Season Four of the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley” has just begun, so it seemed fitting kickoff Dewpoint Communications’ inaugural blog post with a look at how leadership and workplace culture may be affecting the gang at Pied Piper, everyone’s favorite fictional startup.
Specifically, we wanted to examine the topic through the lens of one of the show’s most noteworthy characters, software engineer, Bertram Gilfoyle, aka, Gilfoyle. Fans of Silicon Valley will be very familiar with his ascerbic wit, however, even if you’re not familiar with the show, you’ll surely recognize some of the same personalities described in your own workplace.
Gilfoyle is happiest when he’s torturing his colleagues at tech startup, Pied Piper, and no one more so than his gullible counterpart, Dinesh. Gilfoyle’s unflinching, deadpan delivery keeps audiences in stitches as we watch his zingers land like bullseyes.
In one Season 3 episode, Gilfoyle delights in a colleague’s misfortune:
“Let me put this in terms you'll understand. I'm like a suicide bomber of humiliation. I'm happy to go out as long as I take you with me. Your shame is my paradise.”
Gilfoyle is, without a doubt, what Arianna Huffington would call a ‘ Brilliant Jerk’. So as much as we love Gilfoyle, the character, do we really love Gilfoyle, the colleague?
Remember the time that Dinesh finally got a love interest, only to have it flame out quickly? Gilfoyle was the first to kick him when he was down.
“Either she froze time, met and married the man of her dreams, unfroze time, and hopped back on to vid chat with you, or... you're the dogface. Which do you think it is? I'm on the fence.”
Much has been written about the importance of the ‘First 10 Hires’ in a startup. This core group, on board from the very earliest days of a company’s history, in many ways define its origin story.
Patrick Collision, co-founder of Stripe talks about the importance of those early employees in this How to Start a Startup lecture.
“The first ten people you hire, the decisions are so important [because you] aren’t just hiring those first ten people, you are actually hiring a hundred people because…each one of those people are going to bring along another ten people with them.”
This idea, that those first 10 hires are, in fact, creating the DNA of your company culture, is talked about a lot in the startup world, and there’s no better popular culture depiction of this universe than “Silicon Valley.” So, assuming we can put aside the fact that we’re actually talking about a television show, and that his character is critical to a range of other plot dynamics, the question must be asked, would you hire Gilfoyle?
On one hand, Gilfoyle exemplifies many of the qualities you want in an early employee; he’s brilliant, resourceful, playful, and surprisingly loyal.
On the other hand, Gilfoyle is also negative, combative, and actively creating the kind of toxic culture that Pied Piper could become when it grows up. As much as he rails against giant soulless corporations like Hooli, in fact, his cynicism and mean-spirited attitude towards his colleagues is actually sowing the seeds of the same corporate culture he rejects.
So what are some of the qualities you do want in those first 10 hires? What kind of person contributes to a high-performing team and a company that’s set up for success? How can you create a strong culture for your company from the start?
Ironically, the Silicon Valley character who most closely mirrors these qualities is Jared. While often the punchline for Pied Piper jokes because he seems so guileless, in fact, Jared Dunn is positive, professional, resourceful, scrupulous, loyal, constructive and relentlessly focused on the success of the company.
“I'll admit I'm sleep challenged. I just spent 4 days trapped in a steel box out in an oil rig full of robot forklifts. But now I'm back, and I am recovering, and I am focused, and we're going to pivot. Don't lose faith guys. Look at me, look at me. We've got a great name, we've got a great team, we've got a great logo, and we've got a great name. And now we just need an idea. Let's pivot. Let's pivot.”
Sure, sometimes Jared seems a little…sad. He’s more than a little odd, definitely psychologically damaged, sleeps on a cot in the garage, er, server room, and is always the butt of the team’s jokes.
“I mean, we're all cool here, but we know each other. So obviously, when Dinesh calls me retarded Frankenstein… or Gilfoyle refers to me as effeminate K.D.Lang, I know this is a joke among friends.”
But what would Jared be like if Gilfoyle wasn’t in the picture? What would any of the Pied Piper gang (except, let’s face it, Erlich) be like if they weren’t constantly shell-shocked by a barrage of negativity and insults? Maybe Richard could finally be the leader he’s trying to be. Maybe Dinesh would flourish and own his own genius. It definitely wouldn’t be a very good TV show, but it would almost certainly be a better company.
High performance cultures start with constructive, collaborative, highly engaged teams. It’s worth thinking about the kind of culture you want to create while you’re still huddled around someone’s dining room table like the Pied Piper gang. By the time you start scaling, the DNA of your company will already be embedded, and harder to change.
What do you think?
Have we got Gilfoyle all wrong?
How are you building a great culture in your company?
Victoria Dew is the Founder and CEO of Dewpoint Communications.