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How “Silicon Valley” Nails Silicon Valley, by the New Yorker

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Short answer: Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter:

Around that time, Costolo had breakfast in San Francisco with Kara Swisher, a tech reporter and power broker who has been called “Silicon Valley’s most feared and well-liked journalist.” Conversation turned to “Silicon Valley,” the show. “People in the Valley—at least, the people I know—talk about the show all the time,” Costolo told me. “Most of them love it, oddly. I think there are a lot of people telling themselves, with varying levels of accuracy, ‘They’re satirizing those annoying tech people—not me.’” Swisher, who knows everyone, was in frequent contact with the showrunners, Mike Judge and Alec Berg. “I’ll introduce you,” she told Costolo.

The next month, Costolo had lunch with Judge and Berg in Los Angeles. They told him that they had written themselves into a corner. Their show was about an entrepreneur striving to build a company; having separated the entrepreneur from the company, they weren’t sure how to proceed. For a show that devotes a good amount of time to slapstick and gross-out sight gags, “Silicon Valley” is deceptively well-researched, and Judge and Berg had decided that the best way out of their bind was to hire a consultant who could give them more information. To their surprise, Costolo expressed interest. “We just need someone who knows how these companies work, not someone who actually ran one of them,” Berg said. Despite being overqualified, Costolo got the job.


In the pilot episode, Richard Hendricks, a shy but brilliant engineer, designs a compression algorithm—an ingenious way to make big files smaller. He later turns this innovation into a company, which he insists on calling Pied Piper. (Richard: “It’s a classic fairy tale.” Employee: “It’s about a predatory flautist who murders children in a cave.”) As his company grows, Richard becomes a nerd David beset by Goliaths: duplicitous board members, corporations trying to steal his intellectual property. Can he succeed without compromising his values? The deep irony of Richard’s situation—that his ultimate goal, presumably, is to become a Goliath himself—either has not yet come up in the writer’s room or is being tabled for later.


Every summer, when the previous season has just ended and the next season is about to be written, “Silicon Valley”’s writers and producers take a research trip to Northern California. They spend a few nights in a San Francisco hotel and fill their days with meetings: a morning tour of GitHub’s office, where the foyer is a full-size replica of the Oval Office; lunch with Barry Schuler, a former C.E.O. of AOL; an afternoon on Sand Hill Road, in Menlo Park, visiting the world’s most valuable venture-capital funds; dinner with Reid Hoffman and Mark Pincus at LB Steak. “We’ve had a few meals where it was me, Alec, and three or four billionaires,” Judge told me. “We sit back and observe the dynamic. One of them might be the alpha billionaire. Or one of them will go to the bathroom, and the others will lean in and start talking shit about him while he’s gone.” In an episode from the first season, two tech titans—former colleagues, now rivals—encounter each other at an LB Steak-like restaurant. A specific kind of awkwardness ensues: these are men who make million-dollar decisions without hesitation, but who struggle mightily with pleasantries. It’s the kind of interaction that is difficult to get right unless you’ve seen a version of it in real life.

“They’ve asked me questions about Richard’s fictional company, like whether it would actually be fundable,” Marc Andreessen, a Web pioneer and a prominent venture capitalist, told me. “The technology, as described on the show, would certainly have a major impact if it existed. Could you turn it into a viable business? Unknown. But, in fairness, you could say that about half of the companies we fund.”

Between the show’s first and second seasons, the writers waited in the lobby of Andreessen’s office, where photographs of hydrogen-bomb blasts hang on the walls. (“They’re a good way to make sure people are awake,” Andreessen’s spokesperson told me.) Then the writers were ushered into a conference room, where, for more than an hour, they sat around a blond-wood conference table while Andreessen pitched them jokes. “They weren’t terrible, either,” one of the writers told me. “I have eight dense pages of notes from that meeting. I have never heard a man speak as fast as Marc Andreessen.” None of his jokes appeared on the show in their original form, but a concept he explained—the downside of accepting too much free money from investors—became a scene in season two. In the TV version, the venture capitalist is a young woman, and the conversation begins with her interrupting Richard while he’s in the bathroom.

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