How HBO’s Silicon Valley Captures the Startup Experience with Todd Silverstein (Silicon Valley)
We catch up with the lead technical advisor of HBO’s Emmy-nominated comedy series about startups, to discuss how real-life experience informs their fictionalized version of the tech scene, what goes into making a season of the show, and the delicate balance between technical & emotional accuracy.
Silicon Valley returns April 23rd for a fourth season. Watch the teaser on HBO.com.
From Startups to TV
Tim: So I was going to say, it feels like we’ve known each other for a decade, but we actually have known each other for a decade.
Todd: So it doesn’t just feel, it’s reality.
Tim: And, of all things, I tend to forget this, because I think I’d rather forget it, but we met through Craigslist. You put an ad on Craigslist and I answered it and I survived it.
Todd: Yeah, I was trying to learn Ruby on Rails, like, back in the day when it was a new thing and I was living in DC at the time and while there was a lot of technology with the defense industry, I was very unsure if there was going to be anyone poking around with new technologies at the time.
Tim: Yeah, and I answered, and I lived to tell the tale, and you went on to do a bunch of different things, you worked for tech companies, you built your own startup, you went through Techstars, you know, built Vizify, ended up being acquired by Yahoo, and went through that whole experience, and now you’re working for this show, Silicon Valley, right? When did you start working for them?
Todd: So, I began working for them at the end of June, and in fact I decided to leave Yahoo, this was following the acquisition, so having done the startup story, and as it turned out they were looking for a replacement for what they call the lead technical advisor role. The short version of it is that it’s my job to make sure that all the tech is true and accurate.
How the show approaches “Reality”
Tim: And tech means more than just a whiteboard detail or a code snippet, right? It’s so pervasive in the world of the show that I’ve heard you talk about how you have to think about, does the company feel real? Are the motivations of the characters that of a real person in a startup? And of course, down to details of making sure that technical words being used and technical snippets being used are accurate.
Todd: Yeah, it’s actually quite challenging, but it’s really everything from high to low, and the little details are sort of the easiest pieces to get right. The harder thing is, first and foremost, it’s a show that’s telling stories about people in a startup, and so, we often start there. What would you be thinking about in this situation? What would you be doing? There’s a lot of effort made by the writers, who are tremendously talented, to try and seize on, what are the emotionally-salient things that would be going on, what are the characters’ motivations, how would that all be put together? And so, we often start there.
Tim: Right, and I have friends in Silicon Valley, the place, that always comment on the show being very technically accurate, but I think what they usually mean is it’s very emotionally accurate, it reminds them of their own struggle, their own battle, their own motivation and reaction to sayings, and I think, you know, it’s funny how the show sometimes gets credit for getting the small, technical details right when the writing has just been really stellar throughout the seasons.
Todd: Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing that’s most impressed me about the writers. I mean, they’re such great natural storytellers, but really seizing on, we’ll hear an interesting anecdote or I’ll tell them about an experience and they’ll be like, oh, what you mean by that or what the most interesting aspect of it is, and you’re like, yeah, you’re right. It’s rarely a technical detail, that’s kind of the icing on the cake, but it’s much more often what you were going through when you were experiencing that.
Tim: So, has it taught you a lot, in kind of how you think about Silicon Valley and how you look at Silicon Valley, ‘cause now you’ve been working out of L.A. for a little bit, and you go back to SF every now and then, do you look at it differently?
Todd: Yeah, a little bit. As you know, it’s very much its own hot house bubble, so you go in, you come back and you have a unique perspective on it. I had the pleasure of going back with the writing team, and so getting to see their reaction. They’ve been going every year on a field trip and we’d meet a lot of people sort of up and down the value chain. One of the most interesting things to me is how much the core of the Valley has this almost chip on its shoulder that it’s small, that it’s fighting giants, but in fact, technology has become 40% of our economy and I think the writers are very aware of this dichotomy sometimes between you know, what people say or how they think about themselves and sort of the actual numbers and influence that technology wields.
Tim: There must be a lot of comedy to mine from that. It’s like a big dog thinking its small or a small dog thinking it’s really, really big. Just that contrast is kind of striking.
How a season comes together
Tim: But so, how does the show get written? It seems like it’s only on the air for like 10 weeks a year, but it’s a big, big effort that involves hundreds of people.
