April 12, 2014 12:32pm PT by Bryn Elise Sandberg
HBO's 'Silicon Valley' Tech Advisor on Realism, Possible Elon Musk Cameo
HBO’s Silicon Valley wants to get the details right.
The show, described as the tech world's version of Entourage, has garnered early praise for its depiction of tech culture. And technical advisor and associate producer Jonathan Dotan, who also worked on Entourage, took painstaking measures to ensure authenticity.
"We wanted to be sure that if a fan would freeze-frame the screen that anything they would see on there would be accurate," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I don’t think people were doing that with Entourage."
To create a realistic version of Bay Area culture, creator Mike Judge and executive producer Alec Berg turned to Dotan, who has more than 14 years of experience in the technology and entertainment industries. He currently sits on the boards of four startup companies and works closely advising 3 Arts partner Michael Rotenberg and senior manager Troy Zien.
The 33-year-old was tasked with working on each episode’s technical accuracy, from crafting dialogue in the writers’ room to verifying the Post-it notes on set. He enlisted the help of a team of a dozen tech consultants, led by former evp of sales and services at FoundationDB, Andrew Nash, who worked as the chief technology officer on set; front end developer at Tixr JP Cutter, who served as the head of engineering; and partner at Cooley LLP Dave Young, who provided legal advice as the outside counsel.
Dotan claims the team never simplified the technology and, in fact, often made scenes more complex in an effort to avoid being labeled unrealistic. The best example is the startup idea at the center of the show, Pied Piper, which shy, awkward Richard (Thomas Middleditch) develops.
The idea hinges on Richard's compression algorithm, which in real life is a niche area of computer science that Dotan says is a more theoretical part of the industry. The creators went to great lengths to make the app seem as realistic as possible, even teaming up with Stanford professor Tsachy Weissman and his graduate student, Vinith Misra. The two created the math behind the “Weissman Score” -- a tool uniquely created for the show that measures the effectiveness of compression algorithms -- used in the first episode to evaluate Richard’s formula. Dotan then designed the user interface seen in the show.
“It was a big breakthrough, because we now had fully bona fide compression experts working with us,” says Dotan, adding that the Stanford creators are now thinking about launching the tool in real life: “Two Hollywood producers have jump-started a whole new approach on compression.”
In addition to ensuring the technical accuracy of Pied Piper, Dotan wanted to confirm its viability as a business model. The longtime working title for the show, Deep Tech, was pulled from actual conversations with real venture capitalists to whom Dotan pitched the fictional startup company.
He called a few VCs he'd worked with to walk them through the fake business model -- the tenants of the compression algorithm, the go-to-market strategy and the numbers -- to which they responded, "Oh, yeah. This is a ‘deep tech’ investment. It makes complete sense... Sounds pretty reasonable if your prototype is where you say it’s at.”
Dotan also leaned on his relationships for cameos, luring high-profile tech folks in by assuring them that the writer and producers were doing everything they could to get to the tech culture right. The strategy worked with Eric Schmidt, Jared Chen, Jason Kincaid, Kara Swisher and Michael Arrington, all of whom appear at various points during the show’s first season.
“It’s quite a thing to meet Kara Swisher at 5 a.m. in the morning in Culver City,” Dotan says of the tech columnist’s guest appearance. He claims she was “instantly transported” and “felt right at home” when she walked on the set of a faux iteration of TechCrunch Disrupt, a conference for the developer community that served as a significant part of the finale.
For his part, Schmidt shot his cameo after the rest of his scene (a less-than-impressive party in episode one) had already been filmed, which allowed him to see exactly what he’d be cut into. Judge and Berg were particularly relieved when they heard Schmidt’s reaction to the fictional scene they had crafted: “Oh man,” said the Google executive chairman, “I’ve been to that party.”
But despite being name-checked in that same party scene, Elon Musk wasn’t approached for a cameo. He did, however, attend the Redwood City premiere for the series. After a Re/code article initially claiming Musk was “pissed” about the show later softened its headline, there was confusion about the tech billionaire’s actual opinion. Musk himself turned to Twitter to set the record straight:
As for a guest appearance from him in the future? "We hope that if there’s a season two,” says Dotan, “we can work him in, in a meaningful way."