HBO’s new series “Silicon Valley” hits close to home

Courtesy of Sam Girvin.

Courtesy of Sam Girvin.

Set in the not-too-distant city of Palo Alto, Calif., the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley,” which premiered April 6, follows the lives of Richard Hendrix (Thomas Middleditch) and his cynical band of programmers as they traverse the tech-infested waters of Silicon Valley. Even in the mecca of apps, software and websites, a geek is neither safe nor understood. In creator Mike Judge’s eyes, Silicon Valley is a cutthroat world – if you can’t code or can’t think of the “next big thing,” you’re out.

As technology has become more advanced and more inclusive to all members of society, computer programming has changed. It is not only about skill, but also about the human interface. “Brogrammers” (a deliciously coined term that reflects the more handsome programmers) and savvy businessmen can thrive, whereas the “traditional geek” cannot. They lack the charisma needed to connect and network with other people; because of this, Richard and his friends are behind in their field, even if their computing talents say otherwise.

In one scene, Erlich (T.J. Miller), who owns the “incubator” where Richard works, says he wants to make a difference like Steve Jobs. Richard contests that claim: “Jobs was a poser. He didn’t even write code.” Although these are blasphemous words, Richard has a point. People remember the Steve Jobses of the world and not the Steve Wozniaks; they remember the pseudo-coders rather than the coders themselves.

Despite the show’s satirization of tech culture and the tech industry, Richard is not cynical but hopeful. He’s awkward and shy, yet he’s capable of genius. Richard becomes a character to root for, an underdog, even when he is not so sure where he is going.

When Richard’s “revolutionary” algorithm for Pied Piper, his start-up, is discovered, everyone is in awe of it, including the “brogrammers” that made fun of it initially. Soon, everyone wants a piece of it, including Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the philanthropic CEO of Hooli (think Google), and the anti-college investor Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch). As a result, Richard has a panic attack and goes to the hospital, where even the doctors will pitch start-up ideas.

When Richard decides to build a billion-dollar company instead of sell out, Judge sets up the stage for what is to come, an exhilarating and funny look at the tech industry from the inside. Judge both empowers the archetype of the “traditional geek” and also leaves a huge lingering question. Will Richard’s app succeed? Who knows?

With the field and the “next big thing” constantly changing, Pied Piper could succeed, but it could just as easily be something as asinine as “NipAlert,” which gives users the direct location of a woman with erect nipples, or “BitSoup,” chicken noodle soup with binary numbers.

“Silicon Valley” can be slightly exaggerated in its message about tech culture because of how cynical it is. However, it also fully captures the passion about start-ups, even Stanford’s own, and how one idea can make “Kid Rock the poorest person” at a party. It’s funny, smart and a breeze to watch, and quite possibly, Judge might be able to convince us all that even in the tech sector of society, the real geeks, the Wozs, run the world.

 

Contact Marty Semilla at msemilla “at” stanford.edu.

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