Television’s annual Emmy Awards are coming up Sept. 18, and for the third year, the IT business has a representative worthy enough to compete alongside reality shows, fictional cops, blended families and the walking dead: HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” which has earned 23 category nominations and two statuettes in its first three years.
The popular series about a Silicon Valley startup called Pied Piper that successfully creates a data compression algorithm and is acquired by a large company similar to Google was co-created by former software developer Mike Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky and has become a staple of HBO’s comedy lineup.
What a lot of the show’s fans don’t know is that the art director, Richard Toyon—who won the Emmy for best production design last season—and his staff selected a real Silicon Valley startup, converged storage infrastructure maker SimpliVity, on which to model the box that contains Pied Piper’s compression appliance.
How Did It Happen? Sheer Luck
How did they select it? Sheer luck. Toyon said the producers two years ago had heard that the then-5-year-old SimpliVity was a cool, new-generation IT company, so they cold-called the main desk and asked to speak with someone about the project. Connections were made, and the rest is now cable television history.
In the show, “the box” is a new product brought to market by the newly acquired Pied Piper that has pivoted completely from what Richard (Pied Piper’s founder, played by Thomas Middleditch) originally envisioned with his technology. The Pied Piper box is modeled directly on SimpliVity’s OmniCube appliance, which holds four 400GB solid-state drives and eight 1TB hard-disk drives and costs around $30,000 for the starter model.
OmniCube is a 2U-size, virtual machine-optimized building block that assimilates core storage and server capabilities with the complete set of IT data. The user interface is intuitive enough for non-specialized IT staff to use. For all intents and purposes, an OmiCube is a de facto converged, all-encompassing IT control center that can be utilized by semi-technical company staff.
To obtain the most realistic impression of SimpliVity, the crew visited its headquarters in Westborough, Mass., to learn more about what goes into the OmniBox in order to create a believable prop and realistic scripting.
Making the Show is Like ‘Making Sausage’
Dan Lyons, a former PC Week (eWEEK’s predecessor) and Newsweek editor, Forbes columnist and New York Times best-selling author (“Disrupted”) served as a writer on the program in seasons 2 and 3.
“It’s really an amazing process, making a television show,” Lyons told eWEEK in an interview at VMworld recently. “They get all the writers into a room around a table, and they just start offering ideas for scenes and dialog. The ‘runner’ [usually an associate producer] keeps track of all the better ideas using a whiteboard and Stickies. At the end of the session, the runner goes off and puts what he wants together into a sort of raw storyline. Then we come back the next day, look at what we did the day before and build on it.
“The storyline and dialog goes through a number of layers of revision until it gets up to Mike Judge and the rest of the folks at his level. Then it goes into more revisions. After that, it has to get past the network people. It really is like making sausage; you are extremely lucky to get an actual line you thought of into the final script.”
Lyons recalls a time when Judge was not pleased at the script he was handed.
“That was not pretty,” Lyons said. “He didn’t say anything; he just sat at the table with his head down, he hand over his forehead, like he had a bad, bad headache. That’s not what you wanted to see.”
How Writers Are Credited
How do writers get credited for all the twists and turns in formulating the script each week?
“Well, it works out that everybody seated at the table in the writers’ conference get a credit on the show,” Lyons said, “whether you contributed a line or not. It’s, um, truly a team effort.”
Toyon and his art direction group (sets, costumes, props—basically anything you see on-screen) spent days at SimpliVity observing the staff, taking more than 1,800 photos of the offices and products, and asking hundreds of questions about everything.
“It was amazing how detailed they were when it came to understanding everything about how the box worked, what each component inside the box did, and how it was engineered,” Marianne Budnick, chief marketing officer at SimpliVity, told eWEEK.
Pied Piper Box Modeled Closely After SimpliVity’s OmniCube
The front of the Pied Piper appliance is modeled closely after the SimpliVity OmniCube hardware. The creation of the look and feel of the television show was done with great reverence for what SimpliVity has done as a corporation.
Lyons declined to return for Season 4, which is now under way on HBO. What’s next for him?
“I’m going to try and develop my own television show,” he told eWEEK. “It’ll be about a veteran IT writer/editor who goes to work for a Silicon Valley startup populated by twenty-somethings, and how the culture differences take place. It should be a lot of fun.”
Hmm. That’s exactly what “Disrupted,” one of the best-selling books of 2016, is all about. In Lyons’ case, his experience was with Boston-based marketing email system firm Hubspot. Well, as Ernest Hemingway and others since him have said, you write about what you know about.
Will “Silicon Valley” continue its winning streak with more Emmys for Season 3? We’ll find out Sept. 18.
Perhaps, in turn, the television show will eventually have an episode about how Pied Piper got cold-called about being the model for a television show.