A review of Antonio Garcia Martinez, Chaos Monkeys: Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine
With the continuing rise of the FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google), we hear a lot these days about developing the digital economy. Much of the talk is about instilling a “Silicon Valley culture” in Australian business. The Prime Minister wants us to be “innovative and agile”. Most of the talk is overwhelmingly positive.
But perhaps you’ve seen Four Corners have a go at Facebook (Greste et al., 2017), or you’ve tut-tutted about Uber after its founding CEO was forced to resign (ABC, 2017), or perhaps you’ve been shocked by revelations of sexual harassment in “Silicon Valley” by the New York Times (Benner, 2017), and you may be wondering just how deep into the “culture” all this bad stuff goes. This book, Chaos Monkeys (García Martínez, 2016), by “Silicon Valley insider”, Antonio García Martínez, may help you to understand. And the conclusion: it goes very deep – root-and-branch deep – and we should be cautious about what parts of “Silicon Valley culture” we really want in Australia.
Living the Life
In this book, Mr García presents himself as a self-centred, greedy, sexist, vaguely racist operator, who will lie to and cheat his closest colleagues, and generally exploit anyone who comes into his orbit. In his view, this personality perfectly matches most of the people with whom he has dealings. He does encounter some people who seem to be motivated by something other than money, but they are just grist for the exploitation mill.
He begins his story with a brief account of his experiences at Goldman Sachs in New York, after an unhappy (and relatively impoverished) period as a graduate student in California. He describes some appalling behaviour in the workplace that is encouraged, or at least not discouraged, by the management. At Goldman Sachs, he has some useful skills as a “quant” (a quantitative analyst) but that will only carry him so far and he will always be just a small cog in a big wheel. So, he decides to jump ship to “Silicon Valley” when the opportunity arises.
Mr García was recruited by Adchemy, a start-up company developing software for digital marketing campaigns. Although he finds that he despises almost everyone there, especially the founder and CEO, Murthy Nukala, Mr García is introduced to the world of online advertising and gains knowledge that will later stand him in good stead. Adchemy, it turns out, had recruited a strong team: it was later acquired by Walmart (Perez, 2014) for its talent (not including Mr Nukala).
Now, Mr García is not a large company man. His attitude is summed up in the following quote:
I would always prefer … being subject to the rigors of the market, the fickleness of luck, and the whims of users than to navigate the popularity-contest politics of a large company, surrounded by the mediocre duffers who’ve succeeded in life through nothing more than guile and appearances. (García Martínez, 2016; pp. 30-31)
In short, Mr García wished to be in the start-up game, and so he entered it with two colleagues from Adchemy, playing somewhat loosely with Adchemy’s resources and intellectual property, and with the luck of being accepted by “Y Combinator”, a successful incubator of start-ups. He details the machinations involved in creating, supporting and eventually “selling” his company, a three-person start-up. By this stage, the reader will not be surprised that honesty, integrity and transparency do not figure often in this story. Mr García’s attitude wavers between admiring his own performance and noting the lack of an ethical basis. This account, however, which takes up about 40% of the book, is quite instructive about the start-up “culture” and is well worth reading by anyone contemplating such a move. It could also be of interest to any company regulator who might seek to tame this new Wild West.
The “selling” of the company is especially instructive. It is acquired by Twitter but Mr García, in a move that undercuts his colleagues, sells himself separately to Facebook. He makes the case that he did not do well, or did not do as well as he should have, out of this deal, but it certainly displayed a depleted level of trustworthiness.
Mr García’s time at Facebook, which is described in the second half of the book, has been a selling point, because he was there at an important time, when Facebook was preparing for its IPO, and he was in the heart of the money-making part, the online advertising. He tells an interesting story. Of course, it was not going to end well, given Mr García’s attitude to large companies quoted above (but, to be fair, he may not have developed his dislike before he went to Facebook). He survived two years, from April 2011 to April 2013. Then he was fired, mostly, it seems, for not being a team player.
You may want to read this book to find out how Facebook organises itself. In many ways, it is quite impressive: Mr García reports several instances when the company could move quickly to concentrate resources on a project; and it appears to react positively to ideas percolating up from the workers. Mr García, of course, dislikes all the meetings associated with his job as a product manager, but he develops a grudging (and somewhat surprising) respect for Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, and her ability to manage in a complex, technical environment.
You may also want to read this book to find out how online advertising works to produce such rivers of gold for Facebook and Google. In this, Mr García is quite instructive. He worked on an open advertising exchange, to permit potential advertisers to bid in real time for Facebook advertising space, so he knows all the details and writes about them clearly. He also describes what user privacy means in this context: no direct identity information is revealed but a lot of potentially defining characteristics can be mined for value. You may be left wondering if it is at all satisfactory.
