Dan spoke to former employees of some of the biggest technology companies in Silicon Valley about their inner workings.
“The Circle” hits theaters on April 28 as Hollywood takes yet another crack at exploring Silicon Valley. It’s an exercise that has led to great successes (HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) as well as failures (“The Internship”).
Tinseltown’s obsession with Silicon Valley is something I’ve written about before, but the trailer for the upcoming film “The Circle,” starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, stood out to me. Portraying these large, innovative technology firms as almost having cult-like followings, while covered in past shows and films, is being taken to the extreme in this latest offering.
That’s why I decided to reach out to my sources who have previously worked at some of the largest technology firms. I ended up speaking to two people on background about their experiences working at some of the world’s most innovative companies, and how accurate Hollywood’s portrayals really are.
Thinking Outside the Box
One source, who spent over a decade at Microsoft before starting his own tech firm on the West Coast, says Hollywood is correct in the way it depicts employees of big companies quickly falling in line and adjusting to a firm’s culture.
“You start to drink the Kool-Aid, whether you believe it or not. I saw a lot of groupthink. … I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. I think when you’re working and dedicating the best years of your life on a project that you truly think is going to change the world, you’re excited about it, and you’re passionate about it. But you do live in a bubble,” he says. “You end up with these little bits of insular thinking, and it wasn’t until I left Microsoft that I started to see both some of the things I took for granted as well as some of the things I thought the company was a little myopic around.”
Another source, who spent time at Cisco, Microsoft and Google, agrees, saying many employees are quick to toe the company line and praise any word that comes out of their CEO’s mouth as sacred.
But these are some of the brightest minds of their generation. It’s not exactly easy to get a job at Google or Facebook. You’re likely considered to be in the upper echelon of whatever field you’re in. How is it so easy to quickly manipulate seemingly intelligent, independent people?
The source says it comes down to a culture in Silicon Valley that is about the obsession of working for what she calls a “sexy” company.
“It’s easy for them to drink the Kool-Aid. It’s like social media. If their friend liked something, everybody likes it. If they see a YouTube video that has a million views, even if it’s not something they care to watch, they are still going to watch it because a million people have seen it and now they want to see it. Millennials have a tendency to be very socialistic in my eyes. ‘Oh, well my friends think it’s cool, so I think it’s cool,” she says. “It doesn’t take much to sell them because if their friends think it’s cool, they all just kind of follow that cue.”
That’s not to say everyone is willing to step up and drink the Kool-Aid right away. Some employees, often those with a bit more experience, are a bit slower to join the line. The source says it’s not a matter of not wanting to join in, it’s more about questioning the process. Instead of simply buying in to something at face value, these people are more likely to ask follow-up questions.
“We’re not contradicting you because we want to contradict you. It’s because we actually want to hear how you come to that conclusion, and then how we will contribute to that,” she says.
Often times, these outsiders are asked take part in the CEO’s focus groups, and can be valuable assets to the company, the source says. But that’s not to say they can’t eventually fall out of favor.
“That comes with a price, because if we test the water too much our name can be put on a list, and they’ll let us go,” she says. “They call us troublemakers.”
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