On a recent episode of Recode Decode, "Chaos Monkeys" author Antonio García-Martinez spoke with Recode’s Kara Swisher about why his new tell-all book isn’t nice: Because "Silicon Valley isn't a nice place."
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Kara Swisher: Okay, you have written what I would say is probably a not a nice book.
Antonio García-Martinez: Oh really?
Which I welcome completely. I enjoy that. I've just ... we had Dan Lyons on for "Disrupted," which I thought was a hysterical book. This one is quite a bit tougher. Talk a little bit about why you did it and then we'll talk about being a startup and some of the things that people have issues with in the book. But in general, not many people tend to crap on Silicon Valley and so …
Well, you know, it's funny. I wouldn't put it that way.
I don't think you do.
Yeah I don't think I do.
But people here are as thin-skinned as it gets.
Talk a little bit about why you did this.
I mean, the book isn't nice because Silicon Valley isn't a nice place.
That's the reality.
And I feel that I accurately portrayed this world. And it's funny. A lot of the ... some of the negative reviews, clearly it's not that they don't like my book, they just like Silicon Valley. And I just portrayed it accurately. So I think it's just probably the most unfiltered sort of real take on what it is to go through the Silicon Valley roller coaster as I think one can write and not, you know, get sued for libel.
So let's ... that still may happen. So let's talk a little bit about how you did it. I mean, it's very detailed. One of the things that's really ... you clearly were taking notes along the way.
Oh yes, I knew all along. I mean, this is total Hunter S. Thompson/Gonzo mode. I'm like the Nixon bust in 1968 or whatever. This is totally me kind of going along for the ride but understanding that ultimately it would be a book.
So you wanted to write a book.
From the beginning.
Let's start with your beginnings. Give people some background on your career and then we'll talk about the book itself.
Right. The career! I prefer to think of it as a trajectory, sort of like a comet burning up in the atmosphere.
Right. You started on Wall Street.
Right. So I started ... I was, you know, a hippy dippy physics student at Berkeley. I read Michael Lewis' "Liar's Poker," which obviously I'm totally ripping off of in this book. Went to Goldman right at the height of the credit, sort of, you know, boom and then crash. Saw all that happen. And then thought that tech would be like the one economic oasis amidst the sort of apocalypse. I got a job at this random company, sort of later stage employee, learned the ads business, found co-founders, went through Y Combinator, which is this accelerator, most of your listeners probably know that. And then after 10 months …
And your business in Y Combinator was a startup around ads, correct?
Right. So basically it was Google ads, those ads you get next to the search results for smaller businesses, which is still an uncracked nut in the tech space. But as we learned, you know, not every business problem has a technical solution, which is one of the lessons of the book. Anyhow, after 10 months after literally every problem that befalls startups — co-founder issues, not raising money, raising money, getting sued, etc. — we sold to Twitter, you know, for roughly $10 million after 10 months, even though having essentially no revenue and probably not a lot of prospect.
Well, that's normal, but go ahead.
Well, in this world it's totally normal. You need to be really losing money if you want to be successful! Right, right, right, right, right. But if you go on radio in Provo, Utah, or Nashville, the fact that you sell a money-losing company for $10 million is like, what do you mean? So yeah, AdGrok was nothing in the scheme of things, but I think it was very emblematic of just what you said — your typical acqhire in which companies arguably overpay for a set of engineers and the company isn't really a company. It's basically a job interview for a job that you otherwise wouldn't have gotten at a company like Facebook. And that's what happened. Of course, I always have to make the simple complicated and I insisted, I was sort of competing offers between Facebook for me and Twitter for the rest of the company, and I insisted for whatever reason, in retrospect actually probably a bad decision, to go to Facebook, while the rest of the company went to Twitter. So that's how I landed as Facebook's first ad-targeting product manager. Literally the guy who takes your data and turns it into money at Facebook, a year before the IPO, as one of maybe 30 people on the ads team.
Right. And since then what have you been doing?
Well, I left Facebook and some of the drama that I think we're going to get to probably in this interview. I joined as an adviser and eventually VP of product at Facebook's biggest ads partner, so the buy side of the sell side equation. And then, not to be a downer, but then my mother died, right. Which is one of the things …
You can be a downer about that.
I can be a downer?
On that issue, certainly.
Okay, so my mother died and then when you spend weeks in a cancer ward, you know, you start having these intimations of death and confrontations with mortality and I realized there's only two things on my bucket list that I really cared about. And one was finally writing this book that I'd sort of toyed with and never done. And so then I basically dropped all commitments, sold everything, moved to Europe for half the year in Barcelona, Berlin, wrote the book proposal, sold the book and then lived like the Unabomber in a small house up on the San Juan Islands, up in northwest Washington, and did the book. And that's been it so far.
Aha, the Unabomber, interesting. Interesting choice of metaphor. So why did you want to write the book? It's really interesting because it's really tough. I like it. Believe me, I just, I think a lot of people ... what happens is a lot of people say things to me or to others off the record, or honestly, or, it doesn't happen that often, but sort of put a happy shiny face on everything else. And there's no happy shiny face in this story. I mean, you like who you like and you slam who you don't like obviously.
