How Fake Steve Jobs lucked into writing for HBO's Silicon Valley

An interview with Dan Lyons

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Dan Lyons' career has taken him strange places, from covering IBM to working with Mike Judge on HBO. Remember Fake Steve Jobs? During his time as Forbes tech editor, Lyons created The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs in 2006, pretty much just as a way of understanding how to blog. It was funny and insightful, and it got people to pay attention. Pretty soon the site was earning 1.5 million visitors a month.

To this day, the site remains one of Lyons’ best-known achievements. He’s since written for places like Valleywag and ReadWrite, and is a minor celebrity in the bubble that is tech media. It even landed him a writing gig on Silicon Valley, whose second season finale airs on Sunday. Lyons insists the whole thing was just a crazy accident, though — yet another happy circumstance in a life spent just trying things out.

Lyons is currently in the middle of writing a book titled Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble, which sounds like the next natural leap from working on TV. I spoke with Lyons this week ahead of Sunday’s finale to ask how he wound up at HBO, his new book, and what it’s like being the real Fake Steve Jobs.

How did you end up in the job?

In 2010, I had a novel about my Fake Steve blog, and the novel was called Options, and I sold the rights to the book to a company called Media Rights Capital in LA. They teamed me up with a guy named Larry Charles who had worked on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld, and we created a show called Icon, which we shopped around and sold to the Epix cable network. Then we spent the next 18 months writing scripts, but then in the end Epix decided not to make any shows.

Then, when Silicon Valley was picked up by HBO, the original showrunners left the show right after the pilot was made. HBO brought in this other guy named Alec Berg. Alec had worked on Curb and on Seinfeld, so he went way back with Larry Charles, and Larry said to him, "Oh, you should talk to Dan." He showed Alec some of my old scripts and said, "This guy really knows Silicon Valley really well." [So] I get this call from my agent, saying, "Completely weird thing, but HBO just called and asked if you would come work on a show for the summer?"

The thing that's always struck me about it was that I was really heartbroken in 2010 when the Icon show got dropped. I just was kind of crushed, but then weirdly enough something good came out of it. It was one of those stories when people say you never know where things are taking you.

Speaking of you knowing a lot about how Silicon Valley works, how did you wind up becoming Fake Steve Jobs?

Well, here's the thing. I wouldn't say that I know a lot about Silicon Valley. I live in Boston, for one thing. And I don't live and breathe this stuff the way most of the guys out there do. I was working at Forbes, and I covered big enterprise companies — IBM, Sun, and EMC — and it was kind of boring. Forbes only came out every other week, so it was not the most fast-paced job in the world. It was very nice, comfortable.

I wanted to learn how to blog, so I was playing around with Wordpress and Typepad and Blogger, starting all these different blogs just to learn how these things work. I had a fake Sergey Brin blog, an anonymous, fake Ph.D kind of blog. I did it for like, I don't know, six weeks, and the Steve Jobs one just caught on. I don't know why. I think someone saw it, and passed it on to someone else, and someone else saw it. It was like a practical joke that got out of control. In fact, originally I was working on a novel in my spare time, and I kept thinking, "I'd better drop this stupid blog and get back to my novel." And then I realized it was probably more interesting than the novel. Then the blog became a novel, then it became a TV show, and that TV show led to Silicon Valley. It was just that one random decision to do that one stupid blog [that] led to all these other things.

So could you walk me through a day of you being a staff writer at Silicon Valley?

I learned a lot, but basically... there are 10 writers on the show, but that includes Alec Berg and Mike Judge. So Alec and Mike and then eight writers and a couple of assistants. So you go in every day at like 11, and from 11 to like 6 or 7 we just sat around a big conference table. And we shot the shit all day, and we had whiteboards all over the wall. So usually Alec or Mike, would be up at the whiteboard, break out beats, and be like, "Okay, let's have a storyline" and often you'd spend a whole day and fill up a whiteboard and be like, "Fuck. No," and just erase the whole thing. It was kind of a grueling process. Basically, you just sit there and talk, and Alec might call on you and be like, "Hey, what do you think would happen now?" But more often than not it's just a conversation and you kind of have to jump in. I was the lowest-ranking person. The absolute lowest ranking of the 10 people in the room. You just have to try to get a word in edgewise.

"It was kind of a grueling process."

Alec would finally feel like he had an episode that was broken out sufficiently; he would go write a very detailed outline of that episode, and he would run it by HBO, and they’d send back notes; we'd go over it together; he'd do another draft; then he'd send it back to HBO, get notes from them, then have a finished outline draft. And then, since there were 10 of us on the show, we each got one writing credit. So I got episode 8. Just like "Here, take the outline, go put this in script format. You can tinker around with it if you want." I wasn't gonna mess with Alec Berg's work. He’s forgotten more about screenwriting then I'll ever know. And then they go and shoot it.

So you’re working on a book — what's it about?

I spent a little under two years working at a software company [HubSpot] in Cambridge, as they were ramping up to an IPO and through the IPO. It's a classic place with the foosball tables and the free beer and the dogs and all that shit. My prior stint at Newsweek was a very different world. So it's what it's like to be in one of these kooky software startups as a grown up. It's not entirely pleasant! It's like, "Oh, I don't fit." And I don't know about you, but as a reporter, I used to always cover these places and be like, "Wow, these people seem to be having so much fun. This looks like a blast! So much more fun than being a reporter! You get free food!" But now I'm not sure, I think if you're predisposed to being a journalist you're not really suited to do much else.

What did you study in school? What kind of background lets you bounce around like you have?

I went to a bunch of different colleges. I was kind of a bad student. I bounced around a lot and dropped out and then went back, but I ended up at this place called Bradford College, and my degree was a BA in Liberal Arts.

After that I took an MFA in creative writing at the University of Michigan, and I wanted to be a novelist and teach at university. So I wrote a few books before the Fake Steve thing. I had written one collection of short stories and one novel that both got reviewed okay, but they didn't sell a lot. But that's what I really wanted to be. You know, those guys who teach creative writing and live in some college town. I thought that sounded like a really cool, ideal life. That never worked out.

And all things considered, what is probably the strangest thing you've ever had to do for work?

I first went to college to be a dentist. I was on a six-year dental program at Case Western Reserve, [and I] just completely fucked up. I dropped out, and I came home to Massachusetts, and I didn’t know what to do, so I worked in a textile mill. This place called Malden Mills, just this disgusting textile mill, and I did that for a couple years. And I liked it. I'd fix machinery.

What's your best career advice to wind up where you've been? And where you are now?

The thing I would say is that no one should take career advice from me, because I have fucked up my career in every way. [Laughs.] That's one thing. And on the other hand, I do think the lesson I learned from the Fake Steve thing was there was something I found and I couldn't stop even though I thought I should have. I had people telling me, "You really need to stop before you get caught." I think that was the first time in my life that I found something that was such a passion and was so crazy. I think if you find something like that, my advice to someone now is to just ride that. I wasn't making any money at Fake Steve. It wasn't paying me anything. I tell my kids (I have young kids) to try everything. What the hell? Try lots of different things, you never know what choice in life is the choice you want, and there's nothing wrong with not liking something and going, "Oh, it was worth a try". But I just sort of try to be open to new things. Like with the TV thing. I thought, "Well, at the least it'll be like a free summer vacation for us," and we all went out to LA and had a good time, the kids went out to surf camp. It was fun. So that might be it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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