SPEAKING

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Photo: Kim Cook

Dan Lyons is a novelist, journalist, blogger, and screenwriter whose work centers around technology and its impact on society. His latest book, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble, is a sharp critique of the tech industry, hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “the best book about Silicon Valley today.” Disrupted became an instant New York Times best seller, and was of such concern to his former employer, HubSpot, that executives at the company tried to obtain the manuscript before it was published. They were caught, which led to sanctions, terminations, and an investigation by the FBI. The episode also raised issues about privacy, trust, and online safety.

In recent years Dan has been been a writer on the award-winning HBO comedy series, Silicon Valley. Previously he was editor-in-chief of ReadWrite; technology editor of Newsweek; and a technology reporter at Forbes. Dan also created a blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, from which he developed a critically acclaimed novel, Options.

Dan has written about consumer tech companies (Apple, Google, social media, mobile computing) as well as fusion energy, supercomputers and artificial intelligence. He has been a guest commentator on network and cable TV and been interviewed by Terry Gross for the NPR show, Fresh Air. His work has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired, the New Yorker, and many other publications. His three works of fiction are: Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs,  a satire about Silicon Valley that was published to critical acclaim; Dog Days (a novel) and The Last Good Man (an award-winning collection of short stories).

 

HOW NOT TO WRECK YOUR CORPORATE CULTURE

How do you create a corporate culture that really works? Dan Lyons is a veteran business journalist (Forbes, Newsweek) and a writer on HBO’s comedy series, “Silicon Valley.” He spent two years working at a software startup and came away with a tale of corporate culture run amok, which he recounts in his hilarious and insightful best-selling memoir, “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” which management guru Tom Peters (“In Search of Excellence”) hailed as “a fine, important work,” and the Los Angeles Times called “the best book about Silicon Valley today.”

The company where Lyons worked was run by MIT graduates and placed a huge emphasis on culture, with a “Culture Code,” created by one of its co-founders, and a “culture tsar,” a VP whose role was to disseminate the corporate culture throughout the organization. The company had become almost a parody of a hip, cool, new-economy organization: dogs in the office, bean bag chairs in conference rooms, free beer, foosball tables, a video game arcade, huge parties, a nap room, standing desks and walking meetings. Despite this, the company still had problems, including high workforce turnover and sagging morale.

Organizations are recognizing the impact and importance of culture. But many are going about it all wrong, by focusing too much on the superficial trappings of “culture” while failing to do the deeper, more difficult work of building a healthy environment and sustainable business. Lyons draws on his personal experience as well as references to pop culture and academic research in this sometimes hilarious and ultimately enlightening talk.

DISRUPTED: STARTING OVER IN YOUR FIFTIES

What happens when you’re 50-something years old and get dumped from your job? How do you start over? Journalist, novelist and satirist Dan Lyons was at the top of his game, working as the technology editor of Newsweek, with a big salary and loads of perks — until one day in 2012, without warning, his boss told him his job no longer existed. At age 51, Dan joined hundreds of thousands of people whose careers were wiped out by the Great Recession. In this talk, Dan, a master storyteller, describes his journey of reinvention, which begins with a disastrous stint at a software startup (where he was twice the age of the average employee) and ends with him landing a plum job in Hollywood and publishing a best-selling memoir, “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble.”

This is also a story about how work itself is changing. We are living in a period of unprecedented economic disruption in which entire industries are being transformed by technology. Older workers find themselves caught in this transition, and all too often are unprepared for the realities of the new economy. People like Dan, who entered the workforce in the 20th century did so with certain expectations about what work meant and what a career should look like — jobs for life, a pension. But everything has changed. Companies now expect employees to serve a “tour of duty” that may last only two years. How do older workers adapt to this? How do they save for retirement? For that matter, how must companies — and in particular, HR departments — change to accommodate a new kind of workforce where people plug in and plug out of companies after only one or two years?

How can we all overcome the bias against older workers and the belief that, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once said, “Young people are just smarter”? How can generations work together in a “blended” workforce? What are the implications for society when people are living longer but being “aged out” of work at age 40 or 50? At times laugh-out-loud funny, but at other times poignant and heartfelt, the story Dan tells in “Disrupted” will leave you moved, entertained, and thinking a bit more deeply about age, work, and the skills you need to survive in the new economy.

 

ARE SILICON VALLEY UNICORNS THE NEXT ‘BIG SHORT’?

In 2013 there were 39 Silicon Valley startups valued at more than $1 billion, and a VC famously dubbed them “unicorns,” because these beasts were so rare. By 2015, 89 unicorns roamed the Valley, and by January 2016 their ranks had swollen to 229 — and suddenly people in Silicon Valley were warning of imminent disaster and a potential time bomb for our economy. How did this happen? How did Silicon Valley find itself creating a second dotcom bubble even as most of the country was still digging itself out of the wreckage of the first one?

Veteran technology journalist Dan Lyons spent two years embedded inside a “unicorn” software startup during the run-up to its successful IPO, a deal that enriched its founders and investors despite never turning a profit. Lyons emerged with an insider’s view of how the bubble happened, which he chronicled in a riveting, best-selling exposé, “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” which management guru Tom Peters (“In Search of Excellence”) hailed as “a fine, important work,” and the Los Angeles Times called “the best book about Silicon Valley today.” “Disrupted” has also been compared to the work of Michael Lewis, author of “Liar’s Poker” and “The Big Short.”

In a tale that is both entertaining and terrifying, Lyons, a former investigative journalist at Forbes and Newsweek, draws on interviews with key players in Silicon Valley as well as his own experience working inside a unicorn. He describes the forces that shaped the new bubble, staring with a new breed of venture capitalists and founders who have created a model in which insiders can generate wealth with companies that never turn a profit. Silicon Valley power players have even coopted the U.S. government as an unwitting accomplice in a model that Lyons calls “Grow fast, lose money, go public, get rich.” Pension funds, college endowments, mutual funds and mom-and-pop investors are all exposed to this risk. Just as with the housing crisis of the 2000s, nobody, not even the people whose overly optimistic investments have created the bubble, knows how much money is at risk or how much damage will be left behind.

 

START-UP MYTHS

What’s it like to work at a fast-growing high-tech “unicorn” startup? Most of what you read in the tech press makes startup life sound like a blast — foosball, free beer, lots of parties, and then everyone gets rich. A kind of mythology has sprung up around startups centered on the figure of the heroic entrepreneur who takes huge risks and changes the world. Dan Lyons believed every bit of that, until he spent two years working at a software startup while the company was ramping up for a billion-dollar IPO, and came away shocked and disillusioned by what he learned. That experience became the foundation of his riotously entertaining best-seller, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, and also forms the basis of this smart but funny talk, where Dan punctures the myths about startup life and offers insight into the way Silicon Valley companies have changed the way we work. Do Millennials really care more about mission than about money? Do they really have all the answers? What’s it like to work in one of these places?