Right. I think, yeah, Silicon Valley is really guilty of always having that sort of fairytale ending, right? The good guy always wins in the end and there's always this sort of rah-rah boosterism to it. I mean, Brad Feld, one of the VC critics of it, said, "Oh, there's so little optimism in it." Right? It's kind of like criticizing a war novel for not having enough patriotism. I mean, yeah, I wonder what they'd say if they read "All Quiet on the Western Front," for example. So, why did I write this book? It'll sound grandiose, but it's true — I think we live in exceptional times. Silicon Valley, for all the fun you can make of it, is actually doing amazing things. And I thought people a century or two from now would ask, you know, what happened when all of human knowledge is now on this mobile device that I'm holding in my hand? What happens when your social life gets mediated by companies like Facebook? I mean, to me it's comparable to the Industrial Revolution, it's comparable to the printing press, it's that level of societal transformation.
Right. And then, because it sounds, you know, presumptuous, but nobody was writing it, so I thought, well, you know, if not now, when? If not me, who?
Why do you think that is? Why do you think people don't, you know …
Oh, because ... well here's where the nasty comes out. For all their presumptions of being subversive and bohemian and counterculture, whatever, Silicon Valley people actually maintain these very well manicured exteriors, and frankly everybody has too much to lose. At the end of the day no one wants to pay the opportunity cost of saying the truth and missing out on, you know, being employee 70 at the next Pinterest or whatever. And so, yeah, they've just got too much skin in the game and they really don't care about posterity. They don't think about the future.
Well, I think they're quite conservative. I've always thought …
Yes, they are.
You know I said that in a piece today about Peter Thiel. It's like he is really quite an outlier and people here, as much as they talk about disrupting, like society the way it is.
Yeah, I go further than that in the book. I say actually SIlicon Valley is very reactionary. Everyone doesn't realize it because they don't wear button-down shirts and whatever …
And they like the gays.
Right, exactly. But they are complete reactionaries, very conservative and not nearly as liberal and tolerant as they think they are.
So, let's talk a little bit about that. Because, you know, you've gotten dinged for it, and deservedly — some of your lines in the book are ... ehhh, a little misogynist, I think to be fair, very misogynist, actually. The one about trading women for guns, which was interesting. Which is truthful.
Well, you have to put that quote in context, I think.
Okay, all right. Well, here it is: if there was an apocalypse and you had a choice, your wife is not someone you would trade for guns. Is that correct?
Well, hold on. Well, I could probably almost read it if you want me to.
I want you to read it!
You want me to read it?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Okay, I've got it marked off.
Because this thing is gonna go on my tombstone frankly.
Yeah it is. Yeah, that's okay.
So this is about the woman that had my children, and I'm, you know, I'm sort of praising her.
The British woman.
The British trader.
"She had wild green eyes with natural red spots in her irises when you pulled close, reminiscent of that Afghan girl from the National Geographic cover. Her personality was flinty and rough and as leathery as her skin. She had spent years between various jobs, backpacking around the rougher parts of the world. She was an imposing broad-shouldered presence. Six feet tall on bare feet and towering over me in heels. Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, cosseted and naive despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit. They have their self-regarding entitlement feminism and ceaselessly want their independence, but the reality is come the epidemic plague or foreign invasion, they become precisely the sort of useless baggage you trade for a box of shotgun shells or a jerrycan of diesel." And this is the important thing to put into context! I am contrasting this broad overgeneralization to the reality of the woman that I was falling in love with, okay?
"British trader on the other hand was the sort of woman who would end up a useful ally in that post-apocalypse, doing whatever work — be it carpentry, animal husbandry, or a shotgun blast to someone's back — required doing. Long story short, you wanted to tie your genetic wagon to the bucking horse of her bloodline." So …
Okay, I get it.
So if I'm going to be quoted, it'll be quoted in context.
I read the whole. It was very funny. I couldn't believe someone said that. I've heard it said, but people won't say it in person. What's been the repercussions?
You mean …
To the book.
From her personally or just broadly?
Oh no, no, no. She probably thinks you're an asshole.
[laughs] Actually, you'd be struck ...
No, she probably likes you, right, ‘cause she's that kind of lady.
She showed up at my reading yesterday with the kids. So no. She's the sort of person who's not cosseted and was perfectly …
Right. And can take it. Can take it. Can take Antonio's insults.
And a lot more. So, like I said, the reviews have been all over the place. One has been, you know, "I don't like your book, ‘cause it's everything that's wrong with Silicon Valley" and it's like, it's like …
So they're blaming you for that.
Well, of course. It's like looking at Picasso's Guernica and saying, "Oh, it's everything that's wrong with war." Like, yeah that's the point exactly.
And like you're saying, I'm only saying things that everyone says, but just never say in public because they're unwilling to.
Right. Or out loud. Absolutely.
