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Laid-Off Tech Journalist Joins A Start-Up, Finds It's Part Frat, Part Cult

Dan Lyons was in his 50s when he lost his job reporting on the tech industry. He took a job at a start-up, where he was the old guy. His new book is Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble.


Other segments from the episode on April 5, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 5, 2016: Interview with Dan Lyons; Review of Charles Bock's new novel "Alice & Oliver".



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Dan Lyons has reported on and satirized the tech industry. He reported on the industry for Newsweek and Forbes, he wrote the satirical fake Steve Jobs blog and has been a member of the writing team for the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." He was laid off from Newsweek shortly before it discontinued its print edition. Nine months later in April 2013, when he was 52, he took a job in the world he'd long written about and became the marketing fellow at a startup called HubSpot, which sells a marketing software platform designed to help companies attract visitors and turn them into customers. At this startup, Lyons was the old guy, twice the age of many of the people he worked with. He stayed less than two years.

He's written a new memoir called "Disrupted: My Misadventure In The Start-Up Bubble." He describes the book as the story of what it's like to reinvent yourself and start a new career in your 50s in an industry that is by and large hostile to older workers. He also wanted to puncture some of the popular mythology about startups by providing a look inside one. He wasn't expecting the FBI to investigate whether there had been an attempt to prevent his book's publication, but that's a story for later in our interview.

Dan Lyons, welcome to FRESH AIR. So describe the predicament you found yourself in as a suddenly out of work 52-year-old journalist.

DAN LYONS: Well, it's a tough market right now in journalism and the media business. And I, on the one hand, found myself - well, I just was working at Newsweek, so it should be easy for me to get a job. But then you look around and realize, God, there really aren't that many jobs left in journalism and there are fewer and fewer every year. And it was kind of like wasn't just that I had lost my job, it's that my industry was kind of going away, and there were not many jobs. There are some but they're fewer and fewer. So that was the real panic was that not just that I had lost my job but that my entire industry was kind of vanishing.

GROSS: A couple of years before you were laid off from Newsweek - and this was not long before they just basically went under - Newsweek had a cover story back in 2011 headlined "The Beached White Male." And describe what was on the cover and...


LYONS: It was a hilarious cover. It was very controversial. It was a picture of a guy in a business suit face down on a beach, you know, and the wave has just washed him - he's just been washed ashore. And it was a story about how the downturn in 2008 and 9 had disproportionately hit white males in, say, their 40s and 50s - white men of a certain age who had attained sort of high-level jobs got washed out and then found themselves unable to find anything else. And there's this whole generation of guys about my age who found themselves in this terrible predicament sort of shuffling around their houses in bathrooms. They were like zombies.

And I read it at the time and I was gainfully employed at Newsweek thinking, well, that's interesting, but it's not going to be me. And then, yeah, two years later, I got the ax and I thought, oh, my God, I've become a beached white male, you know? I'm that guy.

GROSS: And, you know, journalism wasn't likely to have a lot of opportunities for you 'cause so many journalistic organizations have been downsizing. People have been taking buyouts, you know, the staffs are shrinking. So you turned to the tech industry. Why did you decide to make that kind of turn?

LYONS: Well, I had been covering tech for my whole career. I was a technology reporter. And I think everybody who covers tech at some point or another feels like a little kid with their face pressed against the glass looking in at the candy shop and going, wow, it looks so cool and so much fun. And you see all these people that you cover and you get to know them because you have relationships with them and they're all becoming wildly rich and just having the time of their lives. And so I think most of us who cover tech at some point dabble with the idea of what it would be like to go work at one of these companies. And a lot of people do actually cross over. It's not unheard of. It's the akin to being, like, a sportswriter covering pro baseball but you know, in that case, you can never - you're never going to play for the Yankees. You just can't do it.

But in tech, you could do it. You know, there are people who do things in tech that have the same skill sets that journalists have. They write, they edit, they put out press releases. So I've had a lot of friends over the years who have crossed over. One was a woman back in the '80s. She and I went to Microsoft together on a story - came back, wrote a big package of stories for this computer trade magazine we worked for. And then she turned right around and flew right back out and got a job at Microsoft in, say, 1988 and by the late '90s was retired. And so you hear - you know, you know people like that who have done this and you think, why am I not doing this? Why am I not getting in on this?

