How HBO’s Silicon Valley Captures the Startup Experience — The Startup Tapes #034

– Alright, cool, so I was going to say, it feels like we’ve known
each other for a decade, but we actually have known
each other for a decade. – So it doesn’t just feel, it’s reality. – And, of all things,
I tend to forget this, because I think I’d rather forget it, but we met through Craigslist. You put an ad on Craigslist and I answered it and I survived it. – Yeah, I was trying
to learn Ruby on Rails, like, back in the day
when it was a new thing and I was living in DC at the time and while there was a lot of technology with the defense industry, I was very unsure if there
was going to be anyone poking around with new
technologies at the time. – Yeah, and I answered, and
I lived to tell the tale, and you went on to do a
bunch of different things, you worked for tech companies,
you built your own startup, you went through Techstars,
you know, built Vizify, ended up being acquired by Yahoo, and went through that whole experience, and now you’re working for this
show, Silicon Valley, right? When did you start working for them? – So, I began working for
them at the end of June, and in fact I decided to leave Yahoo, this was following the acquisition, so having done the startup story, and as it turned out they
were looking for a replacement for what they call the lead
technical advisor role. The short version of
it is that it’s my job to make sure that all the
tech is true and accurate. – And tech means more than
just a whiteboard detail or a code snippet, right? It’s so pervasive in the world of the show that I’ve heard you talk about
how you have to think about, does the company feel real? Are the motivations of the characters that of a real person in a startup? And of course, down to details of making sure that
technical words being used and technical snippets
being used are accurate. – Yeah, it’s actually quite challenging, but it’s really everything
from high to low, and the little details are
sort of the easiest pieces to get right. The harder thing is, first and foremost, it’s a show that’s telling stories about people in a startup, and so, we often start there. What would you be thinking
about in this situation? What would you be doing? There’s a lot of effort
made by the writers, who are tremendously
talented, to try and seize on, what are the emotionally-salient things that would be going on, what are the characters’ motivations, how would that all be put together? And so, we often start there. – Right, and I have friends
in Silicon Valley, the place, that always comment on the show being very technically accurate, but I think what they usually mean is it’s very emotionally accurate, it reminds them of their own
struggle, their own battle, their own motivation
and reaction to sayings, and I think, you know, it’s funny how the show sometimes gets
credit for getting the small, technical details right when the writing has
just been really stellar throughout the seasons. – Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing that’s most impressed
me about the writers. I mean, they’re such great
natural storytellers, but really seizing on, we’ll
hear an interesting anecdote or I’ll tell them about an experience and they’ll be like, oh,
what you mean by that or what the most
interesting aspect of it is, and you’re like, yeah, you’re right. It’s rarely a technical detail, that’s kind of the icing on the cake, but it’s much more often
what you were going through when you were experiencing that. – So, has it taught you a lot, in kind of how you think
about Silicon Valley and how you look at Silicon Valley, ’cause now you’ve been working
out of L.A. for a little bit, and you go back to SF every now and then, do you look at it differently? – Yeah, a little bit. As you know, it’s very much
its own hot house bubble, so you go in, you come back and you have a unique perspective on it. I had the pleasure of going
back with the writing team, and so getting to see their reaction. They’ve been going every
year on a field trip and we’d meet a lot of
people sort of up and down the value chain. One of the most interesting things to me is how much the core
of the Valley has this almost chip on its
shoulder that it’s small, that it’s fighting giants, but in fact, technology has become 40% of our economy and I think the writers are
very aware of this dichotomy sometimes between you
know, what people say or how they think about themselves and sort of the actual
numbers and influence that technology wields. – There must be a lot of
comedy to mine from that. It’s like a big dog thinking its small or a small dog thinking
it’s really, really big. Just that contrast is kind of striking. But so, how does the show get written? It seems like it’s only on the
air for like 10 weeks a year, but it’s a big, big effort that
involves hundreds of people. – Yeah, so, it’s actually an incredibly overwhelming effort when you see it in practice. It’s kind of daunting, and it’s been one of the
most fascinating things working on it, but it really has sort
of three components. So, there are 10 episodes, and it takes a good eight to ten months to really go from beginning
