Tonight viewers will be treated to Hollywood’s latest take on the startups in Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley on HBO. But while Judge might be known best for his comedy, he is no stranger to the tech world — he used to be an engineer himself, and about fifteen years ago he filmed what would become a cult classic in Office Space.
Things were different then — programmers wore ties instead of hoodies, worked in cubicle farms instead of hacker hostels, and saved their code to floppy disks instead of housing it at Github. Instead of malfunctioning hologram machines, they were plagued by printers that refused to print.
In some ways, the bright, colorful canvas that Judge plays with in Silicon Valley shows us how far we’ve come since Office Space, which also centered around a group of downtrodden engineers. That film, which was released in 1999, followed three hapless programmers who were updating bank software ahead of the so-called “Y2K bug.”
There wasn’t the conspicuous display of wealth back then, and it’s humbling to see programmers working out of an office park rather than the huge tech campuses or SOMA lofts that they’re used to today. (It’s probably worth noting that Office Space was set and filmed in Austin, not Silicon Valley, but I think the point stands.)
At the end of the day, however, the characters we see in Silicon Valley aren’t that different from their forbears in Office Space. They still have the same social awkwardness, the same insecurities, and the same difficulty adjusting to a society around them that doesn’t quite understand what they do.
It’s something I asked Mike Judge about at a Code/Media event in Santa Monica last week. That is, what’s changed since then? Why are things so different today?
“Office Space to me… in my mind it was set in the late ’80s,” Judge said. “I think the landscape has changed. The personality types are the same, but at that time the barrier to entry was so much higher. Nowadays the question isn’t, ‘Can you get this to work?’ It’s ‘Will the public buy this?'”
He went on to explain that today the cost of building a startup is so much lower, and funding is so much easier to come by, that there’s no reason not to strike out on your own. What’s missing in Office Space is the feeling of opportunity and entrepreneurship that is commonplace not just in Judge’s Silicon Valley, but in the real-life version as well.
I was reminded of this the other day while watching the movie again the other day and was struck by one scene in particular:
“What if we’re still doing this when we’re 50?” one of the characters asks.
“It would be nice to have that sort of job security,” another replies.
For the Silicon Valley of 2014, that wouldn’t even be a question. The idea of being a mindless software drone for the next 25 years isn’t even a possibility for most young engineers. They don’t want job security, they want to feel like they’re changing the world.