GROSS: So in addition to the thought of maybe I'll get rich, what were some of the things that you thought would be cool about working in the tech industry? When you had your nose pressed against the glass, what were some of the things you saw that you thought, I'd like to do that?

LYONS: Well, there's a lot of energy. There's a lot of people having fun. The companies are growing. I remember thinking when I first took this job that this is the first job I've had in about 10 years where I'm working at a company that's actually getting bigger every year rather than getting smaller every year. And, you know, there's a kind of depression that sets in institutionally at big magazines and media companies where it's - you're just kind of waiting for next year and the next round of layoffs and downsizing and you're going to lose some friends who take a package. It was just great to be at a place that's booming, that's growing, that's adding people.

And also, there's a sense in the media business - and I share this sentiment - that technology is really reshaping the media business. And I kind of thought, I want to get in on that. I want to get in on how the media business is changing, how people are telling stories in new ways. And the tech guys, in many ways, are doing a better job of that. Microsoft has a thing called Microsoft Stories now that is really a phenomenal publication, and it just happens to be funded by Microsoft. So there's that too. You realize that if you're in the media business, technology is fundamentally what's driving the change in that business. And so I thought it would be a way to learn that.

GROSS: OK, so you - and you really needed a job because your wife had left her job because of chronic migraines, you had two twins that were about to turn 7, you needed health insurance, you needed a job. And so you got a job at a marketing tech company in Boston near where you lived. And you were going to be the marketing fellow. So describe, like, what the company did and what your job within that company was going to be.

LYONS: It's a software company. They make software that's delivered over the cloud. So you don't actually buy the software in a package and install it on your computer. You just get a subscription and you use the computer on the cloud - on Internet service. So it's Internet-delivered software. And it's aimed at marketing people, so it helps you find customers. You can send email, you can write blog post, you can track who's visiting your website and then contact those people. So it's essentially software that helps companies find customers by sending email or writing blog posts. It's software for marketing people.

And my job was going to be to help sort of build brand awareness by writing articles that would make people in the industry - or potential customers - aware of this company and their offerings not really by touting their products but just by writing articles that people would find interesting and then they would see that that article had been brought to them or sponsored by this company and somehow build a link in their minds that they should start thinking about buying this software.

GROSS: Is that what you ended up doing?

LYONS: Not really. I ended up being put in a room they called the content factory and just told to sort of crank out blog posts that would generate leads. And so yes and no in terms of whether it's what I ended up doing. I think what I ended up doing was very low-level blog posts that were - for example, I might write a blog post that says, what is HTML? And it just explains a primer of what HTML is. And then you hope that Google will surface that article. When someone does a search, what is HTML? They'll find that article. They'll click through to it and then at the end of it, they might click another button that says click here to learn more about our software. So it was very low-level kind of how-to information. It wasn't very fun to write.

GROSS: So you were in your early 50s. You join this, you know, startup. Can I call it a startup?

LYONS: Yeah.

GROSS: And the staff is - what? - mostly in their 20s and 30s?

LYONS: Average age was 26, a lot of people right out of college, a smaller number of people in their 30s. And then the people in their '30s were really the grown-ups. Very few in their 40s. I think I was the only one in their 50s, and there was one guy who was older than me. He was in his 60s. But, yeah, very, very much a culture of people all in their '20s.

GROSS: And that was uncomfortable for you. So what made you most uncomfortable about that?

LYONS: Well, it wasn't uncomfortable at first. At first, I actually really liked it 'cause I thought it reminded me of a place where I worked right out of college at a computer trade magazine where I was right out of college and everybody else was. And we had a blast. And we were - our magazine was growing and booming and it was very exciting and we had a lot of new ideas and we had a lot of fun. And at first, I really liked it. I didn't realize the company skewed so young. I thought there would be a greater diversity of people.

It's just hard to fit in sometimes when you have, you know - if you're married, you have kids and you want to go home and you don't want to build your life around a company. You don't want to go to parties, you don't want to go kayaking or do team-building exercises. But I don't think the age thing was so much of an issue. I sort of really learned a lot and enjoyed working with young people. I just think it would have been more fun to have a few people my age around.

