Todd Silverstein via HBO
Todd Silverstein via HBO

Meet Todd Silverstein: Silicon Valley’s Lead Technical Consultant

Todd Silverstein via HBO
Todd Silverstein via HBO

In 2014, the same year that Silicon Valley made its debut, Todd Silverstein was in the midst of having Vizify—the Portland, Oregon-based data visualization startup he foundedacquired by Yahoo!, who he then worked for for a while before making his way to Tumblr. If you had asked Silverstein at the time where he envisioned his career might take him over the next few years, he probably wouldn’t have predicted that he’d be sitting in the writers’ room of one of HBO’s most successful comic series. Yet, as the lead technical consultant on Silicon Valley—which will air its season finale on Sunday, June 25—that’s exactly the position Silverstein finds himself in. But just how did he get there? We spoke with Silverstein to find out.

You began working on the show this season. Had you been a fan of Silicon Valley before that?

Oh, yeah. I think one of the reasons they liked me was because I was a fan but not a super fan, so I didn’t obsess about the details. I had been particularly impressed by the show not only because it’s hilarious, but because as someone who has founded companies, the thing that drew me most to it was lots of tech references. All that stuff was spot-on: the feeling of being an entrepreneur and in over your head and fighting against wild and crazy forces beyond your control. That felt very much like a lived experience, and the thing that impressed me about the show was how accurately I think they got the human drama, which is just a huge testament to the instincts of like Mike [Judge] and Alec [Berg] and the whole writing team. Because as much as there’s humor there, there are a lot of people that I know who watch it—especially people who have been entrepreneurs—who are like, “Oh man, that nailed some of the highs and the lows, and that emotional core,” which is sort of at the center of the action.

Clearly part of your job is to make sure that the show is getting the technology right—whether it’s the terminology or functionality—but that almost seems like it would be the easier part. The more difficult part seems like it would be how to accurately gauge how a person might react to a situation in real life.

Again, I think this is a real testament to like Alec and Mike going above and beyond. I was in the writers’ room with the writers during the writing process and I think that’s for them, by design ... One of the reasons I think that they thought it was important to have someone in the writers’ room to go through it is just because it allows a lot of that back and forth where sometimes there’ll be a technology that they read about, like machine learning, and we talk about, "Hey, what’s interesting about this?" and "Why are people excited about it?", and we talk about that.

But then, almost inevitably, you very quickly roll into, "Oh I’ve got friends who are working on that," and then you can help sort of match-make a little bit … It’s just a free-flowing creative process and it can work in both directions. Sometimes they have a really hilarious situation or comedy scene and want to know, “Well, how would this actually play out?” or “What would be unique on the tech side?” And then sometimes there’s technology where I’ll be like, “Hey, everyone’s talking about this,” and then I build these little primers for them.

John P. Johnson/HBO

One of the interesting things about the show is that, as much as it’s about technology, you really don’t have to know a thing about technology to enjoy it. You don’t have to understand what a compression algorithm does to enjoy the show; there’s plenty of context for the audience to work with. The characters really fill in the blanks.

That’s one of the other individual challenges: dialing it back. Being someone who’s more steeped in the technology, you have that curse of knowledge of thinking, “Oh yeah, people know what I’m talking about,” and then you talk to the writers and you get this blank look … and they’re like, “I don’t understand what you just said there.”

Sort of like when a scientist explains a complex concept in a way that makes it seem elementary.

Yeah, and again, that’s why the writing team is so impressive, because they’re very deliberate about that. And while we want to get the tech details right, it’s not at the cost of having people be totally confused or not being able to follow the plot.

How did you get connected with the folks on the show?

[Producer] Jonathan Dotan, who had sort of been leading the charge, had to step back a little bit, and so there’s this huge network of sort of consultants and friends of the show … But a lot of the venture capital funds actually have recruiting arms, and so he actually put a call out through that network. And because I was an entrepreneur who had sold a company and had received investments, it sort of came to me through that network.

So essentially it was a friend who said, “Hey, this sounds just like you …” One of the things that they’ve done to help keep things fresh is really look for people who have worked in tech but with very different perspectives. So they were like, “Hey, we love the idea of working with someone who has more product background,” and so that really matched up very nicely with what I had been working on.

And maybe a little frightening to you as in, “Is this mimicking my life too closely?”

Yeah, it is really weird … And the thing to keep in mind is that we’re working almost a year ahead, so when the show is finally about to get something right, it’s almost a brilliant act. It reminds me of publishing, where you’re making bets on books and you know that actual books aren’t going to publish for a year, year-and-a-half.

John P. Johnson/HBO

Describe what a typical day looks like for you when you’re working on the show.

