Broken lives, tragic deaths, and the sins of Silicon Valley
Behind every tech company scandal is a group of ambitious women working to make it go away by any means necessary.
The following is an excerpt from my new book “Valley Girls,” a true-to-life novel about the hidden machinations of Silicon Valley.
This was the perfect opportunity for a selfie.
The California morning light filtered through the glass walls of the magnificent lobby where Kelsey Pace was seated patiently. It was the nervous young woman’s first day as a communication manager at Elemynt, the hugely popular social media app and one of the hottest tech companies in Silicon Valley.
Since it was founded eight years prior by tech industry icon Troy McCray, Elemynt had become a household name with tons of users around the globe. The exquisitely modern décor of the company’s headquarters was the perfect reflection of the millions of beautiful photos posted every day to the platform. The possibly hundreds of photos Kelsey saw daily were a fraction of the astounding total on the app.
The range of people who used Elemynt was truly remarkable. The best celebrities and influencers with millions of followers each shared glamorous images with adoring fans. One follow of an Elemynt account and Kelsey could see photos of fantastic architecture in Paris or chefs in New York City creating gourmet meals from scratch. The President of the United States regularly posted messages from the White House. Even the Pope shared daily prayers to his official account. It was amazing to witness one app uniting the world.
Pretty much everyone was on Elemynt. It was more of a curiosity for someone to not be on the app. The platform included the option for people to keep their profile in private mode so that users were required to request to see the account’s posts. A lot of people took advantage of that. But to have no profile at all was just plain weird.
Kelsey checked herself out in the camera of her phone. She adjusted her natural blond locks and double-checked her lipstick and lashes. Kelsey’s role as a public relations professional was to help companies define their image. In her field, how she presented herself was equally important. If there was ever a time to be on point, this was it.
The new recruit would soon meet with her manager Jonathan Sykes, the vice president of communications at Elemynt. They were set to have a quick welcome chat over coffee before the start of her new hire orientation. The meeting was the first stop in the exhilarating day to come.
Kelsey and her friends always shared photos of themselves in the coolest moments of their lives. Whether it was a night out with the girls or a landmark moment in her career, if Kelsey saw an opportunity to seize a captivating photo, she took it. As a woman who loved seeing and doing new things, she was contributing to the awesomeness of the platform in her own unique way.
Kelsey’s thousands of followers were rooting for her and her brand-new position. It still hadn’t sunk in that she was actually working for the company that she and countless others adored. She was nearly bursting inside with happiness. Kelsey had to share the experience right as it was happening.
The Elemynt app gave users the option to add a caption of up to 500 words and one #hashtag of their choice. Lots of space for Kelsey to write about how her dreams were coming true. How she could possibly encapsulate in words the thrill in her heart would be an unexpected challenge. Also, she needed to get her first photo just right.
Kelsey looked around the gorgeous lobby for inspiration. The extra-friendly receptionists behind the wide marble front desk said a cheery “good morning” to the employees trickling in, ready for the day’s work. A security guard stationed near the glass doors that separated the lobby from the wonderful world on the other side watched as they swiped their badges at the card reader. The temporary badge bestowed upon Kelsey was draped close to her chest. The lobby that was full of color and life made for a sensational background.
Kelsey positioned the camera at the perfect angle and snapped several photos, one right after the other. The newbie smiled more brightly with each snap, overjoyed that the resulting post would be the first representation of her new journey.
Right as Kelsey was deciding which of her pictures she wanted to share, the front door of the lobby swung open with a jolting crash. A horde of reporters and cameramen burst into the room barreling toward the startled professional like a runaway high-speed train. The mass of people jammed every inch of the once peaceful lobby. They spoke loudly over each other and angled microphones and recording devices while photographers darted around in a snapping frenzy. Kelsey shot straight out of her seat in a panic. Her mind raced thinking of whether they were there for her or if she had done something wrong. Kelsey was on the Comms team, but it was impossible that she would be the target of their attention. The receptionists too were unsettled by the abrupt intrusion. Kelsey instinctively began thinking about what to say when the unruly group reached the seating area she occupied alone.
