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Shows like these get an awesome chance to have characters that are either direct historical references, historically inspired references, syntheses of historical characters, or completely fictional characters.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.