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‘Chaos Monkeys’: A Startup Founder’s Silicon Valley Tell-all

In a new tell-all book, Antonio Garcia-Martinez uses his experience as a startup founder/CEO of AdGrok, a Facebook product manager, and a twitter advisor to provide readers with a look inside Silicon Valley. Garcia-Martinez joined us on Knowledge@Wharton Show on Sirius XM channel 111 to talk about his book, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the characteristics that make “chaos monkeys” stand out?

Antonio Garcia-Martinez: Chaos Monkey is actually a piece of software that Netflix created. What it does is, it literally shuts down their own servers. They test whether they can actually still stream, for example, House of Cards. The image you should have is this wild monkey rampaging through a data center, knocking out computers. These days, Silicon Valley is the zoo where the chaos monkeys are kept. They run around and they pull the plug on taxis and say, “Look, everyone could be a taxi driver now, thanks to Uber.” Or they say, “We’re not going to have hotels anymore. Everyone with a spare bedroom can actually become a hotelkeeper [with Airbnb]. Right now, Silicon Valley to me, is almost like this gaggle of chaos monkeys that’s testing society. The question we really have as a society is, how robust are we to the chaos monkeys and what they are doing to our society?

Knowledge@Wharton: We’ve seen a lot of this change happen over the past 10 to 15 years. Realistically, we’re still in maybe the first couple of innings of a baseball game right now, with so much more change possible.

Garcia-Martinez: I go to the Demo Day for Y Combinator, which is this accelerator in Silicon Valley that’s fathered a lot of companies, and that my company went through. What struck me is that literally every company is basically taking some part of either white-collar or blue-collar work and replacing it with automation. Take one particular example: autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars. Truck driving is the most common job in many U.S. states, and one of the few ways that a non-college graduate can actually feed a family. But truck driving is going to go away. There won’t be truck drivers in 10 to 20 years. That’s how fast autonomous vehicles are coming to us. That’s just one example of one part of the economy that’s going to be fundamentally changed, thanks to Silicon Valley.

“Silicon Valley is the zoo where the chaos monkeys are kept. They run around and they pull the plug on taxis and say, ‘Look, everyone could be a taxi driver now, thanks to Uber.’”

Knowledge@Wharton: After you started AdGrok, Twitter acquired it and then Facebook took it over. How did you really see this shift really first start happening?

Garcia-Martinez: There’s a famous quote from Marc Andreessen who’s a big VC [venture capitalist]. There are going to be two types of jobs: You either tell the computer what to do, or the computer tells you what to do.

AdGrok was a very small part of that. We made what’s called marketing automation software. In other words, the person who runs your Google search campaign, the ads that Google runs, we’re replacing it with software. You mentioned the company being bought by Twitter and going to Facebook. There are a lot of other things going on in Silicon Valley just at the business level. We were what’s called an “acquihire.” What that means is, companies have so much trouble finding engineers, they literally buy other companies just to recruit people. That effectively is what we were, which is one of the sort of dark secrets that I get into in the book, which is that a lot of acquisitions are really not about the technology, it’s really about the talent, which was definitely the case in our case. AdGrok was definitely our voice through that Silicon Valley weirdness that in 2010 was already sort of raging, but at this point has really reached a peak.

Knowledge@Wharton: How much more change will Silicon Valley bring in the next 20 to 30 years?

Garcia-Martinez: It’s only going to accelerate. Technology accelerates exponentially. Obviously, I was most familiar with the social media side of things. The way I think about social media — and I thought about this as I was writing the book because I wrote it in a small town — social media is basically replacing the rudiments of small town life for us. With the so-called Dunbar’s number, the 150 people whose names we remember and we care about, now exist on our mobile phone.

That social media takeover of our social lives, what makes us, us, I think will only accelerate. If you look at things like augmented reality — for example, the Pokémon game that at this point is being used almost as much as Twitter, or looking further down the road, for example, the Oculus acquisition, which is this virtual reality hardware company that Facebook bought a couple years ago — that virtualization of our social lives will only accelerate. We’re going to live through a mediated small town that exists in our smartphones more and more.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you talk about your time working with Mark “Zuck” Zuckerberg, the job that he has done running Facebook and how he fits into this realm of this world of chaos monkeys.

Garcia-Martinez: The book actually starts with a Zuck meeting — with a Zuck and Sheryl [Sandberg] meeting to approve a lot of the crazy data targeting stuff that we ended up developing at Facebook. Zuck didn’t work directly in ads because he doesn’t really care about money. That was really Sheryl’s job.

“There won’t be truck drivers in 10 to 20 years. That’s how fast autonomous vehicles are coming to us.”

But the vision — his mantra, the mantra of the company — is creating a more open and connected world. Everyone there really believes that. I actually describe Zuckerberg as a genius — not so much a cognitive genius, in terms of being the smartest guy in the world. More that he’s fostered this corporate culture in which engineers come first. Very smart, young engineers are very committed to his vision. People actually really believe in that vision. They really want to create this sort of communication and identity layer for the internet through Facebook. That is the true corporate vision. Zuckerberg is the one behind that who has driven it forward all this time.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is that like for people who are new employees at Facebook and trying to really understand that whole process and vision? You have to have that philosophy even before you’re hired there, correct?

