In the spring of 2013, Dan Lyons worked for a Boston-based content marketing software company, Hubspot, as a “marketing fellow,” a title he’s still not really sure what it means.
“They brought me in to do blog posts, like really shitty blog posts,” he says.
Lyons’ book, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, details his time at Hubspot, but it’s more about the bigger picture of the culture inside tech start-ups and what’s happening in Silicon Valley. When his friend Alec Berg was assigned by HBO to be the showrunner for a half-hour comedy satire about Silicon Valley, he asked Lyons if he wanted to work on the third season.
“I find it interesting that Los Angeles finds Silicon Valley interesting,” says Lyons. “But being on a TV show is more like a start-up than you’d think because, in the beginning, it’s a small crew with a small budget.”
Silicon Valley: a gold mine for entertainment
Image courtesy of Valerie Macon / Stringer via Getty Images.
Before the hilarity of HBO’s Silicon Valley, the start-up tech scene was relativity untouched in the entertainment world. Sure, Aaron Sorkin penned his own version of Mark Zuckerburg for The Social Network, and there have been multiple attempts to depict the life of Steve Jobs. We’ve seen tech-related films like Hackers and work comedies, but the start-up culture and industry hasn’t really become popular until now. And now that it is, it makes for great entertainment.
“Tech has become more important in the American economy and people are more interested in it these days,” says Dan O’Keefe, writer and co-executive producer for Silicon Valley. “Normally, you wouldn’t know who the head of IBM is. It’s the perfect time to depict this white collar office space culture and poke fun at it.”
O’Keefe is right; we’ve become obsessed with tech culture. Our daily activities are tracked by apps, we’re constantly upgrading our phones, we donate to Kickstarter projects so we can feel like we’re apart of something, and we watch shows like Shark Tank for entertainment. We’re infatuated with this nerdy, yet hip culture and HBO is genius for picking up on that and being the first to really show what’s going on—because what they show on Silicon Valley is, in fact, what’s going on in Silicon Valley.
I’m guilty of being obsessed with start-up culture because I, like many of my millennial-aged peers, have worked at one. And as if in the manner some attend an Ivy League school for the name, there’s now something special about being able to say, “I work for Amazon,” or “I work at Google,” or in my case, “I worked for Warby Parker.” It almost makes you cooler than you actually are, as if working at a big tech company or a trendy start-up makes you unique. I think people look at the start-up world and see these beautiful advertisements; fashionably casual workers and companies with delicately curated Instagram feed and think it must be such a glamorous place to work.
And that’s what I think is so genius about Silicon Valley because where it finds jokes; it also nails the industry on the head. It’s so accurate, that there have been times where, as ridiculous as some of the characters are, I’ve had to take a step back from laughing and realize, “my boss actually did this” or “that’s exactly what the culture was like.”
I can’t help but think about a conversation I had with a boss from a start-up I worked for. Dressed in a pair of jeans, a dark hoodie and wearing large headphones as he quickly typed away at his shiny MacBook, he looked up as a co-worker and I discussed the show. He mentioned he’d never seen it and kind of shrugged it off, noting he wasn’t sure he wanted to watch it. He looked solemn; and muttered something about how he knows the show makes fun of people like him who started tech companies. Sometimes I wonder if he ever watched the show and realized that he was looking at a portrait of himself he didn’t want to admit was true.
After all, the definition of a satire is to poke fun at the way things are in reality—and the stories and people that come from Silicon Valley are a gold mine for entertainment.
Lyons thinks HBO’s depiction of Silicon Valley is pretty accurate, despite the main writers not being actual people who work in tech. But, the showrunner and producers have friends who work in the industry, which Lyons explains is part of HBO’s attempt to make the show accurate and funny so it feels less like a documentary.
“One of the reasons it has succeeded is that it does resonate with people,” he says. “I think people in Silicon Valley think, “They’re making fun of that other guy over there, not us.” The actual people who work in tech have huge egos and were probably never really popular, so they love the attention. Even getting put on a show and picked on, they still love it. It’s almost a badge of honor.”
How they nail tech culture
At the end of season one of the HBO satire, the main characters are preparing to pitch their company, Pied Piper, at TechCrunch Disrupt, a real-life start-up competition, where a very male heavy audience can be seen in the background. The lack of women in the audience caused viewers to complain that HBO has a diversity problem on its show with an all-male lead cast.
“That crowd scene at Disrupted…that was real footage we shot during the actual event. That’s how many women were there,” recalls O’Keefe. “Women are under represented in tech and it’s very unfortunate but the show is a satire of reality. You can’t show that when it’s not happening, we’d be irresponsible if we did.”
It’s true: women are underrepresented in tech and in order to poke fun at fictional analogs of multiple companies that exist in Silicon Valley, the shows lack of women nails the industry culture by exposing its lack of diversity.
“The myths people tell themselves, that they’re making a world a better place. The grotesque gender disparities. The personalities and egos,” are some of the things O’Keefe says he thinks the show capture best about the tech industry. “We’re just mocking the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.”
When it comes to actually writing for the show, I was curious to hear how someone who doesn’t work in tech writes about tech. More specifically, you see these characters on ‘Silicon Valley” who work as engineers and while some of their dialogue might go over my head, the show knows there are techies out there who will tear apart any mistake.
O’Keefe explains that the writers have working knowledge of the general parameters of tech jargon, and work with tech consultants who will fix dialogue for accuracy. Lyons clarifies; noting that there might be places in the script where it just says “tech jargon here” and a consultant goes in and writes something about code that makes sense.
The show even goes so far as to hire a team whose job is to make everything as detailed as possible, such as the writings on white boards or code on a computer screen. Any contract used in a scene are actual contracts—it’s all part of the show’s commitment to detail in building a believable world. It also helps that the show works with tech consultants who are actual techies—such as Twitter’s previous CEO, Dick Costolo and venture capitalist Roger McNamee.
Moreover, when I spoke with O’Keefe, he’d just returned from one of the show’s research trips, where the writers and producers spend time in San Francisco meeting with various businesses. O’Keefe explains people in Silicon Valley had kindly given up their time so they could grill them about what they do and how social networking events work.
“There are companies who will say “no thanks we don’t want you on our campus,” and one company—who was very clearly portrayed on the show—pretty much reprimanded us, telling us not to make fun of them,” says O’Keefe. “But we couldn’t do the show without the help of those people who do let us come in and talk to them about it.”
Stories come out of these research trips—for example, the Burger King sesame seed story from season one—and sometimes, being accurate can stand in the way of the creative process.
“For the most part we avoid things that are preposterous. We absorb as much tech media as possible and some companies will contact us and offer up stories about a weird thing that happened to them,” says O’Keefe, while mentioning that Hollywood, with its big personalities and people, is a lot like Silicon Valley and they’re occasionally able to draw from those types.
The show is currently working on its fourth season, which will air in 2017. Until then, the show can be streamed on HBO Go, or you can keep up on Silicon Valley news and likely get a hint of what kind of insane mockery we’ll see next season.