In 2014, the same year that Silicon Valley made its debut, Todd Silverstein was in the midst of having Vizify—the Portland, Oregon-based data visualization startup he founded—acquired by Yahoo!, who he then worked for for a while before making his way to Tumblr. If you had asked Silverstein at the time where he envisioned his career might take him over the next few years, he probably wouldn’t have predicted that he’d be sitting in the writers’ room of one of HBO’s most successful comic series. Yet, as the lead technical consultant on Silicon Valley—which will air its season finale on Sunday, June 25—that’s exactly the position Silverstein finds himself in. But just how did he get there? We spoke with Silverstein to find out.
You began working on the show this season. Had you been a fan of Silicon Valley before that?
Oh, yeah. I think one of the reasons they liked me was because I was a fan but not a super fan, so I didn’t obsess about the details. I had been particularly impressed by the show not only because it’s hilarious, but because as someone who has founded companies, the thing that drew me most to it was lots of tech references. All that stuff was spot-on: the feeling of being an entrepreneur and in over your head and fighting against wild and crazy forces beyond your control. That felt very much like a lived experience, and the thing that impressed me about the show was how accurately I think they got the human drama, which is just a huge testament to the instincts of like Mike [Judge] and Alec [Berg] and the whole writing team. Because as much as there’s humor there, there are a lot of people that I know who watch it—especially people who have been entrepreneurs—who are like, “Oh man, that nailed some of the highs and the lows, and that emotional core,” which is sort of at the center of the action.
Clearly part of your job is to make sure that the show is getting the technology right—whether it’s the terminology or functionality—but that almost seems like it would be the easier part. The more difficult part seems like it would be how to accurately gauge how a person might react to a situation in real life.
Again, I think this is a real testament to like Alec and Mike going above and beyond. I was in the writers’ room with the writers during the writing process and I think that’s for them, by design ... One of the reasons I think that they thought it was important to have someone in the writers’ room to go through it is just because it allows a lot of that back and forth where sometimes there’ll be a technology that they read about, like machine learning, and we talk about, "Hey, what’s interesting about this?" and "Why are people excited about it?", and we talk about that.
But then, almost inevitably, you very quickly roll into, "Oh I’ve got friends who are working on that," and then you can help sort of match-make a little bit … It’s just a free-flowing creative process and it can work in both directions. Sometimes they have a really hilarious situation or comedy scene and want to know, “Well, how would this actually play out?” or “What would be unique on the tech side?” And then sometimes there’s technology where I’ll be like, “Hey, everyone’s talking about this,” and then I build these little primers for them.
One of the interesting things about the show is that, as much as it’s about technology, you really don’t have to know a thing about technology to enjoy it. You don’t have to understand what a compression algorithm does to enjoy the show; there’s plenty of context for the audience to work with. The characters really fill in the blanks.
That’s one of the other individual challenges: dialing it back. Being someone who’s more steeped in the technology, you have that curse of knowledge of thinking, “Oh yeah, people know what I’m talking about,” and then you talk to the writers and you get this blank look … and they’re like, “I don’t understand what you just said there.”
Sort of like when a scientist explains a complex concept in a way that makes it seem elementary.
Yeah, and again, that’s why the writing team is so impressive, because they’re very deliberate about that. And while we want to get the tech details right, it’s not at the cost of having people be totally confused or not being able to follow the plot.
How did you get connected with the folks on the show?
[Producer] Jonathan Dotan, who had sort of been leading the charge, had to step back a little bit, and so there’s this huge network of sort of consultants and friends of the show … But a lot of the venture capital funds actually have recruiting arms, and so he actually put a call out through that network. And because I was an entrepreneur who had sold a company and had received investments, it sort of came to me through that network.
So essentially it was a friend who said, “Hey, this sounds just like you …” One of the things that they’ve done to help keep things fresh is really look for people who have worked in tech but with very different perspectives. So they were like, “Hey, we love the idea of working with someone who has more product background,” and so that really matched up very nicely with what I had been working on.
And maybe a little frightening to you as in, “Is this mimicking my life too closely?”
Yeah, it is really weird … And the thing to keep in mind is that we’re working almost a year ahead, so when the show is finally about to get something right, it’s almost a brilliant act. It reminds me of publishing, where you’re making bets on books and you know that actual books aren’t going to publish for a year, year-and-a-half.
Describe what a typical day looks like for you when you’re working on the show.
There are kind of three phases to it; I would say I have three flavors of typical days: At the beginning of the season, it’s all of the writing process, so you’re with the writers in the writers’ room all day. I know a decent amount about tech, but I’m hardly an expert in everything, so sometimes there are things that come up—like, “Hey, let’s talk about hackers”—and I’m like, “Alright, yeah.” I’ve never hacked any system, and we actually have some white hat hackers who are part of the team.
So during the day I’m in the writers’ room and it is that sort of freewheeling process and a lot of talking about story and try to get the emotional truth of those stories. It’s very much both push-pull. Sometimes I’ll come into the room and it’s like, “Here’s a really interesting technology” and we’ll talk about it and they’ll be like, “Oh, could we make a story out of this?”
When Alec is running the room it’s very much like working off of whiteboards, so we sort of outline storylines and then those outlines become typed-up outlines, and then they become longer typed-up outlines, and at that point they would sort of become scripts. And then the scripts would be sort of worked through to turn up even more of the great humor that would come out of them.
Once the first couple of scripts are in the can, then you start going into the production process. So my role there was very much, “Hey, here’s a scene where Gilfoyle is on his computer.” It’s actually looking for those moments where they would need tech, and so there’s an incredibly talented production team and props department, but some of the more technical aspects they’re going to need—like what would Gilfoyle actually be typing now—what does that even look like and what would it be showing on the screen?
So I headed up a fairly sizable team of people where we would actually identify what might show up on screen, everything from whiteboard to the rest, and then we would work with that technical team and to make sure that it was accurate. So, people would write real code and again, everything gets screencast these days on Reddit and we try really hard to make sure that that stuff is real. So it’s actual code, in an actual browser, and it’s like we are actually doing all this stuff … just like you would if you were deploying it for real, and sort of working all the things up so that people either have references that they can build versions of or actual bits of code that will go on screen.
And then the third part of the job is when you finally go into shooting, you work a little bit with the actors. Particularly where there’s a particular technology they need or want that same primer themselves just to help figure out, “How am I going to play this scene?” or whatever it would be, and then dialogue and things like that. Sometimes you have a really twisted line of like someone talking about something deeply technical and in addition to wanting to understand it, they’re like, “I don’t know what some of these symbols mean. How would you intelligently say that?” So it’s very much really helping just getting the actors the additional help that they need when they’re sort of working something through, they can ask questions. It’s working through them. So, it was a really interesting, multifaceted role and it sort of evolved as you go from script to pre-production to actual production.
What’s the most rewarding part of the job for you?
Just because of my own sort of flirtation with publishing, I love spending time with the writers and just being able to see their process and even being a part of it and being able to sometimes be like, “I helped,” or “They took some of my own experience and were able to not only reflect it, but make it be 10 times funnier than it actually was in real life.” That just felt like a privilege. And it’s not only that I, personally, think it’s some of the best TV on television, but each of the individual writers were so accomplished individually.