Worker control and HBO's Silicon Valley

May 21, 2019 (2671 words) :: An analysis of the tech labour dynamics in the first episode of HBO's Silicon Valley's fifth season.
Tags: working-in-tech, cultural-criticism, startups

This post is day 141 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

HBO’s Silicon Valley is like if someone tried to remake Arrested Development for the tech industry but wasn’t quite able to match the latter in terms of casting and subtlety, and instead leaned heavily on the cringe factor. What Arrested Development did for rich real estate developers in Southern California, Silicon Valley is doing for a different kind of developer in Northern California, only not as well.

The Chief Cringe Officer on the show is Richard Hendricks, main character and CEO of the show’s fictional startup, Pied Piper. Despite his nearly unbelievable levels of personal and professional incompetence, Richard seems to genuinely believe that he is one of the good guys in the industry, and the result for viewers is a constant stream of vicarious embarrassment. On the other hand, Richard is more sympathetic than some of the other characters on the show, some of whom are so drearily despicable that they make us want to root for Richard purely by comparison. Standouts include Russ Hanneman (“3 comma club” investor who’s a dead ringer for real-life investor Mark Cuban, and who prefers cars with doors that open like |▄▄| or like ^▄▄^, not like this ⊏▆▆⊐), Erlich Bachman (a boorish angel investor who has managed to fail upward in the industry despite, or perhaps because of, his cartoonish lack of self-awareness), and Gavin Belson (CEO of this universe’s equivalent of Google, another bombastic upward failure who blends idiosyncrasies from various mediocre white men in positions in power in the real world).

I started watching the show just after it first aired in 2014. At the time, I was much less jaded about the industry than I am now; I had accepted an offer from Google, which I was considering blowing off to do my own startup (the only two options I saw, for I had not yet been radicalised). Of course, I had some qualms with the industry, as most people who are not white men do: it was shitty toward women and minorities; it funded way too many dumb startups; it was culturally a tragic void. But those are all critiques of the details, not critiques of the premise. I never really thought about Silicon Valley’s role in the economy at large, and whether that was deserved; I never questioned its right to exist. When I thought about improving the industry, I thought about opportunities for reform, not revolution.

For someone who sees the industry the way I did then, Silicon Valley is an appropriate, none-too-challenging show. Though its mockery of Silicon Valley culture might induce some guilty laughs of recognition, it’s a toothless and eminently forgettable sort of humour: look at these silly nerds, ha ha! What a dumb startup idea! And then you turn off the TV and go right back to working on your own dumb startup idea.

So that’s my criticism of the show: it’s not nearly as critical as the source material deserves. The over-the-top antics of the various characters in the show should be portrayed as symptomatic of the industry’s moral rot, but instead they are played for laughs. It’s comedy that doesn’t go anywhere, that doesn’t amount to anything more than a cheap laugh.

Still, that doesn’t mean the events of the show aren’t worth analysing. Some of the show’s gags are indicative of broader phenomena within the industry, like the way non-founding software engineers are treated: despite being thought of as valuable and having high bargaining power, they still lack control over what they’re working on. They’re still treated like cattle, expected to silently follow orders without any meaningful agency to speak of.

Unpacking this could help us understand why a key historical demand of labour organisers has been workplace control, in addition to better wages or conditions.

In the first episode of season 5, Richard is having trouble hiring engineers for Pied Piper. It’s unfortunate, because things are finally going well: they have funding, the necessary patents, and a sizable office. However, they only have 3 programmers, and they need 12 more if they’re going to make the most of their overpriced Palo Alto (?) office space.

There’s a problem: his technical cofounders, Dinesh and Gilfoyle, have rejected every single one of the distributed systems candidates that have come their way. Before Richard can change their minds, he finds out that his archnemesis, Hooli CEO Gavin Belson, has independently found and hired all 63 of Richard’s candidates with fat Hooli-sized offers that Richard could never match.