GROSS: So can you remember back when you were working for that magazine -or the publication - and everybody was really young, including you when you were right out of college, what did you think then of people who were 52 (laughter)?

LYONS: Oh, I thought they were ancient, you know? That's the thing. I remember exactly being that age. And I remember thinking, go, just leave, you know? And then I (laughter) - then I'd become that guy, right? I've become the grumpy old man kind of thing, yeah.

GROSS: Did you feel like you were seen as the grumpy old man or that you were becoming the grumpy old man?

LYONS: Yeah, I think - it was funny, people - like, when I first started, people would, you know, when you come to a doorway and you're going out and someone else is going in, they were very nice kids. And a lot of them would hold the door and call me sir. They'd be like, oh, Sir, please, you go first.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONS: It was kind of like - and I was like (laughter) you know what I mean? Like, oh, - they almost looked like they saw a ghost, you know, like, oh, my parents are here, you know? And so that was awkward. But, no, I didn't feel like a grumpy old man. There were little sort of comments a lot all the time about - I think just - I never felt old before this.

GROSS: So one of the things that seemed to bother you was, like, language differences like, you know, expressions that were used, too many exclamation points (laughter)...

LYONS: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: ...In emails. Talk a little bit about what you saw as the language differences between what you were used to as a journalist and as someone who was 52 and a lot of the writing and emails and texts that you were getting.

LYONS: Yeah, and I think that's not so much a generational thing as it is sort of a cultural thing. I think journalists tend to be very skeptical and cynical and we kind of have a dark sense of humor. And we also don't like jargon. We sort of see jargon and it makes our skin crawl. And we see it as our mission in life to sort of undo jargon and put it back into English. And in a world of marketing, it's kind of the opposite. You're the ones making the jargon and embracing it and promoting it.

GROSS: So what's an example of the kind of jargon that really irritated you?

LYONS: Well, there's two. One is a word called delightion (ph), which was like a made up word which they would use a lot very seriously without any irony. Like, we engage in delightion (ph), which really meant delighting your customers, making them happy, doing anything you can to make the customers love your product and have a great experience. They would talk about delightion (ph). And, yeah, that kind of makes your skin crawl, I think, when you are someone who works with words.

There's another one they came up with which was this expression, one plus one equals three. That, you know, our software is so magical that one plus one equals three. And then they would use that as kind of an adjective. Like, you'd say, well, how about if we try this? And they'd be like, I like that idea, but it's not one-plus-one-equals-three enough. And I was like, what does that even mean? It doesn't really mean anything. And - but it was just, yeah - there were lots of terms that were just - there was like its own language. The company had kind of its own language and its own words for everything. And a lot of it was about obfuscation and euphemizing things that were sometimes unsavory.

GROSS: So when you became a part of what's called, like, corporate journalism, did you fear that you were part of the problem now blurring the line between journalism and marketing or between journalism and advertising?

LYONS: Absolutely, it was really, really uncomfortable. And I had - yeah - I had - I didn't feel good about it. And I rationalized and said, well, this'll be OK and it's - I'm still going to be doing something legitimate or worthwhile. But it - that was a rationalization. There are some examples of corporate journalism that I think are good and respectable and people are doing a good job. And some of them are run by friends of mine, and I like what they're doing. But in the particular situation that I found myself in, no. There was nothing really legitimate about it. It was just a sellout, and that didn't make me happy.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Lyons. He's written a new memoir called "Disrupted: My Misadventure In The Start-Up Bubble." And it's about how after he was laid off from Newsweek, he joined a tech startup, and it didn't work out how he hoped.


GROSS: And he's written for the past two seasons of "Silicon Valley." That's season two and season three. Season three's the one that's about to actually start on HBO. So we're going to take a short break, then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Lyons, who covered the tech industry for Forbes and then for Newsweek. When he was laid off from Newsweek at the age of 52, he decided to cross over and work for a tech startup, where he was in the marketing department doing what's often described as corporate journalism. Things did not work out as he planned. His memoir is called "Disrupted: My Misadventures In The Startup Bubble." He's also been a writer for "Silicon Valley," the HBO series, for season two and for season three, the season that's about to start later this month.

