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.

Here's How Many People Grow Up to Hold Their Childhood Dream Job

iStock.com/chameleonseye
iStock.com/chameleonseye

When kids are told they can grow up to be whatever they want, they tend to dream big. According to a recent survey by TollFreeForwarding, high-paying and glamorous job titles like doctor, actor, and pro sports star are some of the most common childhood dream careers in America. But the same survey also found that just a small fraction of people go on to become what they wanted to be when they were young.

The virtual phone company surveyed 2000 adults in the U.S., asking them what career they dreamed of pursuing when they were teenagers. Public service jobs proved the most popular, with teacher, doctor/nurse, and vet making up the top three spots on the list. Those were followed by musician, actor, pro sports, and writer—all jobs that many kids associate with celebrities. Scientist, lawyer, and artist rounded out the top 10. (You can see the whole breakdown here.)

Of the people surveyed, only 10 percent reported holding their dream job today. The most common reasons they gave for not achieving their childhood dreams were financial limitations, a lack of skills, and prioritizing family. Only 39 percent of people who never landed their dream job said they regretted it.

That 10 percent may seem small, but TollFreeForwarding also found that an additional 14 percent of respondents had held their former dream job at some point in their lives, even if they don't have that job today. And dream jobs aren't always all they're made out to be—among the people surveyed who achieved their childhood dream, just 64 percent said it met their childhood expectations.

If you're still set on pursuing your dream job in light of these facts, there is a right way to go about it. Here are some tips for making your most ambitious career goals come true.

When Queen Victoria Employed an Official Rat-Catcher

Wikimedia Commons // Rebecca O'Connell
Wikimedia Commons // Rebecca O'Connell

Victorian England was infested with rats. Rodents were in your basement, your sewers, your garden, your pantry, your parks, your pipes—and it was a huge problem. An untold number of rats crippled crops, spoiled food supplies, clogged drains, and, of course, had helped spread a plague that killed about 60 percent of Europe’s population. (Though gerbils may deserve some blame, too.)

Residents resorted to a handful of techniques to stop the critters. Farmers were known to catch rats and strap bells around their necks, or singe their fur, hoping a horde of jangly burnt rodents would scare fellow pests away. It didn’t. “Rats are everywhere about London,” said a man named Jack Black, “both in rich and poor places.”

Black would know. He was England’s royal rat-catcher.


Getty Images

“Rat-catcher” may not be a job you see at Career Day anymore, but in Victorian England, it was a popular and sometimes lucrative career. According to author Barbara Tufty [PDF], a decent rat-catcher could earn “special privileges” if he caught at least 5000 rats a year, or about 13 rats a day. The job was so common that rodent-chasers in England established their own professional rat-catcher guilds. The occupation even inspired a popular folktale: The Pied Piper was a rat-catcher.

During the Victorian era, Jack Black was the king of the rat-catchers. The official “rat and mole destroyer to her Majesty,” Black got his start doing government work as a young man after he noticed London’s royal parks were spilling over with rats. (Literally: They had gnawed through the bridge drains.) His talent for catching rodents proved unmatchable, and he was eventually appointed by Queen Victoria to the post of supreme rat-catcher.

Black strolled around London with the swagger and audacity of royalty while maintaining the appearance of a court jester. He wore a homemade uniform of white leather pants, a scarlet waistcoat, a green topcoat, a gold band around his hat, and a sash emblazoned with metal rat-shaped medallions, which he had made by secretly melting down his wife’s saucepans.

Ever the showman, Black ambled around the city with a cart full of rats and peddled a homemade brew of varmint poison. After finding a crowd, he would set up a small stage, open a giant cage of rats, and reach inside. The rodents would jump onto his arms, scurry over his shoulders, and scamper from one hand to the next. The crowds oohed and ahhed—Black was rarely bitten. (Whenever a rat did sink its teeth in, Black treated his wound by visiting the local pub and having some “medicine,” a.k.a. stout—although if the bite was really bad, he would make sure to clean the wound.)

After luring a crowd, Black would begin hawking his poison to onlookers. “I challenge my composition, and sell the art of rat-destroying, against any chemical ray-destroyer in the world, for any sum,” he’d bark. “I don’t care what it is. Let anybody, either a medical or druggist manufacturer of composition, come and test with rats again me.”

After a pleasant afternoon selling rodenticide, Black would descend into London’s basements and sewers with a legion of ferrets and dogs to catch more rats. Black had trained the ferrets to sniff out vermin, while he trained the dogs to track down the ferrets in case they got lost or stuck in a sewer pipe, according to Lapham’s Quarterly.

Black tried using other animals to catch vermin. He trained a badger, two raccoons, and a monkey, but most of them couldn’t compete with dogs and ferrets. “I’ve learnt a monkey to kill rats,” he said, “but he wouldn’t do much, and only give them a good shaking when they bit him.”


Getty Images

Black didn’t kill every rat he caught, though. He often kept them alive and bred them for sport.

Nineteenth-century Europeans have an unfortunate history of enjoying animal bloodsports: Monkey-baiting (Can a monkey armed with a stick fight a dog?); fox-tossing (Who can throw a fox highest in the air?); and goose-pulling (Can you decapitate a goose while riding a horse?) were just a few. During Black’s time, rat-baiting, in which dozens of rats are tossed in a pit with a dog, was one of the most popular pastimes in London taverns. The bloodsport was so beloved that the government taxed the rat-killing dogs. London’s premiere rat pit owner, Jimmy Shaw, bought 26,000 live rats each year from rat-catchers like Black.

But Black also bred rats for gentler reasons. He knew that some people wanted rodents as pets—and that some folks would pay handsomely for an equally handsome rat—so he began breeding “fancy” rats. Whenever he discovered a rat-of-a-different-color, he’d take it home for “ladies to keep in squirrel cages.”

Black was proud of his fancy rat-breeding skills. It’s rumored that he bred rats for the Queen and the author Beatrix Potter. He claimed that “I’ve bred the finest collection of pied rats which has ever been knowed [sic] in the world.” Which is probably true. The American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association says Black “can be credited as the originator of the first true domestic rats.”

But Jack Black’s legacy may dig even deeper: The first white lab rat—bred in Philadelphia—was descended from an albino rat that may have been bred by the rat catcher.

There’s no way to be certain, but as Robert Sullivan writes in his book Rats: Observations on the History & habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, “I like to think that all the great scientific achievements that have been made in the modern scientific era as a result of work with laboratory rats are ultimately the result of the work of Jack Black, rat catcher.”

You can read more about Jack Black in Robert Mayhew’s 1851 classic oral history of everyday Londoners, London Labour and the London Poor—the fun starts on page 11 [PDF].

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