disrupted
Business Management

Dan Lyons' 'Disrupted' tale of a dystopian startup

Journalist Dan Lyons spent decades perfecting the craft of demystifying the tech sector so that millions of people could make better decisions. That’s not easy given the breadth of technologies and companies and the speed at which this industry changes. Thousands of people are experts in their own niche but few can make themselves understood to anyone outside their own narrow confines. The ability to make technology accessible to wider audiences should be a valued commodity. Lyons had to research everything, judge what the essential details were of every story then present the salient facts in a style that was simple enough for the readers of Forbes and Newsweek to understand.

Arguably, Lyons also created a wider understanding of the underlying dynamics of the technology business through his comedy writing, such as Secret Diary of Steve Jobs and scripting episodes of the satirical TV drama Silicon Valley. 

It’s a rare skill to digest all that complex information and present the key points to a disparate audience without over-simplifying. One would assume, given that we are living in the supposed Information Age, anyone with this precious skill would be venerated. In fact, the opposite is true, as is outlined in Lyons’ latest book, Disrupted: My Life In the Startup Bubble.

Information without context is useless. Data tells you that a tomato is a fruit but context tells you not to put it in a fruit salad. One of the best sources of context is experience but, as Lyons’ latest book explains, experience is a dirty word in the IT industry. As Lyons tells IDG Connect (see interview below), in Silicon Valley anyone over 35 is not just viewed as undervalued, they’re seen as a blocker. So much for the Knowledge Economy. Lyons explains that in many companies it’s all about steroid-fast growth and an exploding initial public offering that showers a select few with money.

As a 52-year-old journalist with 25 years’ experience reporting on the technology business, he found himself out of work. Having reported on companies from the outside, he decided to experience life on the other side, working for a vendor. Better still, he thought, he’d get in early with tech startup Hubspot that had $100m of venture capital behind it. This was both a chance to live in the fast lane and become a millionaire. No more reporting on other people’s excitement, Lyons was going to be part of the story. 

Sadly, it didn’t work out like that. The book describes a culture that sounds like a cross between Scientology and Lord of the Flies, in which Lyons is lured into a parallel universe from which he is powerless to escape. ‘Hubspotters’, through some kind of mass popular delusion, seem to have started believing their own spam and genuinely think they are changing the world, one brutal sacking and one aggressive marketing tactic at a time.

It’s hugely entertaining, especially if you are a fan of Stephen King’s brand of contemporary horror. It’s the best book I’ve read about the IT industry and the first one I’ve actually read all the way to the end, wanting more. Perhaps he could go back for a sequel.

Ironically, Lyons is a self-confessed technology groupie and in awe of the companies he has reported on for decades. This briefing suggests he’s a big admirer of Google.

I asked Dan Lyons where it all went wrong. 

 

Q. Your boss’s treatment of you seemed consistent with bullying and constructive dismissal. How did you cope with that?
A: I tried to distance myself from it, so that I wouldn’t take it too personally. I tried to pretend that it was a psychological experiment. I have friends in the industry who say it is standard practice. One friend said he is having to do it to someone else at the moment. A few months later, he said that someone is doing it to him. It’s the corporate way of doing things. They have to drive you out.

Why is experience so undervalued in the IT business?
In [some parts of] this business experience is not only undervalued, it is seen as an impediment. There is a model where you have to grow as fast as possible and age doesn’t fit in with the energy needed for that sort of trajectory. Hubspot, to be fair, has been a fast-growing company so they have achieved their goals.

The atmosphere at Hubspot seems almost like that of a cult…
I think that’s mostly in the digital marketing sector that it’s like that. Admittedly, I didn’t know too much about digital marketing culture when I got into it. They love all that self-help Tony Robbins-style inspirational speaker crap. They actually believe all that stuff about unleashing the power within you. They gave me a ridiculous job title, like Marketing Fellow.

What advice would you give to anyone in a similar position and what are the tell-tale signs of cult culture?
Look out for beanbags. I should have done a better job of checking out the company culture.

 

Didn’t this dampen your enthusiasm for the technology sector? You have previously been on record about how much you love being close to the centre of this industry.
Yes, it sort of did. I like a lot of companies in this space. Google is a nice company. But this experience did dampen my enthusiasm. There’s some scummy stuff out there. I think it was just that I picked the wrong place. I would never say I’d never go back. I could have ideally been a speech writer for another company. There are plenty of good companies to work for. The problem is that nobody is likely to want to employ me now [since the book came out].

You mentioned that you love technology and what it can do for people. Is there an invention you wish you’d come up with?
I wouldn’t know how to code. I would love to go and work in a place that’s involved in artificial intelligence or robotics. It would have to be in marketing or speechwriting, as I don’t have any technical skills, but I would love to be at the heart of that. My plan now is to get my kids working. I’m into child labour. My wife too. I want to get them all working to support me. I’m no longer writing for Silicon Valley. You don’t really want to be a staff writer on someone else’s show anyway. I’m in talks for making a TV show based on my latest book, Disrupted.

 

 

Also read:

Tech’s Voice of Dissent: Jerry Kaplan scolds US inequality        

Review: What an untrammelled AI world might bring

Upset by America but unbowed, Scott McNealy still rages

Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe still rings the changes

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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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