Uncanny Silicon Valley

I only started watching Silicon Valley after my wife binge-watched all existing 4 seasons of the show over a week. She told me she wanted to understand some of the jargon that me and my friends throw around during social gatherings, and that in turn made me want to verify the accuracy of their portrayal of our startup mecca. After enduring the off-base, borderline insulting caricatures in Big Bang Theory, I’ve grown more wary of pop culture interpretations of geeks and nerds.

I’m happy to report that Silicon Valley has some real substance in its episodes. Many of the episodic themes are actually based on terminology and situations that occur with real startups; the characters even spend considerable screen time explaining how things work. So far, they’ve tackled areas like capitalization tables, engineering recruiting, early startups getting over-valuated, intellectual property, acquhires, non-compete clauses, and a dozen other startup-specific terms that make up the unspoken rules of silicon valley. If these concepts sound foreign, this show is actually a great crash course in how startups work.

But when the scenarios are written semi-realistically, the humor comes from their cast of over-the-top characters. They’re mostly acted well, but the exaggerated responses, quirks, and emotional arcs take the mundane to the absurd pretty frequently. They love playing up the “software developers are a bunch of awkward nerds” stereotype for the main crew, but when the plot calls for it, will throw in the equivalent of jocks who happen to sling code, and a lady programmer or two as potential love interests.

I’ll be remiss if I didn’t mention the startling amounts of brogramming and machismo in the show’s casual interactions. I honestly can’t tell whether it’s just good ol’ fashioned Hollywood sexism, a running satire and commentary on the brogramming phenomenon, or an actual reflection of startup culture. Of course, sexism in tech is a real issue in our industry, but the way I’ve seen it manifest tends to be more subtle—and arguably more frustrating—than a loud series of penis jokes.

The uncomfortable truth is that, stripping away the quips and insults that define much of the character interaction in Silicon Valley, the substance of the show actually hits close to reality, and in its authenticity highlights some of the absurdity that we’ve built up within this technological, software-centric ecosystem. Stupid apps totally get funded; venture capitalists exhibit herd mentality in their interests; conferences are meaningless; Agile-with-a-capital-A is ridiculous way to manage software projects. Sometimes it takes framing a joke to a non-tech-startup audience to realize that the joke is meta.

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