While there have been a handful of movies about hacking (“War Games”, “Hackers”) and every heist movie seems to stick at least one programmer on the team, there are few films devoted to craft of building software. Who would want to spend two hours staring at beautiful actors stuck in cubicles staring at lines of code? “The Internship”, thankfully, isn’t that movie, although it is set at Google’s mothership where the average day is filled with days staring at lines of code. It’s a harmless bit of summer fluff that sails blithely along in its own carefully edited version of reality pretending that building software is anything but staring at screens. It’s a nice journey to a happy ending with only a few veiled hints of darker trends and deeper issues buried underneath the fun.
The movie is a buddy comedy pairing Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, the dynamic duo who were last seen together in “The Wedding Crashers” as fast-talking scammers sneaking into receptions. This time, they’re washed up watch salesmen fast-talking their way into a job at Google. Someone finally noticed that mobile phones took over the job of telling time. The Hollywood executives who develop movies with lambda expressions probably called it “The Google Crashers.”
The two actors are likeable rogues that are playing the same game. They may be older but they understand people, unlike the nerds at the Googleplex. They’ve got an answer for everything and that answer is usually something that will keep them afloat in the rapidly changing economy. It’s sort of “Glengarry Glen Ross” or “Death of a Salesman” without the adultery or the kind of lefty talk that attracts the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
For them, Google is the promised land, the Emerald City, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, a role that the company plays happily, almost too happily. The company reportedly traded access to the Googleplex for some control of the script and they reportedly wielded this knife to slice away a scene showing a crash of their now famous self-driving cars. Claire Cain Miller at the NY Times reported that the company even created the credits and packed them full of ads for Google’s famous and not-so-famous products. There’s only a bit of irony in the way that the company that once made its name by creating tasteful, small and very focused ads could put its name on such an endless, loud and extravagant act of branding.
Naturally, the list of which Google features makes the closing credits is highly selective. There’s no mention of the direct link that the US Government claims to have to Google’s huge files on all of us or any discussion of the ongoing morass of the lawsuit from the book authors. There is also no questioning of Google’s vision of the social compact where you and I do the work of creating the content and they enjoy the fruits of the advertising that pays for most of the luxuries seen in the movie. It’s not “Enemy of the State” and certainly not “Office Space.” The pro-business crowd that is always asking Hollywood for some good corporate characters has finally gotten its wish.
But Slashdot readers will be a bit disappointed because the Google shown in the movie is just another company from central casting. There are occasional references to HTML5, CSS3 and “building an app” but most of the audience will walk away thinking that answer to creating software is eating pizza, going to a strip club, or drinking alcohol. Just as Hollywood injected scenes of drunken programming into “The Social Network”, Hollywood can’t seem to believe that software is made with logic, precision and concentration. The secret of success, at least according to the movie, is the same as the secret to diabetes: plenty of carbs and plenty of alcohol.
It may be too much to expect Hollywood to confront some of the deeper issues about Google’s work place because the movie is a comedy, not a remake of “Norma Rae”. The characters make a brief reference the downside and the brutal, winner-take-all game that they’re playing. 95% of the interns won’t get a paying job and most people who get paying jobs won’t get stock options worth very much. It’s like “The Hunger Games” but played for laughs.
Sitting around moaning about the way that Google (and the Internet) is destroying so many jobs wouldn’t make for a fun movie. Instead the characters revel in the free food and the non-stop buffet without recognizing that the benefits are a bit of a clever trap. Feeding someone $20 in food is a good deal if it keeps them working for three to six more hours.
The script writers apparently didn’t get the memo that the company has slowly been cutting back on the fancy extras. In 2008, the IPO millionaires boosted the cost of day care so high that there was open sobbing from the post-IPO engineers who couldn’t afford it. While many outsiders think movies like this are accurate, insiders complain that they can’t afford the day care which costs thousands of dollars per kid per month. It’s a not-so-subtle message that kids are a high cost that get in the way of software development.
And then in 2009 Google started clamping down on the free food, especially the clever employees who would take home big containers of food on Friday to make it through the weekend without a trip to the office. Larry Page told reporters at a news conference then, “I think it’s important to reset the culture from time to time. we decided to, for example, we significantly cut down all the snacks that had been available.” This new version made the film because Vaughn learns, to his chagrin, that he can’t take home the seven bagels he got for free. Once again, the food is just a carrot to keep people in front of the screens.
The movie certainly suggests that Google, like “Logan’s Run”, is filled with 20-somethings on an extended summer camp sleepover with fat salaries to make it even more fun. One of the managers is said to be 23 and already seasoned because he’s spent 4 years with the company.
Is this really accurate or just another bit of Hollywood frosting on the free cookie? Alas, Google has endured at least one high-profile age discrimination lawsuit from a manager who lost millions in stock options after being fired. The ex-employee’s lawyers dug up incriminating emails saying, among other things, that the guy was an “old man”, an “old guy” and an “old fuddy-duddy”. That attitude is heard again and again here although with less precision.
When I’ve spoken with people who’ve worked there, they have cautiously suggested that age discrimination is a real issue, especially to anyone who grows up, has kids, and starts working shorter hours. Somehow, the older folks seem to get replaced by someone who is young. Then, when their contract ends, they’re given a “severance deal” that effectively buys their silence. They’ll only mention the issue of age discrimination in bars far away from any Glassholes wearing Google Glass recording everything.
Still, this view doesn’t jibe with my experiences. Many of the people I’ve met at Google are older and some even sport grey beards. The engineering teams and some of the development teams are run by seasoned veterans with years of experience in the valley. For every 22 year old twerp in the movie, I’ve met some 40-somethings who know a thing or two and work at Google.
Indeed, the founders of Google are now about as old as Vaughn and Wilson. Larry Page turned 40 on March 26th and Sergey Brin joins him on August 21st. Long ago, the founders joked that their first corporate jet was going to be a “party plane” with king-sized beds, but today they are married and live in the suburbs. One equally old Googler told me about how touched he was to have one of the founders roll up to a party in a Honda Odyssey driven by the founder, not a robot. In other words, they were very normal, they just happened to have plenty of money.
This fiction that Silicon Valley is powered by youth is an old game played by Silicon Valley. Almost every startup run by a teenage sensation has a greyhaired venture capitalist pulling the puppet strings. Arthur Rock, Mike Markkula and Andy Grove put up plenty of money to fund Apple Computer but somehow the story was always about Jobs and Wozniak. In most cases, the youth are run ragged on the hamster wheels with stock options dangled in front of them.
It’s a nice story that sells so well that Google and Vince Vaughn decided to repackage it as a movie. The kids do okay. They get fancy meals and decent salaries. But the movie doesn’t want to spend too much time dwelling upon the accuracy of this fiction. Just as Alfred Hitchcock said, “For me, the cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.” This movie takes that aphorism and improves it by making the cake free. If only life were that simple.
Bio: Peter Wayner is the author of more than dozen books and his latest are a history of "Death of a Salesman" and a forward-looking exploration of the impact of the self-driving car.