Posts tagged Valley
The seventh episode of Silicon Valley takes us to TechCrunch Disrupt, where we see the Pied Piper team finally hit the stage to demonstrate its highly-anticipated compression software. The real-life startup competition is the perfect arena for the Mike Judge-created comedy to expertly skewer the fledgling apps of today, with everything from micro-drones to human microwaving technology.
In “Proof of Concept,” everyone on the Pied Piper team is getting into trouble at the convention in their own little ways—Richard (Thomas Middleditch) feels slighted by an old ex, while Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) thinks he’s actually falling in love with Gilfoyle’s (Martin Starr) code, and Jared (Zach Woods) begins to feel his position being compromised by Monica (Amanda Crew). Erlich (T.J. Miller), meanwhile, has slept with the wife of one of the TCD judges and needs to prevent him from finding out.
The episode opens with Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) and company stomping the halls of Hooli. The two “brogrammers” from the beginning of the season—the ones who effectively stole Pied Piper’s compression algorithms—tell Gavin that their copycat app, Nucleus, is “optimal.”
We see Hooli’s meticulous digital chart, labeled “Project Burndown.” When we fade to Erlich’s incubator, Pied Piper’s own “Project Burndown” graph is scribbled messily on a white board—and the trend is going in the opposite direction. Despite the clear contrast between the two powers, both apps are set to debut at TechCrunch Disrupt.
Richard and the team pack their bags and head to the heart of San Francisco’s SOMA district in Erlich’s Aviato car. The convention center is bursting to the seams with groups of men in matching startup t-shirts.
Jared’s back after being stuck on Peter Gregory’s island for four days, but the still-disheveled ex-Hooli member is quickly overshadowed by Monica’s organization and adeptness. She hands out passes to the Pied Piper team and instructs them during their soundcheck; Jared’s told to man the booth.
Thrown off by his driverless car kidnapping to the island, Jared increasingly loses his grip over the team. He prints an endless stack of papers with each TCD participant’s headshot and bio, only to find out that Monica installed a facial recognition app onto each of the guys’ phones. He sadly dumps his paper stack—at least half a tree—into the garbage.
Jared heads to the bar to buy drinks for the Pied Piper team, only to find that once again, Monica beats him to the punch with shots. At one point during soundcheck, the team decides that while Jared is not essential to the group. Dinesh says, “You’re essential to the booth.”
Perhaps designed to mirror the real world, Silicon Valley’s cast notably features just one female lead. “Proof of Concept” brings three more women into the spotlight, but they’re not entirely flattering portrayals.
At the beginning of the episode, Monica reminds the team there are 2% of women in tech, but 15% at TCD. She tells them not to be distracted—just as the team gets distracted by a blonde “booth babe” in hot pink athletic gear demonstrating a new product called “Bounce Jog.”
Booth babes are everywhere in this world’s TCD, even at the table adjacent to Pied Piper’s booth. But even women can’t attract anyone to Pied Piper’s barren booth, which is only visited by an ad-spewing micro-drone that Gilfoyle tries to swat away like a fly. Much like with the driverless car, we see Jared’s inability to deal with, and almost fear, such technology.
“Hello, what’s your name?” the drone squawks.
“Whoever is controlling this, no thank you,” Jared speaks into the drone.
The Pied Piper booth catches the attention of a young woman with pink streaks in her hair. She compliments Gilfoyle on the app’s “sick” compression rates, and then asks for help coding her app, “Cupcakely.”
The Cupcakely woman, Charlotte (A.J. Michalka), seeks out Dinesh separately for extra help on Java. Dinesh, mistakenly taking the app’s code for hers and not Gilfoyle’s, falls in love with Charlotte for “her brain.” It is only revealed later that not only was Cupcakely’s beautiful code written by Gilfoyle, but Charlotte only manages the app’s Twitter account.
Ex-Pied Piper member Big Head shows up at TCD with the Hooli crew, but separates himself for a second to have a chat outside with Richard. There, Big Head tells Richard that he met Sherry Caldwell (Mary Holland), Richard’s ex-fling, at a party.
“I saw her at the ValleyWag party last night, which was crazy by the way,” says Big Head. “There must have been 12 girls there. She said you went out a couple times and she dumped you and you became obsessed with her?”
Suddenly noticing the two Hooli brogrammers coming their way, Big Head changes his tone and tells Richard loudly that “Wide Diaper” will be crushed by Nucleus.
Richard cannot stop—literally—obsessing over the fact that Charlotte said he was obsessive. He becomes so fixated on this that he ends up showing all of his team member’s her picture individually while expressing his own disbelief.