As the crowd of media types forced their way into the space, Kelsey noticed that they were not headed in her direction. Instead, they swarmed around a tall bearded man doing his best to reach the reception desk. Reporters hustled around him, shouting questions and feverishly jotting down notes. The throng of photographers jostled for closer proximity to their subject.
At the opposite end of the room, the glass door leading to the Elemynt campus glided open. An ombré-haired, twenty-something woman in a blazer and audacious high heels approached Kelsey.
“What a circus, right?” she chuckled.
Kelsey recognized the woman as Sarah Fields, her new colleague on the External Communications team. The two met during Kelsey’s lengthy interview process and got along right off the bat. Sarah’s porcelain skin was made more radiant by the camera flashes of nearby paparazzi. Her impeccably manicured eyebrows raised in delight as she greeted Kelsey.
“Is this… did I come at a bad time?” Kelsey asked, still shaken from the unexpected ordeal.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Sarah said in amusement. “That’s the president of Turkey. Anyway, we have bigger issues right now. Ready to go?”
Kelsey barely had time to scoop up her purse before Sarah caught her by the arm to take her away from the commotion. With Sarah in the lead, they powered through the room, wading through the cacophony of cameras.
The two flashed their badges at the smiling security guard and swiftly crossed the threshold toward the employee-only area of the building.
The selfie would have to wait.
Sarah and Kelsey raced past the labyrinth of glass walls that populated the interior landscape of the buildings. A kaleidoscopic sequence of artwork in primary hues framed rows of faces working diligently at their craft. Brilliant minds pored over digital displays packed with green and purple lines of code. The employees of Elemynt scribbled complex theorems on whiteboards and hunched over laptops personalized with assorted stickers. Those who weren’t at their desk moved swiftly from one colorfully furnished meeting room to the other. Kelsey took in as much of the office environment as possible in their sprint toward a destination unknown to her. Sarah’s windswept hair served as a beacon for Kelsey to follow through the endless corridors. Kelsey ran half-marathons before but never through a stream of highly-populated office buildings.
“Are we going to meet Jon?” Kelsey asked between breaths.
“You should know our boss is a world traveler,” Sarah said. “He’s rarely at headquarters because he’s always flying to other Elemynt offices to develop communication strategies for different markets. He should be here later this afternoon, I think.”
“So, where are we going?” Kelsey asked.
“The Bunker,” Sarah replied as if Kelsey knew what she was referring to.
Sarah made a swift left, then another, and came to a sudden stop in front of an unmarked door. She wiped away the lone bead of sweat that formed on her brow. Kelsey’s composed colleague held her employee badge to a reader by the door handle and knocked twice. Together, they entered a dark room illuminated solely by the glow of computer screens and television monitors.
Kelsey’s eyes adjusted to the activity happening under the cover of darkness. She found herself in a compact, windowless room with twenty monitors arranged on a wall lined with sound-proof material. About a dozen people were positioned at workstations that, from the labels affixed to them, showed they were monitoring for anomalies on the platform, including downtime, latency, and DDOS attacks. Additional monitors cycled in live video feeds of various corners of the Elemynt campus.
Organized chaos permeated the isolated space. Men typed feverishly at their keyboards and spouted questions at each other in technical terms Kelsey did not recognize. All hands were on deck for the Elemynt employees who furiously attempted to solve some urgent problem.
Sarah took the covert operations in stride. Kelsey, on the other hand, tried her best not to show how startled she was by the sensory overload packed into the dim room. Her heart thumped wildly.
The deep baritone voice of a man at the center of the room cut through the din.
“Do we have an approximate location?” he yelled.
The man’s lacquered ebony complexion was silhouetted by the monitor before him. The furrowed contours of his face were more clearly defined when he drew closer to the moving digital map that captured his attention.
Sarah hovered over the man’s shoulder. “Please tell me this isn’t going to get out to the media. One wrong move and I’m dealing with questions from reporters all day. I’d like to spare us from having a conversation with the executive team explaining why Elemynt is on every news site and cable TV news channel.”