to end of the process. But, the first third is writing, and so I’ll sit with the
writers in the writers’ room, and it’s really just breaking story, and you talk about narrative arcs, and those become outlines, and the outlines become paper outlines, the paper outlines become scripts, and the scripts over time
become shooting scripts. But, aside from this writing process, which is really getting the details right, figuring out how to get
the characters from A to B, then you roll into the actual production, which is the filming, and
that, as you might imagine, is a wild, crazy thing itself. – So, I’m surprised, right, ’cause the taping seems like
it takes like four months, from what you told me before
and the writing, ahead of that, takes another four months. – It does, and then there’s
another four-ish months of post-production, too. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of, they often shoot extra tape so
they have to cut things back, there are small adjustments
that need to be made, and there is the effects, so some of the tech stuff that they show they may film actual code on a monitor, but in many cases, that stuff actually gets green screened on after the fact. – Still, a lot of the show
it seems is, you know, I was surprised, the set, you know, I went and took a tour of it, but the
set is actually like a house, and you can go from room to room, and the computers are all there, the way that you see them on the show, and so much of it really
feels like being in Palo Alto, really being in one of those
houses we’ve all been in, but you know, it’s constructed
as a kind of continuous set and continuous element. – Yeah, I mean, it’s
really interesting to see how the structure itself
is designed in such a way that you can get cameras and
lights where you need them to, but in fact, it’s actually based
off a real Palo Alto house, so, it’s quite accurate. With the quality of cameras
and everything else today, it’s amazing, there’s a
construction team who’s essentially building on a sound stage
more-or-less a real house, which is where the shooting takes place. – And its just, you know, as
you were observing earlier, it’s just heightened. The house is real, but just
more so than a real house, and a lot of the characters
in the situation, of course they’re not exactly
real, but they’re grounded in that emotional core of what
you’re doing in a startup. – Yeah, and in some senses, like any novel just has
the good bits in it, we hear really interesting stories. People are sometimes a little
bit more open talking to us since we’re not technically
in the Valley now, and as a result of it, in
some senses you hear the best anecdotes and we’re able
to kind of cherry pick. ‘Cause no real startup would
ever encounter everything that Richard and the
guys have encountered, but where we try to be true
is everything they encounter has happened to someone that we know. – And that must be nice,
and you said the good bits, but in fact, it’s a lot of the bad bits, that sometimes you don’t want
to hear about Silicon Valley because, you know, the press and investors and just the general structure
of Silicon Valley as a place seems to really encourage you
to, kind of, promote yourself and only talk about the right things and having your startup
always being so great, and on such a, crushing it, right? So, it’s interesting that
you guys are able to get the peak at the other stuff
that happens all the time, which is the failures and
the mistakes and the egos and everything else. – Yeah, no one likes to
talk about it in the Valley, and it’s not talked about enough,
but it’s still the reality for most startups is failure,
at the end of the day. And I think the writers are
sort of keenly aware of that and really love that. I mean, there are real stakes
here, it’s not a fait accompli that you’re going to make it. – And so, it feels like
from the outside that maybe the essential balance
of the show was kind of negotiating this need for narrative arc and something that’s
very engaging to viewers but also remaining technically accurate. Do you find those things to be
at odds, working on the show? Or are they not? – It’s a bit of a push-and-pull, but you know, the writing
process, like coding, is actually so iterative, and so sometimes you’ll
actually start with an anecdote or a story or an experience
and work backwards, and say, okay, what’s the emotional arc? Sometimes, in fact, a character’s
located at a certain point and there’s a story they want to tell. Then you need to think through how technology can play a role and sometimes you go back
and forth and you realize this is a dead end and
we’re going to end up with 15 minutes of
Richard coding on screen. Which is not an interesting
thing to go ahead and see. So, it’s a push-pull process. I guess I’m a little bit
more forgiving, or used to, that process, just having been in tech, which is a process of iteration and I actually began by
career in publishing, so it’s sort of this process
of breaking and rebreaking and going over it again,
trying to make it better, faster, stronger, is
something I’m kind of used to.

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