You describe the company that you work for as a cross between a frat house and a cult compound.

LYONS: Yeah, the frat house culture was - they had every year on Cinco de Mayo had this big party and brought in all this tequila and Mexican food. And the CEO would run around wearing this giant sombrero and kind of getting loaded. And everybody would just party it up. And there were refrigerators stocked with beer all the time. And people would be at their desk like - people can - a lot of the sales guys would just come to work in shorts and flip-flops and T-shirts and backward baseball hats. And they'd be drinking beer. I mean, there were literally frat guys who had just left college and, like, just continued for them. And this was like a corporate frat house for them. They could go grab a beer, start hitting the phones, calling people. They'd party, you know, at night and stuff in the kitchen. And there'd be a lot of just life that was very much like a frat house. And people literally had just come from frats and sororities. And the cult compound stuff would be - I think the best example that I remember is in training. Ostensibly, you're in training to learn how to use the product. And you do get training on that. But you also get this big dose of how great the company is, how lucky you are to be here, how hard it is to get a job here. It's harder to get a job here than is to get into Harvard. And - but boy, now that you're in, that's just the first step. Now you have to cut it, and most of you aren't going to make it because this place is only the best and the brightest. And then you start learning the language. You start learning all the various kind of language shifts that they use. In a way, that's very much like what cults do. Cults sort of change - they invent their own ways of describing things. If you look at Scientology - it's weird, I was reading Lawrence Wright's book "Going Clear" when I was working here. And it was scary to me to see some of the parallels. And I don't think it's necessarily somebody sits down and plans it out like, let's do what the Scientologists do, but I think they use some of the same techniques. Like, this company isn't just about selling software. This is about changing people's lives. This is about making people better at achieving your goals and conquering fear and, you know, personal empowerment and being the best you can be. So there's a lot of talk about that - sort of the rhetoric about personal growth and how amazing it is. But to get there, you have to buy in and you have to stay on the ladder and keep going up. And so that gets baked in very quickly, right, in training - we're the best and you just buy in. And if you do that, things go really, really well for you.

GROSS: And that works for a lot of people. I mean, that's a good thing for a lot of people, right?

LYONS: It does, yeah. And there are even people who are kind of aware of the cultiness (ph) of it, but they still like it. I had a friend there whose sister - I got to know her pretty well and then I got to know her sister. And her sister was a little bit cynical and would always refer to it as the cult, and so would my friend. She'd be like, yeah, yeah, I've got to go in to the cult tomorrow. But she kind of liked it even though it was - she knew - she was self-aware enough to know what it was like. But she also knew that she liked it, and she fit in, and she had friends there, and she enjoyed it. So yeah, it works for a lot of people.

GROSS: So one of the things on HBO's comedy series, you know, "Silicon Valley," which is set at a startup - it's about startups, and it's about startups seeking venture-capital and going for their IPO. One of the things that's satirized in that series, which you've written for for two seasons, is how this collision of the utopian idealism that everybody preaches in the startups and the cutthroat competition that's actually happening between them - that kind of ruthless competition behind the scenes.

LYONS: Right, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if you've observed that both as a reporter and as somebody who worked in the tech industry?

LYONS: Absolutely. And the funny thing to me is that I think - when I first started covering technology, I was covering places like Intel and Microsoft and Google. But let's say the early, early days - the personal computer guys. They never really talked about having this big mission to change the world or make the world a better place or describing themselves like, you know, Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela. They didn't see themselves that way. They were pretty much - you know, the Microsoft guys especially were just - we're going to build a company, we're going to sell a lot of stuff, we're going to make a lot of money. But ironically, they actually did make things that kind of did change the world. I mean, the microprocessor that Intel invented - that whole family of microprocessors - really did change the world. But I don't think Andy Grove ever talked in that kind of sappy, syrupy way about how he wanted to change the world. Andy Grove wanted to make chips and make money. The new guys, ironically, have much less interesting companies in a lot of ways, and much less meaningful companies, and are making much easier things that aren't really even technically challenging. But they talk a lot about changing the world and being on a mission. And it's almost like there should be a meter. And the more someone - or a company - talks about changing the world and being on a mission, the probably less important their stuff really is. I think they're disproportionately related to each other. So that's what I saw happening from the '90s onward. As the companies became sillier, the rhetoric became more grandiose.