“That won’t happen if I can help it,” the man said without taking his eyes off his work.
Sarah returned her attention to a very confused Kelsey. “This is Leon, our vice president of Global Security. He’s the lead on efforts like making sure company data stays secure or going after people trying to take down the app for whatever reason. He’s got his own C.I.A. in here. And a whole squad of security officers on and off-campus.”
Kelsey did her best to remember as much of the rapid-fire information as she could.
“Triangulating his position!” someone called from the corner.
Leon gestured toward his team. “We make situations go away before they become major problems. Are you going to tell me who this is, Sarah? Another problem for me to deal with?”
“Kelsey is the latest addition to the External Comms team and my newest colleague,” Sarah said proudly. “It’s her first day here.”
“Shouldn’t she be in orientation?” Leon said, eyeing Kelsey with suspicion.
“Yes, she should but there’s no better way to learn about the company than to see how it works up close and personal. They start with ice breakers anyway so it’s not like she’s missing anything.”
Leon espied the paper badge dangling from Kelsey’s lanyard. “This is the most secure room on the whole campus and you brought a new employee with a temporary badge in here?”
“I’m a jump right in kind of girl,” Kelsey smiled reassuringly. “I promise I’ll get it as soon as possible.”
Sarah finally explained the reason for the ongoing ruckus. “One of the engineers on the mobile development team left a backpack in a bar and, surprise, it was stolen.”
“We’re chasing after a bag?” Kelsey asked.
“No, the company property in it,” Leon said. “A MacBook laptop, specifically. The employee was working on one of our confidential new products and we think whoever stole it has been targeting other company property for months now. We’re using the GPS embedded in the computer to track its location.”
“There’s no telling what this guy is trying to access,” Sarah said. “New product plans… access to internal accounts. It only takes one stolen file or two and our business plans are in the hands of bad actors or worse, reporters who would write every detail about it the second they got a hold of it.”
Leon returned to his diligent monitoring of the screens, ignoring the presence of the Comms ladies and concentrating on the active hunt for the stolen technology. He hurled directions at his charges in the room.
The role of the External Comms team of which Kelsey was now a member was to build, protect, and maintain the public perception of the company, Sarah explained. A good reputation translated to a strong relationship with the app’s users, which led to more growth and their continued engagement with the platform. A bad reputation resulted in people using the app less and the collapse of everything the company built over the years.
“We want to have as much positive news about the company as possible out there,” Sarah said. “Not whatever this is.”
“The data of hundreds of millions of users is contained in the app,” Leon added. “We need to respect that and keep it safe.”
Kelsey was simultaneously frightened and titillated by the issue at hand. The potential breach was indeed cause for concern. But working for a company that cared extensively about protecting the interests of users made it that much more inspiring. A week before her first day, the rep from Elemynt human resources emailed Kelsey what all new employees received — a large set of digital documents to sign, including several lengthy non-disclosure agreements. They boiled down to two things. We have secrets. Don’t ever share them.
“Leon, I don’t mean to tell you how to do your job,” Sarah said.
“But you will,” he said without looking up.
“We can remotely erase lost employee devices if someone gets a hold of it to keep them from accessing company information. Why don’t we do that?”
“Because we don’t want to lose him,” a husky female voice interrupted.
Kelsey was startled yet again, this time by a woman standing against the rear wall who had been hiding in the shadows of the room. Her shoulder-length hair fell haphazardly around her scrunched face. Her clothing choices — an Elemynt T-shirt and cargo shorts — were slouchy. It was evident from their fadedness that they were overworn staples in her wardrobe. Kelsey guessed that whoever the woman was, she did not spend much time in the public eye.
“We need to keep him on the computer so we can track him,” she said. “If he figures out the computer is wiped, he’s ditching it. We’ll lose him forever.”
Sarah halted her questions for Leon to introduce Tai Zhang, Elemynt’s head of internal communications. Tai’s wardrobe was spartan but her knowledge of the inner workings of the company was deep. She was one of the earliest employees at Elemynt. The quiet force began her career tenure as a securities mobile developer for Android before moving up the ranks to product manager. She was incredibly skilled at translating the company’s mission and goals to engineers who spoke in code. As a result, Troy asked her to lead internal comms for Elemynt.