Unfortunately, Richard forgets to remove her image from his laptop before the team’s final soundcheck, and he ends up broadcasting her image on a giant screen in front of none other than Sherry herself.
Sherry is understandably disturbed by Richard’s “freak out,” only until she overhears a heated conversation between Jared and Monica. Jared is expressing his frustration at Monica for completely co-opting his role in the team, making him obsolete.
This, of course, comes off sounding to Sherry like Jared’s professed love for Richard and his commitment as a “partner” in their relationship. Believing Jared and Richard to be in a loving—gay—partnership, Sherry apologizes to Richard for mistakenly talking about his (very real) obsession with her.
Finally, Erlich’s plotline revolves around one of the TCD judges, Dan Melcher. Erlich is concerned about the biased nature of the judging, as he had slept with Dan’s wife in the past. In order to find out if Dan is still upset, Erlich seeks out Dan’s wife Madeline to clear the air.
Catching Dan leaving his hotel room, Erlich sneakily knocks on the door only to meet Dan’s new wife (Lynn Chen). Unsurprisingly, after discovering that Dan was no longer upset at Erlich’s affair with Madeline, Erlich then goes on to sleep with Dan’s new wife.
Unfazed by this romp and assured that Dan’s new wife won’t spill the beans, Erlich makes it to TCD just as Pied Piper is about to head on stage.
Silicon Valley’s TechCrunch Disrupt mercilessly jabs at startup culture, showcasing deer-in-the-headlights CEOs in team t-shirts plastered with names like “Flingual” and “Human Heater.” An overexcited emcee can’t get more than two people to cheer.
Each and every single competitor assures the audience that their app is “making the world a better place,” and that they are “local, mobile, social”—and the even better degenerate of that, “lo mo so.”
The Pied Piper team eventually makes it on stage in their dark green, Chuy Ramirez-crafted tees. Lights dim, music starts to swell, and spotlight is cast on Erlich in a turtleneck.
Only a few seconds into his presentation, Erlich is immediately blindsided by a furious Dan, who tackles him to the ground. Fist fighting erupts on stage, and the team is left stranded and wondering whether Pied Piper will ever make its debut.
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HBO’s Silicon Valley returned this week with its sixth episode, continuing to peel back the layers of California’s tech bubble and proving everything in the valley isn’t as shiny as it may seem. “Third Party Insourcing” shows us that newer and younger may not always be better—Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and the Pied Piper team enable the help of a surly teen hacker and Jared is taken hostage by a driverless car.
The episode opens up with Richard back in his doctor’s office, telling his physician that while he had learned programming language Ruby On Rails over a weekend as a teenager, the Pied Piper lead was just unable to handle programming his product for the cloud. His doctor mentions that Richard looks as if he’s aged 40 years in the past seven weeks—the amount of time since preparing for his app’s debut at startup competition TechCrunch Disrupt.
With one week left until Disrupt, the team is clearly antsy to get Pied Piper up and polished. Back at the incubator, Jared (Zach Woods), Erlich (T.J. Miller), and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) beg Richard to hire a hacker to help with cloud architecture, using their packed Scrum board as evidence that they needed to get as many jobs from “Ice Box” to “Completed” as soon as possible. The team suggests “The Carver” (Austin Abrams), a hacker notorious for taking down Bank of America.
The Pied Piper team head to a building to enlist the help of “The Carver.” Upon arrival, the crew sees what used to be a startup’s headquarters being broken down—computer monitors being carried into boxes, desks being unassembled. It is a glaring example to the team of the frailty and turnover cycle of fresh startups.
Richard, Jared, Erlich, and Dinesh walk through the floors, wide-eyed and somber like civilians witnessing the aftermath of the apocalypse. There’s a chair puncturing the wall, right over a poster exclaiming “Making The World A Better Place”. Conference rooms are littered with empty coffee cups and energy drinks.
“6 months ago, these guys had 35 million in Series B financing. Now, The Carver’s here doing teardown,” Jared remarks.
The team sees The Carver turned around and huddled over three large monitors, pushing out code. When the prominent hacker faces the group, we and the Pied Piper team learn that he is Kevin, a bratty high schooler who immediately jumps into sarcastic quips about Richard’s age.
“I thought you’d be younger,” Kevin says, “What are you, 25?”
“26,” Richard replies.
Silicon Valley’s youthful tech bubble is not a new concept, with attractive 20 to 30-year-olds ruling the roost at startups and beyond. This episode plays on the very real trend of children being indoctrinated into code, and tech companies’ search for nubile programming talent.
