Halt and Catch Fire Decimates Silicon Valley

There are two great fictional TV series about technology and the computer industry that each have now had three seasons. The one everyone knows about is Silicon Valley. The lessor known one is Halt and Catch Fire. They are both dynamite but for different reasons. And, after three years and some reflection on my part, HCF decimates Silicon Valley (which is mostly a challenge to my friends who have writing credits.)

The foundational difference is that HCF is about the history of the personal computer industry (starting in the early 1980s) while Silicon Valley is a contemporary satire of today’s Silicon Valley.

While contemporary satires can be awesome (like Silicon Valley is), there is no sense of perspective. Since you are generally watching it unfold in real time, after three years you don’t get the historical arc, unless you go back and watch from the first episode. And, when you do, the first few episodes fall short, for a variety of reasons including the writers are getting their satire in gear while figuring out all the other pieces. Basically, it’s really challenging to get started – so in a lot of ways Silicon Valley has it harder than HCF.

Even just the titles tell you this. We all know what Silicon Valley is (or at least we think we do). But, without looking it up, do you know what Halt and Catch Fire refers to? I’ll give you a hint – notice my TLA for it (HCF). I’ll give you another hint – it has something to do with Motorola. And Intel. And the IBM 360. Go read the Wikipedia page on HCF – it’s got the whole story – but the punch line is “The mnemonic HCF is believed to be the first built-in self-test feature on a Motorola microprocessor”

Silicon Valley’s version of this is Hooli. But if they wanted to get it really right, it should have been something like Hooley since the better name would have six letters in it.

There are 100s of these embedded in each show. Watching the opening of Silicon Valley, with the animated Uber and Lyft balloons muscling each other out, is fun. The Twitter golden parachutes are cute. But even though it gets regularly updated, there are quickly artifacts that are out of place. It’s the challenge of current verses history.

Ok – pesca-pescatarian stays with me and I’ve told Dick Costolo that every board meeting at Chorus should include this option.

Shows like these get an awesome chance to have characters that are either direct historical references, historically inspired references, syntheses of historical characters, or completely fictional characters. Each has both, but HCF does the synthesis character much better. And, as part of it, they took on some gender stereotypes in an extremely powerful way through two of the lead female characters.

Finally, as someone who lived in Dallas in the time frame that the first two seasons of HCF unfolded (full time as a senior in high school and then in the summers when I was going to MIT) they just fucking nailed it. While Dell and CompuAdd were in Austin (anyone remember PCs Limited) and Compaq was in Houston, another clone maker (Five Star Electronics) was in Dallas and at least one of the Compaq early players (Kevin Ellington) came from TI in Dallas where he was previously the head of the team that created short lived but excellent TI Professional Computer.

In contrast, while I’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley over the last 20 years, I’ve never lived there and don’t feel an emotional attachment to it. I’m a participant, but it’s not “of me”, whereas Dallas is.

All that said, they are both awesome shows that now have enough time in them (three years of episodes) to be worth a watch from start to finish! And, for bonus points, watch the documentary Silicon Cowboys.

Also published on Medium.

  • p.wesling

    Brad — I, too, loved HCF, having lived through that era and known some of the companies (but from a Silicon Valley perspective). How about looking at my YouTube video, “The Origins of Silicon Valley: Why and How It Happened”, and providing a review with your thoughts? That earlier history might interest you, and perhaps others. It’s at: goo.gl/LAL1AT

    • Neat – on my list to watch!

  • HCF was a fun gag when I started school. We had a 360 with one meg of slow speed core and one meg of fast core. I was running a lot of fft data analysis code, and optimizing in assembly. We would joke about HCF, and one nervous sysop would get up from his desk every ten minutes or so and sniff the air around the high speed racks when I was running.

    • So fun. Did you ever write any code that has it in it? I’m looking for some assembler (360, 6800, …)

      • Any code is long gone, but I remember that we were pretty hard on the sysops. They nominally had to check decks before they were submitted. (Anyone who had been around for a while and didn’t break things got a pass.) Comments in 360 assembly were only delimited with a blank after the opcode and operand, and the convention was that they were mixed case, and usually tabbed out so they could be read easily in a text block. Putting interesting cruft in all upper case after an operand so it looked like part of the statement, with accompanying malicious mixed case comments, was good fun if someone else was going to look at the code.

  • Jason Randell

    Why do you think so many people want to live in “the Valley”? Why do people not have the same compel to move near MIT ?

    • There has been 10 million words written about this on the web!

      • Jason Randell

        I agree. Thats the problem, there is not one or even a few reasons behind this. It simply seems that more like minded people care to help more like minded people in a common place (SV) than the majority of other places in the world. Would you not agree?

  • The more I meet ex-Motorola people the more I am amazed that company never made it in the internet age. They should be a powerhouse today. Shows you exactly how important management is.

  • Drew V

    With the NFL’s announcement of their accelerator yesterday, I’m hoping that Silicon Valley and Baller’s do a cross-episode. But I’m sure that both of the shows are near finished with filming for the upcoming seasons. That would be a great opportunity wasted!

  • email

    Hi Brad, I’m guessing you would be a fan of the old Bob Cringely book “Accidental Empires: How the boys in Silicon Valley made their millions, battled foreign competition nd still can’t get a date”

    Still the best book title.


    • It was a fun book and a great title.

  • neilheuer

    Only one more season of Halt and Catch Fire – too bad because I too really really like it! Reminds me of my youth and most recently the infancy of what we live and die by today (the internet)