And so that's been one side of the reaction, that I think, oh, they just don't like Silicon Valley. The reaction has actually been surprising positive. I thought I was literally incinerating my career.
So you were doing "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again."
That was exactly what …
Which it kind of is. It has that tone.
Right. Except I think in my case I will eat lunch in this town [laughs]. Because the reaction from even old time Facebookers, who — a lot of them, we've clashed online about Facebook because they take criticism to the company very poorly — the reaction has been almost universally — obviously sample bias, because those are the ones who still talk to me — but, you know, I might disagree with you with a detail here or there, or I might disagree with you in the high level strategic interpretation of something, but basically, you got it right. Like that's what it was to be inside Facebook at that time, and this is an unvarnished view of that world that's never been told. That's almost universally the response.
Have you had people say, "How dare you've done this?"
No, not at all?
No. Not to my face.
I agree with you. There is no "you'll never eat lunch in this town again." I feel like I could kick …
Right. As it says in the book, success forgives all sins.
It does, it does.
And now that it's a best-selling book …
I feel like I could kick people in the teeth and they'd still have …
You have a privileged position in this world though, right?
I suppose. Well, but how come?
Well, because everyone respects you and you're a great journalist.
Yes, but at the same time, someone just recently, it was interesting, was yelling at me about a story we wrote, one of our reporters wrote, and called us TMZ, and I was like, well TMZ is always right so, and I like Harvey Levin, and so I take that as a compliment. But they were screaming at me! And then two weeks later said, "Let's have lunch." And I was like, all right, okay, that's fine. Will you explain the title, "Chaos Monkeys"?
Yeah, everyone asks that and it's a good question. So imagine like a wild monkey rampaging through a data center, knocking over boxes, pulling on cables. There's actually a piece of software called the Chaos Monkey that was made by Netflix, and what it does is it literally goes and kills boxes in a data center and they test whether they can still stream "House of Cards" or whatever.
Right, so they make a mess.
Right, they make a mess. And so the idea being, Silicon Valley is like the zoo where the chaos monkeys are kept and entrepreneurs are going around saying, "hey, you know what? We're not going to have taxis anymore. We're going to have this app called Uber, anybody can become a taxi driver." Or, "you know what? We're not going to have hotels anymore. Anyone with a spare bedroom can suddenly become a hotel keeper." And then society has to judge whether it's robust to that and, you know, things like … for example, I wrote part of the book in Barcelona and the entire Barcelona real estate market has been completely roiled by Airbnb and changed everything about it. And so the chaos monkey visited Barcelona, right. And then Barcelona …
So is that a good thing or a bad thing? What are you trying ... I'm curious because I was reading, I was trying to think what you were trying to say, whether it was a good thing or a bad thing or just a thing.
I mean, it's a good thing for Brian Chesky obviously, right, and his investors. Is it a good thing for the Barcelonans? No, not necessarily. In fact. I'm not convinced it is.
So the second part, "Obscene Fortune and Random Failure." Talk about that.
Well, I mean, the obscene fortune is …
We all know.
… Is the massive sums of money that are being made. I mean, FBX made Facebook half a billion dollars a year just with three guys; that's what you could do if you get in the middle of the eyeball flow. And then you know, the random failure is to some degree, I felt I kind of failed in a way, in my, in my ... but also random success, right? That's the other thing that I think — Silicon Valley often lies to itself that it's a meritocracy. Like I say in the book, meritocracy is the propaganda that’s like a charade, and the weird thing is that one person ... it's not just a lottery, right? Obviously there's some skill involved. But you'll have a hundred million dollar exit, and someone will have zero, and I really can't believe that person looks at themselves in the mirror and says, "Yeah, I'm a hundred million times better than that guy." I just don't ...
They actually do. They do that. And there's an app for that.
I know they do. I've met them. And I know they do.
They're … all of them actually. It's really interesting.
Right. But I have trouble …
One of the things that's interesting is having known a lot of these people before, their fantastic fortunes and how they change is always a really interesting thing.
So has anyone actually — now I'm asking you a question—- has anyone ever actually dealt with it like a normal human.
Yes, yes. Several. Many. I would say Pierre Omidyar is the same person he was at the beginning and the end. I mean, he's got the same issues, positive and negative, but he's still the same person. There's quite a few. There's more people that get licked up and down all day and really believe all the bullshit.
[laughs] That's a great image.
And then become weirdly eccentric in a way that's incredibly rude and think that's okay because everyone says yes all day to them.
Yeah there was an epigraph in the book that said: Fortune doesn't change men, it unmasks them. And I think that's probably true.
Yes absolutely. You know, there's also a poem, and I'm blanking on the ... Louise Gluck. It was about Circe and the men of Odysseus, and Odysseus. And she says, "I didn't make them pigs, some men are pigs, I just showed them to be that." It was something like that. It was a great line like that. So let's talk a little bit about that idea of the farce of Silicon Valley and how it displays itself. Is that important to the success of, you know, you were talking about everything is a transformational technology right now, and it really is what's going on. Is it a necessary part of this or is it just the bullshit part?