Kevin’s age is apparent despite his experience in engineering, as Erlich uses a blowjob joke to negotiate a deal—$20,000 for two days aiding the Pied Piper team.
By this sixth episode, we see the characters solidify their distinct style of dress for their roles. Richard continues his channeling of Zuckerberg in button-ups, hoodies, and corduroys. Dinesh wears a striped green and purple hoodie, while Jared sticks to his blazers and button-ups under sweaters.
Erlich wears a bright red Atari shirt with a full beard for a portion of the episode, only to change into a CSS3 shirt for the remainder, capturing geek chic with his novelty t-shirts.
In juxtaposition, Kevin’s colorfully striped hoodies over open button ups and t-shirts evokes a more childlike aura. “The Carver” is already eliciting markers of the “programmer” look but with a teenage twist in bright colors and graphics. He is much like a mini version Richard, truly a kid coder.
Monica (Amanda Crew) returns briefly this episode to meet with Jared and offer him a ride back to Erlich’s home in Palo Alto. She is dressed in a dark turquoise sweater, light grey pencil skirt, and delicate gold accessories, once again demonstrating her power and business savvy as Peter Gregory’s assistant through her stylish and put-together outfits.
This episode fails the Bechdel test yet again, as no women are not seen talking to each other at all. Gilfoyle’s girlfriend Tara (Milana Vayntrub) interacts solely with the men at the Pied Piper house, and another nameless woman from Peter Gregory’s company is introduced by Monica as an assistant who made a mistake. Monica and the assistant never talk, mind you, as she is explaining the woman’s mistake to Jared on the phone.
When Jared suggests going back by Lyft, Monica insists that one of Peter Gregory’s cars take him back. Jared agrees, and is met by a black driverless car. Excited and chuckling, the new Pied Piper member is shuttled off to Palo Alto.
Unfortunately, the fun ride comes abruptly to a stop as the car arbitrary changes direction to Arallon—Peter Gregory’s high-tech island hidden far in the middle of an ocean—4,000 miles away. Unable to reroute the driverless car after multiple sad pleas, Jared is taken to a port and driven into a crate which is then immediately locked up.
The crate is picked up and delivered onto a giant cargo ship—Jared, in a car, in a crate, on a ship, is being sailed away to Peter Gregory’s island.
Richard begins working with Kevin on Pied Piper’s cloud architecture. Dealing with Kevin’s difficult attitude, Richard continues to reveal vulnerability and asks the hacker to help him with the app’s data replication. After heading to the store and returning with snacks, Richard finds Kevin under the table, sobbing and terrified, and learns that Kevin had mistakenly overwritten the data scheme.
“The Carver” explains that the same thing had happened at Bank of America, that he was actually not hacking them but working as a consultant and had made a colossal coding mistake. The bank had only agreed not to sue him if he agreed not to tell a soul he had worked there.
With one week left to Disrupt, and the team flies into a panic trying to fix Kevin’s mistake.
“Richard, why would you let that little fetus access the DDM?” Gilfoyle snarls. Richard responds, “Because I thought that fetus was better than me, and so did you.”
Caught up in Silicon Valley’s youth-obsessed culture, the Pied Piper team immediately thought that because the young hacker had rumors of greatness trailing him, that Kevin had to be a programming prodigy. What they learned was not only that was not true, but “The Carver” had a tendency to create massive mistakes in his inexperience.
Richard and Kevin decide to work through the night and examine every line of code to find where the mistake lay. Finally, the two are able to remedy the problem and Pied Piper is back on track to launch. In a final testament to tech’s youth culture—the immaturity mixed with power, money, and knowledge, Kevin says, “I’m going to call my mom and have her pick me up.”
“Mom?” Richard laughs.
“By the way, you owe me 20,000 dollars,” Kevin bluntly delivers.
Jared finally reaches Arallon by the end of the episode, popping out of the driverless car and crate looking disheveled and with days of unshaven facial hair. He immediately sees a forklift engulfed in boxes heading his way. Elated and desperate, Jared shouts and flags the forklift down, only to find it is (surprise!) a driverless machine.
The final moments of the episode show a beautifully composed and thematically rich shot of Jared facing a gigantic warehouse full of self-moving machines, not a human being in sight.
Jared realizes he is alone on Peter Gregory’s island, one man amidst a thousand active machines. As these instruments meticulously build the island with unparalleled skill and intelligence, even Jared cannot connect with them on a sentient and compassionate level in order to get help.
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The Federal Trade Commission today effectively told technology companies: Go ahead and lie to consumers about your privacy protections, because even if you get caught, the most you’ll have to do is apologize. (If that.)
