Book Review: Chaos in the Valley
Antonio García Martínez’s memoir, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, begins as the author is leaving his job as a number cruncher at Goldman Sachs in New York to head west. He joins an ad startup, leaves it to launch another, sells that one to Twitter 10 months later, then goes to work in the feverish cult of pre-initial public offering Facebook. And that’s just the first half of the book.
Unlike most founding narratives that flow out of the Valley, Chaos Monkeys (Harper; 528 pages) dives into the unburnished, day-to-day realities: the frantic pivots, the enthusiastic ass-kissing, the excruciating internal politics. The monkeys in his title are actually software programs designed to wreak havoc on a computer system to test its resilience. But García uses the term as a metaphor to illustrate how successful disruption often comes as much from luck as from skill.
The way he sees it, Silicon Valley is much like Wall Street, or any other sector of corporate America, when it comes to shady dealings. Because our iPhones are designed there, though, we tend to imagine it as a techno-utopia. In one of the memoir’s high points, Twitter offers to buy his startup, AdGrok, a platform that lets businesses automate bidding on Google keywords. García and his co-founders hope to coax a rival offer from Facebook. While pitching AdGrok to the social network, García hints that Google is interested as well. It’s not. Somehow, García impresses the Facebook folks so much that he gets a job offer, shocking the Twitter execs who follow through on their $5 million offer for the company but wind up with two co-founders instead of three. “That one throwaway line of mine was probably half responsible for what followed,” he writes. Later, he adds: “Morality, such as it exists in the tech whorehouse, is an expensive hobby indeed.”
There are plenty more tales like that. García coaxes lawyers into taking potentially worthless equity instead of pay. After abandoning his AdGrok co-founders to take the Facebook job, García gets fired at Facebook—and he winds up consulting for Twitter on how best to beat Mark Zuckerberg & Co.
García tries to position himself as a kind of nerd antihero, but he undermines himself with misogynistic remarks, referring to an attractive Asian co-worker as his “prize” and calling Bay Area women “soft and weak” with “self-regarding entitlement feminism.” He’s also fixated on settling grudges with former co-workers. He’s quick to mock Facebook executives for going into “lockdown” mode after Google announces its Google Plus social network, but what else were they supposed to do?
He can be rude, but he’s shrewd, too. While García is at Facebook, the company commissions several fixes for its ad monetization problem, but once one takes off (mobile ads in its news feed), it pretends that had been the plan all along. “What was an improbable bonanza at the hands of the flailing half-blind becomes the inevitable coup of the assured visionary,” he writes. “The world crowns you a genius, and you start acting like one.” In other words, if Silicon Valley is a jungle, some monkey is always going to wind up king.