I think tactically, yes. To be a success you have to seem a success. Everyone's always killing it, every graph is up into the right. I mean, I'm playing the same game with the book by splashing "best-seller" on it, etc. Which it is, but, you know, is it really necessary. This constant ... you know, I think it's one of these, the Silicon Valley vibe where everyone's always killing it and people put huge sums of money over stupid bullshit. You know, it's like one of those things. It's like democracy or religion. If everyone believes in it, it sort of becomes true, right? And the fact that we have this collective delusion that yeah, you can write a $50,000 check that will be worth $5 million later if it becomes Google or Uber, it is an important delusion to have. And the reality is that other countries ... everyone would love to have what we have, these problems we'd like to have, and so, you know, if you go to Barcelona, the city's investing huge sums of money trying to recreate Silicon Valley's style.
Right, they all are.
Right. And they think if they somehow have co-working spaces with exposed brick and industrial lighting and little coffee machines, it's like this cargo cult. Like the magic will just happen. And they don't realize, like, it's the delusion.
They don't realize they need bulletproof coffee …
[laughs] What they need is wealthy people willing to spray money on 23-year-old kids with an idea. That's what they need. And that culture is impossible to import.
So what is the bad part and the good part of that? You talk a lot about the bad parts of it, you know, the arrogance, the waste, the lying to yourself, that kind of stuff. What's the good part of that?
I mean the only universal moral good I think in the book was early on when we got sued, you know. It's clear that there are rules. I said there are no rules — I mean, there are certainly some guiding principles and I think particularly principled individuals will follow those rules even to their own detriment, right? So like Paul Graham, who I obviously love a lot as a startup guru …
Yes, he gets a good …
Right, I know opinions are often mixed of him or whatever, but in my opinion he was the noblest sort of character in the book in that he literally burned relationships to protect us. Not because we were particularly promising or anything, but just that you're one of the family and this is just how it was and if I have to walk into Mayfield and say, you know, "screw you," then I will. And he was willing to do that. As was Sam Altman, even Ted Wang from …
Ted is great.
Ted is great!
Ted is Kara's lawyer.
Tell him apologies, ‘cause we never talked after the deal and I think he's probably still pissed off at me.
Oh, he's not, he's …
I'm sure he's way over it, but anyhow, he's the one guy that we maybe didn't do that right by at the end, but you know he also offered basically to lend us the money for the lawsuit — a terrible deal for him — because he didn't want some big guy bidding up the little guy. And so there is some idealism with it as well.
What are you doing now actually? What is your ...
Oh my god, it's a great question.
You're on a boat; it says you're on a boat.
I'm on a boat, right. So the other thing when my mother died, the other thing on the bucket list was sailing around the world alone on a sailboat, which sounds ridiculous but is a dream …
I saw the Robert Redford movie, I wouldn't want to do that, but go ahead.
[laughs] That's a great movie actually. So yeah, something like that.
If you like people dying, yeah.
Well, he wasn't well prepared, anyhow. Or at least on the ocean, I don't know about the world, but definitely an Australia-and-back or Polynesia-back sort of thing. And so that's what I'm working on now. And as I mentioned in the book, you know, there's two different boats that I fitted out for that and then kind of let rot away, like so many relationships and my children and all the rest, for the sake of the glory of Facebook, right. But I think it's time that, you know, I'm getting a little old and so it's time to actually go ahead and do that. So I think after this whole PR mayhem is over, I'm gonna focus on that.
You don't want to start another startup? Because you've clearly got startup in your blood here.
No. But yeah, but then I’d have to go back into sociopathic mode. I have to go into like sociopathic Antonio mode. I have to become like "American Psycho" again. Which I absolutely was. And like I don't know if I want to be that again.
Interesting. Everyone ... just recently I've had a lot of lunches with people like you and they're saying "oh now I want to be nicer." And one of them was taking ayahuasca and then suddenly became nicer. That's the new thing, right?
Right, the $10,000 ayahuasca.
Oh, I know, they're like, "you wanna do it with me?" I'm like, never in the fucking world would I like to do drugs with you. But it was interesting that there is this little moment of a lot of people talking about that idea that you have to be a psychopath to be successful.
That's absolutely true. I mean if you look at like the textbook definition of sociopathy —, you know, a glib superficial charm, risk-taking behavior, sexual promiscuity, like physically risky behavior, treating people like objects — that describes about like over half the people I know in Silicon Valley.
Okay, okay, excellent. You talked a little bit about how I helped you write this book?
I don't recall; I didn't do anything.
I assume you probably don't remember, but I mentioned that in the email. So yeah. You remember three years ago, I wrote a little chunk of what became the book around the MoPub acquisition by Twitter.
And then you out of nowhere emailed me and said ... you like dragged me into your office on, you know, the office on 2nd …
Yes, I remember that.
And you said, "You should take writing seriously!" Basically you lectured me and said, "You need to take writing seriously."
Because you're a good writer. That's why.
