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Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley Hardcover – June 28, 2016
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From the Publisher
Antonio García Martínez talks with Steven Levy
Steven Levy is the editor-in-chief of Backchannel.
Steven Levy (SL): Antonio, why did you write this book?
Antonio García Martínez (AGM): You know, that's a good question because many would think that I'm committing career suicide by writing it. One of the most notable things about Silicon Valley is that nobody is writing those histories. Everyone in Silicon Valley lives in what I like to call 'the eternal present'. It’s the urgent now of the next start-up, or the next cool technology or the next fundraising round or the next media event. No one ever pulls back and thinks: "What are they going to think of us in ten years or a hundred years?" So at the very highest, noblest level, recording that history is why I wrote the book.
SL: You did it, as you mentioned, in a pretty unmediated fashion, one which is probably going to ruffle some feathers. We were talking at one point earlier about doing pieces of this on Backchannel, and I was going to call this series 'You’ll Never Eat Free Lunch in This Town Again'. Do you think you are going to be blackballed?
AGM: Oh, yeah. I think there are going to be one of two reactions to the book. One is from the Facebook founder, early employee, or anyone really vested in and part of the Silicon Valley establishment, who are going to be extraordinarily antagonistic to it. And then I think there's going to be the reaction of the mid-level or junior-level Facebook employee (what I was at Facebook), or the scarred veteran of many a start-up who is not believing in the fairy tale anymore—they are going to read it and see what is basically a portrait of their own lives and laugh like hell.
SL: Your view of Silicon Valley seems to be a kind of den of scoundrels, and you don't exempt yourself from this. Yet there's a moment late in the book where you drop that pose for a second and say how you were drinking the Kool-Aid yourself. How swept up did you get in the Silicon Valley ethos while at the same time looking at a lot of things around you with a jaundiced eye?
AGM: Like I say in the book, "Inside every cynic lives a heartbroken idealist". So if I look at the Silicon Valley world with such a jaundiced eye, it's precisely because I at one point believed in it. I've definitely hammed up this persona of the swaggering rapscallion running amok through the Silicon Valley world, which I kind of did for a number of years. But that rapscallion did believe. I wore a little Facebook fleece every day, I lived at Facebook, I believed in the mission, I was as much a rank-and-file trooper as anybody else. Of course, I was disabused of that opinion as I saw the reality. But I absolutely was a believer at one point, no question.
An Amazon Best Book of July 2016: If you think you know the back-story of the founding of Facebook because you saw The Social Network, think again: Antonio Garcia Martinez’s Chaos Monkeys tells a more complete and sometimes darker story about the founding and development of Mark Zuckerberg’s multi-billion-dollar invention. This is not a whodunit (we know who did – Zuckerberg, those rowing twins, and assorted Harvard frenemies) so much as a procedural, a chronicle by the data-guru who was eventually forced out of Facebook (he went to Twitter) – but not before gathering some pretty interesting social data of his own: about Zuckerberg, about other Silicon valley “chaos monkeys,” and about the culture that spawned all of them. Others who have toiled in tech will recognize some universal truths: for example, that despite the great wealth, most are not in it for the money so much as the mission; Facebook, Garcia Martinez asserts, was a “church of a new religion,” its practitioners true believers. While there may be a little TMI for the casual reader, there are enough specific scenes and characters – Sheryl Sandberg included, of course -- that, geek or not, you can’t help but be fascinated. Me, I can’t help but wonder how many “likes” you’d get if you posted about it on your FB page… --Sara Nelson, The Amazon Book Review
“Reckless and rollicking... perceptive and funny and brave.... The resulting view of the Valley’s craziness, self-importance and greed isn’t pretty. But it’s one that most of us have never seen before and aren’t likely to forget.” (Washington Post)
“Michael Lewis was never a top Wall Street bond salesman, but in Liar’s Poker he captured an era. Chaos Monkeys aims to do the same for Silicon Valley, and bracingly succeeds.” (New York Times Book Review)
“Brilliant.” (Financial Times)
“This year’s best non-business book about business.... Garcia Martinez is a real writer.... A classic tale, well told.” (Techcrunch)
“There are some books that are just too good to miss.... In his insider-tells-all book, García Martínez discusses everything from goofy stories to cultural secrets about some of the country’s most powerful and influential businesses.” (Atlantic)
“Incisive.... The most fun business book I have read this year.... Clearly there will be people who hate this book — which is probably one of the things that makes it such a great read.” (Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times)
“[García Martínez] is, by his own account, a dissolute character.... He is nonetheless, by the end of his account, a winning antihero, a rebel against Silicon Valley’s culture of nonconformist conformity.... The reader can’t help rooting for him.” (Jacob Weisberg, New York Review of Books)
“Unlike most founding narratives that flow out of the Valley, Chaos Monkeys dives into the unburnished, day-to-day realities: the frantic pivots, the enthusiastic ass-kissing, the excruciating internal politics.... [García] can be rude, but he’s shrewd, too.” (Bloomberg Businessweek)
“An irresistible and indispensable 360-degree guide to the new technology establishment.... A must-read.” (Jonathan A. Knee, New York Times)
“An unvarnished account… of Silicon Valley.” (CBS This Morning)
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That's only the last half of the book.
The rest is a tale of escaping from startup hell, making a go at reaching startup heaven, then making deals to salvage it all when reaching the critical trial-by-fire that every startup must face: die, execute flawlessly, or exit.