Snapchat, the “ephemeral” messaging service, agreed to settle FTC charges over claims that alleged it violated user privacy and deceived its customers. The company claimed that messages disappear entirely once viewed by the recipient, which they don’t, and collected user data such as location and address books without notice or consent.
The FTC charges followed a Snapchat security breach that leaked 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and phone numbers. According to the FTC, Snapchat made multiple representations to consumers that turned out to be utterly false. It also failed to properly safeguard its “Find Friends” feature—the one that led to the breach.
“If a company markets privacy and security as key selling points in pitching its service to consumers, it is critical that it keep those promises,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a statement. “Any company that makes misrepresentations to consumers about its privacy and security practices risks FTC action.”
And The Punishment Is … Nothing Much
Sounds pretty bad, right? But the price Snapchat has to pay for all this is, well, basically nothing. The FTC settlement forbids Snapchat from lying to consumers about the privacy and security of the application, and requires the company to implement a privacy program that will be independently monitored for the next two decades. (Assuming Snapchat lasts anywhere near that long, of course.)
So instead of levying a fine against the messaging startup, which has raised $123 million to date, the FTC is letting Snapchat off with a warning. The startup responded to the settlement with a “whoopsie” and a vague promise to be “more precise” in how it communicates with the Snapchat community. Even as apologies go, it leaves something to be desired.
The Snapchat settlement is in stark contrast with another Internet company that knowingly violated user privacy—in 2012, Google agreed to pay $22.5 million to settle with the FTC after it tracked Safari users who visited sites within Google’s advertising network, even though Google had told those users they would automatically be opted out of such tracking.
While $22.5 million is a drop in the bucket for Google, a multi-million dollar fine might have crimped the startup’s bid to become a mobile messaging giant. Instead, the federal government chose to let the company off easy, even though it put its users at risk.
Any company should be held accountable for their actions, whether a small startup or an industry giant like Google. Facebook, a company notorious for confusing privacy policies, settled its own $20 million lawsuit last year after a court determined its shady “Sponsored Stories” advertisements violated users’ privacy.
The Snapchat precedent is a dangerous one, especially as consumers become more aware of how their data is being used by technology companies and the government. The fact is, social media companies are way too cavalier about vacuuming up their users’ data and offering too little in return. Now both small companies and tech giants alike will look to the Snapchat ruling for support in future cases—they got off easy, so we should, too.
So here’s your lesson entrepreneurs. If you lie to users, it’s no big deal, because the government doesn’t care about your privacy either.
Image courtesy of TechCrunch on Flickr
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At ReadWrite, we can’t stop talking about HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and its uncanny depiction of the tech world we cover. So we’re going to start offering recaps of the show.
For those of you just catching on to the show, HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” created by Mike Judge, focuses on the trials and tribulations of Pied Piper, a fictional startup working on compression technologies.
Richard Hendriks is the CEO and founder of the company; Erlich Bachmann is an entrepreneur who owns 10 percent of Pied Piper from serving as Hendriks’ landlord; Dinesh Chugtai and Bertram Gilfoyle are engineers; and Jared Dunn, a former employee at tech giant Hooli, now runs business development for the startup. They’re backed by Peter Gregory, a billionaire who’s loosely based on Facebook investor Peter Thiel. Gregory’s nemesis is Gavin Belson, the CEO of Hooli, an all-encompassing tech giant modeled after Google.
The show returned this week to a bittersweet note: Episode 5, “Signaling Risk,” was the last appearance of Gregory, played by Christopher Welch, who died in December 2013 after a fight with cancer.
“Signaling Risk” deals with fundamental questions of identity: What will be the company’s logo—and why does the company even exist in the first place?
The episode sees Erlich negotiating ineptly with a Bay Area graffiti artist he hopes to employ to create Pied Piper’s new logo. We also get to see a quiet brunch showdown between moguls Peter Gregory and Gavin Belson. Their conflict, combined with a casual decision months ago by Peter, pushes up Pied Piper’s timeframe to launch.
The first scene begins with Erlich (T.J. Miller), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) driving in a car flamboyantly wrapped with the logo of Aviato, the name of a startup Erlich sold for a figure “in the low seven digits” a couple of years ago. Erlich takes his two coworkers to a rough neighborhood in order to find a graffiti artist named Chuy Ramirez, whom Erlich hopes will design a new Pied Piper logo.
Erlich says that they need “something raw” for their startup logo, rejecting Jared’s (Zach Woods) suggestion of two simple, lowercase “p”s.