Right. And then you just kicked me out the door and that was it. And then I was like, oh, okay. And then, you know, that and then my mother's death ... like okay, so maybe I should make a go of it. So yeah, you …
You know what? You're a good writer. That's why. I remember that now. Because there's so many bad writers and when you see a good piece of writing, you're like, please, please do something about it.
Right, so the hope is that even if I didn't burn my bridges in Silicon Valley, you know, maybe there's a second book in me and I think it'd be interesting to have some sort of career like that.
So talk about a few of the stories from the book, because there's tons of them in it. What are the ones that stick out for you, and please read if you want to read short sections.
Yeah, I can. I can tell you what ... so I held a poll to see what I should read at my reading at Passage yesterday, so I can tell you the winners there. The final Sheryl meeting where it's decided Facebook is not going to do real-time bidding and basically my career is over. The passage I read about the famous [laughs] sexist paragraph. The story about homebrewing at Facebook, and then I blew up the plumbing and flooded Zuck's desk. The — oh, well that's the famous one — the Sheryl meeting with the pussy filter. You remember that one? Have you gotten to that? Yeah? By the way, that was not my doing. Somebody else did that, okay? Just to be absolutely clear. And then what was the fifth one? Oh, there was the Baz meeting. Baz was the guy who heads ads and there was this really awkward meeting which was clear that heads would start rolling. And there was this really ambiguous meeting with him in which it was like really weird. And that sort of presaged the end. So yeah.
Did you think it was going to end like this or did you have hopes when you were at Facebook?
So that's the weird thing …
I'm saying looking back now is different when you were there.
Right. Of course. And I try to make that ... I try to present what I was thinking at the time, not necessarily on reflection.
Which is why I come off so fucking unhinged in the book. I was unhinged at the time.
[laughs] I like it.
[laughs] Yeah, well. Yeah.
You know it's sort of ... it's very Ted Cruz-y and you went there.
[laughs] It's Ted Cruz-y.
You know what I mean? You're like a person who goes there. He did, he goes there. I can't believe I like Ted Cruz this morning but I do. Even though I hate Ted Cruz.
Oh right, yeah. The one speech at the convention. Even I almost clapped.
Oh yeah, and then this morning he's still doing it. He's still doing it. I like it.
Yeah. Well, it takes rocks. So yeah. I mean the weird thing is, you know the tragedy I guess of it is, you know, I went in as a total mercenary, get financial independence, what I call fuck-you money, what everyone calls fuck-you money, right. And then at the end I ended up like falling in love with the girl, my product, and actually risking my career to make that vision a reality because I became so enamored with that vision and so invested in what we had built and then, you know, had to lay on my sword for it and literally pissed off everyone at Facebook to support this vision and that, due to both political reasons and whatever, even though it was a fairly successful product, you know, Facebook just decided that was not the future.
Do you think you're mercenary really? Or is that somewhat of an act? Because that's what you do, you end up doing that thing.
Yeah, I think I'm like ... it's a total cliche but it's like that hardball old detective or soldier who thinks he's this total mercenary but then, well, it's like Rick in "Casablanca," who ends up, who thinks he's a total cynic but at the end of the day ... well, like I say in the book, inside every cynic lies a heartbroken idealist. So I think it's the heartbroken idealist actually.
How do you look at Silicon Valley right now, Antonio? You know, looking ... the prism of this book is this crazy fucking circus really, pretty much. And look at all the freaks.
Yeah, you know I'm actually not maybe quite as cynical. I think …
It's a very cynical book.
Well, I think …
Don't -- own it, it is.
It's ... okay. It's a little world-weary. But I want to distinguish from Dan Lyons, who is like universally negative. Like he was the universal troll. He was negative about everything and just literally hated everything about it.
He's funny though.
Right, but I don't think I'm actually totally negative on it. In fact, I think …
No, you like certain people you like and you don't like certain people you don't like.
Yeah. And I'm actually very pro-Facebook and I think some parts of it as well. You know, I look at this crazy circus and I think, well, if all this bullshit needs to exist for one Elon Musk to emerge — I'm naming him as a prominent, but there's several others whose careers I follow, and given how disruptive things like SpaceX and Tesla are going to be, then you know maybe it's actually worth it. And again, I think it's ... the problems in Silicon Valley are problems that any other country in the world would love to have if their startup ecosystem …
I'd imagine the Renaissance was not without its assholes.
There you go.
I'm just guessing. I'm guessing. American Revolution. I think Thomas Paine was kind of a jerk. I don't know. I don't know. I have no idea.
Right. To use your metaphor, this is like Machiavelli's "The Prince." He also was knocked out of accord and was trying to curry favor and wrote a book and so that was …
So let's talk about the companies and where they are right now. How do you look at Silicon Valley? What period are we in? We've had lots of people come in and talk about this. I had Eric Weiner talk about sort of these innovation cities that then die off over history, historical time. Where do you see SIlicon Valley right now? As a place, an analog place and an idea.
Well, I've been calling it top of the bubble for the past five years. And here we are.