Todd: Yeah, so, it’s actually an incredibly overwhelming effort when you see it in practice. It’s kind of daunting, and it’s been one of the most fascinating things working on it, but it really has sort of three components. So, there are 10 episodes, and it takes a good eight to ten months to really go from beginning to end of the process. But, the first third is writing, and so I’ll sit with the writers in the writers’ room, and it’s really just breaking story, and you talk about narrative arcs, and those become outlines, and the outlines become paper outlines, the paper outlines become scripts, and the scripts over time become shooting scripts. But, aside from this writing process, which is really getting the details right, figuring out how to get the characters from A to B, then you roll into the actual production, which is the filming, and that, as you might imagine, is a wild, crazy thing itself.
Tim: So, I’m surprised, right, ‘cause the taping seems like it takes like four months, from what you told me before and the writing, ahead of that, takes another four months.
Todd: It does, and then there’s another four-ish months of post-production, too. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of, they often shoot extra tape so they have to cut things back, there are small adjustments that need to be made, and there is the effects, so some of the tech stuff that they show they may film actual code on a monitor, but in many cases, that stuff actually gets green screened on after the fact.
Tim: Still, a lot of the show it seems is, you know, I was surprised, the set, you know, I went and took a tour of it, but the set is actually like a house, and you can go from room to room, and the computers are all there, the way that you see them on the show, and so much of it really feels like being in Palo Alto, really being in one of those houses we’ve all been in, but you know, it’s constructed as a kind of continuous set and continuous element.
Todd: Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting to see how the structure itself is designed in such a way that you can get cameras and lights where you need them to, but in fact, it’s actually based off a real Palo Alto house, so, it’s quite accurate. With the quality of cameras and everything else today, it’s amazing, there’s a construction team who’s essentially building on a sound stage more-or-less a real house, which is where the shooting takes place.
Balancing Entertainment & Accuracy
Tim: And its just, you know, as you were observing earlier, it’s just heightened. The house is real, but just more so than a real house, and a lot of the characters in the situation, of course they’re not exactly real, but they’re grounded in that emotional core of what you’re doing in a startup.
Todd: Yeah, and in some senses, like any novel just has the good bits in it, we hear really interesting stories. People are sometimes a little bit more open talking to us since we’re not technically in the Valley now, and as a result of it, in some senses you hear the best anecdotes and we’re able to kind of cherry pick. ‘Cause no real startup would ever encounter everything that Richard and the guys have encountered, but where we try to be true is everything they encounter has happened to someone that we know.
Tim: And that must be nice, and you said the good bits, but in fact, it’s a lot of the bad bits, that sometimes you don’t want to hear about Silicon Valley because, you know, the press and investors and just the general structure of Silicon Valley as a place seems to really encourage you to, kind of, promote yourself and only talk about the right things and having your startup always being so great, and on such a, crushing it, right? So, it’s interesting that you guys are able to get the peak at the other stuff that happens all the time, which is the failures and the mistakes and the egos and everything else.
Todd: Yeah, no one likes to talk about it in the Valley, and it’s not talked about enough, but it’s still the reality for most startups is failure, at the end of the day. And I think the writers are sort of keenly aware of that and really love that. I mean, there are real stakes here, it’s not a fait accompli that you’re going to make it.
Tim: And so, it feels like from the outside that maybe the essential balance of the show was kind of negotiating this need for narrative arc and something that’s very engaging to viewers but also remaining technically accurate. Do you find those things to be at odds, working on the show? Or are they not?
Todd: It’s a bit of a push-and-pull, but you know, the writing process, like coding, is actually so iterative, and so sometimes you’ll actually start with an anecdote or a story or an experience and work backwards, and say, okay, what’s the emotional arc? Sometimes, in fact, a character’s located at a certain point and there’s a story they want to tell. Then you need to think through how technology can play a role and sometimes you go back and forth and you realize this is a dead end and we’re going to end up with 15 minutes of Richard coding on screen. Which is not an interesting thing to go ahead and see. So, it’s a push-pull process. I guess I’m a little bit more forgiving, or used to, that process, just having been in tech, which is a process of iteration and I actually began by career in publishing, so it’s sort of this process of breaking and rebreaking and going over it again, trying to make it better, faster, stronger, is something I’m kind of used to.
Originally published February 26, 2017.