Garcia-Martinez: Well, there is a conversion process. It’s called onboarding. Here’s how it works: Your first day at Facebook, you’ll have two emails in your inbox. One is a sort of generic, “Welcome to Facebook.” And the second one is, “Here’s a list of software bugs to fix.” On your first day, you’ll pull a version of Facebook’s code to your personal machine that’s your version of Facebook. You’re encouraged to go ahead and make changes, upgrades, improvements, whatever, from day one. You’re actually entrusted with that much authority. Facebook is literally a quarter of the internet everywhere in the world, except China. Here, some 22-year-old engineering grad has a version of it on his machine and he’s going to push a change to it today. That’s how they foster that feeling of rambunctious responsibility.

Knowledge@Wharton: It is interesting to see how Facebook has changed and evolved, especially over the last few years. When it first came out, everybody thought of it strictly as social media. But it has become so much more now — with live video, and the concerns of what kind of responsibility Facebook might have with some of these incidents that have gone on recently.

Garcia-Martinez: It is interesting. Facebook has become much more than just a way to keep up with your friends, as you mentioned. It’s the way we perceive reality. It’s a way that we share experiences, often very negative ones like the ones I think that you’re hinting at with Facebook Live. Frankly, that was one of the challenges of working at Facebook. Facebook has become kind of everything to all people. When you push a certain product and push people that, for example, engage with trending topics that you see on the right — you know, often that’ll distract from some other use, what you’d call a use case, which is for example, personal sharing.

One of the stories with Facebook right now is that people are sharing personally less than they used to. If you go and use Facebook, you’ll note the little window where they ask you to post. They’re trying to induce you to share more of your personal information. It’s hard to maintain this balance between, “Hey, this is where I read news and see some horrible video of some act of brutality,” and at the same time, share photos from my birthday party. It’s hard for most people to actually reconcile that. That’s one of the challenges that Facebook is going to face going forward: how to reconcile all those various use cases.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does it become too much at a point, in your mind?

Garcia-Martinez: I think it might be. Some people find it very overwhelming. Given that Facebook has actually penetrated every demographic — literally, the way a 17-year-old teenager and a 65-year-old grandmother in Nebraska use the same tool, making it equally compelling for both. That’s going to be very difficult going forward.

“It’s hard to maintain this balance between, ‘Hey, this is where I read news and see some horrible video of some act of brutality,’ and at the same time, share photos from my birthday party.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You also talk a little bit about the connection through mobile. That’s an important thing to bring up because of the fact that the majority of people here in the United States, have a smartphone with them, seemingly 24/7 at this point.

Garcia-Martinez: That’s the story toward the second half of the book. One of the dramas of the book is right around the time of the IPO. Facebook’s revenue wasn’t growing quite as expected. There was this panic around trying to come up with every monetization idea, which is sort of where I came in with some of these data-joining ideas. As it turned out, the big anti-climax was at the end of the day, what saved Facebook wasn’t all the cool technology we had built, necessarily.

It was this massive shift to mobile that happened right around 2013 and 2014 — it seemed almost overnight. More than half of Facebook usage was on mobile devices. The challenge there was actually monetized there. The saying is, money chases eyeballs. But sometimes that’s a very slow process. Facebook’s big success was actually monetizing that channel. Right now, something like 80% of Facebook usage is on mobile, along with its revenue, which is actually huge. Mobile has completely changed everything for Facebook.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think that Twitter has the opportunity going forward, or are they too far behind at this point to be able to gain ground back against Facebook?

Garcia-Martinez: That’s a really good question. Twitter’s problems are twofold. One is product, and the other is sort of corporate governance. Twitter used to be the sort of public forum where everyone would meet to have an open, public conversation, unlike the somewhat more private conversations we have on Facebook. But instead, Twitter has veered into becoming a platform for celebrities and its fans, and basically public figures talking to each other. At this point, I’m not sure quite what value the average person actually gets from Twitter.

The other problem they have — and I highlight this in the book — AdGrok got bought by Twitter, I went to Facebook, I went back to Twitter. It was this constant contrast between Facebook and Twitter. Unlike Facebook, Twitter has had a lot of management problems. It doesn’t have that one, steely-eyed visionary founder like Facebook does who can guide it in a certain direction and make the large, bet-the-company moves that Zuckerberg can make. Dorsey is back at the helm at Twitter. But you know, he’s still got his foot at Square. It’s not quite the same feeling of … this is almost a prophet of our religion, and we’re going forward with this guy. This feeling at Twitter doesn’t exist. I think that’s a major problem.

Knowledge@Wharton: Twitter is also a PR tool. That’s the only time I use it. That’s a big problem for them to try and overcome.

Garcia-Martinez: Right. You can always tell, by the way, what company Facebook fears or what feature they’re going after next, by whose features they copy. The only thing that Twitter has that Facebook doesn’t is that real-timey PR aspect. The fact that like, some big news piece happened. Where do I go to find out what’s going on? It’s still kind of Twitter, right? And that’s why you have the trending topics on the right at Facebook. Facebook is trying to take down the last leg that Twitter’s standing on, which is that real time feeling to it, and the feeling of celebrities talking to each other. But yeah, that’s what Twitter is these days.

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