By Lisa Suennen
First Posted at Venture Valkyrie on 4/13/2014
Last week HBO aired the first episode of a new TV series called Silicon Valley. I have seen a fair amount of formal and casual review on the show including a heated debate of whether it’s funny or not and whether it is more of a satire or closer to a reality show. A few people have commented that there are virtually no women on the show and what’s the deal? It’s just not right!
I figured I’d weigh in on that last comment, as it is a perfect example of the fine line between the debate on life imitating art and art imitating life. For the record, I thought the first episode was pretty hilarious, but because it was so self-consciously close to reality, not in spite of it.
Let’s start with the fact that the show is brought to us by Mike Judge, the guy who wrote Beavis and Butthead. Remember those guys back in the 90’s? They were two teenage nerds with no social skills who couldn’t talk to girls and always sat around on a couch wearing crappy t-shirts. Well. fast-forward to now and the big difference between that show and this one is that some of the nerds grew up and made buckets of money in the tech world while the rest are still sitting around in crappy t-shirts unable to talk to girls. In other words, the show is not a big stretch for Judge thematically.
The opening scene of Silicon Valley was priceless. It showed a half empty backyard party with Kid Rock playing to a bunch of tech geeks who are not paying attention to him, much to his annoyance. The decidedly uncool host, a recently-made millionaire via sale of his company, Goolybib, to Google, lives in a phenomenally expensive modern mansion where the party guests are being served “liquid shrimp” and the real Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, has a cameo as one of the party guests. Here is where we meet the show’s protagonists, a bunch of software app developer boy-men and their self-appointed socially inept leader, the head of the incubator where they live and work.
As the guys walk through the massive backyard of the mansion and note that the few girls present are clustered at one table, this is the patter:“Amazing how men and women always separate like this.” “Yeah, every party in Silicon Valley ends up like a Hasidic wedding.” “Not even the GoolyBib guys are talking to girls.” “They don’t need to, this house talks to girls.”
A few things about that exchange really cracked me up. For one thing, you can totally imagine that some tech guy would name his company Goolybib. In fact, the show’s lead characters themselves work at a company named Hooli (a Google-like proxy) when they are not working at the incubator. Never in the history of marketing have more stupid company names been used by so many than in Silicon Valley.
But what really caught my attention was that the show put right out in front the separation of men and women in the tech culture. This was funny to me because it is so true. And it is also not so funny for the same reason. While there are actually some women at the larger tech companies (albeit not on their boards with a few exceptions), there are really few at the start-ups and, of course, even fewer at the helm of companies or in VC partnerships. I have covered this topic ad nauseum, as you know if you follow me, but I found it pretty amusing to see this so accurately satirized on theSilicon Valley show. I was also grateful for the lack of attempt to make it politically correct for TV viewers by falsely sticking in some token women in leadership. If we are being sold a satire, let’s root it in reality, I say.
There were a few other funny small details in the first episode, called Minimum Viable Product (and viewable in its entirety HERE for free) that further amplified on this Venus/Mars dichotomy.
- In our first view of life at the male-only incubator, one of the guys is perusing the personals section of a website and telling his friends that ”…this one looking for a relationship that might become sexual in nature.”
- The head of the incubator, Ehrlich Bachman, the perfect portrayal of a self-important tech quasi-success, is wearing a t-shirt that says, “I know H.T.M.L. (How To Meet Ladies).” Clearly this guy has never had a date in his life.
- Bachman, while chastising the show’s main character Richard, for the perceived lameness of his app (which of course turns out to be worth a fortune), points to another of the programmer’s efforts, NipAlert, which gives you the location with a woman with erect nipples. “Now that’s something people want.” If you have followed the actual real lifebrouhaha about “TitStare” at the recent TechCrunch Disrupt conference, you realize that this Silicon Valley show is damn near a documentary.
Some of the comments I have seen on the Internet about Silicon Valley are that it under-represents women in the tech scene, but I have to say, I don’t think so. I think it is intentionally highlighting the true dearth of female influence at too many of these companies, and amusingly and pointedly so. There is a hilarious scene where the CEO of Hooli (a black-clad hybrid of Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, at least according to me) is talking with his spiritual advisor and while observing his employees walking around outside on the Hooli campus says, “It’s weird, these programmers: they always travel in groups of 5—tall skinny white guy, short skinny Asian guy, fat guy with pony tail, some guy with crazy facial hair and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they have the right group.” The spiritual advisor says back, “You clearly have a great understanding of humanity.” The absence of women in the quintets was un-ironic and simply understood. Yep, that’s about right.
In fact, my single favorite word in the episode was “brogrammers” apparently meant to mean male programmers who have unnaturally large amounts of swagger due to their higher place on the tech dork hierarchy; priceless.
There are only two women in the first episode of Silicon Valley. This percentage may change in future episodes, but it set a perfect tone if you are looking at this show as one comical step from reality TV. The first woman is the assistant to the Hooli CEO; she is never named and her only commentary is how amazing her boss is.
The second woman in the show, Monica, is clearly the smart, normal person who gets things done. But she is also an assistant, this time to the show’s parody of Peter Thiel (named Peter Gregory in the show) the college-hating, entrepreneur-loving tech demi-god. Monica is the one who actually does the work; the one who reviews business plans and the one who gets Peter Gregory to where he is supposed to go so he can focus his energy on how great he is. Here is the description of Monica’s character directly from the Silicon Valley/HBO website:
“Monica is Peter Gregory’s beautiful and doting assistant who handles the day-to-day duties of his tech investment business, often fielding pitches and working directly with tech folks who Peter has given money. She takes a particular interest in Richard and his algorithm from the start, encouraging her boss Peter Gregory to invest.”
I can’t help but notice that she is “beautiful” and “doting.” One so rarely sees those words used in connection with male tech mavens. Can you imagine someone calling Mark Zuckerman “beautiful” and “doting”? Steve Jobs? Peter Thiel? Yeah, me neither. Beautiful generally dresses better than a crappy t-shirt, I suppose.
Monica is also interesting because she is the only character on the show that demonstrates any human concern and empathy. While she is on a mission to stalk Richard under orders from Peter Gregory (using a creepy GPS app Gregory funded that “even Congress doesn’t know about”according to Monica) she also is the only one who tells Richard the truth about the extreme value of his technology. Monica is clearly as smart as anyone else, maybe smarter, but she is also a real person and compassionate and has high quality communications skills. She is drawn in stark contrast to pretty much everyone else in the first episode, but of course she is not in charge, relegated to a supporting cast role to the alpha males. Ah reality! Oh, wait, I mean satire.
In her kindest act, Monica gives Richard a ride home from the urgent care clinic where he has gone to attend to the panic attack he has when he finds out that both Gregory and Hooli want to pay millions for his app. I loved this scene (found at around minute 22 if you watch the show) because the doctor who treats Richard is as clueless as all the other men in the show on the EQ scale. Immediately after treating Richard, the doctor proceeds to pitch him for funding for his new panic attack prediction app, which is in prototype. So Silicon Valley.
In my favorite irony, however, I have an actual friend who has built an actual digital health product to effectively treat panic disorder and she is a female founder and CEO. Take that actual Silicon Valley!
I am looking forward to the next episode (Sundays 10pm HBO), called “The Cap Table.” I am not expecting the plight of women to get any better in the show, but I like the busman’s holiday aspect of watching my tech/VC male brethren doing what too many of them do best: be themselves in Silicon Valley. Good stuff.