Category: Book Review

Review – Disrupted

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

Disrupted is Dan Lyons’ account of his not-quite two years at a tech startup called HubSpot.

Lyons is a long-time tech journalist, with stops at PC Week, Forbes, and Newsweek. He is also the author of the Fake Steve Jobs blog, so you know he is an acerbic wit.


The book is a fun, quick read. You’ll gain insights into startup culture, and the open ageism that prevails in the tech industry.

However, there’s not enough material to fill a book, even a short one. Lyons fills pages by beating issues into the ground, and pausing to stitch together little essays on the state of the tech industry.

Things that bugged me

1) For sure, the industry is riddled with ageism. Lyons catalogs the attitudes, statements, and off-the-cuff remarks of his much younger colleagues. But… he really doesn’t help the cause.

  • He mistakes his manager for an intern, and proudly explains that he barely paid attention to interns at Newsweek.
  • He makes close to zero efforts to fit in. He won’t attend an evening hack-a-thon, or hang out at a cocktail mixer after a conference. He keeps telling everyone he has kids. As if that makes him a special entitled person who can opt out of all evening work. It’s not even that often. If he misses one evening a week, I don’t think that robs him or his children of fatherhood. And it wasn’t even that often.
  • When it comes to jetting around the country to attend conferences or write for HBO, he stops having kids.
  • He makes a special effort to befriend every other worker over the age of 35. Admittedly, a small group. But he fails to befriend anyone under 30, except for the receptionist.

At some point, you start to realize that the ageism river runs both ways with this guy. He is no more at ease with young people than they are with him.

Near the end of the book he starts referring to himself as an anthropologist, studying this cult of young startup workers.  That book needs to be written. But not by Dan Lyons.

2) Possibly to fill pages, or possibly because he is just that spiteful, Lyons viciously attacks every little thing. He makes mountains of molehills. There is plenty of material worth mocking: the Newspeak, the brainwashing techniques, the actual ageism, the product itself. But he goes over the moon to attack little things like the company logo (not great, but no Airbnb), the company color (orange),  Mollie the Teddy Bear, free candy, food and drinks, and parties.

3) Lyons is a bubbler. That is to say, he is convinced that there is a valuation bubble going on right now. Startups are over-valued, and surely a day of reckoning will come. But… so what? Points for being clever enough to spot it, but what can any one of us do about it? More to the point, should we do anything about it? Maybe exploit it, like he tried to do?

4) Lyons argues that Silicon Valley is inventing a new social contract with workers: work is a tour of duty – it is finite – when it ends, you go find a new gig.

Is this stressful for workers? Yes. Maybe. For some subset of people. And also, it’s not universally true.

First, the lifetime-employment-as-social-contract thing has been eroding rapidly for 30 years. Silicon Valley did not invent it. Perhaps they are embracing the end state, and talking about it openly. Honesty is not a bad thing.

Second, 20% of the workforce is employed by government agencies. These people mostly do have lifetime employment. If stability is important to you, perhaps you should seek a life of public service.

Third, gig-work is not aweful for at least some part of the workforce. For example, programmers are in chronic demand, command high salaries, and honestly find it advantageous to switch jobs every 2-3 years.

Fourth, Lyons at one point takes a lunch with a founder of another local startup. This founder is pursing a sort of anti-HubSpot strategy – grow organically, hire experienced pros, pay well. Seems to be working out for him. As Qui Gon said, “there’s always a bigger fish.”

But granted – marketers, writers, inside sales people on marginal salaries are not going to thrive in a “tour-of-duty” system.

5) Final dislike – Lyons is just completely disingenuous. He would have us believe that his motives were at all times pure. He is proud to be an experienced, cynical journalist. But he ignores every obvious sign that he is not a good fit at the company. He tells us that he was totally committed, but then catalogs all the lunches he had with outside sources he cultivated. He says the book is a light-hearted reflection on a fish-out-of-water experience, when it is clearly a frontal assault on HubSpot.

Things I liked 

1) There is a brief, but complete catalog of ageist things his co-workers naively said to him. Silicon Valley dearly needs a modern version of The Jungle, exposing its cruel ageism. Sadly, Lyons is not our Upton Sinclair. But he shines more light on the subject than anyone else to date.

2) Lyons does a great job of exposing the secret of modern startups – cheap labor! Outside of programmers, there is a glut of under-employed recent college grads. For less than 2x minimum wage, you can hire these kids – and retain them with free candy, beer, and a playful-looking environment.

The kids will find better jobs in 2-3 years, and that’s okay!

Lyons thinks this is aweful. But really, what other options do all these kids have? Yes, the candy and the Newspeak and the parties brainwash the kids into a state of happiness, despite their below-living wage. Would it be better if they somehow worked in dreary offices with no perks and nothing to distract them from their low wages?

The startup jobs are not great. Later in life, they will ruefully admit it. But right now, they are out of their parents’ house in the daytime, gain experience, and fill up with self-esteem.

(Lyons rightly calls HubSpot out for lack of ethnic diversity. But I wonder now if that is really a side-effect of their overall system? Liberal-arts grads who live with their parents are the target market for inside sales and marketing jobs.)

3) The book is laugh-out-loud funny at times. Also, a page-turner. Lyons gets a bit neurotic, but you feed off that, and keep reading to see what happens next.

Lyons has a gift for acerbic comedy. That’s what made Fake Steve Jobs great. It’s why he is on the writing staff for HBO’s Silicon Valley. When he relates his inner monologue while dealing the millennial cultists, he’s brilliant. But when he is obsessing (over Mollie the Teddy Bear, for example) it’s forced.