“Every company in the valley has lowercase letters,” Erlich says. “Why? Because it’s safe. We aren’t going to do that. We’re going to go with Chuy.”
It’s a perfect play on the startup attitude of self-important individuality. Erlich’s focus on getting the perfect logo demonstrates the willingness to throw arbitrary amounts of money on superficial aspects of the business, while ignoring the actual product completely—all in an effort to play Pied Piper up as different.
Chuy’s response to Erlich’s offer: “So you going to give me stock options or what?”
This references the $200 million profit real-life graffiti artist David Choe made when he decorated Facebook’s headquarters in exchange for equity. Erlich stumbles through an agreement with Chuy for a logo on his garage door for $10,000. His clear discomfort with striking up deals with the artist is unfortunately paired with his lack of direction for the logo. Chuy is left with an unfortunately clean canvas.
Back at Pied Piper headquarters, Jared is also stressing “clear lines of communication” to Richard (Thomas Middleditch) because without boundaries, protocol, or a company culture, Jared believes the startup will go downhill. But it’s also clear that Jared, whose previous experience was at the highly structured world of Hooli, is uncomfortable with the looseness of a new venture.
If Erlich represents a delusionally image-obsessed aspect of startup culture, then Jared is a caricature of big-tech-company process management. Jared, who gave up a position as Gavin Belson’s director of special projects at Hooli, can’t let go of his business jargon, charts, and Scrum software-development methodology.
The characters’ wardrobe speaks to the distances between them as well. Jared is still hanging onto his Hooli roots—and before that, his time spent working in politics, with a smart haircut to match his button-ups and sweaters. Compare that to Dinesh’s track jackets and polos, Erlich’s boho sweaters, and Richard’s Zuckerberg-inspired hoodies.
Fashion evokes other power dynamics in “Silicon Valley.” Peter Gregory’s assistant, Monica (Amanda Crew), wears a fitted dark-blue dress, pumps, and a simple gold necklace. Her wavy hair and simple makeup creates a clean look that simultaneously conveys authority and distance from the startup crew.
In one shot filmed through glass doors, she’s framed in a way that divides her from Richard and Erlich, highlighting her otherness as she confronts them about Pied Piper being entered into TechCrunch Disrupt, a startup competition—a move which risks embarrassing her boss. Monica stands as Peter and Erlich sit casually on a couch. Through her body language and wardrobe, Monica’s character represents business reality—a foil against Richard’s builderly cluelessness.
The only other woman in this episode appears when Big Head (Josh Brener), a former Pied Piper employee who’s joined Hooli, meets with Gavin Belson (Matt Ross). She’s a functionary, part of a three-person Hooli team facilitating the conversation. This scene hilariously goes down the ladder of technological ingenuity rung by rung, as Big Head first meets with Gavin through a TeleHuman hologram to chat about Pied Piper’s TechCrunch Disrupt debut.
After the hologram begins to glitch and Gavin screams obscenities at his IT person, the team decide to move over to Hooli Chat, the company’s video chat system. In one of my favorite quotes of the episode, Gavin opens up Hooli Chat and says, “Ah, that’s better. Sorry. The TeleHuman is a great piece of technology. Unfortunately the broadband isn’t that great out here in rural Wyoming. That presents a great business opportunity.” The Hooli CEO moves smoothly from belligerence to upside-seeking.
The Hooli Chat also breaks up, and Gavin ends up calling Big Head, with the Hooli team looking undeniably uncomfortable in the back as they are unable to listen in on the conversation.
In the end, even the phone’s audio cannot hold up—the irony of technology not functioning in its own heartland.
Although Monica can exercise her power with Pied Piper’s team, the limits of her role show when Peter Gregory encounters Gavin Belson. Monica and Peter are out for lunch, where Peter tells the waiter, who asks if he’s enjoying his asparagus, informs him that he only eats it for the nutrients, not for enjoyment.
During their lunch, Monica alerts Peter that Gavin has just come through the door. After a failed attempt to slink away, Peter comes face to face with Gavin in front of a sitting Monica. Peter and Gavin fumble through pleasantries and conversation about Jackson Hole, as Monica watches silently.
With those examples of women standing by mute as men have conversations in front of them, this episode neatly fails the Bechdel Test, a standard proposed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which requires that two women in a work of fiction talk to each other about something other than a man. It’s hard to see how future episodes will do better, since Monica is the only female regular on the show.
Gavin mentions that he is going to be the keynote speaker at TechCrunch Disrupt, and that he will unveil Nucleus, a technological rival to Pied Piper’s compression product, at the event. This makes Pied Piper’s launch at the event all the more crucial. Pied Piper is becoming a plaything of billionaires more interested in embarrassing each other than building new technology.
