So I recently caught up to Halt and Catch Fire. It is an old show, i.e. 2014–17. I usually stay away from those, especially when I have not heard about them through the social grapevine. I started watching one episode and then I watched another and then I found myself hooked. Apparently, it seems this show was a bit of a hit but just flew under the radar for a while. Perhaps because this was an AMC show and TV show market on Netflix and other streaming services really never gained mainstream status, until at least 2017–18. The show is four seasons long. The fourth season is my favorite and left an indelible mark on me. Hence my itch to jot some of my thoughts here.
Halt and Catch Fire roughly spans three decades of the hi-tech boom era from the mid-seventies to the early 2000s, supported with perfect art direction and performances. It covers the struggles and triumphs, both personal and professional, of a few individuals going through this incredible period. These characters are riding the cutting edge of what was happening in the industry at the time. They are not shown to work at early big wigs like Apple or Microsoft. They are shown to be trailblazing with their own small businesses as “second-tier” innovators and niche players, who just get acquired by bigger fish, fizzle out and move on to the next thing. The products and services showed are cutting edge, but not mainstream and the VCs and deal-maker are represented are the early “play-makers”.
You see, I believe, all those characters were meant to represent a “generic somebody”, a cumulative sum of all those folks who really wanted to build something new, be part of something new and be successful. And yes, make money.
But along the way, their struggles with the product-market fit, time to market, pricing, negotiations, the balance of perfection vs feasibility, deal-making, acquisitions, exits, career transitions, etc. are so beautifully portrayed. These portrayals are just so indicative of what so many of those people would have experienced at the time, with similar trials-by-fire, hit and misses, and successes, ranging at many levels. In a few episodes, they use the word “Land grab” which is so aptly used as it akin to the Land rush of the 1800s where you had to race to be the first to put a stake in the piece of land you like. And now we know that the companies and pioneers who were the first to do novel things, tough crazy innovations timed to near perfection, from the 70s through to the onset of the Internet, are now ruling this industry and laid the foundation for most of it.
On the personal side of things, the series also shows us numerous examples of hiccups and fluctuations in relationships, personal journies to maturity, burnouts and ambitions leading to breakups and divorces, irreparable mistakes leading to suicides yet self-realization by some people that it was time to hang their boots.
Again, to me, these personal situations, trials and tribulations, summed up for me really well as the journies all those of us engaged in the tech sector, have gone through or are going through. The gist of it all was that cost of success is the variety of sacrifices we will have to make or will be forced to make.
When hard work and sweat pours into what one is trying to build, one’s bed turns into an office table, the office turns to home. One deprioritizes health and self-care. Family life takes a back seat. When all these things happen, then perhaps you get a successful company. Now try selling, parting with, or sharing that company with others!
But while watching the show, all I could consistently experience was the short but pensive bursts of me imagining how wonderful and exciting those years during the late-70s to pre-dotcom-bust period bust would have been. The businesses around mainframes, the PC wars, the game builders, anticipation of the Web and its potential, and the OS battles. These mini-eras would be nostalgic to some yet legendary fantasy-like tales to others.
Today, we take so much for granted. Millennials will only read out about these things or hear about the legends from the olden folks who, at least made it big in the tail-end of the tech boom and are still around as VCs or retired tech do-gooder evangelists. And at the same time, I wonder what we will wonder about 20 years from now. But more than that I wonder about all those folks who will get us there while making their mark along the way. This sticky nagging feeling sitting with me is one that is a kind of bittersweet anxiety that comes from the realization that I missed something big and I missing something big right now. “Oh, to be one of them, to be on one of those crazy rides, to be one of the many cohorts that are grabbing and executing the bigger pictures, which will change the landscape of our world dramatically in the next 10–20 years”, is a soundbite in my mind on repeat. Even if you manage to get a seat on the second-tier train of cutting-edge innovation, wouldn't that be something? I wonder.