Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley – book review

It’s becoming increasingly fashionable to criticise Silicon Valley, with the success of HBO’s television show of that name and numerous books on the topic.

Former Goldman Sachs strategist, entrepreneur and Facebook insider Antonio Garcia Martinez hitches his wagon to that train with Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, his memoir on the ins and outs of America’s innovation engine and capitalist heart.

Reading like a cross between the films The Social Network and The Wolf of Wall Street, Martinez details his ride from Wall Street to co-founding AdGrok, a start-up that aims to auto­mate the purchasing of Google ads.


AdGrok is eventually purchased by Twitter, but Mar­tinez deserts his co-founders for a job at Facebook before the ink on the deal is even dry. The intrigue in how the AdGrok team navigates the venture capital waters and the cut-throat manner in which entrepreneurs get funded, sued and hired is the best part of the book and should be a required reading for techies working in the space.

Less interesting is the latter half, in which Martinez documents his efforts to build and sell FBX, an advertising platform, to Facebook brass. That small niche of individuals who work in ad technology may find the section fascinating, but the minutiae is dull to the outsider. Even Mark Zuckerberg – known internally as “Zuck” – tells the author to get on with it when he attempts an explanation during a meeting.

Just as Jordan Belfort turned out to be a deplorable protagonist in The Wolf of Wall Street, so is Martinez a hard individual to like. He unashamedly details his alpha-male exploits, including the fathering and abandoning of two children with a woman he barely knows, and the drag racing of luxury cars through busy San Francisco streets.

He justifies his actions with a circular logic that one doesn’t get to recklessly drive luxury cars without possessing a certain degree of sociopathy to start with.

There’s no redemption or insight waiting at the end, just a chronicle of one man’s pursuit of riches at all costs. Martinez achieves that to some degree by cashing in on Facebook’s initial public offering in 2012, whereupon he literally sails off into the sunset on his boat. It’s an illuminating and entertaining read, if you can stomach the vapidity.

Q&A

What is a chaos monkey?

The term derives from the random code that software engineers sometimes unleash into their products during testing in an effort to break them. The author applies it to the title of his book to represent the random chaos that, in his opinion, drives Silicon Valley.

Who is the villain?

Martinez makes a lot of enemies – Chaos Monkeys is dedicated to them – but he saves his most vicious disdain for Murthy Nukala, founder of AdChemy. Mr Nukala sues Martinez and his partners when they leave his company to form their own advertising technology start-up.

Is there any good advice?

There is, and one of Martinez’s best tips – which can apply to venture capital funding requests and job interviews alike – is to do as much research and due diligence on the people you are meeting. Knowing each person’s history and traits provides advantages in negotiating with them.

What’s Facebook like on the inside?

Before its IPO in 2012, engineers were encouraged to experiment and “break things”, which is how Martinez and his cohorts ended up flooding Mark Zuckerberg’s desk (they were trying to brew beer at work). After the IPO, risk aversion started to creep in and innovation started to slow.

How much is enough?

Martinez calculates his Facebook payoff in shares to be worth about US$971,500 per year for four years, or about $500,000 a year after taxes. It’s enough to send the kids to private school and to vacation in Hawaii “a couple of times a year, maybe”.

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