Sarah, Kelsey, and Tai shared the same goal — to highlight the best of the company. Because of their roles, they accomplished it in two different ways. Tai shaped the messaging for employees about the company’s direction and latest developments. Sarah and Kelsey made use of relationships with journalists to circulate positive stories about Elemynt in the media. What they unfortunately had in common was a potential breach on their hands that could completely upend all of their work. Tai would be left to craft explanations to employees and Sarah would scramble to counteract stories that put the company in a negative light.
Kelsey extended her hand to Tai in a greeting of understanding.
“Sorry, can’t talk right now,” Tai said curtly. “You know with this crisis and all. Making sure we cover our ass? Leon, what’s the latest?”
Kelsey pulled her hand back in surprise. Not the time.
“He’s in Palo Alto!” one of the techs yelled. “We’ve tracked him to a 100-foot radius of Sand Hill Road near El Camino Real.”
“It’s not a residential neighborhood,” another offered. “He can be at any one of the businesses over there.”
“Where are you, dude?” Leon grumbled to himself.
“Hold on, I think I know!” Sarah exclaimed. “There’s a coffee bar over there where the techie people hang out. I go there for my chai lattes. If he’s on that corner, I bet he’s in there.”
“Dispatch one of the Elemynt security officers to that location,” Leon said to his team. “We need to get there before he leaves. And have them get me a live audio feed from their phone too. We’re not letting this guy get away.”
“Patching in to the nearest officer,” a team member confirmed.
The anxious group in the bunker listened to the audio streaming through the bass-heavy speakers affixed to the walls. The sounds of a crowded café filled the space while they stood by helplessly.
How the security officer would find the guy among a restaurant full of Silicon Valley types was beyond Kelsey’s understanding. He needed to do what he could in the abbreviated time he had. It was an urgent matter that needed to be solved immediately to procure the stolen property. Kelsey’s heart raced watching the chase unfold.
“You’re looking for a silver MacBook,” Leon reiterated.
“There’s a hundred people with MacBooks in here,” the male voice on the speakers said under his breath.
“We can’t go through each one,” Leon grumbled. “It’ll tip the guy off and then he’s outta there.”
The teams in the bunker volleyed ideas back and forth in an attempt to nail down a feasible solution.
Kelsey could have hung back in the shadows of the increasingly cramped room. It was her first day at Elemynt and jumping into a crucial conversation was likely not wise. However, Kelsey was not the type to fade into the background when there was a solution she had a strong gut feeling would work.
Kelsey spoke up over the mounting back and forth. “Leon, do you have a photo of the laptop that was stolen?”
“Employees at Elemynt all get the same laptop,” Tai responded tartly.
“Completely understand that…” Kelsey said. “but if the guy had a sticker on it you’ll know which one is his. That’ll make it easier to find.”
The lightbulb went off in Leon’s head. “Somebody get me archived video from the employee’s desk ASAP! See if we can get an image of the top of his computer.”
In less than a minute, one of the men on the Security team posted an image of the employee’s desk on one of the largest screens in the bunker.
“You’re looking for a MacBook with an Iron Man sticker!” the employee yelled.
“Roger that,” the security officer on the phone replied.
Heavy footsteps and the trudge of moving chairs could be heard as the officer wound his way through the table in search of the branded laptop.
“I have a visual!” he said through the speaker.
There was a panicked rush as the officer hurried through the noisy café. It was now or never for him to get the stolen laptop back. He came to an abrupt stop. Kelsey held her breath.
“Sir, you are in possession of stolen property,” he could be heard saying. “Release it or we will call the authorities.”
The voice of a stuttering young man in search of an explanation was followed by the sound of panicked running, the gasping of café patrons, and a slam of the front door. Radio silence filled the room when there should have been an update.
“Did we get it?” Leon asked with excitement in his voice.
There was no response.