Sometimes a broken clock is right, what, twice a day?
Yeah. I'm not gonna be that guy. I mean, you know, what's a one-bedroom in the Mission cost these days? Five, six K a month? Where do I see it? I mean I think what's unique about "Chaos Monkeys" is that it captures that period in Facebook's life cycle in which it was going from scrappy startup, where you could blow up the plumbing and nobody would care, to it being kind of like a bigger company political thing. I'm not gonna name names, but if you read the book where some of the characters in the latter part of the book come into play — people who, you know, couldn't run a company if their lives depended on it, but can operate in that sort of nether region, you know that region between sort of …
Right, between the sort of founder level who created it and the sort of junior level sort of guy and they just weasel their way into this sort of middle management layer and kind of stay there.
Yeah I've met weasels before. Walt and I used to have weasels at the Wall Street Journal. We're like, Weasel 1, Weasel 2, we had nicknames for all of them.
Right, so watching the weasels, I wouldn't say necessarily take over, but become important I think is …
That's a familiar thing. The people at early Google talk about that.
Exactly. Well, right. So like Machiavelli, getting back to your Florentine example, you know he cites very specific examples about the, you know, the Ghibellines or whatever faction, but the point is that's a general principle. So another thing, for example, the two-tier system inside Facebook. How there were some who were really wealthy, right? Like the very early employees. And the people now who by any normal standard are wealthy but really aren't. They're like Silicon Valley middle class, right. And there's this huge rift between those who are like centimillionaires and have private aviation and those who are still wondering if their kids, if they can afford Stanford or whatever. And so there was a huge ... obviously I'm in the latter camp, right, and that was the huge divide in the company. And I understand that's also very typical at Google and other companies as well. So yeah, I just, I think ... again, my story wasn't necessarily important in any sense of the word but I think it's extraordinarily representative. I think a lot of SIlicon Valley is what I portray in "Chaos Monkeys."
Where are they right now? A company like Facebook. Obviously Facebook is considered one of the more successful companies, in very good shape. Mark has burnished his reputation rather significantly.
Right. I mean the stock price quadrupled since I've left, much to my consternation because I sold all my shares, so it's hard to criticize his leadership, and I think you're right, he has done a great job. But what I've heard — and this is obviously hearsay, okay, this is not direct experience — but since I've left, you know obviously I have my little network of spies internally, and one guy who actually did very well, and he put up with the bullshit and had a long career there and rose to be a head of a thing — I won't say more because it'll identify him — but he actually said, you know, I think Facebook might get to Microsoft before Google does. Like to get to the Microsoft level. I'm like wow! And this guy was pretty rah-rah.
You mean like big or irritating?
You know, just big, clunky, slow, always missing the ... doing the fast follow, you know, that sort of thing. And so I was really shocked to hear that things had ossified to the point where it was approaching Microsoft levels.
Is that inevitable?
No, no, it absolutely is, and Facebook is aware of it. Like as I cite …
No, but I'm saying is it inevitable with every company, that you get Microsofted.
Yeah, of course. I mean, yeah. The dementia and Alzheimer's will happen to us all [laughs], right, if we live long enough. So yeah.
Is there any company you see now around that makes you think otherwise?
No, of course they're all gonna ... they all go public and everyone becomes the centimillionaire. They're all gonna, yeah.
Mhmm, so the money is what's corrupting.
I think the complacency. I think it's the nature of the incumbency. Like I cite in one of the chapters this super failed ads product they shipped which is ridiculous. Like no one actually ever stopped to ask an advertiser "would you actually ever spend money on this?" And that level of arrogance is …
I would say the bots rollout. I've heard a lot of complaints about the bots rollout, for example.
Oh, okay. Yeah.
Similar thing — it's like, it didn't quite work but seems ... there's a lot of PR around it, and eventually probably it will work. But it was interesting. So let's talk about the lessons you learned. You have a lot of lessons in this book. Let's talk about a few of them that you think are most important for entrepreneurs, because a lot of entrepreneurs listen to this program. What do you think, from your perspective, the key things to keep in mind are?
I mean I have that section with my entrepreneurial commandments in there somewhere, which I can pull up, I don't have it marked. I mean, commandments … so this is my distillation of what I went through.
Yes, I don't think you're Moses.
Yeah, okay [laughs], here's the tablet. "Investors are people with more money than time. Employees are people with more time than money. Entrepreneurs are simply the seductive go-betweens." Which is true, you're literally joining investors with employees. Because one has more time, one has more money. And you're just the fast-talking guy in between, that's all you are. "Startups are business experiences performed with other people's money." That's exactly what it is. You're literally just doing an experiment and it might succeed or fail. "Marketing is like sex, only losers pay for it." Which is totally true. And you know, "the only bad news is no news when you're an entrepreneur." "Company culture is what goes without saying," and in case that's unclear, people have actually asked me about that, what that means is in the same way that you know you're own religion or, you know, national culture, just the things you do without people having to openly say it, it's similar about company culture.