There are kind of three phases to it; I would say I have three flavors of typical days: At the beginning of the season, it’s all of the writing process, so you’re with the writers in the writers’ room all day. I know a decent amount about tech, but I’m hardly an expert in everything, so sometimes there are things that come up—like, “Hey, let’s talk about hackers”—and I’m like, “Alright, yeah.” I’ve never hacked any system, and we actually have some white hat hackers who are part of the team.

So during the day I’m in the writers’ room and it is that sort of freewheeling process and a lot of talking about story and try to get the emotional truth of those stories. It’s very much both push-pull. Sometimes I’ll come into the room and it’s like, “Here’s a really interesting technology” and we’ll talk about it and they’ll be like, “Oh, could we make a story out of this?”

When Alec is running the room it’s very much like working off of whiteboards, so we sort of outline storylines and then those outlines become typed-up outlines, and then they become longer typed-up outlines, and at that point they would sort of become scripts. And then the scripts would be sort of worked through to turn up even more of the great humor that would come out of them.

Once the first couple of scripts are in the can, then you start going into the production process. So my role there was very much, “Hey, here’s a scene where Gilfoyle is on his computer.” It’s actually looking for those moments where they would need tech, and so there’s an incredibly talented production team and props department, but some of the more technical aspects they’re going to need—like what would Gilfoyle actually be typing now—what does that even look like and what would it be showing on the screen?

So I headed up a fairly sizable team of people where we would actually identify what might show up on screen, everything from whiteboard to the rest, and then we would work with that technical team and to make sure that it was accurate. So, people would write real code and again, everything gets screencast these days on Reddit and we try really hard to make sure that that stuff is real. So it’s actual code, in an actual browser, and it’s like we are actually doing all this stuff … just like you would if you were deploying it for real, and sort of working all the things up so that people either have references that they can build versions of or actual bits of code that will go on screen.

And then the third part of the job is when you finally go into shooting, you work a little bit with the actors. Particularly where there’s a particular technology they need or want that same primer themselves just to help figure out, “How am I going to play this scene?” or whatever it would be, and then dialogue and things like that. Sometimes you have a really twisted line of like someone talking about something deeply technical and in addition to wanting to understand it, they’re like, “I don’t know what some of these symbols mean. How would you intelligently say that?” So it’s very much really helping just getting the actors the additional help that they need when they’re sort of working something through, they can ask questions. It’s working through them. So, it was a really interesting, multifaceted role and it sort of evolved as you go from script to pre-production to actual production.

John P. Johnson/HBO

What’s the most rewarding part of the job for you?

Just because of my own sort of flirtation with publishing, I love spending time with the writers and just being able to see their process and even being a part of it and being able to sometimes be like, “I helped,” or “They took some of my own experience and were able to not only reflect it, but make it be 10 times funnier than it actually was in real life.” That just felt like a privilege. And it’s not only that I, personally, think it’s some of the best TV on television, but each of the individual writers were so accomplished individually.

Odd Jobs
Dream Job Alert: Cadbury Is Looking for Professional Chocolate Tasters

Can you taste the difference between semisweet and bittersweet chocolate? Do you have strong opinions on what makes a perfect cup of cocoa? If so, Cadbury wants to hear from you. As Insider reports, the candy brand’s parent company Mondelez International is hiring taste testers to aid in the development of their chocolate products.

The corporation, which also owns the chocolate bar brand Milka, is seeking applicants to fill four positions: three chocolate tasters and one chocolate and cocoa beverage taster. According to the job listings, Mondelez will train the new employees in sharpening their taste buds and broadening their flavor vocabulary, so no experience is necessary. The qualities they are looking for include a communicative personality, eagerness to try new products, honesty and objectivity, and a passion for all things sweet. Candidates must also be fluent in English and available to work in Reading, England, about 40 miles west of London.

Each job pays £9 ($12.44) an hour, with employees spending about eight hours a week working with other panelists in sensory booths and discussion rooms. The maximum 10 free chocolate samples they get to eat a day are a bonus.

Prospective employees have until February 16 to submit their resumes, but they should act fast: When Mondelez put out a call for taste-testers last year, they were flooded with thousands of applications.

[h/t Insider]

Eric Francis, Getty Images
Odd Jobs
Cell Service: Inside the World of Prison Librarians
Eric Francis, Getty Images
Eric Francis, Getty Images

While working as a librarian at one of the Ohio Department of Corrections' facilities, Andrew Hart received a fair amount of strange book requests. But one, from 2012, stands out in his mind.

"I was wondering if you could find a book for me," the inmate said.

“What is it?” Hart asked.

“I want a book on deboning chickens."

Hart paused. “Why would you need that?”

“I want to be a butcher when I get out.”

“I was not,” Hart tells Mental Floss, “going to get this guy a book on deboning chickens.”