GROSS: My guest is Dan Lyons. His new memoir is called "Disrupted: My Misadventure In The Startup Bubble." After a break, we'll talk about how the FBI investigated whether there was an attempt to prevent his book's publication, and we'll talk about how he became the fake Steve Jobs in a satirical blog. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dan Lyons. His new memoir, "Disrupted: My Misadventure In The Start-up Bubble," is about his experiences in his less than two years working for a tech startup after having covered the tech industry for Forbes and Newsweek.

He was laid off from Newsweek when he was in his early 50s. At the startup, he was considered the old guy. Lyons has also written for the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley," and wrote a popular satirical blog as fake Steve Jobs.

So let me just ask you this point-blank. You say you wrote the memoir to entertain, but since some people at your company probably are wondering about this, did you also want to get even with some of the people who you feel treated you unfairly or didn't understand you?

LYONS: I think I felt pretty hurt when I left - when I first left there. By the time I was writing and rewriting the book, I think I actually had less of that feeling. I kind of feel that people do the best that they can do in whatever circumstance.

So for example, I had a boss who was my friend - or I thought we were friends, we were very close for a while - who then - I think it was basically given to him as a mission to get rid of me by making me unhappy.

And I, at the time, thought, boy, that was a crummy thing to do. Looking back now, I think in a way, he was maybe caught in a bad spot, too, that he had to - he was given the assignment of getting rid of me.

The other thing that happened is when I first sold the book and start to write it, it was meant to be sort of a modern-day "Office Space," which is the other famous Mike Judge project other than "Silicon Valley" and "Beavis and Butthead." But I wanted to write just a funny story about being in a kooky company. It was just a comedy.

And then as I started writing and rewriting, I started doing the thing where you ask yourself, why is it like this? Why are there these kooky cultures and these frat houses and these sort of culty (ph) aspects? And that led me to a much bigger story, I think. And that became much more interesting to me and remains much more interesting to me than whatever kind of things happened at my particular job.

GROSS: So your memoir about your life at a tech startup - your memoir, "Disrupted" - has had one really major unplanned-for consequence, which is that there was an FBI investigation because the company you worked for apparently tried to - correct me if I'm wrong here - get a hold of an advance copy of the book or prevent the book from being published.

And the CMO was fired for violating the company's code of business conduct and ethics in his attempts to get a manuscript of the book before publication, someone else resigned from the company before the company could determine whether to terminate him for similar reasons.

And then a third person, the CEO, was fined for failing to promptly alert the company's board of directors in a timely fashion after finding out about this incident. What was the FBI experience like for you? How did you first find out that this is being investigated?

LYONS: It was so weird. I literally found out when the company put out a press release saying all the things that you just said about a person being fired and the CEO being sanctioned. I had no idea that any of this is was going on, and someone sent me a link to the press release - it was July 29, I think.

And it didn't even say that was my book, but I kind of figured it must be my book unless someone else is also writing a book about the same place. But they didn't explain what they had done. They also said that they had turned everything over to legal authorities or appropriate legal authorities, something like that.

And so shortly after that, I got a call from the FBI, and I went in and I was interviewed by them for about an hour. And they asked me a bunch of questions, but they wouldn't answer any questions of mine because I just wanted to know what happened, what was done.

Did they hack my email? Did they break into my house or what - you know, did they get the book? Because the book, at that point, wasn't finished. It was just a very rough draft. And the FBI and the U.S. attorney would answer any of my questions. They said, well, we know it's frustrating for you, but we can't really tell you what we know.

And that was it. And about a month after I talked to them, they called and told us that well, we're not going to pursue any criminal charges, so just so you know that's - it's all dropped now. I then filed a Freedom of Information Act request, a FOIA request, trying to get any kind of documents that would try to explain what it was.

I also reached out to the company just to ask them, could you guys tell me what these people did? Could - I know some of the board members, and I thought they might just tell me oh, it's X, Y and Z and, you know, you need to get a new router or get new locks on your house or you don't need to do anything that would - you know?

But they - nobody would tell me, so I filed this Freedom of Information Act request. And I found myself back - being like a reporter trying to find what happened, find out - get to the bottom of the story.

