Chaos Monkeys: An Unfinished Bildungsroman

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been reading Antonio Garcia Martinez’s autobiography Chaos Monkeys. It’s been a slow read, which explains the hiatus between this and my previous post.

Writing an autobiography when in your early thirties requires great hutzpah, especially if your life has not been truly exceptional. Martinez had a background in physics (Berkeley ABD), two years trading and research derivatives at Goldman Sachs, experience at two technology startups, and two years as a middle manager at Facebook, a position from which he was fired.

With such an unimpressive record, why should anyone care about what he has to write? Yet Martinez received three strong reviews in the New York Times: from Andrew Ross Sorkin, author of Too Big to Fail; from Jonathan Knee, a professor of practice at Columbia Business School; and from David Streitfield, a technology journalist with the Times. All three thought that he had very effectively captured the tech startup zeitgeist: Streitfield wrote “nothing I’ve ever read conveys better what it actually is like to be in the engine room of the startup economy” and flatteringly compared Chaos Monkeys to Lair’s Poker, Michael Lewis’s bildungsroman as a bond trader.

I personally had one unsuccessful experience working part-time on a software startup almost three decades ago, but have had no other experience in the startup economy. I have, however, read much of the startup literature. Martinez’s book triangulates nicely with most of what I have read, in particular the tendency of recent startups to serve as tryouts enabling their small teams to be hired into middle-level positions in the major technology companies (Apple, Google, Facebook) and to receive some gradually vesting equity in the acquiring company.

Martinez’s less-than-brilliant Facebook career took up roughly half the book, and it was here the narrative bogged down. Martinez’s expertise is in website advertising (“adtech”) and he was involved in a two year internal contest between two approaches to configuring Facebook’s advertising. I found his explanation of the technical issues unclear and confusing and his narrative of the internal organizational politics less than compelling. His portraits of Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg (“Zuck”) were much less memorable than Michael Lewis’s of Lew Ranieri and John Gutfreund. Sandberg ultimately selected the other faction’s approach and Martinez, as advocate of the losing approach, was fired.

This book is a bildungsroman rather than reporting and so Martinez reveals a lot of himself. Unfortunately, what he reveals isn’t pretty, including fathering two children but preferring to pay child support rather than being involved as a parent and ditching his two startup partners in favor of a better deal right at the moment they were trying to sell the firm. (Ironically, it turned out that the partners sold their shares to Twitter and did much better than Martinez did at Facebook.)

Martinez pretentiously begins each chapter with an aphorism. The one that I think sums him up best is “for every beautiful woman, there’s a man tired of screwing her.” Martinez simply gets tired of things and moves on, both with women and with his career. So, after completing his book, he is returning to sailing, a recreational passion, and planning to sail round the world, solo, or so he tells us.

I’ll contradict Martinez’s aphorism with my own: in any good relationship, there are two partners who never tire of making love. Maybe someday he will find out.

Completing the comparison with Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis came to a well-reasoned conclusion about why the financial sector was not for him and, with that book set out on a career as a writer. He has been extraordinarily successful, combining skill at explaining complicated financial technology (far surpassing Martinez’s ability to explain computer technology) with a real talent for portraying compelling and fascinating human beings. Perhaps someday Martinez will make a career commitment and complete his bildungsroman.

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