There were other requests: books on getting out of restraints, survival guides, and other titles that would not be appropriate for a population of violent offenders. But for the two years Hart spent working as a prison librarian, the sometimes odd interactions were a small price to pay for helping to facilitate a sense of normalcy in an otherwise isolating and restrictive environment. With their carpeted floors, windows, and computers, prison libraries are one of the few sanctuaries available to inmates—a place that looks and feels like part of the outside world.

“I think it reminds them of a school library,” Hart says. “It brings them back to their childhood.”

The escapism afforded by the books can dilute the urge to pass time by engaging in criminal behavior. Libraries can even prepare prisoners for reentry into society after release, arming them with knowledge to pursue careers.

That ambition is what prompts graduates with degrees in library science to take detours—some temporary, others permanent—into managing books behind bars. Like public librarians, Hart organized book clubs, wrangled donations, and set up a shelf full of recommended reading. Unlike his public counterparts, Hart also had to take self-defense courses, check returned books for blood stains, and remain mindful of attempts to manipulate the privileges the library offered.

“You can be friendly,” he says of his interactions with inmates, “but you can’t be friends.”


Being allowed the pleasure of reading has been a privilege for prisoners for nearly as long as the idea of criminal detention itself. In the 1700s, religious tomes were handed out with hopes that wayward convicts would find spiritual guidance and correct their behaviors. In the 19th and 20th centuries, an increase in public libraries bled into penal institutions, and scholars advocated for “bibliotherapy,” or rehabilitation through literacy. Inmates devoured texts on psychology and law, increasing their self-awareness and sometimes antagonizing officials by challenging their sentences or their treatment within a facility.

Today, roughly 1.5 million Americans are incarcerated in federal or state facilities that offer varying degrees of access to literature, from a few shelves full of worn titles to sprawling legal and recreational selections. When Hart decided to put his bachelor’s degree in criminology and master’s in library science to use at the Ohio facility, he was dismayed to find that the unit had only 600 books in its inventory.

“It was dimly lit and barely had any computers,” he says. “My heart just sank.”

Hart set about improving the library by opening up interlibrary loans—where inmates could request books from public libraries—and “hustling” for book donations from local merchants and other sources. “When you think of a library, you think of books,” he says. “I wanted inmates to come in and see the shelves were full.”

In the two years Hart spent at the facility, the library’s inventory grew from 600 books to more than 15,000. When prisoners weren’t after books on deboning animals, they sought out titles on crocheting, affordable living in tiny homes, and what Hart calls “street lit,” a genre of memoirs from reformed criminals. The Japanese graphic novel Naruto was popular; so was the Christian-driven Left Behind series, about the people who remain following the Rapture.

Inmates at a women's prison read books in the library
John Moore, Getty Images

Anna Nash, an institutional librarian who oversees multiple facilities for the Institutional Library Services arm of the Washington State Library, says that young adult titles are in demand. “So are paranormal romance titles,” she tells Mental Floss.

That prisoners seek out escapist fiction is not so surprising. But for the groups of prisoners who are admitted to the library on a rotating schedule, it’s as much the environment as the content that makes them feel as though they are somewhere else. “The library feels normal,” Nash says. “I had someone who worked in a public library come in as a volunteer one time and she was surprised at how clean everything and everyone looked. It’s a place where prison politics can be quasi-suspended.”

If a prison is home to inmates who segregate themselves by race or gang affiliation, the library is a place to congregate. Hart spearheaded book clubs and discussion groups; Nash recently finished a meet-up to discuss George Orwell’s Animal Farm. For one project, Hart solicited recipes from inmates and compiled them into a cookbook that he had custom-printed. For another, he collected art for publication and had the warden of the prison choose his favorite for the cover. He also became a notary so he could help inmates with their legal documents.

“I think it helped them see me in a different light,” Hart says.


How inmates see and perceive librarians is often the variable that separates public libraries from prison facilities. “They want to test you, to see how far they can go,” Nash says.

When Nash accepted her first job at a Washington prison library in 2008, friends and relatives were puzzled. “You’re in there with men?” some asked. “With murderers?”

She was. And as a staff member, she was expected to exert no less authority than any other employee of the prison. Upon hiring, she underwent a self-defense course in the event an inmate attacked her. She told inmates to tuck in their shirts so that they couldn’t obscure contraband. She admonished them to keep a physical distance from one another.

Nash also avoided answering any personal questions, no matter how innocuous they might seem, like "What’s your favorite book?" “They’re trying to test boundaries," says says. "We used the word ‘testing,' which is trying to get a staff member to do something they’re not allowed to do.” An inmate, for example, might want to tear the comics out of the newspaper. If Nash said no, the inmate would argue that another employee had let them do it before.