And the FOIA documents came back and said that it wasn't about actually trying to get the book, or it wasn't just about that. It was also about trying to extort people and dig up dirt on some people and then manipulate or extort them to try to stop the publication of the book, which was really surprising to me.

GROSS: Do you worry that you'll be seen as somebody too dangerous to be hired? People, I think, on the whole don't like the possibility that someone will write a book about the workplace when they leave and that they'll be a character in that book (laughter).

That maybe something they said that was impolitic in a meeting will be mentioned, or something that wasn't meant as a slight but was taken as a slight will be mentioned and they'll look bad, or things far worse than that. So do you worry that people will be afraid to touch you now?

LYONS: Yes, I do worry. I worry that - that was another concern I had when I thought about whether I should write the book, was what would that mean for my career? And again, I decided that I thought the - some of the points were important enough to make that I would take that chance.

GROSS: My guest is Dan Lyons, author of the new memoir "Disrupted: My Misadventure In The Start-up Bubble." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Dan Lyons. His new memoir, "Disrupted: My Misadventure In The Start-Up Bubble," is about his experience going to work at a tech startup after having covered the tech industry for Forbes and Newsweek.

Let me ask you about the fake Steve Jobs blog that you wrote for a while. It was a satirical blog in which you wrote as if you were Steve Jobs. And you lampooned him and the whole tech industry in that, but, you know, him a lot (laughter). Why did you decide to do it?

LYONS: It was 2000...

GROSS: ...And I should say it was a very popular blog while lasted.

LYONS: It was, yeah. It had - and that was part of the reason I kept doing it, 'cause I thought, wow, for once I've done something and there's actually an audience for it. It was the first time in my life that ever happened, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONS: So I was like, this is great. I didn't expect this to turn into anything - but I had written a couple books that nobody bought or read. It's like, wow. Finally, I'm writing this stupid blog that I did in my spare time, and this of all things gets an audience. Like, why would that happen?

But back in 2006, there was this big push. Blogging was sort of new, and there were these people saying, oh, every CEO should have a blog now. We're all going to be radically transparent, and you won't need to have PR people. Just every CEO will just write a blog and tell the world what's going on at their company. And I remember thinking that is the craziest, stupidest thing ever, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONS: Like, that is - if I worked in PR, that's the last thing I would want, is my crazy CEO writing a blog and showing the world just how awful he really is when he's unfiltered, right?

And the other thing is I was just trying to learn about the - there were three different big blog platforms at the time, and I was really literally just trying to learn how to use blog software because I thought, I'm print journalist. I have to learn how to blog, I have to learn how to use HTML and develop this new skill.

So I wasn't really thinking about the content. I went to shut it down and then it - found out it had an audience. I didn't even know how to put a meter on it. Then I put a meter on it and found out, oh, I have, like, a thousand people reading this and they're all over the world.

So it started off as that, and then it became kind of fun to write satire.

And then it became this weirder thing where I didn't know what to write about, and you needed material, so I started writing about how would Steve Jobs cover news in tech?

Like, there were all these stories happening in tech that I couldn't write about at Forbes because I covered enterprise computing like IBM and Sun and kind of boring, big computer company stuff. So I thought, oh, Steve Jobs could riff on that.

So then he would do it, and sometimes I think I got pretty close to how he would really feel about something. And the more I learned about him, the more I learned what a fascinating character he was. And I think it just started building on itself that way until I got to the point where I thought I should stop and I just couldn't.

It was just so much fun to write, and the audience was so engaged. People would send me ideas every day and they would make up little images for me to use and tell me stories or send me links to some Apple story from a remote part of the world. It became like a comedy show. It was like having your own show, but it wasn't on TV.

GROSS: Did Steve Jobs ever say anything about it?

LYONS: There was a famous summit where he and Bill Gates appeared on stage at a conference together, at a Re/code Conference. And Gates came out, and his opening line was before we begin, I just want to say I'm not fake Steve Jobs. I'm not the one doing that. That was the moment where I knew, like, oh my God, this blog has really made its -

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONS: Bill Gates knows what this is. And the whole audience cracked up. And then Walt Mossberg, who was hosting, said to Steve Jobs, well, yeah, it's funny, but that does raise interest. Do you - are you aware of this blog? And Jobs - sort of, like, through clenched teeth - was like, yes, I am, like, forcing a smile.