The Hooli storyline is a side plot, not the focus of the episode, but it’s fascinating in its own right: there’s a scene featuring Gavin personally welcoming all 63 new distributed systems engineers to Hooli, where they will be working on something called the Box. The problem is, none of the engineers want to work on the Box. It is a dumb idea, one driven by pursuit of short-term profits while sacrificing longer-term technical relevance, and even Gavin knows this. Instead, they all want to work on building a decentralised Internet. Unfortunately for Gavin, this is the one thing Hooli cannot work on, as he gave away the relevant patent for it to Pied Piper in an apparently Buddhist act of selflessness. (Side note: the idea that you could patent something as straightforward as a decentralised Internet is infuriating.) When the engineers start to ask him further questions, Gavin loses his temper and tells them he doesn’t want them working on his Box anyway - instead, they should just roam the campus and do whatever (similar to what Big Head was doing in an earlier season).

In the meantime, Richard is panicking, trying to figure out how the hell he’s going to staff up when all his potential candidates were taken off the market in one fell swoop. (Let’s pretend, for a moment, that this plotline is not extremely unrealistic.) The good news is, it turns out there’s a startup filled with distributed systems engineers that’s potentially available for an acquisition, as they failed to secure their next round of funding. The bad news is that company has 30 employees, whereas Richard only needs 12. Which means that only the 12 “best” engineers will join Pied Piper, and the rest all be laid off.

Now, this sort of thing happens all the time - layoffs are fairly common during acquisitions, or sometimes not long after - but what’s especially cruel about this scenario is that Richard tries to strongarm the founder into making the choice herself. The founder, Kira, actually refuses, to her credit; she tells Richard she wants to bring them all aboard. All or nothing, she says, and you almost want to stand up and clap for her, even though she’s negotiating against our boy Richard. Finally, a founder who thinks about more than herself!

It’s quite gratifying when Kira wins that negotiation, humiliating Richard in the process, thanks to a last-minute communiqué revealing that Gavin Belson has hired all the other distributed systems engineers in the Valley. Richard is further humiliated when he learns that Kira has rejected Pied Piper in favour of a better acquihire offer from Sliceline, an Uber-for-pizza app whose economics are exactly as unsound as you’d imagine. So he shows up to the Sliceline office in order to yell at everyone there, in a particularly cringeworthy scene that ends with him ineptly walking out with several boxes of pizza to bring back to Pied Piper.

Luckily for Richard, the pizza triggers an eleventh-hour epiphany: Sliceline is selling it for $9, but it’s just repackaged Domino’s which retails for $11. Ergo, Sliceline is losing money on every transaction. (This was some pretty solid commentary on the unsustainable economics of gig economy companies like Uber and Lyft.) So Richard then does what any nice guy would: he essentially blackmails the founder of Sliceline into accepting an acquisition offer, by threatening to bankrupt them by placing excess customer orders (using his company’s money, and enlisting the help of his company’s programmers to place those orders through a botnet).

Ethics aside, it works: Sliceline folds, and Richard now has like 50 employees. The next day, he shows up at the office and they’re all there, crowded inside an office that is much too small, unsure what to do and probably annoyed at being shuffled around like pawns in these unworthy founders’ egotistical games. Asked to deliver a motivational speech to these people - who, let’s remember, are under his power for half their waking hours - Richard predictably fails, and ends up vomiting in his office, in full view of his new and unimpressed employees.

How to feel about the fate of the tech workers in this episode? On the one hand, we shouldn’t feel too sorry for them: they’re all probably being paid pretty well, so they’re doing okay financially, even if their company gets lowballed in acquisition talks for reasons outside their control. On the other hand, they have so little control over their circumstances - over what they’re actually working on (or even whether they’re working on anything at all). They’re not granted any meaningful degree of power; the people who are making decisions on their behalf are the man-children who happen to have control over corporate decision-making.

Thinking about power imbalances is important, because it provides some nuance to the typical understanding of tech workers being valuable because they’re paid so well. Sure, they have some degree of power in the labour market, especially those who have in-demand skills or prestigious names on their resume (elite universities, hot tech companies, etc). And due to factors outside their control (the influx of venture capital money into the industry, the extreme profitability of their employers), many of them are able to negotiate for high salaries.

But that’s a very limited conception of power, one that only exists within this very narrow relationship mediated through the labour market. They do not have the power to abolish the labour market entirely, and most do not even have the power to exit from the labour market for a long period of time. They also do not have the power to work on a product entirely of their choosing; instead, those who are unable to raise capital on their own have to sell their labour to a company that already exists, and can only hope that they’ll find one that will let them do what they want. Their field of possibilities is determined from above, trickling down from the preferences of the ruling class of investors and executives.