After Chuy reveals an unspeakably obscene mural on the garage door of Pied Piper’s suburban-ranch-house headquarters, Erlich finally gets the logo he was looking for. Chuy creates a simple green block with two lowercase “p”s overlapping in the middle—just like Jared had proposed, but for an extra $10,000. Chuy takes back the original mural, and Erlich gets the bragging rights of telling people that Chuy Ramirez designed the logo.
At the end of the episode, we see Gavin looking out of his Hooli headquarter windows towards Chuy’s original Pied Piper logo on Erlich’s garage door. We learn he spent $500,000 to buy it—a last lesson in how Silicon Valley values appearances over substance.
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I hit the streets of San Francisco on an all-too-warm afternoon with camera and notebook in tow, scouting for people wearing what I thought of as the “tech uniform”—the studiedly casual California look associated with startup culture.
You know the look—company T-shirt, jeans, and the omnipresent hoodie. You’ve seen this fresh-from-the-dorm look in films like The Social Network and now in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” the series that cunningly stereotypes the Bay Area’s tech scene. Does reality reflect the Hollywood stereotype?
I grew up in the Bay Area, so I already had an idea in my head, shaped both by pop-culture images and my own lived reality. Documenting the style, I hoped, might make me question my assumptions, as well as understand the genesis of this tech style—if indeed there was a singular style to be found.
In my head, the tech uniform looked a lot like this:
The Tech Uniform: Programmer Drag?
As noted fashion thinker and ReadWrite muse RuPaul once noted, we are born naked. The rest is drag.
So even as a software developer grabs whatever’s clean in his dresser, the choices he makes reflect the culture he lives and works in. Perhaps it’s not drag as much as code—an algorithm designed around efficiency. Whatever you call it, it’s a social construction, not something you’re born with or issued when your plane lands at SFO.
The hints are all there: the branded tees and hoodies, the two-wheeled transportation, the stubbly face in transition from a goatee to a beard. Yes, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made hoodies and Adidas flip-flops famous—or infamous. But this image isn’t based on any single person’s reality. It’s an amalgamation of many converging ideas of what startup culture looks like.
The idea of a tech uniform, we should note, is also stereotypically male—not so much gendered as male by default, created with the presumption of a male-dominated tech community. It’s the intersection of many depictions of the “tech guy”, bred both within the culture and outside of it. As author and early Facebook employee Kate Losse wrote, the myth of the “brogrammer” is more a creation of the media than a reflection of reality. Now startup employees are emulating the stereotype, wherein lies its danger.
What’s wrong with T-shirts and jeans, you might ask? On the surface, nothing. But the idea of a uniform, whether prescribed by authority or by social pressures, raises questions about who’s wearing it, and hence in the group, and who’s outside. Without a uniform, there can’t be an other to exclude.
— Tekla Perry (@TeklaPerry) April 24, 2014
Perhaps it’s the trickle-up effect within the tech community: Young startup entrepreneurs straight out of university carry their casual academic dress into the workplace, from whiteboard sessions to board meetings. In a culture that worships young founders, the startup boss in the graphic tee and cargo shorts sets the tone for the rest of the company.
Suddenly, coworkers and investors are dressing to match the man—and so often it’s a man—at the top. Newer employees follow suit. Next thing you know, the whole company looks like it would fit in a lecture hall.
There’s also a trickle-down effect, as external representations in film and TV weigh on people’s fashion choices.
Think about Mark Zuckerberg. Now think about Jessie Eisenberg playing Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Then think about Andy Samberg parodying Jessie Eisenberg playing Mark Zuckerberg in the The Social Network. Suddenly, the image of the “guy who works in tech” is not only cemented in the minds of the tech community themselves, through three layers of representation and imitation.
Madame Tussauds recently revealed a waxen, shoeless Mark Zuckerberg, with a T-shirt, hoodie, jeans, and brandless MacBook. (Apple’s always so fussy about its appearance.) Along with being barefoot—not a look he’s styled for almost a decade—he’s also sitting in a chair cross-legged, which is pushing the chill factor pretty hard. This is the image that will greet tourists from all over the world, an image that will affirm and reify their idea of Silicon Valley.
It doesn’t matter that the Zuckerberg figure doesn’t look much like the nearly 30-year-old man who took the stage recently at a Facebook developer conference. The tech guy turns into a costume, and programmer drag comes into existence.
