After hearing so much about HBO’s comedy Silicon Valley, I watched it.
I’ve lived in Palo Alto since 1995. I’ve worked in dozens of startups; I started two companies; I worked at SGI, SUN, Cisco, and so on. I was the head of a major association in Silicon Valley for ten years. I’m currently the advisory board of nine startups and I work with several companies. I have a house in Palo Alto and my cat is famous on the web. So, yes, I know Silicon Valley.
Here’s what I think of the TV show:
- Not Very Silicon Valley: My main issue with the show Silicon Valley is the lack of Silicon Valley in it. This barely touches on the reality of Silicon Valley. It could be a show about avionic engineers in Seattle or biotech researchers in North Carolina. The TechCrunch contest is in the final two episodes, but it’s just the set for a generic conference (it could be about avionics or biotech).
- Lack of Location: The show pretty much ignores Palo Alto and Silicon Valley. Not a single scene on University Avenue, Stanford University, Castro St., etc. There’s a quick helicopter shot of East Palo Alto (but you would recognize it only if you live here) which leads into a very implausible plot around a logo design. The team’s house doesn’t even appear to be in Palo Alto. Some of the freeway shots are unrecognizable. It’s so easy to set a show in Palo Alto, but the show’s creators didn’t try. They just filmed it in Los Angeles.
- Lack of Diversity: A show about Silicon Valley with only one Indian in it? Seriously? Did the show’s creators not even bother to come to SV? I’ve worked at several dozen startups; I’m an advisor to nine startups: in general, it’s a third Indians, a third Chinese, and the rest are Europeans and South Americans. Out of ten, there’s usually one white born-in-the-USA American. At dinners or parties at my house in Palo Alto, white born-in-the-USA Americans are a small minority. Again, Silicon Valley isn’t really about Silicon Valley.
- The Girls of Silicon Valley: The few women in the show are either secondary (executive admins) or sex objects (such as Gilfoyle’s satanic girlfriend in episode 6, who is offered for casual sex to another programer, or the programmer babe in episode 7 who can’t actually write code so she sleeps with Dinesh to get help, or the various party babes in the background) (and there’s the Chinese second wife, whose only purpose in the show is to be a sex object, episode 7). The TV show has a cruel casual sexism. There are plenty of very competent women in Silicon Valley: this TV show ignores that.
- Idiotic Jokes: The garage door mural isn’t funny. It’s just a stupid drawing. Nobody turns over the design of a company logo that way. And nobody pays $10,000 for that. The entire logo plot is implausible.
- Developer Kids: The story with The Carver, a 15-year old developer, is pretty funny. I’ve worked with kids like that. They’re super bright at code or hardware and at the same time, they’re little kids. One worked for us several years ago; his mom brought him and picked him up. We had to write his checks to his mom because he was too young to have a bank account. This really does happen.
- The Sesame Seeds: Peter Gregory, the billionaire, realizes there is something called Burger King so he studies the burgers, notices the sesame seeds, and figures out a way to corner the market and make a great deal of money (episode three). This is a pretty good illustration of how engineers, MBAs, and investors often notice a minor feature of a market, create a new company based on that detail, and thus disrupt the market. Jeff Besos realized books can be sold without stores (so Amazon is revolutionizing the 600-year old publishing industry); Craig Newmark realized newspaper ads don’t need newspapers (and thus wiped out the 200-year old global newspaper industry).
- The Awkward Presentation at TechCrunch: In the final episode, Richard (the main character) gives an excruciatingly awkward presentation at TechCruch. I’ve been to many pitch events (where small startups present their ideas to investors) and yes, many of the speakers are very awkward, with lots of hmmm, ahhh, ehhh, errr, and long silent pauses. With weeks to prepare, they’re not prepared at all. It’s embarrassing (and painful) to watch them. This scene is realistic and pretty funny. If you’ve sat through pitch events, you’ll recognize this.
- No Cats?: A show about Silicon Valley that doesn’t have a cat? Or a dog? OMG, Silicon Valley is pet heaven. Just about everyone has cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, fish, chickens, or whatever here, and practically all of these animals have their web pages or Facebook pages (yes, Mark Zuckerberg’s dog has a Facebook page).
- Startup Founders: People outside of Silicon Valley think these companies are created by awkward loners. Yes, it’s certainly true many awkward loners will try to create companies, but they don’t go far. A startup requires intensely complex collaboration; the leader has to assemble, motivate, and lead investors, developers, marketing, and staff. I’ve met dozens of teams: the best ones stand out because the leader is extremely good at social interaction. There are thousands of bad ideas and those go nowhere. There are plenty of good ideas, but most of those go nowhere either, because the team is incompetent (they may be able to write code, but they don’t know how to create a product, work with investors, etc.) The key to success is a strong core team of four or five people who work very closely together over long hours.
There’s enough to the real Silicon Valley to find material to create a smart, complex comedy or a drama, just as Mad Men is about 60s Manhattan ad agencies or West Wing is about the White House. But this HBO show doesn’t even begin to touch reality. It’s shallow, cheap jokes that pander to outsiders’ perception of Silicon Valley.