An inmate reads a book in his prison cell
Ian Waldie, Getty Images

“They will try to play you,” Hart says, recalling the time a prisoner asked if he could tattoo a friend in the library, a fairly obvious infraction of the rules. “They want to seem chummy with you, like you’re two friends hanging out.” A prisoner might have a story for why they need to make more copies of legal papers than what’s allowed, or why they need to check out more books than the maximum allotted. To get an official to bend the rules is something of a victory for the prisoner, and one that could conceivably result in a breakdown of the supervisor's authority.

For Nash, being a woman assigned to a male population posed its own challenges. “When someone walks in and says, ‘Hey, beautiful,’ they know what they’re doing,” she says. “And if you smile back, they think it means something more.”

Hart has heard stories about employees developing inappropriate relationships with inmates. “It can creep in, where you begin bringing in stuff for them,” he says. “You want to be their friend, but you have to maintain that separation.”

It’s better to be the one doing the asking. When Nash tries to find out what a prisoner wants so she can make a recommendation, the answer can depend on whether they have a release date in sight. For some, a library isn’t just a release from prison; it’s a way to avoid prison after their release.


At the age of 20, Eddie Parnell flunked out of community college after less than one semester. Drugs held more sway than an education. “Once I tried meth, that was it for me,” he tells Mental Floss. The descent wasn’t immediate—he could hold down a job while fending off misdemeanor charges—but it was inevitable. At 30, Parnell began the first of what would become three prison stints for drug possession and burglary, the final one stretching for 31 months in Walla Walla, Washington.

At Walla Walla, passing time with a television was an expensive proposition. “A TV cost $275 and we made $30 a month working in the kitchen,” Parnell says. “So I would just dig my heels into a good story.” Parnell read Louis L’Amour westerns before growing tired of their repetitive narratives; he segued to Clive Cussler and Stephen King. Some of the paperbacks were so worn that inmates would tape labels from shampoo bottles to try and reinforce their torn covers.

For much of his sentence, Parnell read books simply to pass time. But Walla Walla’s educational library—a separate facility from the regular library—promised more. The department had just received a boost from philanthropist Doris Buffett (sister of Warren Buffet) that helped fund a program where inmates could earn an associate’s degree based on the belief that educational funding was sorely lacking when exploring solutions to the issue of recidivism.

Parnell decided he would pursue a degree in molecular bioscience and used all of the resources available to him—including the librarian—to make sure he was stepping into the right environment upon his release. “I couldn’t have done that without access to those resources,” he says.

A prison inmate holds up a self-help book
John Moore, Getty Images

According to the National Institute of Justice, two-thirds of released inmates are rearrested within three years, so mired in the cycle of criminal offenses that they see no other alternative. “They say reentry begins at sentencing, but the culture is still a ways off from that,” Nash says.

Even so, inmates often come in seeking information on how to build opportunities during and after their imprisonment. Some opt to try and learn a trade or how to start a small business. Others take advantage of the reference material in reentry programs to try and cultivate an exit strategy, whether it’s earning a GED or pursuing a degree. Upon his release in 2014, Parnell went the degree route.

“I graduate in May,” Parnell says. “Instead of being a detriment on society, I’ll be paying taxes. The library system contributed to this.”


For all of the benefits offered, prison libraries still come up against bureaucratic obstacles. The longest-running one is censorship, or the idea that certain titles aren’t suited for incarcerated populations.

But who decides, and why? Recently, New Jersey corrections officials were criticized for taking a book titled The New Jim Crow out of circulation. Published in 2010, the nonfiction work details accusations of racial discrimination in sentencing. Such action is in conflict with a librarian’s support of freedom of speech and publication and the American Library Association’s call to fight censorship as part of its ethical mandates.

“In Ohio, I called it the ‘banned book list,’ even though a lawyer vehemently told me not to do that,” Hart says. “Usually, it’s when a review team of a librarian, an administrator, a teacher, or someone else finds something objectionable.” The New Jim Crow is certainly a nebulous choice; other titles, like how-tos on weapons-making or combat, are natural omissions. “I couldn’t even get a tai chi book in,” Hart says.

Titles can be taken out of circulation for reasons other than content. A handful of times, Hart tossed a book he thought had blood stains on it. When he mentioned it to an inmate who worked in the library, the man said that wasn’t likely to happen too often.

“Why not?” Hart asked.

“We’re not going to return a book with blood on it,” he said. “We’ll take care of it.”

After two years, a fatigued Hart went on to another state job outside of the prison system. “It was fulfilling but very stressful,” he says, citing long hours and the demands of a job with limited resources.

Like Nash, who still works with inmates in Washington, Hart still finds tremendous value in making sure offenders have access to the written word. For inmates who choose to take advantage, it can be a life-changing component of doing time.

“Libraries reduce mental, emotional, and physical conflicts in the prison system,” Parnell says. “If a person is reading a book, they’re not picking a fight in the next cell over. If not for the library, I would be getting ready to go back in.”


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