It’s Not Just Sexism
All this is set firmly in the context of “Silicon Valley culture” and the murky underpinnings of this “culture” are well on show. Let us start with sexism. Mr García’s contempt for “most women” is telling:
Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, cosseted and naïve despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit. They have their self-regarding entitlement feminism, and ceaselessly vaunt their independence, but the reality is, come the epidemic plague or foreign invasion, they’d become precisely the sort of useless baggage you’d trade for a box of shotgun shells or a jerry can of diesel. (García Martínez, 2016; p. 57).
His sexism runs quite deep and extends to most of the professional women around him (with the notable exception of Ms Sandberg). He is also a binge drinker and a dangerous driver. He thinks of himself as more streetwise than most ordinary folk. None of these attributes will likely endear him to the reader.
While we now hear about sexist attitudes in “Silicon Valley”, it is not just sexism that is the problem. Mr García could also be accused of racism. At least, although he comes into contact with several Indian or Indian-American managers, he seems to find none of them competent in their positions. He rightly points out parallels between the US visa system and the slave trade, but he exhibits little sympathy for those caught up in it. This is all despite his recognition that his own Cuban-American background restricts his own opportunities.
But perhaps the worst of it is the business “culture” around funding and operating start-up companies that Mr García describes. It involves misrepresentation, if not downright lying, cheating one’s colleagues and potential business partners, and generally carrying on in ways that would cause great distress in a more regulated business environment. It is significant that the review of the book in the Australian Financial Review (Shapiro, 2016) praises Mr García as having “the smarts and the hustle to thrive at the centre of the new economy” and notes the “fantastic and colourful insights into the greed and politics at play”, while only mildly condemning the surrounding environment as “making us feel a little less envious” of “the centre of the universe”. It is to be hoped that this “start-up culture” has not now become so normalised that it passes without comment.
In using this book to condemn “Silicon Valley culture”, one must ask just how much of an insider Mr García really was. He certainly worked in a start-up and founded one himself, he worked for Facebook and negotiated with other businesses that are household names, and he exercised his “smarts” and “hustle” in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and surrounds. In all that, he was a consummate insider. But he shows little comprehension of any motivation other than greed, he has little compassion for foreign workers trapped in an alien environment, and he is contemptuous of those who attempt to build a traditional career. In all those ways, he is sitting outside and observing his fellow participants in the “culture”. Perhaps there are redeeming features in the behaviour of others that he does not see.
Antonio García Martínez writes well and has done us all a service by describing the real “Silicon Valley” as he sees it. He has an intelligent eye for an illuminating historical parallel, so he can paint a well-rounded picture for the attentive reader.
There are lessons to be learnt from this story and it would be good if it were widely read by policy makers and those in a position to influence business culture. It is to be earnestly hoped that these US “start-up culture” practices are not adopted holus-bolus in Australia in our zeal to emulate our American cousins. Getting the balance right between free-ranging entrepreneurialism and business regulation will need to be finely judged.
At the same time, Mr García is self-absorbed and there are regular self-indulgent passages in the book. The reader may well be put off by some of Mr García’s wilder excesses. The story would have benefitted from a stronger editor to tighten the focus. Nevertheless, it is a rollicking read and a compelling insight into an interesting time for our technology industries.
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Benner, Katie. 2017. Women in Tech Speak Frankly on Culture of Harassment. New York Times, 30 June, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/technology/women-entrepreneurs-speak-out-sexual-harassment.html?_r=0 (last accessed 18 July 2017).
García Martínez, Antonio. 2016. Chaos Monkeys: Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine. London: Ebury Press. [US Edition: Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. New York: HarperCollins.]
Greste, Peter; Cohen, Janine; Davies, Anne. 2017. Cracking the Code. Four Corners, first broadcast 10 April 2017. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2017/04/10/4649443.htm (last accessed 18 July 2017).
Perez, Sarah. 2014. @WalmartLabs Buys Adtech Startup Adchemy, Its Biggest Talent Deal Yet, TechCrunch 5 May 2014.Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2014/05/05/walmartlabs-buys-adtech-startup-adchemy-its-biggest-talent-deal-yet/ (last accessed 19 July 2017).
Shapiro, Jonathan. 2016. Review: Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez. Australian Financial Review, 4 October 2016. Retrieved from http://www.afr.com/brand/boss/review-chaos-monkeys-by-antonio-garcia-martinez-20160815-gqspq1 (last accessed 20 July 2017).