Of course Silicon Valley is obsessed with the idea of defining their culture.
Which often means that in fact the culture doesn't exist. Because if you have to define it, then in fact it doesn't exist. "There are no real rules, only laws." That's absolutely true. There really are no rules in Silicon Valley. "Success forgives all sins." That is absolutely true.
A hundred percent.
As I, you know, I mention examples of greats like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and various sins they committed when they were younger and nobody cares anymore. "Meritocracy is propaganda we use to bless this charade." And that's, you know billion dollar people …
I call it a mirror-tocracy, you know.
[laughs] That's good.
You can use it. Please spread it around far and wide.
"Greed and vanity are the twin engines of bourgeois society." I mean, if you think about it, almost every startup exploits either one or the other vice. "Most managers are incompetent and maintain their jobs via inertia and politics." I definitely saw that in bigger companies. I mean he's there because he's there and it would just be too costly to sort of fire him or her or whoever.
Again, the weasel principle.
The weasel, yeah. "Lawsuits are merely expensive feints and well-scripted conflict narratives between corporate entities." So we got sued, which was one of the big conflicts, and I think most normal people who don't run into trouble with the law, they get completely shit scared whenever legal missives start flying around.
Hence Donald Trump, who loves a law suit.
Right. But the reality is, assuming you can afford it and maybe even if you can't, it actually doesn't really matter [laughs]. And nothing really happens. That's why I published this book. At the end of the day they can sue me. If anything it'll guarantee this will be 10 weeks on the best-seller list if they do. It's like, great, if you want to sue me, go ahead. If Facebook is that stupid, then they can go ahead.
Don't ask too much. There are, you know ... see Gawker.
Oh, yeah, well, I didn't piss off anyone that much. "Capitalism is an amoral farce in which every player, investor, employee, entrepreneur, consumer is complicit." Which I think ultimately is my cynic's lesson, which is I think capitalism makes beasts of us all and is fundamentally a complete amoral charade, and it's hard to really believe in this sort of, you know, capitalism as self-actualization, which is sort of the principle of Silicon Valley, like, you know, I go to a yoga meditative retreat and then I do a startup and they're both supposed to improve me as a person, right? I find it really hard to believe that anymore.
Yeah, yeah. I was just making fun of Marc Andreessen, who, I always call him ... he's the chief bearhugger of capitalism. Whenever anyone has a criticism of Silicon Valley, he's like, "capitalism worked today!" And I'm like okay, there's not a choice between the two necessarily, but you can somehow insult something without having to completely insult it. So taking that idea, this enormous amount of money, this capitalism that has worked so well, is there a better way? Let's finish up on that. Is there?
No. I always think of the quote, the famous Churchill quote that democracy is the worst way to organize society except for all the other systems. And so capitalism is literally the worst way to distribute, you know, the means of production and resources, except for all the other ways. But we should treat it as that. It's a necessary evil, kind of like, you know, plumbing or something, or like a toilet on a boat or something, that it's really horrible when you get into the muck of it, but I guess what's the alternative?
Right. So what ... is something going to change here? Do you see it changing or just dying off?
Oh, at a higher level, yeah. I mean I think this is a totally cliche opinion in Silicon Valley, right, but the whole thing about universal basic income, and the reality is, I got to YC Demo Day and literally every company is coding someone out of a job or automating somebody out of a job. Literally one after the other. And I think once we get things like autonomous vehicles and truck driving is no longer the most popular job in like 10 U.S. states and the only way for non-college grads to pay for a family, once that just goes away, we're going to see either a dictatorship, tyranny or basic income in the United States.
Yeah I think it's a big issue that is …
It's a huge issue.
We're doing a Code Enterprise work thing and one of the big issues I want to talk about is this idea of Silicon Valley eliminating jobs. Decimating them. Not replacing them. And they always go, "Well, there used to be stables and horses and then there were cars and it just changed," and I'm like, I don't think you're making things, like, I don't think you're replacing, I think you're actually decimating.
And you know, Larry Page has brought this up several times and sort of come back upon it, but many, many people have talked about this issue. Does Silicon Valley have a responsibility to change that? Or is it just the way it's going to be if computers do …
I think it does. Which is why I think SIlicon Valley's ... here I am sounding like a YC fanboy game, but you know, Sam Altman is funding this experiment with basic income in Oakland. And so, I think they do have ... yeah. I mean I think one of the biggest to me criticisms of Silicon Valley is they have no sense of civic duty whatsoever. Like we're living, to get back to your example, the equivalent of like the Elizabethan Age or like Florentine, you know, Italy, North Italy in the 15th century, this flourishing of technology and money and yet, you know, I don't exactly see a bunch of schools or roadways or anything being built in this city or for greater society other than these companies. And yeah, I think they do have a debt. And they should feel a debt to society.
So how do you get them to do that? Besides writing books.