The Brogrammer Myth Becomes Reality
If brogrammers did not exist, the producers of “Silicon Valley” would have to invent them. As Losse, the early Facebook employee, noted in her essay on the myth of the brogrammer, the term, a portmanteau of “bro” and “programmer,” gained traction in the media in recent years despite starting as an inside joke, a mocking of overcompensatory masculinity among programmers who recognized that their profession was not particularly butch. A developer who rejected “typical” programmer personality traits like nerdiness and introversion in favor of the sporty gregariousness of a college jock or fraternity pledge would not have fit in well at Facebook or anywhere.
Yet as startups and technology became a sexy, mainstream phenomenon, and programming widens in its appeal, the “brogrammer” myth, picked up by the media, turns into an ideal. You can have it all, kids—startup riches and bro-sanctioned masculinity! Thus the uneasy marriage of the hoodie and the Under Armour compression T-shirt, the hipster bike pants and the designer jeans in today’s Silicon Valley.
If watching HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” which paints brogrammers as code-typing, conniving bullies in tight T-shirts with the wrong kind of Valley accent, hurts a little, it’s because it cuts too close to the truth.
Take a stroll around San Francisco’s South of Market district, though, and you’ll see fewer fist bumps and spandex tees and more men who look like the show’s main character, Richard, in his button-up shirt and slacks.
And that’s where “Silicon Valley” inches closer to the real deal. The parody approaches parity with reality.
The Street Styles Of SoMa
I wasn’t going to find the answers watching TV shows or reading essays on the Web, so I decided to set out and document San Francisco’s real styles.
Setting forth from ReadWrite’s San Francisco headquarters—at Third and Townsend, a block away from Caltrain and in the heart of SoMa, I began my search for the real tech uniform.
Scouting people for photos in such an enclosed tech bubble is not an easy feat. Everyone has somewhere to go, lunch to get, people to meet.
Marcus Ubungen, a film director who works out of downtown San Francisco at Goodby Silverstein, stopped to pose before hopping into an Uber—reminding us that the apps on one’s phone are as much a part of the uniform as the T-shirt on one’s body.
The trend seemed to be stylishly casual from the start. San Francisco favors comfort over fussy and complicated outfits.
Kanyi Maqubela, a venture partner at Collaborative Fund, says most of his colleagues wear limited-edition sneakers to work—an option that combines a studied ease with deliberate self-expression.
I caught up with Vijay Karunamurthy of Avos in line at Philz Coffee. Karunamurthy, who helped create Avos’s Mixbit video app, doesn’t think Silicon Valley techies pay too much attention to what other people wear. That leads individuals to feel more free to be who they are. He calls it “casual with a purpose.”
A Flock Of Coders
HBO’s “Silicon Valley” paints groups of programmers as a stereotyped flock of five—”a tall skinny white guy, short skinny Asian guy, fat guy with a ponytail, some guy with crazy facial hair, and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.”
This stereotype defied discovery—I couldn’t find a group like this if I tried. But I did catch this trio emerging from GitHub’s San Francisco headquarters.
These three GitHubbers took a different stance towards tech culture’s widespread dress-for-comfort attitude.
GitHub’s David Newman describes that attitude as “intentionally casual.”
He explained that often in a tech company, newer employees will want to wear clothes marked with the company logo in order to represent the brand.
After the initial phase of decking themselves out in head-to-toe company merch, employees then go through a period of distancing from the brand.
The science of a tech company shirt is really complex. Wearing newer shirts could signify a newbie—a new hire. Non-company shirts may be worn by a longtime staffer comfortable in his role. Or these longstanding employees might also wear older company T-shirts, with outdated logos, to indicate all the years they’ve put in.
At this point in the conversation I felt as though I was being taught the etiquette of a 17th-century French court.
This idea that specific T-shirt customs within a tech company can follow certain rules and imply meaning, power, and hierarchy is a fascinating one.
It’s an example of how the everyday fashion choices of bosses and coworkers influences others in the company. Employees may not judge one another for their brand of plaid for the day, but a 2008-era GitHub shirt? That alone speaks volumes.
Logowear also makes statements about class and attitude towards wealth.
Jake Boxer, a developer at GitHub, points out that most people in tech just wear what they can get for free. That conveys a certain attitude towards material possessions that’s common in the tech culture.
Yet there remains a yearning for more: Dressed in GitHub’s signature Octocat-branded hoodie alongside his sweater-clad colleagues, Boxer tells me he regularly looks towards his more fashion-forward coworkers for style inspiration, because as he puts it, using video-game-inspired slang, “We could all level up a little bit.” Not that one has much to aspire to. It’s hard to level up when the average level is so low. Fabian Perez, a designer at GitHub who comes from the northeastern U.S., finds fashion in San Francisco’s tech culture uninspired compared to what he’s used to.
