Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez :
Inside the Workings of the Silicon Valley Money Machine
I have to confess to being predisposed to dislike this book from the start.. Early snippets were not promising.. a disgruntled ex Facebook employee telling all, from right inside the social network itself, a misogynist tech know all who describes the women in Silicon Valley thus,
“ soft and weak, cossetted and naive despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit”
Nice guy, right?
And yet despite all that the book is brilliant, probably the most enjoyable, informative and downright funny back I have read all year. In parts it is page turningly good like a John Grisham novel. Martinez is no ones hero and somehow you still end up routing for him, warts and all.
The book opens in Goldman Sachs where our author starts his career as a “quant” and that is as Wolf of Wall Street as you would expect with excellent technical financial descriptions interspersed with tales of depravity. Martinez has no delusions about the importance of his role as a “quant” describing it as being “basically traders little bitches (who) developed knee calluses from genuflecting to service the traders on whose profits our livelihood depended”. In the footnotes he happily recounts where his former colleagues are now (hint two of them are in jail).
From there Martinez escapes to California to work for Alchemy on their Real Time Bidding Exchange. This goes sour pretty quickly as Martinez plots his escape via Y Combinator with one of the companies rising stars, Argyris and its longest serving and best engineers, McEachen As far as ex-employee hatchet jobs go this is as sharp and vicious as it gets. Alongside the character attacks of Murthy his old CEO, there is sharp insight into the working of Silicon Valley and its dependence on H1-B visas.
Martinez’s sequence of applying to the still nascent Y-Combinator is both gripping and hilarious. When asked if he ever “hacked” anything he responds..
“I conducted a man-in-the-middle attack on Craigslist online dating ads. I posted an ad as a woman looking for a man, and as a man looking for a woman. I’d pass email from real man to fictional woman as the replies of fictional man to the real women and basically crossed the email streams. At one point I shifted each real person off my fictional email addresses, and to the corresponding opposite-sex real email addresses. For all I know it resulted in a marriage, as I never saw emails after the rewiring of the email flow.”
All potential Irish Y Combinators take note, Martinez now reviews those applications and summarily dismisses anyone who says no to the hacking question.
The inside workings of Y Cominbator, especially in those early days are fascinating, really interesting to see the rollercoaster of big money, high stakes start up life from within the machine.
It is the start up of AdGrok though, an ad exchange mechanism which is truly riveting. The story of its birth and eventual aqui-hire to Facebook/ Twitter is worth the price of the book alone. The egos involved, the twists and turns and eventual ultimate betrayal rival any soap opera.
From there we are into the famous Facebook.. I can see why Facebook wouldn’t like this book; as an organization which prides itself on an innovative corporate culture (see previous review ) the snippet of Sheryl Sandbergh calling out its engineers over inappropriate images will not be appreciated (read the book).
If anything I was impressed with Facebook. They take users data far more seriously then I ever realized and for the most part come across as really smart people working very thoughtfully on trying to create a new type of organization. That Martinez with his monomaniacal focus was never going to fit into that organization is pretty much a given. This is possibly the only bit about the book which dips. Martinez is appointed Product Manager to the Facebook Exchange and like a man on a mission Martinez is convinced that the Facebook Exchange (FBX) should be open stack, management want it closed. The problem here is that Martinez couldn’t even get Facebook interested in their own Exchange so it is a hard sell for the not very interested in technical details of advertising reader. By the end of these chapters the book is pretty much Martinez screaming I was right, they were all wrong. Fools.
That aside, this book should be required reading on every Start Up/ Accelerator Programme in the country. Martinez tells it as it is with a cynical, jaundiced eye and one who has truly been there as a player not as a bystander. And in the end I decided Martinez may well be an asshole but he is a funny bastard and he can write like hell. Read this book.