first season of Silicon Valley is eight episodes, so it wasn’t too hard to take in all these in one evening of binge viewing. Luckily, my sister has HBO to Go so we managed to watch this series and catch up a bit on Game of Thrones too (whoa!) Most of the humor is light and fun so it’s easy to digest in one viewing. It’s clearly mocking the ongoing contest of the giants of the Silicon Valley vs. the start ups. Every engineer has a pitch or an app to sell and there are guys with plenty of money out there to either make it happen or totally destroy it. They use all the right buzz words when pitching their product, but the concept of an actual business plan and spending their seed money wisely fails them. Sounds like the premise for an ideal drama, right? No, turns out tech foibles are funny as hell.
A dorky engineer, Richard, working for mega corporation Hooli (yes, that’s clearly a spoof of Google), has come up with what is considered a run of the mill (and rather useless) music app, until it’s accidentally discovered that the app has an algorithm that revolutionizes file compression. Suddenly he’s faced with two decisions, take the offer to buy the app for 10 million from Hooli, or take the offer of a 5% stake from billionaire Peter Gregory and use that seed money to develop the app himself so he can potentially make millions. Considering a premise is needed for this series, obviously he takes the latter deal and suddenly finds himself CEO of a start-up. His new company, Pied Piper, who’s name itself is the butt of many jokes, has four other employees, and together they make up an interesting band of misfits.
Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is the every day common geek, complete with a self-deprecating attitude, shy demeanor, loads of weird tics in response to his newly found stressful life (not to mention uncontrolled vomiting), and just an overall lack of self confidence which doesn’t bode well when you’re CEO of a startup. He’s getting help from the most boisterous of the bunch, Erlich, played brilliantly by T.J. Miller. He makes a living by being 10% owner of new startups and it’s his home in which Pied Piper runs it’s business. He’s crass, tacky, has ideas that are really out there (I mean really out there), and has all the connections, so he’s the one that naturally becomes the business face of the firm. Call him the anti-Steve Jobs. There are the two coders, Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), who’s a Satanist and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), who’s the token Indian. They don’t exactly embrace the idea that they’re working for a serious business. Then there’s uptight Jared (Zach Woods), who’s all serious business, but is the victim of a few misfortunate mishaps that come with the territory when dealing with eccentric visionaries.
Modern Approaches to Common Business Problems
No, I haven’t heard of too many people going on drug fueled vision quests to come up with a new company name, or hire a graffiti artist to do your company logo (even if that logo was hysterical), but it’s not as uncommon as you think hiring a teenager to code your interface in days! It’s also a very common problem that people will name their company without checking first to see if they can register the name as a corporation or register the domain on the web. It usually ends up costing a lot of money in that case. It happened once to one of the companies I worked for. Let’s just say that a local dentist ended up with a nice retirement windfall because our marketing geniuses already did a launch and grand announcement about the new company name only to find later he owned it.
Parts That Are Scarily Accurate
Yes, there are a group of employees that exist that are “unassigned.” I’ve been one of those employees once. Some manager had budget for a headcount but no project. I swear I sat around for a year with no assignments and managed to use that time to catch up on some reading (I took in the whole Harry Potter series during this time). You do strike up a special friendship with those in the same boat. I think it’s great that they could gather together on the roof and barbecue (our roof couldn’t hold us) and you do tend to go out for long lunches to places like Burger King (Starbucks was our favorite getaway).
Also, I was shouting in the pilot to Richard, “NEVER show your work to other developers you moron!” That’s unwritten rule #1. In this day of open source, it’s very easy to reverse engineer someone else’s idea. Heck, it happened before open source (How do you think Microsoft came up with Windows?) That is a common problem in this tech age. It’s not like you have a patent on code. Tech people know this, but it was a very good way of showing how naïve and unaware Richard is in the world. It certainly makes him look more like the worst CEO that ever was, which was a major driver of the premise in season one. He shouldn’t feel too bad though, Steve Jobs did it too, and look what it cost him (eventually, his job).
When you’re at a tech conference and hear the pitch that a company is exploding with growth and hiring for their massive upcoming resource needs, now you know the truth. This show had the nerve to expose their dirty little secret! I absolutely died during the season finale when the salesman for another tech firm confessed to Gilfoyle and Dinesh, who were looking into employment plan B, that their funds were almost dry and he wondered if Pied Piper was hiring, even though he was saying to others the exact opposite a minute before that. That happens a lot! Most of these entrepreneurs go into these ventures thinking that capital is unlimited. The product will sell itself. I went to work for a startup a while ago selling pie in the sky dreams. I bought the whole starry eyed vision, chance to be part of the next big thing, hook, line and sinker. The venture capitalists got scared though when the promises were delivering huge losses and they backed out five months later. They were still recruiting and selling the company vision to people a week before all of us were suddenly given boxes for our things and pink slips!
Technology Fails That Scare the Crap out of Me Because They Could Actually Happen
You don’t think you could be stuck in a driverless car and shipped halfway across the world like Jared? Technology fails are loaded with that kind of weird crap. People when designing things don’t usually think of such scenarios like, what if there’s a passenger in the car? They’re just happy the damn thing works. The Google driverless car is being tested right now. It is a real thing. The question is, how much to you trust the guy who designed it? Think of that before getting in.
A Sad Note
Easily the most brilliant character is Peter Gregory, the eccentric billionaire with a very skewed and wildly successful business sense. He invests in the most avant garde technologies, and he rationalizes business decisions based on epiphanies while eating Burger King for the first time. His rivalry with Hooli’s Gavin Belson is a clever mockery of the Steve Jobs/Bill Gates feud. Gregory was masterfully played by Christopher Evan Welch, who sadly passed away from lung cancer while episode five was filming. I’m not sure how they’ll handle his loss in season two, but it does leave a big hole for the absurdity element of the series.
What I Didn’t Like
Relationships with females is very fair game, especially when there are so few females in the profession. Tech conferences especially have an extremely high ratio of men to women. The potential for comedic material is huge (ask The Big Bang Theory). It didn’t sit well with me though showing an incompetent woman at the Tech Crunch Disrupt using her amazing looks to seduce these men to do coding for her apps or the other that spent most of her conference time spreading supposed gossip about Richard. I get there aren’t many women that embrace this world, but the ones I know in the biz are usually much smarter than that. Luckily, there’s the character of Monica, the smart and business savvy manager who works for Peter Gregory, but they’re even having issues with her by trying to hook her up with Richard. Bad idea. Women do exist in IT and don’t shack up with other engineers.
That Infamous Conversation
Your company has been one upped by the largest tech firm in the world at TechCrunch Disrupt and the end is nigh. There’s nothing like spending hours debating the only engineering plan left, jerking off every single guy in the auditorium. I’ve sat in a lot of technical design sessions, and NONE of them were more engrossing and totally face reddening than that. My, my. That earned writer Alec Berg an Emmy nomination and no wonder! It’s wildly genius! And really naughty! I swear that whole conversation should go down as one of the greatest moments in TV comedy history. Sadly, because of it’s graphic nature and the fact that it’s on HBO, probably not. But hey, if Seinfeld’s “The Contest” can do it, why not this? It just might take some time.
Silicon Valley was renewed for season two, but no return date has been announced yet. That gives you plenty of time to take in this first season and you won’t regret it. Even if you’re not technical, you’ll warm to these characters quite easily and feel like you’re part of some big inside joke. You might even feel a little smarter. Your average sitcom on a broadcast network certainly doesn’t do that.