Like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral, Chaos Monkeys is unsettlingly autobiographical for anyone who works at a tech company. Facebook and Google have given birth to today’s Silicon Valley, and so, for better or worse, I saw myself in Antonio Garcia Martinez and his career at Facebook and other startups. I can identify corollaries for all the politics, parties, wins, and losses in my own career. With one important exception, Martinez gets it right.
The tech startup scene, for all its pretensions of transparency, principled innovation, and a counterculture renouncement of pressed shirts and staid social convention, is actually a surprisingly reactionary crowd. Its members preen and puff and protect their public image, like a Victorian lady powdering her nose, and refuse to acknowledge anything contrary to their well-marketed exteriors. Sure, it’s no worse than traditional industry or politics, but certainly no better either (P. 139).
Once they reach a certain size, good tech startups function like good businesses always have. The fundamentals don’t change, despite what the ping pong industrial complex would have you believe. Google just learned this last week, in fact.
The book effectively reveals tech’s juvenile, sexist, arrogant, and cutthroat sides, which makes for a delightful gossip rag and a heady warning to anyone who wonders whether the grass is greener.
There is a key misrepresentation at the book’s core, however. The climax of the narrative has us follow Martinez down a path that, after getting to know him over 400 pages, feels inevitable.
Describing his predicament, he writes:
One road leads to doing something, to making an impact on his organization and his world. To being true to his values and vision, and standing with the other men who’ve helped build that vision. He will have to trust himself when all men doubt him, and as a reward, he will have the scorn of his professional circle heaped on his head. He will not be favored by his superiors, nor win the polite praise of his conformist peers. But maybe, just maybe, he has the chance to be right, and create something of lasting value that will transcend the consensus mediocrity inherent in any organization, even supposedly disruptive ones.
The other road leads to being someone. He will receive the plum products, the facile praise afforded to the organization man who checks off the canonical list of petty virtues that define moral worth in his world. He will receive the applause of his peers, though it will be striking how rarely that traffic in official praise leads to actual products anybody remembers, much less advances the overall cause of the organization (p. 424).
This passage represents Martinez’s biggest misjudgment. He posits that a person can either a) take a risk, be right, and change the company’s long-term strategy as a result, or b) fall in line, climb the ladder, and have no impact. Naturally, the hero of our story chooses a.
Who hasn’t felt this tinge of martyrdom when making an unpopular decision? Reading Chaos Monkeys, though, we have to remember that sometimes we’re just wrong.
Indeed, there’s a third option that Martinez couldn’t see, and I know I’ve missed before too: take a risk that aligns with the company’s overall mission. Every company has a range of risk it can tolerate, fortified on all sides by values, culture, and long-term strategy. Beyond these borders, riskiness becomes recklessness. And recklessness gets projects shuttered, people shown the door, and vocal contrarians told (often rightfully) to shut the f*%# up.
All of our best tech companies today, like Facebook, aim to change the world in some fundamental and impactful way — a long term vision that demands more risk tolerance than any blue chip, bureaucratic monstrosity could imagine. Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon each have their fair share of audacious launches that aligned with the overall company mission and either succeeded wildly or failed miserably. The successes launched careers in ways that were meritocratic. And none of this success was guaranteed — in fact, at their outset, joining these projects was very risky.
Bureaucracy and conservatism exist in these companies as well — and there’s a necessary tension between them and innovation. But it’s this tension that preserves focus. It’s a necessary evil. Companies always run the risk of swinging too far in either direction, and it takes good ideas and charismatic leaders to right the course. Unless you’re Jerry Maguire, blowing it all up to advance your conviction isn’t heroic. It’s stupid.
Moreover, in this case, there was no moral conviction being advanced. Martinez just wanted one ads strategy to prevail because that’s what he knew best. He had more options than to either become a pariah or a lemming.
Chaos Monkeys is a eulogy to wasted opportunity — and one that hits close to home. The hubris and myopia that made Martinez’s path inevitable is a compelling lesson for the rest of us living this life now. Take smarter risks, and know when to fold ’em. Strive for a different funeral.