The same way they got Dale Carnegie to build libraries all over the United States. Like in New York you walk around and every hospital or school has some rich guy's name on it. And he might have been some hedge fund piece of shit, but you know what — like Carl Icahn — but you know what? He paid for a hospital on the Upper East Side. And so, you make ... I mean, I think Benioff is good at this, and Zuckerberg actually funded the public hospital. You make them compete for social prestige, not with the next Tesla or the next company, but the fact that they actually funded a hospital or a school. And then you're gonna watch them clamor to actually build these things.
So who do you admire? Do you admire Mark Zuckerberg?
Oh yeah, definitely. Well, I think he's a genius. Yeah, I say so in the book. I think he is a genius. I mean, I don't admire him in the sense that I'd want to be him necessarily but I think yeah, he is absolutely a genius. I mean I read ... as much as he is a fanboy, Andreessen is worth reading, PG's worth reading. I mean the people that I admire …
PG is Paul Graham.
Paul Graham. I'm sorry, yeah. I mean the people that I, aside from Paul Graham, that I admired was sort of, again, the man in the arena. Like the startup entrepreneur, often who came from a nothing background, like I did, I didn't have any network or anything. And just trying to make it happen and struggling and risking his entire life and you know, aging five years in one year that you do in the startup life, trying to make something happen. I felt that guy in the arena was sort of to me the hero or guy that I admired.
And if you could, very last question, if you could sort of reach down and change one thing about the system ... you talk a lot about how the system works.
But not solutions to the system that doesn't work.
Right. God, that feels like it's above my pay grade.
[laughs] Come on, Antonio, try harder.
Uhhh, how would I fix things? I mean people usually say things like sexism or racism or whatever. But that's not really my hang up.
Well, do you think diversity is an important thing in Silicon Valley?
Oh god, that's gonna be another 15 minutes left in this interview.
No, no, we're not gonna go ... but I'm just saying …
Do I think — no. I mean it depends what you talk about when you mean diversity. Do you mean diversity as it’s broadly understood, like ethnic and cultural diversity? I worked at Facebook surrounded by people in which I was the only one who spoke English as a first language and born in the United States. I don't think diversity with a little "d" is a problem in Silicon Valley. Is Diversity with a big "D" what we actually mean by diversity, i.e. certain minorities who have historically been disenfranchised or discriminated against is a problem? I don't know, maybe it is. I think it's a big problem. I think it's a big issue that, there's just a lot of subtleties there and emotions tend to run really hot. I'll cite one example: Someone in the team recently shared a photo, it's almost historical, mid-2011. Half the ads team … it was about 15, 20 people actually, core info, which was basically literally how the data meets the money, like the engine room of the Facebook money machine, and as you'd imagine, you know, it was mostly Chinese, Russians and Indians. I was literally the only person born in the U.S. there and the only person who spoke probably English as a first language. And yet, strictly speaking, even though I don't consider myself really that, given my last name, I'd be considered diversity, capital "D" person, right. But by any normal standard of diversity, clearly I don't think there's a diversity problem on that team. So I think sort of one of the misconceptions that when people attack it, and I see often this in text right. It's like, oh there's no diversity therefore it's run by white males. It's like, I don't think that's actually true, right. It can be run by other people other than white males even though you're not, you don't have diversity capital "D."
That's an interesting thing, I hadn't thought about it that way.
I mean, well, compare ... so the other startup book that I sort of admired and modeled was a book called "Startup" by Jerry Kaplan.
Yeah, I think it's really good actually. But it's 20 years old. And if you look at the Silicon Valley that he describes, that really was a white male sort of old boys network thing, which I think would be hard to break into. But since then, you know, change has happened, and look, the reality is people of Chinese, Indian or Persian background run like half of Silicon Valley, right? And in that world, it's a little bit hard to claim that, oh diversity's this major problem. Like journalists who say that, I'd love to look at their newsrooms and compare their newsrooms to Facebook …
I would agree with that, I would agree with that.
… and see who has more diversity there. And I don't think Silicon Valley would be the first on your list of industries that need to change.
No, that's true. Again, answer my last question. What would you change?
What would I change? I mean, I do think that there is — I wouldn't necessarily call it sexism or racism; I think one can call it that — there's a lot of like me-ism. Like I mention in the book in the interview process, for example, there's this notion of cultural fit, which is always this …
Right, right. Which can mean something real because company culture in a company like Facebook does exist. But often, it's just a little loophole for things like sexism and racism and basically like me-ism. In everyone's little tribal story, they're the center of the universe, right. And so if you're some little affluent white kid from Stanford, well of course that's the model of what our community should be like, and you hire people like that. And then like, the little loop that you get into that is cultural fit. And so I think some way to actually screen for cultural fit or maybe actually just create it. So Facebook had this, what was literally called bootcamp. And if you think about, it's like the Army or the Marines takes in whoever and makes out of it a fighting force. So instead of maybe trying to find this magical cultural fit that you think other people have …
You make it.
… maybe you actually have a strong enough culture that you actually mold people into that, rather than actually screening for it.
Yeah. I'd like to see them, you know, on a bootcamp. That would be interesting.
Yeah, exactly. Oh, well, that would be amazing.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.