There are some who will find the tone, the voice, or the political incorrectness of both to be too harsh to digest. I've already seen that in a few of the reviews here. To them I say "grow up"... put on your big boy/girl pants and read this for the story. The tale it tells. The facts it presents. The data with which it backs it all up. Because it is all true. The exposition of complex systems are described using appropriate, and facile metaphors. Many of the standard Facebook tropes ("stealing/selling your data", "Zuck is evil", etc.) are explained for the misleading baloney that they are. Best of all it describes how the advertising media really operates, going back to the dawn of it, and how Facebook, Google, et al are merely extensions of a system that has existed for two centuries. It is worth the purchase price for that lesson alone, all wrapped in a great, and true story.
For myself, having lived through much of the same experience at Facebook (from onboarding, the devotion, the cynicism, to the inglorious, frustrated exit bungled by one of the legion of Facebook's incompetent and narcissistic manager corps) I found myself going from laughter, to nodding agreement, to gut-wrenching bouts of PTSD as I turned the pages of 'Chaos Monkeys'. Now I no longer have to justify myself to people who ask me why I left Facebook - I can just tell them to read this book, since it explains it better than I ever could.
Another skewered vanity is that the work being done there is “changing the world.” The nirvana of being paid millions while doing meaningful work is the final privilege being sought by the waves of wall street refugees making their way out west. Only the most self-deluded really buy it, and as Antonio shows, those often happen to be working at the most influential and powerful companies. Is Facebook really changing the world? Without question, but when Facebook uses the language of historical figures, implicitly placing itself on the same podium as Cato the elder, say, it is both creepy and pathetic. Furthermore, the same gulf between the windfalls of the upper echelon and the rank-and-file is still present.
The second book is a detailed, unsparing deep-dive into the trenches of the ad tech industry. Just for that, it is worth reading if your job has any remote connection with selling online. You will come away with more awareness of how pixels convert to dollars. This theme occupies most of the second half of the book. If anything, the vivid metaphors he uses to describe the otherwise dull and esoteric details of identity matching and attribution will serve you well anytime you must summon a complete picture of this complex web in your head. Even non-specialists will find fascinating the descriptions of how private data is collected and sold, not to mention probably realizing they have been worried about the wrong kind of privacy violations.
Third, there is a marvelous how-to guide for aspiring entrepreneurs hidden between the diatribes. Antonio managed to meet many of the key players in the industry. His detailed accounts of many of these meetings (confrontations) offer a unique behind-the-scenes vantage which many manuals for silicon valley success avoid, so the authors can remain in good stead with the figures involved. In addition, there is another way that Chaos Monkeys serves as an excellent preview of what entrepreneurship entails. Other how-to books are so smitten with the idea of entrepreneur as Hero that they often fail to convey the tedium, anxiety and chaos that are most of the day-to-day realities for any entrepreneur. These other books mention that building a company is hard and stressful, but often seem shy to mention exactly why, beyond executing a bad idea, or a linear increase in working hours. In reality, the unspoken “hard” part of any startup is not the actual hours involved, or the idea, or execution, but rather the unwavering conviction you must have to keep at it when things are totally falling apart. The struggle to convince yourself, your investors and your customers that your vision of the world is the correct one is constant war against entropy, counterfactuals, competitors or self-doubts. Any of these must be swallowed, digested, shat out, and freeze-dried as more grist for your sales pitch mill. Every entrepreneur will immediately recognize what Antonio unabashedly portrays: the dreadful gulf between the inward awareness of all the chaos and flux at the startup, while preserving the outward image of polish, order and optimism. In fact, the delusion of performing world-changing work as an entrepreneur (even when you’re just building a s***ty analytics panel) is so pervasive, it cannot be solely attributed to narcissism. The book makes the point that this delusion is actually an emotional coping mechanism to endure the aforementioned doublethink on a daily basis.
Finally, we are given an intimate, unsentimental portrait of Antonio’s tortured psyche. While I wouldn’t necessarily advocate “praying for Antonio’s soul,” as a previous reviewer stated, his relentless self-deprecation and raw honesty balance out some of the selfish decisions he makes in the book. He is extremely well read, and I suspect this background informs a somewhat tragic theme of the book— for a certain type of person, the only hope that can lift the cynicism and misanthropy of early life disappointment is to undergo a meaningful quest with loyal companions. There aren’t many of those quests around anymore, unfortunately, nor is there a surfeit of loyal companions in the sort of places and professions that demand one’s full faculties. In the book, many characters and causes fail to meet this high bar, of course. I suspect more than a few failed idealists will find a kindred spirit in Antonio, despite the caustic tone throughout. That said, there is plenty here to be offended about, if that is your sort of thing. Some of the criticism is justified. For example, there is some objectification of women that could have been omitted. However, if that is your ONLY take-away, then you are precisely the sort of self-important, thin-skinned windbag that is rightfully skewered in Chaos Monkeys.
You will either love or hate Martinez's voice (I found myself doing both at different parts of the book). I'm sure a lot of people are going to get hung up on some offhand sexist comments or the dirt thrown at Facebook's execs (and I'm sure that Martinez could have avoided both while keeping the book interesting). The real gems in the book, however, are the tangents that Martinez takes to describe in a really simple way some fairly technical concepts. For example the way that he describes online advertising and why it is similar to security trading is really well done.
Read this book if you want to see how the Valley works from someone who was in there, drank the koolaid, but have the clarity of mind to get out of there and write about it.
Most war stories from the life of a startup founder are only told in passing: an anecdote over drinks, a post-mortem in a blog post, commiseration over lunch. What is uncommon is the entire story of a startup, told from start to finish, warts and all.
I highly recommend this book if you have ever worked with or for a startup, are thinking of founding your own startup, or are simply curious about life in the Silicon Valley.