When Tension Snaps in Silicon Valley

I’ve heard my startup friends say they can’t watch HBO’s Silicon Valley because it’s “too true.” I feel the opposite. While it’s disconcerting to realize that startup people (like me) deserve to be mocked for certain behaviors, I love the show, in part, because it helps me understand the environment I’m immersed in. This sequence, in particular, has stuck with me.

 

I hadn’t put much thought into why I was so amused until I started reading Arthur Koestler’s 1964 book, The Act of Creation.” Koestler argues that comedy involves “bisociation,” the connecting of two seemingly incompatible frames of reference. Here’s how he illustrates the type of humor that evokes sudden laughter:

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The underlying pattern, Koestler writes, “… is the perceiving of a situation or idea, L, in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference, M1 and M2. The event L, in which the two intersect, is made to vibrate simultaneously on two different wavelengths, as it were. While this unusual situation lasts, L is not merely linked to one associative context, but bisociated with two.”

In the case of the Silicon Valley sequence I posted above, the humor is in the ridiculousness of bisociating obscure technical innovations with notions of improving the world; e.g., “Making the world a better place… through paxos algorithms for consensus protocols.” What it means to “make the world a better place” is subjective, but the implication of world-level change is that it’s large and foundational. Many startup pitches, in contrast, sound trivial and niche to outsiders. Silicon Valley‘s mockery concisely illuminates an element of grandiose bullshit imbuing many startups: a poorly constructed facade of higher purpose.

Koestler writes:

The creative act of the humorist consisted in bringing about a momentary fusion between two habitually incompatible matrices. Scientific discovery … can be described in very similar terms–as the permanent fusion of matrices of through previously believed to be incompatible.

In short: “Comic discovery is a paradox stated–scientific discovery is paradox resolved…”

Many of the same paradoxes that Silicon Valley exposes through satire are the ones I’ve been wrestling with on this blog and in my career as a product manager. With my latest series of writing, starting with The Fundamental Tension in Product, I provide heuristics for staying committed to a world-changing vision while navigating the on-the-ground reality of real work and market signal. While the presenters in the TechCrunch Disrupt parody fall over flat in navigating the tension, some companies are able to pull it off.  Amazon has arguably “changed the world” through commoditizing cloud-based computing. “Cloud-based computing” might sound esoteric on the surface to a layman, but it’s had world-level impact by making the creation of websites significantly cheaper and easier.

The vision of many great tech companies can be expressed in the laughter-inducing syntax of the Silicon Valley pitches: “We’re going to make the world a better place, by [insert cryptic-sounding technical advancement].” Tesla’s vision has a different flavor with a similar structure. Elon Musk says he will save the world by creating cars for rich people. His master plan actually might hold up, but it could sound laughably delusional on the surface.

The paradox of a tech startup’s world-changing ambitions is just one of the interesting tensions illuminated by Silicon Valley. Another such tension is the one that exists between sales and engineering, illustrated by Pied Piper’s pivot to create The Box:

 

Starting with The Product Management Triangle, I’ve written in depth about the tensions that emerge around product between business, technology, and customers. These tensions can manifest as a clash between engineering and sales. Engineering generally wants to work on what’s unique, innovative, and artful. Sales wants the engineering team to build something that can be sold. Season 2 of Silicon Valley comically depicts an extreme resolution of the tension: simply letting the sales team dictate entirely what the engineering team builds. The result, of course, isn’t viable. The engineering team rebels. After the sales team gets fired, the pendulum swings to the other extreme. Pied Piper ships a product that was never tested on users other than engineers. The product was technologically brilliant but inaccessible to the general public.

I couldn’t think of a better stage-setting to explain the need for product management. It is precisely the job of the product manager to manage tensions like the one that led to The Box. The product manager must synthesize (or bisociate) seemingly conflicting inputs into a narrative that resonates across multiple planes of thought.

As much as I would like to escape the mockery of Silicon Valley, clearly I cannot. I’m hit dead on by Pied Piper’s temporary CEO with his “Conjoined Triangles of Success.”

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