Dear Tech Guys: HBO's Silicon Valley Is NOT An Instruction Manual

from the it's-a-lesson-in-what-not-to-do dept

I’ve been living in Silicon Valley for just about twenty years at this point, and lived through the original dot com bubble (got the t-shirt, etc.). And there are a few small signs that remind me quite a bit of the “bad stuff” that started to show up in the 1999/2000 time frame, just before everything collapsed. One of the biggest issues: the carpetbaggers. Basically, as things get frothier and frothier, a “different” kind of entrepreneur starts to show up. In the original dot com bubble, these were frequently described as “MBA’s” — but as someone with an MBA degree, I find that to be a bit misleading too. There were plenty of good, smart, tech-savvy MBAs who added value to the innovation community. The real problem was the people who came to (a) get rich and (b) party (not always in that order). Getting rich and having a good time aren’t necessarily bad things, but if they’re what you’re focused on, then bad things tend to result.

Lots of people like to mock the whole mantra of “we’re changing the world” in Silicon Valley, and sometimes it deserves to be mocked. But… in many cases, there is actual truth to it. And, in many cases, there are entrepreneurs and innovators who really are trying to change the world and make it a better place. The problem is that you have the other element — the carpetbaggers — who show up with no actual interest in innovation or in making the world a better place, but who readily adopt the terminology and slogans of those who do. And, these days, we’re seeing more and more of those types of people in the Valley. It’s been happening for years, but it’s been getting worse and worse lately. It’s why people talk about “Techbros” with dumb, but flashy, company ideas, while ignoring entrepreneurs working away at truly world-changing products and services.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this lately, especially as a whole bunch of stories have come out in the tech world (as in so many other industries) about sexual harassment and sexual assault. And, as in so many industries, this has been an issue for a long time around here — and often not taken seriously. Earlier this year — before many of the bigger stories came out — I wrote about why Silicon Valley needs to get its act together and grow the fuck up. But with many of the revelations coming out, showing how widespread the culture of harassment (and assault) has been, it’s a much bigger problem.

That’s why this story from Bloomberg is so flabbergasting. Even after all of this, to hear that some tech companies are hiring good looking models to attend their holiday parties is just so… dumb.

Local modeling agencies, which work with Facebook- and Google-size companies as well as much smaller businesses and the occasional wealthy individual, say a record number of tech companies are quietly paying $50 to $200 an hour for each model hired solely to chat up attendees. For a typical party, scheduled for the weekend of Dec. 8, Cre8 Agency LLC is sending 25 women and 5 men, all good-looking, to hang out with ?pretty much all men? who work for a large gaming company in San Francisco, says Cre8 President Farnaz Kermaani. The company, which she wouldn?t name, has handpicked the models based on photos, made them sign nondisclosure agreements, and given them names of employees to pretend they?re friends with, in case anyone asks why he?s never seen them around the foosball table.

To be honest, the story is so dumb, and no companies are actually named, that I’m wondering how much of this story is actually planted by the modeling companies hoping to make it reality. But… these days, we’re hearing about so much bad behavior that it may very well be happening.

And I saw more than a few people commenting on Twitter that this seemed like something straight out of HBO’s Silicon Valley. Which leads me into another thought that I’ve been toying with recently. Last time I was in Washington DC, some friends based there were asking me what I thought of the show, and I said that for all of its famed “accuracy,” I thought it was ruining the actual Silicon Valley. My friends suggested this was ridiculous, since the show clearly made most of the protagonists out to be fairly buffoon-like, and worthy of mockery. But… without other guidance, it really feels like many people are arriving in Silicon Valley with the HBO show as their mental model of how things are supposed to be. And, even if the show is “truthy” in how it portrays certain people/activities, it does so for the sake of entertainment. Thus, it only presents the really exaggerated versions, and creates entertaining caricatures of certain types of people, while leaving out the many, many, other people who actually get real shit done here, without being buffoons or assholes.

People out here, for the most part, still love the show, because they recognize elements of reality within those characters and events — but it misses out on the nitty-gritty of how stuff gets done and the fact that some people are legitimately doing good stuff without being horrible people. But if everyone now coming into Silicon Valley is coming in with HBO’s Silicon Valley as their model — too many are looking at the show as an instruction manual, rather than a giant warning sign of what not to do. In some ways, it reminds me of the classic 90’s indie film Swingers with Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn. When it came out, I remember lots of guys trying to “take lessons” from the movie in how to pick up women, even though the entire point of the movie was to make fun of those people with their tricks and rules and games.

