More from Chaos Monkeys

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcia Martinez contains some reading list advice for engineers:

On the last hour of the last day, McEachen [superstar programmer], saint that he was, went to Murthy’s [Murthy Nukala, CEO of Adchemy, Martinez’s previous employer] office to say good-bye. He had invested over four years of his life in the company, watching it grow from a small shared space to the expansive floor of a high-end office tower. I waited impatiently by the emergency exit staircase, to avoid running into any other employees. After ten minutes or so, he emerged, looking astonished, or maybe shell-shocked. “He barely even looked up from the screen.” His voice cracked as he said it. He looked at me imploringly. For a moment I thought he might actually cry. “He didn’t say anything, and didn’t shake my hand.”

Matt McEachen, Adchemy’s best, most productive engineer, until the day he left the author of the biggest chunk of Adchemy’s codebase, was treated worse than a contract janitor on the way out. I marveled at a world in which well-meaning, industrious, but naive engineers are routinely manipulated by the glib entrepreneurs who seduce them into joining their startups, then relinquish them when they are no longer useful. Every Jobs has his Wozniak. I couldn’t exactly claim I wasn’t, to some degree, doing the same to him right then. He was merely trading Murthy for me.

Engineers can be so smart about code, and yet so dense about human motivations. They’d be better served by reading less Neal Stephenson and more Shakespeare and Patricia Highsmith.

Following a moderately successful seed phase in a Y Combinator startup, Martinez has to choose between Facebook and Twitter for his next act:

In December 2010, Zynga launched a FarmVille clone called CityVille. That game, a moronic rip-off of the far cleverer game The Sims, had accumulated one hundred million users in a month. One hundred million users! If humanity had waited until 2010 to invent masturbation, it would not have caught on as fast as CityVille. That’s how fast Facebook could make something happen.

Here’s another data point for you: As part of our push to woo Facebook, I had been getting Google Alerts on the company for months. One in particular had caught my attention. In October 2010, a mother in Florida had shaken her baby to death, as the baby would interrupt her FarmVille games with crying. A mother destroyed with her own hands what she’d been programmed over aeons to love, just to keep on responding to Facebook notifications triggered by some idiot game. Products that cause mothers to murder their infants in order to use them more, assuming they’re legal, simply cannot fail in the world. Facebook was legalized crack, and at Internet scale. Such a company could certainly figure out a way to sell shoes. Twitter was cute and all, but it didn’t have a casualty rate yet, …

I recall very little from the interviews, except a comment from one of the DabbleDB engineers. After getting through the stress questions, I asked him, “So what do you like most about Twitter?” By this point, we’d built a decent rapport, so with a nod and a wink, he said, “Well, you know, in companies like Facebook and Google, they serve you breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here at Twitter, they only serve you breakfast and lunch.” I cringed inwardly. So the big selling point was that nobody worked late into the night, so we could have that chimerical work-life balance?* I smiled to keep the warm vibe going. But that comment more than anything else sealed my decision. I was not going to blow the biggest career wad of my life on a company that hesitated to work past six p.m. daily.

I submit [Mark Zuckerberg] was an old-school genius, the fiery force of nature possessed by a tutelary spirit of seemingly supernatural provenance that fuels and guides him, intoxicates his circle, and compels his retinue to be great as well. The Jefferson, the Napoleon, the Alexander . . . the Jim Jones, the L. Ron Hubbard, the Joseph Smith. Keeper of a messianic vision that, though mercurial and stinting on specifics, presents an overwhelming and all-consuming picture of a new and different world. Have a mad vision, and you’re a kook. Get a crowd to believe in it as well, and you’re a leader. By imprinting this vision on his disciples, he founded the church of a new religion. … Then there was the culture he created. Many cool Valley companies have engineering-first cultures, but Facebook took it to a different level. … That was the uniquely piratical attitude: if you could get shit done and quickly, nobody cared much about credentials or traditional legalistic morality. The hacker ethos prevailed above all. This culture is what kept twenty-three-year-old kids who were making half a million a year, in a city where there was lots of fun on offer if you had the cash, tethered to a corporate campus for fourteen-hour days. They ate three meals a day there, sometimes slept there, and did nothing but write code, review code, or comment on new features in internal Facebook groups. On the day of the IPO—Facebook’s victory rally—the Ads area was full of busily working engineers at eight p.m. on a Friday. All were at that point worth real money—even fuck-you money for some—and all were writing code on the very day their paper turned to hard cash.

A concrete example of the zealotry?

In June 2011, Google launched an obvious Facebook copy called Google Plus. It hit Facebook like a bomb. Zuck took it as an existential threat comparable to the Soviets placing nukes on Cuba in 1961. This was the great enemy’s sally into our own hemisphere, and it gripped Zuck like nothing else. He declared “Lockdown,” the first and only one during my time there. As was duly explained to the more recent employees, Lockdown was a state of war that dated to Facebook’s earliest days, when no one could leave the building while the company confronted some threat, either competitive or technical. … the cafés would be open over the weekends, and the proposal was seriously floated to have the shuttles from Palo Alto and San Francisco run on the weekends too. This would make Facebook a fully seven-days-a-week company; by whatever means, employees were expected to be in and on duty. In what was perceived as a kindly concession to the few employees with families, it was also announced that families were welcome to visit on weekends and eat in the cafés, allowing the children to at least see daddy (and yes, it was mostly daddy) on weekend afternoons.

I decided to do some reconnaissance. En route to work one Sunday morning, I skipped the Palo Alto exit on the 101, and got off in Mountain View instead. Down Shoreline I went, and into the sprawling Google campus. The multicolored Google logo was everywhere, and clunky Google-colored bikes littered the courtyards. I had visited friends here before, and knew where to find the engineering buildings. I made my way there, and contemplated the parking lot. It was empty. Completely empty. Interesting. I got back on the 101 North and drove to Facebook. At the California Avenue building, I had to hunt for a parking spot. The lot was full. It was clear which company was fighting to the death.

More: read Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley

3 thoughts on “More from Chaos Monkeys

  1. Time for me to take up subsistence farming for a living if working 14 hour days, 7 days a week is what it takes to have a career in programming in the future.

  2. Reading this “concrete example of the zealotry” makes me but think of the poet John Betjeman’s 1937 verse directed at Slough, then a city-hamlet near London [later location of the UK TV “Office” and as such the verse criticized by “David Brent”]… only here THE SOLUTION of FRIENDLY CARPET BOMBING applied in earnest to #Fuckfacebook’s Palo Alto HQ.

    Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
    It isn’t fit for humans now,
    There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
    Swarm over, Death!

    Come, bombs and blow to smithereens […]

  3. It’s well known that google, facebook, et al are already antiquated steaming turd piles of technical debt in terms of the code that generates revenue. That’s why it takes long work hours and huge employee counts to deal with. It’s banging your head against endless bugs and puzzling files for days on end.

    You can only get people to work like that with frustrating garbage legacy code if they’re getting rich in the bargain. The instant these firms can’t sustain $180K salaries or serious stock hand-outs they’re toast. Which will probably happen in the next recession when ad revenues inevitably tank. Palantir is already in such a death spiral, where the model required massive hours from people who thought they could get rich, but now realize they won’t get rich.

    What’s interesting to me is that ebay was built up into a multi-billion company without crazy long hours. The founders peaced out fairly early when the investors forced the culture in that direction.

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