A Moving Target
I caught Lumen Sivitz, CEO of Mighty Spring, next to his bike. Besides leaving a smaller carbon footprint, this choice of transportation plays a huge part in one’s work attire. (Try biking to work in a three-piece suit.)
Sivitz says that his outfit depends on the context of his day. He’ll wear a button-up for business meetings, for example. He says none of his colleagues appear to invest too much in what he’s wearing—again, a theme that in tech, you dress for yourself.
MyProject engineer Dan Wiesenthal agrees that the tech bubble is a relatively judgement-free zone in terms of fashion, where comfort and individuality take precedent over getting in the good style graces of a colleague.
What I appreciated most was the idea that all that mattered in getting ready in the morning was their happiness for the day. Sivitz and Wiesenthal explained that “… it’s all about the right T-shirt,” paired with some brown boots or sneakers. So much meaning in such simple garb.
So maybe TV does get it right sometimes. I saw bits and pieces of my stereotypical tech-guy avatar at various points in my photo journey; a fixie bike here, some Warby Parker glasses there, and company T-shirts everywhere.
Like so many other styles of clothing, the tech uniform is a mishmash of street style and mainstream influences. Through it all, there’s a fundamental idea: Dressing not for success, but for happiness. It’s a dream we can all aspire to—if only putting on the uniform was all we had to do to live the fantasy of today’s Silicon Valley.
Photos by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite
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While Silicon Valley obsesses over which social app Facebook will acquire next for $19 billion, an unsung fleet of entrepreneurs and philanthropists are doggedly working to empower the developing world. Chelsea Clinton took the stage at SXSW 2014 to highlight the tech industry’s vast potential for social good on a global scale.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not all glamorous work—Clinton said the word diarrhea no less than ten times in her hour on stage—but the stakes couldn’t be higher nor the time more right.
“Throughout the 20th century, individuals who wanted to engage in philanthropy had limited ways to do so,” said Clinton, former first daughter and current vice chair of her family’s philanthropic powerhouse, the Clinton Foundation. “Technology has disrupted the very nature of how we can improve the world by empowering individuals to make a difference,” she said. “Giving, volunteering and contributing all have been democratized like never before.”
Thinking Outside The Snowglobe
Many challenges in what Clinton calls the “development space” would probably never occur to those head down chasing exorbitant rounds of venture capital for the next Big Big Thing. Take, for instance, Sproxil, a service that provides citizens of Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and India to authenticate medications through simple text messaging. Sproxil tackles a challenge with a human price of 700,000 deaths each year, largely due to counterfeit anti-malerial and TB drugs.
Other segments of development tech are better known. Kiva, a microfinance non-profit, lets ordinary folks lend small amounts of money to create opportunities and ameliorate poverty in 73 countries. M-PESA, a small value payments and store of value service, brings banking to Kenyans with even the most basic mobile phones.
Toppling The Silos
Clinton stresses that while “first” may be best in Silicon Valley, best is actually best in development tech. Creating an efficient, thoughtfully conceived tool—one that’s affordable, easy to distribute and meets the particular needs of a developing zone—is far more critical than being first out of the gate.
Many of us take cultural privileges like reliable pharmaceuticals, loan institutions and ready access to basic banking for granted. But in the developing world, these tools are powerful beyond imagination. Getting them right is important. So is a spirit of collaboration rather than the hyper-competitive silo mentality held by much of the industry.
Yet another huge challenge in the field of development tech is a dearth of data, which makes it hard to just to get a handle on the challenges at hand—never mind tracking progress. “It’s hard to standardize data that doesn’t exist,” Clinton said.
While developed nations are quantifying the minutiae of their morning runs and TV habits, over in the Congo, two-thirds of births aren’t ever recorded. Robust, big, aggregated data is a steep obstacle in countries that still struggle to meet far more basic needs than quantifying their own problems.
Political corruption in many of these development zones is systemic, which makes international aid efforts tricky. Easy, transparent technology systems that track where the money goes is another layer to tackle. “Technology has the potential to revolutionize the way development measures, reports and analyzes the success and failures of its work,” Clinton said. “I know that the work we’re doing [at the Clinton Foundation] has impact because we’re obsessed with tracking data and results.”
These are tough problems, but they’re certainly not impossible to solve. The biggest problem of all? The fact that the tech community hasn’t yet disrupted what disrupts so many lives in the developing world.
Lead image by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite
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