Assuming that story of hiring models for parties really is true, it feels like yet another brick in this problematic wall of “techbro” culture taking over from what has always been the true core of Silicon Valley, involving non-assholes who really are changing the world. It would be great if we could get more of that, and less of the HBO version, no matter how entertaining it might be.

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Comments on “Dear Tech Guys: HBO's Silicon Valley Is NOT An Instruction Manual”

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Christenson says:

Re: Simply Human

The fact is, there are relatively few people who truly want change. The rest come along for the ride, and many are like lemmings, just follow the crowd.

As a doer of real, difficult technical things, I tell you it is very hard work, and the technical side is very easy to lose sight of in the constant social games that inevitably crop up in any reasonably large group.

It doesn’t help that vision, especially technical vision, is hard to share…serious charisma doesn’t usually show up in the same person as serious technical talent, because both require a lot of hard work. Additionally, the hard work for the technical talent requires values (especially a brutal honesty) that are very difficult to reconcile with the values of charisma (tell the world what it wants to hear).

Maybe it’s time for a few interactions with police on the show — busts at parties, depositions for sex assault suits, etc.

Anon says:


I’m not involved with Silicon Valley, then or now – I just read the news and have been in the computer business since 1977.

My impression is that the original companies were founded by technical geeks, the Apple and Microsoft, Compaqs, VisiCalc, dBase, Amazon, eBay and so on… a myriad of smart smart people with good ideas. Once investors saw the potential, venture capital groups came in and tried to find and fund the best ideas, to get in on the ground floor and (naturally) get rich trying.

What I believe this post is alluding to is that like bees to flowers, or more appropriately, like flies to whatever – there follows a group on non-techno people who see the money flowing. Their talent is not actually technical, but salesmanship. The “successful” ones know how to separate the venture investors from their money, the more the better, and actually producing a product is less important than selling a concept to investors and taking the money and running.

Some failures back then, and coming now, may have been techies who overpromised, or couldn’t do what they thought, or just missed the boat and were too late to market. But recall a HUGE number of failures back then were concepts so ludicrous or overreaching that you had to wonder how anyone thought they’d make money. (Or as Dogbert says, “neener, neener, profits are for losers.”) The worst examples were the ones concocted for the sole purpose of attracting venture capital.

OTOH they are ripping off Wall Street venture capitalists, so maybe it’s just karma.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Re: Silicon

I think that the ratio of “smart people” to “flies” is such at this point that most of Silicon Valley has turned into a fly fest. (can’t say fly-con, I gather).

Good ideas have been replaced with bad ideas, often referred to as jerk tech or what have you. “Not Hot Dog” is the sort of good idea that makes the place run, I guess.

For every good idea there are hundreds of really bad ones. The difference in the valley is that with a good enough pitch, you could get a few rounds of financing for just about anything. With the way IPOs go, they only have to hit maybe 1 in 1000 to still make a pot full of money. The other 999 solve problems nobody had to start with.

Silicon Valley of source isn’t an instruction manual. It’s observational humor, the type that is funny because it’s generally true. The characters are slight exaggerations, but they are based on something we can relate to. That says it all.

Anonymous Coward says:

I have seen this

in the computer security industry. In the early days, everyone worked hard, came up with new ideas, and were very honest people. Once everyone saw that you could make money, the jerks and thieves came out of the woodwork. Today the computer security industry in 90% snake oil being sold/marketed by who are best suited to be a member of Congress.

Max (profile) says:

Except 99.9999% of Silicon Valley never gets anywhere close to doing anything of actual significance (for others than their shareholders and suite of CEOs, and that’s IF they’re lucky) let alone “changing the world”. The few companies who truly managed doing that in the last few decades could be counted on one’s fingers alone. So yeah, if you have a good idea, the determination to pursue it and the astonishing luck to not fail immediately you MIGHT actually end up changing the world – but setting out to do that on purpose is nothing but epic stupidity.

See, you can disagree all day if you want – go “set out” to win the lottery, we can talk about this again when you’ve done that; the choice is simply not ours. The only choice we get is whether to participate, but that has nothing to do with actually winning, beyond being a requirement. If “not winning” doesn’t sound like a worthwhile experience to you, you’ve got no business playing. And the same applies to Silly Valley – in practical terms it’s a certainty you’ll fail to “change the world”; deal with it.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re:

See, you can disagree all day if you want – go "set out" to win the lottery, we can talk about this again when you’ve done that; the choice is simply not ours.

That’s not a very good analogy.

If you buy a lottery ticket, there are only two possible result states: win or lose. And there’s only one criterion that determines that state: random chance.

