- Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio García Martínez
What values do today’s tech companies privilege and propagate? Values start from inside companies, so unearthing answers can be hard without glimpses offered by individuals like former Uber employee Susan Fowler, who recently published a notable blog about her time with the ride-sharing startup. This is why Antonio García Martínez’s Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley is a valuable read. Martínez, a startup founder and former Facebook employee, says that he wrote Chaos Monkeys to record the history of Silicon Valley, but it is not a traditional work of history.1 The book is essentially Martínez’s autobiography, a first-person perspective on his journey from Wall Street and Goldman Sachs to Silicon Valley and Facebook.
English scholar Robert Sayre felt that autobiography was loved by no discipline. English scholars consider it inferior literature, and historians may think it is too subjective. However, Sayre suggested that “the concept of self in America is very closely related to the concept of civilization,” and for this reason, he thought that autobiographies were crucial to understanding the American experience.2 I agree, and the influences of Silicon Valley’s companies and personalities increasingly define our experience socially, politically, and economically. Although there are many overstatements, perhaps a few fibs, and plenty of self-aggrandizement, Chaos Monkeys offers an important glance into Silicon Valley’s concept of civilization.
First, what is a chaos monkey? It is software created by Netflix to test against random server failures by shutting down different processes and even machines to see how a product or website responds under different levels of duress. Martínez describes technology entrepreneurs as society’s chaos monkeys. The metaphor is the first clue that his judgment of the business of technology is complicated.
Chaos Monkeys opens with a meeting at Facebook headquarters on the eve of the company’s initial public offering. Sheryl Sandberg was there and so was Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook revenue growth was weak, and the attendees, which included Martínez, were brainstorming how to generate more revenue from advertising. This question—how to generate more revenue from online advertising—is the central theme of Martínez’s career, and the book offers numerous explanatory asides on topics such as retargeting, click-through rates, and data-onboarding.
Before working in online advertising, Martínez was a PhD candidate in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. (In the book, he boasts he was in the bottom third of his class, a mark perhaps of the privileged non-conformity valued by the tech industry.) His math skills earned him a position with Goldman Sachs as a pricing quant—that is, a quantitative analyst dedicated to the study of pricing. In this capacity, Martínez was responsible for modeling and pricing corporate credit derivatives. Martínez ended up in Silicon Valley on what he describes as a whim. He applied for a research scientist position with a tech startup, Adchemy, and headed west after being hired. As has been common throughout the history of Silicon Valley, Martínez and two of his co-workers decided they could build better technology and left Adchemy to create their own company, AdGrok, in 2010. Their startup, which built online ad-buying tools for small businesses, was accepted into Paul Graham’s Y-Combinator, an exclusive startup boot camp created by a man revered by most people in the startup community. Martínez provides detailed recountings of the day-to-day affairs of Y-Combinator. Given that this is a story meant to be cinematic in its twists and turns, I will not ruin the climactic details, but ultimately, both Twitter and Facebook considered acquiring AdGrok, and Martínez ended up at Facebook, where, as a product manager, he tried to influence the company’s strategy for selling advertising. The book covers each period of his career in detail, offering insights into business practices, such as the nuances...