Chaos Monkeys, a Silicon Valley Story

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley is a fascinating book for people like Mary and I who haven’t lived in the San Francisco Bay area for many years. The author, Antonio Garcia Martinez, writes in a unique way. Take note, Donald Trump fans, Martinez is the son of Cuban immigrants, and we’d be poorer without this book and the contributions Martinez made to the tech industry. The rest of this post is his words from the book and there is also a good interview of him on YouTube.

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Like the masters of old buying servants off the ship, tech companies are required to spend nontrivial sums for foreign hires. Many companies, particularly smaller startups, don’t want the hassle, and hire only American citizens, an imposed nativism nobody talks about, and which is possibly illegal. Big companies, which know they’ll be around for the years it will take to recoup their investment, are the real beneficiaries of this peonage system.

Large but unexciting tech outfits like Oracle, Intel, Qualcomm, and IBM that have trouble recruiting the best American talent hire foreign engineers by the boatload. Consultancy firms that bill inflated project costs by the man-hour, such as Accenture and Deloitte, shanghai their foreign laborers, who can’t quit without being eventually deported. By paying them relatively slim H-1B-stipulated salaries while eating the fat consultancy fees, such companies get rich off the artificial employment monopoly created by the visa barrier. It’s a shit deal for the immigrant visa holders, but they put up with the five or so years of stultifying, exploitive labor as an admissions ticket to the tech First World. After that, they’re free. Everyone abandons his or her place at the oar inside the Intel war galley immediately, but there’s always someone waiting to take over.

Strictly speaking, H-1B visas are non-immigrant and temporary, and so this hazing ritual of immigrant initiation is unlawful. Yet everyone’s on the take, including the government, which charges thousands in filing fees. The entire system is so riven with institutionalized lies, political intrigue, and illegal but overlooked manipulation, it’s a wonder the American tech industry exists at all.

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As a piece of clickbait-y news, want to know which is the most expensive word in the English language? Around 2011 or so, and probably still to this day, the priciest word in the global auction on words was “mesothelioma.” This tongue twister is a rare form of lung disease common among former asbestos-plant workers. Thanks to a series of class-action lawsuits against former factory owners, filed by plaintiffs’ attorneys who make fortunes on contingency fees, the value of this word was bid up as high as $90 per click. Want to screw a slimy lawyer? Google “mesothelioma” and start randomly clicking on the ads that appear. You’re costing a lawyer almost a whole benjamin every time you do that.

Lung-cancer words, despite their superlative cost, are still a pretty niche market. What are the costliest Google keywords among relatively high-volume keywords? The ranking changes, but the top ten is always composed of some combination of “insurance,” “loans,” “mortgage,” “classes,” “credit,” “lawyer,” and so on. These are Google’s moneymakers, which pay for the Android phones, the Chrome browser, the self-driving cars, the flying Wi-Fi balloons, and whatever weird, geeky, philanthropic shit the company is up to recently.

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, no matter how much this Lady Gaga person was tweeting.

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Like Jesus speaking to his apostles, Facebook often imparted nuggets of its culture in the form of parables. The parable here concerned a misguided Facebook employee who leaked news of a soon-to-be-launched product to the tech press. Zuck reacted via a to-all email with the subject line “Please resign,” an alarming presence in anybody’s inbox. The email, which was projected onto the screen in Pong and read line by line, encouraged whoever had leaked to resign immediately, and excoriated the perpetrator for his or her base moral nature, highlighting how he or she had betrayed the team. The moral to this story, a parable of the prodigal son but with an unforgiving father, was clear: fuck with Facebook and security guards would be hustling you out the door like a rowdy drunk at the late-night Taco Bell.

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Rather than harshly regulate every step of this sexual-legal minefield, Facebook preferred to lay down basic guidelines. Delicately, but unambiguously, our HR Man stated that we could ask a coworker out once, but no meant no, and you had no more lets after that. After one ask, you were done, and anything beyond that was subject to sanction.

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Many cool Valley companies have engineering-first cultures, but Facebook took it to a different level. The engineers ran the place, and so long as you shipped code and didn’t break anything (too often), you were golden. The spirit of subversive hackery guided everything. In the early days, a Georgia college kid named Chris Putnam created a virus that made your Facebook profile resemble MySpace, then the social media incumbent. It went rampant and started deleting user data as well. Instead of siccing the FBI dogs on Putnam, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz invited him for an interview, and offered him a job. He went on to become one of Facebook’s more famous and rage-filled engineers. 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.

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For years Google had been famously dismissive of Facebook, the fortified redoubts of its search monopoly making it feel untouchable. But as the one-way parade of expensive talent from Google to Facebook continued with no end in sight, Google got nervous. Companies are like countries: the populations really vote only with their feet, either coming or going. Google instituted a policy whereby any desirable Googler who got a Facebook offer would have it beaten instantly by a heaping Google counteroffer. This, of course, caused a rush of Googlers to interview at Facebook, only to use the resulting offer as a bargaining chip to improve their Google pay. But many were legitimately leaving. The Googlers at Facebook were a bit like the Greeks during the rise of the Roman Empire: they brought lots of civilization and tech culture with them, but it was clear who was going to run the world in the near future.

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To me, only the man who needed nothing was truly free. Until I was financially independent (e.g., fuck-you money), or the captain of a profitable enterprise, I was merely a slave whose bondage was worth one or another price, locked in as much by diapers and tuition costs as by a vesting schedule.

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As a geographic tangent: New Zealand was commonly used as a test bed for new user-facing products. It was perfect due to its English-language usage, its relative isolation in terms of the social graph (i.e., most friend links were internal to the country), and, frankly, its lack of newsworthiness, so any gossip or reporting of new Facebook features ran a low risk of leaking back to the real target markets of the United States and Europe. Aotearoa is the original Maori word for New Zealand, which roughly translated means “Facebook test set.” Thus does that verdant island nation, graced with stunning fjords and clear alpine lakes, sample whatever random product twiddle a twenty-three-year-old Facebook engineer in Menlo Park dreams up.

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