HBO's 'Silicon Valley' tech advisor reveals how 3 of season 1's best scenes were created
Jonathan Dotan, the co-producer and lead technical consultant on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” remembers the moment he realized the show was a big deal.
It was episode 5 of the first season when Jared (Zach Woods), the soft-spoken member of the data compression start-up Pied Piper, created a scrum board in hopes of streamlining their productivity.
In a wide shot, we see Jared next to a large board with rows of tasks the team needs to take on. There is only one post-it under the “Emergency” row, out of focus, and for the most part insignificant to what’s going on.
“Some guy zoomed in on the shot, [screen grabbed it,] and put it on Reddit,” Dotan told Business Insider in delight.
The handwritten post-it read “Kush for Erlich,” referring to character Erlich Bachman’s (T.J. Miller) constant need for marijuana. Fans loved the discovery, highlighting the happy medium of comedy (kush) and tech (scrum) the show provides.
Dotan is a 34-year-old web entrepreneur and investor who was brought on by “Silicon Valley” creator Mike Judge to bring authenticity to the show's jokes.
The result has been beyond anyone’s expectations.
Along with becoming one of HBO’s most popular original series (season 2 comes back this Sunday), the tech community is among some of its most loyal fans.
Here's a tweet from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen:
And thoughts from a few other valley stars:
“…the show delivers real laughs, not just chuckles, and that is almost as rare these days as starting a company that becomes the next Dropbox." -- BuzzFeed founder, Jonah Peretti
“At first I was thinking this is an exaggeration, but it’s not…[it’s true of] Yahoo, Google Facebook.” -- Opsmatic chairman and founder, Jay Adelson
“It’s been more positive that I could have hoped for,” Judge told BI of the reception the show has received in the valley. “I’ve met more billionaires now than I can count.”
The show's success is partially thanks to Dotan and the team of programmers, designers, lawyers, and academics he has assembled for his consulting team.
“We had to create a company,” said Dotan, in explaining how the team was formed, which last season included 12 people and for season two has ballooned to 70 people.
Dotan is involved in every stage of production. Answering tech-related questions that come up or briefing the writers on how certain tech concepts work when they write episodes. And if he doesn’t know the answer, he reaches out to “the network,” as he calls it.
“If I have questions or thoughts on an issue while on set, most commonly I use Slack or Instant Messenger,” said Dotan about contacting his fellow consultants. “These people have real jobs that they need to attend to, but usually they reply back quickly.”
But there are also larger projects that the team collectively work on to solve.
In the climax of season 1 when Pied Piper wins TechCrunch Disrupt, Dotan and his team had to come up with a simple way for audiences to understand that the start-up was victorious.
There’s no metric currently that proves one compression algorithm is better than another, so Dotan turned to Stanford University’s Professor Tsachy Weissman to create something the show could use. And the “Weissman Score” was born.
Weissman and a group of students created a metric which scores multiple algorithms and selects a winner.
It’s technically accurate,” said Dotan. “It hasn’t been deployed widely but now three universities are teaching it.
Then there’s the season’s most talked about joke: “optimal tip-to-tip efficiency.”
The night before Disrupt, Erlich gives a pep talk to his team. In his usual vulgar manner, he says he’ll pleasure the mostly male audience if he has to in order to win. This leads to the guys hashing out a formula on how Erlich would actually be able to pull off such a stunt in their allotted 10-minute presentation time. The guys fill up two white boards with formulas and the colorful discussion eventually leads to Richard (Thomas Middleditch) coming up with the code he needs for Pied Piper to win Disrupt.
The result is a 12-page paper that would become the foundation for the couple minutes of dialogue the guys deliver during the scene. Following the episode, the paper was put online to prove its plausibility.
Though “Silicon Valley” has taken extreme lengths to use real-world data to back up their jokes, for Dotan the joy has been observing how data compression has suddenly become a buzz word in the valley.
“After season one, there were two press releases I saw where the companies being acquired were characterized as, ‘a Pied Piper-like company,’” he told BI. “Nobody ever cared about compression, it’s this dense area of computer science. So the fact that the show has seemed to give people this idea of compression, that for us is really special.”
Season 2 of ‘Silicon Valley’ premieres Sunday on HBO.
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