Review – Two-Bit Culture

Two-But Culture: the Paperbacking of America
Two-But Culture: the Paperbacking of America

Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America is a history of paperback publishing, written by Kenneth Davis in 1984. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to the modern reader.

I picked this up in a used bookstore while on vacation this summer. Cultural history is my secret pleasure.

Davis opens with an introduction that announces his intent: he means to show that Americans will read “good” books, if they are nearby and cheap. Also, that mass-market books influence culture. Mission (sort of) accomplished. Davis proceeds to go through 45 years of paperbacks, in great detail. He highlights many “good” books, and calls out their impressive sales numbers. He makes a number of attempts to tie these big-selling”good” books to the wider culture.

But, at the end of the book, as he discusses the 1970s, he all but concedes that the mission of elevating the culture has given way. The book ends on a note of despair.

He also struggles to justify the sales of Mickey Spillane and Erle Stanley Gardner, who became rich and famous with their pulp fiction crime novels. In fairness, he gives it the ol’ college try, using many pages to attempt to link their work to the zeitgeist of the times.

Davis makes a curious choice at the outset: he picks June, 1939 as the the start of the “paperback revolution.” This struck me as odd, because there clearly were books with paper covers long before then. Indeed, Davis touches briefly on the history of paperbacks – going back to the early 19th century. Since he didn’t explicitly say it, I will: Davis is interested specifically in paperbound books of literary significance. Edgar Rice Burroughs may have been the first rich-and-famous “paperback writer” (as the Beatles put it), but his books are not part of the literary canon.

Starting in 1939 is fair enough, on Davis’ terms. But he does struggle to explain the success of authors like Spillane, Gardner, Harold Robbins and others.

Another tip-off that Davis is a “lit” fan is in his coverage of literary periodicals. Apparently, there was a recurring series of attempts to use the paperback format to publish the equivalent of a literary magazine.  The longest effort lasted a decade, though it had to hop among 3 publishers to last so long. Davis lavishes inordinate attention on these (mostly short-lived) journals.

With his history beginning in 1939, a book published in 1984 is either brief, or heavy on small details. Davis went for the latter. The comings and goings of executives, publishers, and editors is recounted in great detail. For all its impact and sales, paperback publishing was a small world, with a cast of players that numbers in the low dozens. At some point, my eyes glazed over, and I just skimmed the names as they were recounted, as if I were reading the “begat” sections of The Bible.

But after all, this is cultural history. Just as the order of battle is recounted tediously in a WWII history, it is important to put all those names and places on the record.

The fun parts of the book come in two parts: where Davis highlights an individual author, and when he covers the noble free-speech fight taken up by the paperbackers.

The 20th century can fairly be called the high-water mark for novelists. In addition to the enduring names (Joyce, Hemingway, et al), there were a bunch of big-selling, and therefore culturally-important, authors that we have forgotten. Davis reminds us.

The other lesson I took from this book is the key place paperback publishers played in the on-going battle for free speech. Many novels of the early-and-mid-20th-century had explicit sex scenes. Which, obviously, was not well-aligned with the overt tenor of the times. But then again, the books sold well. Davis points out that hardcovers had limited distribution, exposure, and sales. A hardcover with sex scenes might fly right under the Puritan radar. Not so with paperbacks.

Paperback publishers fought a running legal battle with a collection of local and state governments. There was even a nasty Congressional inquiry, though little came of it. In the end, publishers staked more than a prudent amount on legal expenses that blazed new precedent in the courts. And, to Davis’ point, the (prurient) paperbacks surely had an influence on mass culture.

Maybe, ten years from now, someone will produce a companion edition that details the second 40 years of paperbacks. A lot has happened since the book ended in 1984. We witnessed the rise-and-fall of the big-box bookstores, along with the rise (so far) of ebooks.

For a skimmable recap of readable 20th-century authors, highly recommended. But for the modern reader, it leaves too soon.


Dungeons and Dreamers

Whenever I finish a book, I feel like I should post a review. But then I visit Amazon and discover that someone else has already said exactly what I would have.

So, after finishing Dungeons and Dreamers, I found this review by Tod Curtis, written back when the book was first published:

I found Dungeons and Dreamers to be fairly choppy and unfocused.

The first 1/3 of this book is an interesting tale about the famous ‘Lord British’, which I enjoyed, but the remaining 2/3 is a bit of a mess. A brief rehash of the Doom phenomenon (which is done much better in the Masters of Doom book), a very boring (and lengthy) section on the correlation of video games and violence (Columbine is mentioned WAY too many times) and some snippets of the LAN party and MMOG phenomenon fills out the book. The writing is choppy, feels like it hasn’t been thoroughly proofread, and makes the intellectual side of me cringe. It is not uncommon for a concept to be described in one paragraph and described in the same words two or three paragraphs later. A full book on Richard Garriott probably would have been a better idea, as his life is very interesting and many of us would associate our gaming lives with him more than any other figure. This book seems to be geared towards complete non-gamers, which is a shame, because I would imagine most people who would buy this book understand the gaming world and the important events in its history.

Yep, that about says it.

I have a modest collection of books about the history of personal computing.  Richard Garriot’s story is a worthy addition. The rest of the book is a breathless, unfocused, uneven history of video games. Can you tell it was written collaboratively by two young tech journalists? I can.

That said, it was an easy, quick read. It’s fun to wander down memory lane. And there is worthwhile historical material in here.

I think the authors were trying to make a point about the socializing aspects of gaming, but they never quite stated their case. It so happens that I paused to read this while I am halfway through Reality is Broken, which makes that case forcefully. Stay tuned for my cherry-picked Amazon review of that book!