Consider the new engineers at Hooli who’ve essentially been given lucrative sinecures in exchange for not working at Pied Piper. Now, from one perspective, this is a dream outcome: getting paid tremendous amounts of money to do absolutely nothing, with zero responsibilities. But I would argue that this is only a good thing in comparison to the absolutely shitty standard most people are used to, which is getting paid very little money to do something tedious and ultimately meaningless. It’s great in the way that Taco Bell is great if you haven’t eaten anything in 3 days.

We live in a society that’s oriented around work, and nowhere is this more evident than in Silicon Valley, where people are often encouraged to find meaning through work. Work is how you contribute to society, and the reason it is so central to society is because it’s seen as the best way to allocate resources. The implicit bargain goes something like this: as a worker, you abdicate some amount of control over what you’re doing to your employer, but it’s all for the greater good because they’re thinking about what’s best for society.

Except sometimes your CEO is a megalomanical manchild who makes decisions out of spite and greed rather than actually trying to make the world a better place. In that case, you might be paid a lot, but you’re also deprived of the ability to do anything meaningful through your job. What are you supposed to do instead? It might be nice at first, but eventually the lack of purpose will wear on your psyche. It’s hard to cope with having an obviously meaningless job in an environment when work is meant to be imbued with meaning.

I think everyone deserves a fulfilling job in addition to being paid well enough to be financially stable. We all deserve some choice over what we work on, and what the product of labour goes into. This is something that’s come up in labour struggles throughout history, especially when it comes to workers in logistical choke points - think Italian dock workers refusing to participate in shipping arms to Yemen, or Bay Area longshoremen boycotting South African ships in protest of apartheid.

Tech workers today have the potential to comprise a new sort of choke point, and one that’s increasingly important given the innate scalability of digital technology. It’s been heartening to see the recent wave of tech worker organising against working with ICE or the US military, for example, even if the impacts have been limited thus far. What we need is to move beyond simply the reactive and toward more preemptive control: before the technology is built, not after, when it’s already too late. After all, the impacts of the products we build aren’t always immediately obvious; sometimes cool computer vision tech for facial recognition ends up being used for unsavoury purposes by law enforcement or intelligence services. Sometimes the products we build seem innocuous, but are actually being used to deepen exploitation of low-wage workers on the other side of the digital whip. And on the more mundane side, sometimes the products being built are only attractive to customers because they’re subsidised by VC funding in the hopes of eventually establishing a monopoly; they might be worth building, but not if it only benefits the current owners.

Ultimately, tech workers deserve more than just good wages and benefits and working conditions (which, incidentally, other workers also deserve); they also deserve some level of control over what they build. That’s to not say they should be the only ones in control, of course; technology development should be democratically controlled more broadly, as well, but extending control to workers is an important part of this. At the very least, they shouldn’t have to implement decisions they feel morally uncomfortable with (e.g., creating user-hostile products, taking money from shitty clients, writing code to steal workers’ tips) simply because it’s what creates the most shareholder value.

Having better founders and investors will help a bit, but it won’t fix the problem entirely. The problem with monarchy is that even if some monarchs are kind and competent, you have very little recourse when you (inevitably) get a bad monarch. The problem is the excess, unaccountable power, full stop. As long as we keep the same top-down decision-making structures that we have now - as long as VC funding is the primary mechanism for funding new tech companies, and the Valley is populated by founders not that much better than those in Silicon Valley - we’re going to need more power for workers, in order to balance out the power from the top.

Right now, workers have too little power - the workers with the most workplace leverage tend to think they’re more than just workers, whereas those who know they are workers (and have much worse benefits and workplace conditions) are too worried about losing their job to speak up. But even the highly-paid workers in comfortable positions have gripes. Speaking anecdotally, it feels like more and more people are burning out of the tech industry, either because the conditions are horrible (overwork, bad management, workplace discrimination) or because they feel unfulfilled (because they’re working on something they don’t think is actually socially useful). This sucks, because it’s largely avoidable. We just need to prevent narcissistic founders and investors from walking around with all the power.

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