If you start a company, there are quite a lot of possible results between total failure and changing the world, and quite a lot of variables besides random chance. Generating profits for shareholders and CEOs is only one possible metric for success (albeit one that gets a lot more emphasis than it should, not just in SV but everywhere).

You can set out to change the world, fall short of that goal, and still achieve some form of success. I get what you’re saying about the importance of achievable goals, but you can set modest, achievable goals along the way to the big stuff.

Microsoft’s goal was "a computer on every desktop". It managed to achieve that unlikely goal. You’re right that luck had a lot to do with it. So did some pretty questionable business practices. But setting a list of achievable goals that worked toward a much bigger, more daunting goal was absolutely key to the process.

There are plenty of companies that set out to change the world, fall somewhere short of that mark, and still manage to create something of value.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

If you buy a lottery ticket, there are only two possible result states: win or lose. And there’s only one criterion that determines that state: random chance.

Someone who’s serious about winning the lottery is not going to buy "a" ticket. See above. (It’s really random chance + number of tickets bought—and chance is not involved at all if you do it right.)

Roger Strong (profile) says:

The next step in the cycle is that that techbros and carpetbaggers hire some intelligent and hardworking people to do the actual work.

Paid in company stock, which they’re not allowed to sell any time soon. But that’s OK, because they’re making a fortune. On paper.

The techbros and carpetbaggers spend all the money on parties and a Superbowl commercial, and the company disappears.

Those paid in company stock don’t merely lose it all. The IRS tells them that they’re required to pay taxes based on when they received it, when it was still worth a fortune.

Anonymous Coward says:

"It would be great if we could get more of [the good aspects]" -- Easy. HIGH INCOME TAXES.

You’ve just hit middle-age, Masnick, with the dual recognition that money isn’t the proper goal, and that those who pursue money should be limited.

Rest of my notions will emerge from you in due course. Not to same degree, you’ve so much more to un-learn, but inevitably.

Of course, you’ll think they’re your own unique enlightenment. So just let me suggest to look up the origin of this phrase: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” That’s a large item in the treasury of wisdom. You’ve (so far) essentially sold your birthright for a few trinkets.

Anonymous Coward says:

America’s obsession with money and individualism and its hysteria over the evils of “socialism” creates bloated, stagnant, corrupt monopolies that are anathema to the dynamism required for genuine innovation and progress.

Once a business has market dominance the focus instantly switches from producing attractive market offerings to optics and political lobbying and underhanded anti-competitive scheming. The lack of sensible regulation and legitimate representative democracy means that there is no other way of doing business. You must either get in the mud with the other pigs or go back to your spot on the production line.

The big Silicon Valley companies are the main force holding back the immense potential of machine learning and big data. It could transform our world – if the greedy bastards would stop insisting that they own everyone’s data. Instead of curing disease and solving economic and environmental problems – it’s being used to game elections and sell junkfood to children.

Anonymous Coward says:

Who are you talking to?

Because last time I checked the booze was all being bought by sales reps, typically on the behest of executive staff.

Yes I spent a few of my early years under the table. It had some pretty serious side effects. But the dynamic your talking about is what is being sold AT tech workers, not created by them. Tech workers tend to be pretty insecure people.

What your talking about is a bunch of people who probably didn’t party hard in college, and having got out into the real world, are now finding that those same vices, are now EXPECTED in the work place. Of course it isn’t kindness or consideration that drives this. The booze is being used as a placebo for real interpersonal relationships and mutual respect. It is the same basic dynamic used to turn girls into prostitutes.

So some sales exec runs a 6 figure bar tab turning socially awkward young men into alcoholics all over the city, and somehow if somebody grabs her ass I’m supposed to give a shit? Sorry, but I don’t distinguish between sexes when it comes to dope dealers targeting vulnerable youth.

Anonymous Coward says:


in a nutshell: keep out the riff-raff because we’re better than you?

‘Nothin plus nothin leaves nothin’. It’s a fools dream to expect morally wind driven people to “do the right thing”. Of course, Jesus haters and atheists do good things for people all the time, but what is their motive? Love has to be my motive for wanting to be kind people who, I know, hate me. That kind of love only comes from Jesus Christ. Putting up a “No Ass Hats Allowed” wall around Silicon Valley won’t fix this. This has to be fixed from within…within the hearts of mankind.
Merry Christmas

Kay (profile) says:


Hiring models for a party is pretty stupid. But at least it’s a step up for booth babes? I guess? Maybe a half step up? Ok, yeah, it’s just dumb.

As for the techbros, versus the rest of the tech world – some of the most truly evil things in history were done out of a genuine desire to make the world a better place. By people trying to make their mark. I’m not convinced that their actions stand up to scrutiny any more than the partiers.

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