Features & Columns
Chaos in the Valley
in His Hilariously Scathing Book: Chaos Monkeys
Nothing can stop them. The gates of business schools yawn open every summer and disgorge new legions of MBAs, coming to make their bones in the valley. The rents and property values pierce the skies and reach the orbit of Saturn. Once a refuge for endangered creatures of all sizes, San Francisco is today a bleached coral reef. Fresh indentured slaves arrive from Uttar Pradesh by the planeload, clutching visas that evaporate at the mere frown of a supervisor. The roads back up to Vacaville. The crux, perhaps: the insanely great iHorror Apple-caused traffic snarl at 237 and 880 in Milpitas. This reliable jam is so dreadful that it cannot be described in the tongues of men, but only in the shrieks of an electrocuted cockatoo. And we learn, just as the Ohlones learned, as the ranchers learned, as the farmers learned after them: life in a boomtown can really suck.
Antonio García Martínez' new book, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, satirizes this mad scene. Chaos Monkeys' title comes from public domain software Netflix developed to test systems for outages—the visual image being a raging chimp loose in the server room.
It's a highly witty and pejorative account of the author's years in tech between 2010 and 2014, as he sought to monetize all the data variously collected by Facebook, Google and Twitter. After a spell back east at Goldman Sachs, García Martínez went to Adchemy, and later tried his own startup, AdGrok. Shortly before selling Adchemy to Walmart Labs, García Martínez' former boss, Murthy Nukala, sued the author for theft of intellectual property.
It's not that García Martínez calls Nukala "an egomaniacal, sociopathic prick" explicitly, but the author does roster his problems with his boss in a chapter discussing strategies in dealing with ESPs. (In an aside, García Martínez mentions that Nukala gave him a fracture called a "mallet finger," a common sports injury, by hurling a surprise baseball at him.) Of all the true words in it, "Don't come to the Silicon Valley looking for sanity, dear reader" may be the truest.
Before he arrives next week in San Jose to speak at the C2SV Technology Conference and Music Festival, García Martínez was making a quick pass through the Bay Area—he's now living on his boat in the San Juan Islands of Washington, while his agent tries to get his book made into a movie. Since he'd been out of town, a first question during a phone interview was a leading one: How bad is San Francisco now?
"It's like when you don't see a kid for three to six months," he said. "If you live with a kid you don't notice that he's growing. If you go away for a few months, it's 'Holy shit, that kid's gotten big.' The tent cities are as big as favelas now, and they're not going away."
Does he miss anything?
"Almost nothing," he says. "The nature, the beaches and the bay, and Tahoe, if you ski, it's an amazing setting. Yet San Francisco is becoming like Vegas—you can stand it for X amount of days. Longer than that, you want to slice your wrists or go on a shooting spree. The constant hustle here once was exciting, but now it seems like a waste of time."
García Martínez didn't intend his memoir to be a kiss-off to the valley, and he doesn't actually feel it is. "I wanted to be tough, satirical and funny, to tell it as it was," he says. "I went to work for Goldman Sachs carrying a copy of Liar's Poker. Michael Lewis wrote his book as a cautionary how-not-to tale, and some readers are using it as a gateway."
Perhaps for this reason, Chaos Monkeys seems like a book that needed to be pored over by lawyers.
"Short answer—basically, yes," García Martínez agrees. "The reality is that very little of the book had to be changed. The legal details of a confidentiality agreement are actually hard to break, and freedom of speech is still a defense against libel charges in the USA. Facebook was smart enough to know that if they sued me, the book would go on the best-seller lists." García Martínez also notes that legal discovery in a lawsuit would reveal all the emails that he's stored up.
The author has a hotheaded streak—most would have avoided insulting the women of the Bay Area as "despite claims of worldliness, generally full of shit."
He certainly regrets that paragraph. "Jesus Christ, that's going to be on my tombstone," he says. "My editor, a typical second-wave feminist woman, thought it was funny but that the paragraph needed trimming. I typically defer to what the editor thought, but this is the one place I put my foot down. And, of course, I was wrong.
"It's a reaction I had, but for every woman who seemed very feminist and in charge, there'll be whiny baristas and yoga teachers with myopia, living in a state of outrage over these really made-up social issues. It's an overly broad generalization, and I think attention to it detracts from the rest of the work."
The book isn't sour grapes about females, though. García Martínez' female live-in, the "English Trader," is praised in terms of her carpentry, in addition to her business skills. Angry as the book can be, passages about her epitomize the author's respect for people who know what they're doing.
García Martínez praises the older, funkier valley—for VCs such as Paul Graham, who show up to work in Birkenstocks and shorts—over the shiny sushi-fed noobs demonstrating that venture capital is, as he writes, "the final redoubt of individuals with discipline and ambition but no actual talent."
He expresses faith in a housecleaning to come. "This area always had boom and bust and the economy is cooling since the Brexit. I definitely think that the Silicon Valley has gone from being a refuge for hippie flower children to a first stop for the entitled students, straight out of Cambridge, Mass. I always get wary when the pretty people show up, the men with $300 haircuts."
García Martínez correctly calls out many of the titans of the valley as appropriators of other people's skills, from Bill Gates to Saint Steven Jobs. There's a passage from Honore de Balzac that always gets misquoted: every journalist alive has the readymade "Behind every great fortune is a great crime" in their quiver. The comment actually goes "The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a forgotten crime, as the crime was properly done."
Ultimately, Chaos Monkeys is an erudite read. García Martínez says that his mother was a librarian, and that he grew up among dusty old books. His book is illuminated with ideas from Marcus Aurelius to Boethius (hello, Ignatius J. Reilly fans). Jonathan Knee fretted in the New York Times that some might read Chaos Monkeys backwards, as a how-to book to mount to your place in the valley. The professor perhaps missed the Saint Augustine quote García Martínez lifted: anyone seeking to avoid the road to hell had best know where that road is.