And then he said, what do you think of it? He said, oh, I think it's kind of funny sometimes. And he said, well, the guy's got a book coming out. Are you going to read the book? And Jobs said, no.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LYONS: And so I don't think he was entirely amused. I once asked Guy Kawasaki about it 'cause he knew Jobs pretty well. I said, I thought Jobs has a really good sense of humor. And he said, he does, but not when he's the one being made fun of. Like, if he's making fun of you, he has a really good sense of humor.

But I also heard stories from people at Apple saying that Jobs, in an aside to someone, said, I don't know who's writing this thing, but this is kind of scary. Like, sometimes it's psycho how close they are to what I was really thinking about something. So that made me feel good.

Essentially, it was - I was a big fan of his and was - I admired him a lot. And it was almost like an attempt by someone who really likes him to try to be his voice and be him a little bit and virtually. And think - I hope, anyway, that he took it that way.

GROSS: So you shut down the fake Steve Jobs blog when he got sick. You started up again when he seemed to be better after the liver transplant, and then ended it when he got really sick toward the end.

LYONS: Yeah.

GROSS: It must have been awkward for you to know that you were satirizing him as he got sick. And then, you know, obviously you stopped out of respect. But I mean, to know - like, where's the line? Like, when do you stop?

LYONS: Yeah, that was a really interesting question to ask of myself. I mean, where is that line? And I thought - when he first came out looking really gaunt and thin, I thought - and they would say, oh, no, he's just got a cold. He's got the flu. He's fine, he just had a little stomach bug. I kind of just - just, like, my spider sense when I was just like, I'm just - no, that's not that. And I just said, I'm stopping.

Then when he came back, I thought, oh, good, he's back, I'm back, let's come back together. And then it became very - well, I don't know how long I ran then, but it was not too long that it became clear to me that that wasn't really going well, there wasn't a turnaround, 'cause they were trying to say, oh, everything's cool now. I'm fine.

And I just stopped. I just couldn't do it anymore. And I don't know if my timing - if I got it right. I've always wondered if maybe I should have stopped even sooner or not come back or - I don't know.

GROSS: So having covered the tech industry and then worked in it, do you think that age bias is a serious issue? And outside of your own personal experiences, what are some of the things that you think older people are up against either in getting hired or in keeping a job?

LYONS: Well, I think that the tech industry is open about it. There's not even a secret. With racial bias and gender bias, they at least sort of pay lip service to saying well, we're going to do better and we're going to start this initiative and we've put some money over here to create this and that.

But with older workers, they just say, no, we don't really want the older workers. It's fine. And they don't bother to even kind of lie. I think those forms of discrimination all go hand in hand.

GROSS: Do you think that that culture's changing a little bit in the sense that some of the tech founders have aged, some of the venture capitalists have probably aged because the tech industry isn't as new now as it was, say, in the '90s?

LYONS: Yes, and I think - so Mark Zuckerberg once famously said, when he was, like, 20 or 22, young people are just smarter. That was the famous quote, right? And I wonder as Mark Zuckerberg gets to be - I think he's 30 now, but when he gets to be 40 or 50, will he feel differently about that?

You know, the Google guys are now probably well into their 40s. So, yeah, I think as some of these people - the young Turks become the old guard, maybe they start to realize, oh, we could have a greater diversity of workers around here.

GROSS: Do you think that some of the emphasis on being young, too, is kind of drawing the line between people who are digital natives and people who aren't? You know, like, people who grew up with computers and so a lot of things are just second nature to them in a way that older people had to learn from scratch because it was introduced to them. It wasn't something they grew up with.

LYONS: I think there's validity to that. But there's also this - the way it's described is almost like everybody born after 1980 has a gene that the rest of us don't have, that they were with born with this thing that somehow they can understand this.

Now I do know my kids are very good at picking up new things, and they're learning how to code in Python. And I am not a coder at all, but I'm pretty sure I could learn to write code in Python pretty quickly if I had to.

