‘Chaos Monkeys’, Startups, and Organizational Change

How not to lead change at your institution.

August 21, 2016

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcia Martinez

Published in June of 2106.

"Chaos Monkey is a software tool that was developed by Netflix engineers to test the resiliency and recoverability of their Amazon Web Services (AWS). The software simulates failures of instances of services running within Auto Scaling Groups (ASG) by shutting down one or more of the virtual machines."  Definition from a Google search.

The real chaos monkey of Antonio Garcia Martinez’s engrossing Silicon Valley tell-all is not a software tool, but the author. Martinez plows a path of destruction through a series of personal and professional relationships after dropping out of a Ph.D. program in physics at Berkeley.  In a few short years, Martinez gets a job at Goldman Sachs, joins one startup (Adchemy), co-founds another startup (AdGrok), sells his startup to Twitter, fathers two children out-of-wedlock, and gets and loses a job at Facebook.

The fact that Martinez comes across as a toxic human being should not dissuade you from reading Chaos Monkeys.  It may be that only someone with little understanding of how to develop and maintain relationships can write an honest history of their career, and the industry in which that career progressed.

This is the first memoir to come out of Silicon Valley that I know of where the author is not trying to ensure some future advantage. Martinez’s willingness to burn every bridge certainly makes for entertaining reading - although the veracity of his observations are often difficult to judge.

Chaos Monkeys does a few things very well. First, you will learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the world of online advertising.  You may think that you already understand the business and technology underpinnings of the free (ad-supported) internet (I did), but the real story is more complicated and interesting than you probably realize.

Next, Chaos Monkeys provides a good window into the life of a startup founder.  Some of the best chapters in the book take place in around the orbit of the startup incubator Y Combinator. (Martinez’s startup AdGrok was one of the companies that Y Combinator funded in 2010). Every time that I read about Y Combinator I wonder how those of us in higher ed can replicate the best of features of Y Combinator. Those of us with an edtech startup itch may find the description of how startups are actually funded (and founders navigate the world of angel and VC investors) both illuminating and depressing.

Finally, even if you have no interest in starting or joining a startup, I recommend investing the time to read Chaos Monkeys for the lessons that the book provides about big company organizational culture  Most of the action of the Chaos Monkeys takes place while Martinez was a product manager (in charge of ads targeting) for the Facebook. Martinez basically provides a step-by-step guide about what not to do if you want to lead organizational change. Having a vision of the future of the organization - even if your vision represents the correct and righteous - provides zero guarantee that you will be able get others to follow you.

All of us seem invested in telling our students, our colleagues, and ourselves that we should be willing to take risks - go against the conventional wisdom - and not be afraid to stay true to our vision. The people who actually follow through on this strategy are almost always difficult and exhausting to work with.  When they are successful they can move organizational cultures, but my sense is that they are seldom effective champions of organizational change.  Our colleges and universities probably would benefit from more people with temperaments akin to chaos monkeys, although I’m confident (and more than a little worried) that the postsecondary immune system would reject these folks as quickly as Facebook rejected Martinez.

What other books about the business of technology do you recommend?

Do we have any higher ed books in the mold of Chaos Monkeys?

Can you imagine someone from our edtech world writing a book like Chaos Monkeys?

What are you reading?



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