'Silicon Valley' Nails the Bay Area's Tech Culture

CIO.com's Tom Kaneshige had resisted watching HBO's new comedy about life in the Silicon Valley. After all, he's lived it since the '90s. But a funny thing happened during his week of binge viewing.

In the premier of the new HBO comedy, "Silicon Valley," a young techie is throwing a lavish private party after Google acquired his company for $200 million. He's standing on a backyard stage next to his "good friend" Kid Rock and excitedly shouting to a small, largely uninterested crowd of techies, models and tech icons -- and he delivers, in perfect pitch, the great Silicon Valley lie:

"Hello! Woo! I've got seven words for you: I. Love. Goolybibs. Integrated. Multi. Platform. Functionality. Yeah! But seriously, a few days ago, when we were sitting down with Barack Obama, I turned to these guys and said, OK, we're making a lot of money and, 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."

While I'm late to the new series having watched all three episodes just this week even though the show premiered earlier this month, I've heard this kind of jargon for years as a tech reporter, especially the part about making the world a better place. I couldn't stop laughing and smiling. The thought that sprung to mind was that creator, producer and director Mike Judge, a former Silicon Valley engineer and maker of the tech-cult movie classic "Office Space," had nailed it.

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Mike Judge (creator/executive producer, writer and director for HBO's comedy series "Silicon Valley") poses at the show's Los Angeles premiere earlier this month. Image credit: Reuters

Practically every tech marketer describes their product using undecipherable words that inflate its benefits. They claim their product will indeed make the world a better place, from the paperless office that saves trees to the social network that brings humanity closer together to, most recently, the "Internet of Things" that promises to collect data, optimize energy use, combat climate change and basically save the planet.

But we all know this higher-calling stuff is really a red herring that makes us work hard and feel good about ourselves in the process. What really matters are the stock options and the millions of dollars whipping around the valley like a fitful breeze.

Silicon Valley is chock full of such contradictions and untruths, and the comedic bent by the new HBO series -- in this case, exposing the silliness in a speech that no one is listening to made by an overnight-millionaire -- is perhaps the only way to expose the tech culture's absurdity.

"Silicon Valley" really does depict Silicon Valley life (although, like most comedies, the show plays everything stereotypically over-the-top). There are surreal office playgrounds replacing the grey sea of cubicles that were once home to the GenX workforce. There are oddball executives spending money like they're playing a Monopoly game. And there are the mostly male, anti-social techies who cling to each other so as not to find themselves alone. For these things, the show should be a hit.

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At some point, though, Judge will have to look at the seedy underbelly of Silicon Valley and figure out how to tell those stories humorously. Right now, there are three sticking points.

First, the tech industry has a nasty habit of casting older workers aside. As I watched "Silicon Valley," I began wondering what "Office Space" techies Michael Bolton and Samir Nagheenanajar, played brilliantly by David Herman and Ajay Naidu, respectively, were up to today. They can't be too happy about all the changes. My guess is they're unemployed and being told -- somewhat deludedly -- to increase their skills in order to find work. Perhaps they'll appear on an episode of "Silicon Valley."

Second, the show lacks a sense of doom -- that all this is but a dream. Today's app-making bubble looks eerily similar to the dot-com days when venture capitalists ignored traditional financial measurements, such as price-to-earnings ratio, and instead fueled startups to quickly reach sky-high valuations with, predictably, devastating results. To be fair, "Silicon Valley" does a good job of showing a dream-like world where meetings are conducted on bicycles. But this Silicon Valley story doesn't have a fairytale ending.

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Lastly, a backlash is happening right now in San Francisco, where techies are unfairly ridiculed and harassed for their big paychecks. Techies are causing gentrification, activists say, forcing less-affluent people to flee the city for cheaper digs. Recently, activists have vomited on a Google bus. A tech reporter had his Google Glass torn off his face and smashed. Activists showed up at a venture capitalist's home and protested. There's not much room for humor in this heated conflict, yet to ignore it would strip the shine of truth from the show.

And the truth -- or at least exposing the lies -- is what makes "Silicon Valley" such a fun show. I've been covering Silicon Valley since the mid-1990s and wasn't looking forward to watching it because I didn't think I'd see anything new. I was pleasantly surprised. Everything was familiar, of course, but what was new was something I wasn't expecting: the humor of it all.

'Tis the age of the geek, the meek inheriting the earth, and so you know it just has to be fertile funny ground. In my line of work, I've been a part of this silly valley every day. After all, Goolybibs is an industry leading provider of a scalable, robust solution offering integrated, multi-platform functionality. What's not to love?

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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