And I think it's not just that. It's people who have been working as coders, as programmers, as engineers who get kicked out when they turn 40 or 45. They have tech skills, they have degrees in computer science. It's not believable to me that they couldn't learn whatever the new programming language is.

Also, they - they've put in those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about to gain expertise in a skill. Why would you not want them? They've learned their skills on someone else's dime, and now you can hire them and get the benefit of all that experience.

So yeah, there's a trade-off in that younger workers maybe are digital natives and they probably have more energy and they don't have spouses and kids, so they're less distracted. But I think there's a real value to the experience and the wisdom and the knowledge that older workers have. And I just don't think we're a genetically different species. I don't think we're a different being than people who were born in 1980 or 1990.

GROSS: Dan Lyons, thank you so much for talking with us.

LYONS: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Dan Lyons' new memoir is called "Disrupted: My Misadventure In The Start-up Bubble."

This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review of Charles Bock's new novel. His 2008 debut novel, "Beautiful Children," delved into the depravities of Las Vegas. It became a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book of the Year. His new novel, "Alice And Oliver," explores the subject painfully closer to home.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: (Reading) There was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well. That fairly familiar line, a mere fleeting perception from "The Great Gatsby," is the bedrock wisdom of Charles Bock's beautiful and harrowing new novel, "Alice And Oliver."

Alice is a new mother in her 20s who, one day, out of the blue, coughs up bloody phlegm, collapses and is diagnosed with leukemia. Oliver is her husband. He's a trooper who hangs onto his job and tends their baby daughter, shaves his head in solidarity when Alice goes through chemo, and braves the hellish maze of health insurance to try to secure the care she needs for survival. But no matter how loving and connected the two of them are, once cancer enters their lives, Alice is the sick one and Oliver isn't.

Bock could've chosen to write this story as an autobiography. As he tells readers in the acknowledgments here, "Alice And Oliver" is based on a real-life nightmare that began in 2009 when his wife, then a young mother, was diagnosed with leukemia. She died two-and-a-half years later.

The novel's source undoubtedly imbues it with authority, but its literary power derives from Bock's elastic language, stretching from his detailed inventories of extreme medical procedures to the lyric melancholy of his descriptions of mood and place.

The novel opens in 1993. Alice, a fashion designer, and Oliver, a software startup entrepreneur, have moved, at his insistence, to an industrial space in the as-yet un-gentrified Meatpacking District in New York.

We're told that the neighborhood's (reading) every daylight hour was dominated by dock thuds and frozen slabs. After dark, rotted zombie addicts held court with leather-collar sex club slaves and transvestite streetwalkers.

Oliver, though, is handy with screwdrivers and power sanders. He transforms the desolate living space into a soaring, ultra-modern loft.

But here's the kicker. After Alice is diagnosed and when she was at her worst, we're privy to this confession. (Reading) When she needed to blame Oliver for something, for anything, she returned to the promise she couldn't forget, high on his list of guarantees - they'd be insulated. The smells from the warehouses, frozen beef and lingering death, wouldn't reach them. But they did.

Bock's elegance as a writer belies his resolute focus on the elemental meatiness of the human body, its many vulnerabilities and humiliations. The novel follows Alice through her course of treatment for leukemia.

Those readers fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with medical terms like induction, consolidation and transplant are thrust into their baroque and brutal realities as Alice sheds hair and skin and even the energy to hold a thought. And always, on the other side of the sick and well dividing line, stands Oliver, guilty and oftentimes just itching to escape hospital world.

Early on in their ordeal, we're told that when relief arrives in the form of Alice's mother, (reading) the clock started eating into Oliver's holy and awaited break time. He'd hightail it out, grabbing a chicken sandwich from a sports bar or some sad Chinese lunch from a buffet table of greased food rotting beneath heat lamps. Over-processed, grease-fire-charred garbage - his official coping mechanism. He made sure to binge away from the hospital. He wouldn't let her see anything that might cause her faith in him to waver.

But as the months of torment drag on, Oliver's binges grow more varied and reckless. Bock is unflinching here in his depiction of failures of the body and the spirit. "Alice And Oliver" is both haunting and raw, a rare novel about, in this case, cancer that doesn't try to find meaning in serious illness, but rather gives its random malevolence its full due.

: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Alice And Oliver" by Charles Bock.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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