Silicon Valley: With Swords & Shields

11 Jun 2024

The Gladiator

Table of contents

  • Introduction
  • Silicon valley. A modern day colosseum.

Chapter 1

  • Crushing the rebels. Why do we fight?

Chapter 2

  • The succession, who shall rule?

Chapter 3

  • From general to startup. Starting afresh.

Chapter 4

  • Learning to scale. Growing as a politician.

Chapter 5

  • The acquisition. Selling to the enemy.


Silicon valley. A modern-day colosseum.

The Gladiator is my favorite movie, in fact, it is among the best movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it, you need to stop reading this blog and immediately go and watch it. Big tech, glorious battles, and Machiavellian politics all shaken into a juicy cocktail about the dynamics of power. With swords.

We are going to relive the greatest movie in Hollywood history with a Silicon Valley twist. The cast of this modern odyssey:


  • The Mob are the general public.
  • The Soldiers and Gladiators are our engineers.
  • The Senate are the senior leadership team
  • The Emperor is the CEO/founder
  • Rome is big tech

There are a few creative themes we need to clear up: engineers are rarely executed or murdered in Silicon Valley. Death in our parallel journey is metaphorical. It is professional death, being fired and cast aside.

The metaphor works; the battle is our daily grind to please the baying mob, who are, in turn, the consumers of our technology products and the masses who hold ultimate power. Poor performance by our gladiators, or even great performance with a fumbling general or poorly planned product, is death. All involved are beholden to a senate and political class trying to satisfy their own ambitions.

Big tech is Rome, which is the backdrop of our epic story. Rome is ruled by the senate, the VPs of these ubiquitous technology companies. In the shadows, they practice Machiavellian politics to gain favor with, appease or usurp the emperor. All dependent on their own complex self-interest

There are different architypes of emperors, the idealists whose time is coming to an end, and the ambitious, ruthless and cunning replacements that inevitably take their place. Our hero Maximus is a soldier whose ability to code or fight helps him transcend the dynamics of power from the battlefield to the senate, and ultimately challenge the Emperor himself.

Maximus is no longer:

“The general who became a slave.

The slave who became a gladiator.

The gladiator who defied an emperor.

Maximus is now:

“The tech genius who was cast aside.

The nobody who became a founder.

The entrepreneur who defied an emperor.

Chapter 1

Crushing the rebels. Why do we fight?

In the beginning of The Gladiator, we are introduced to our hero, Maximus, crushing a rebellion for the glory of Rome. We immediately humanize the enemy. A simple question, are the startups competing against big tech really fundamentally different? Is an engineer in FAANG a different species to a startup engineer?

“Quintus: People should know when they are conquered.

Maximus: Would you, Quintus? Would I?

The engineering team devastate their competition from an advantageous position. The Roman legions and their catapults with heavy cavalry charge through lightly armed savages. Maximus performs with distinction, a formidable general, in the front-lines and facing danger, loved by his men.

The movie begins to shine a moral light on the Roman empire, on the dominance and ubiquity of big tech. Basking in victory atop the bloodied battleground, the founder of the tech company calls Maximus into his office, the dying Emperor Marcos Aurelius. Expecting a celebration, we have our first plot twist. The emperor doesn’t celebrate the victory, instead, he questions his own motivations for crushing the competition in the first place. “Shareholder value?”

“Maximus: Five thousand of my men are out there in the freezing mud. Three thousand of them are bloodied and cleaved. Two thousand will never leave this place. I will not believe that they fought and died for nothing.

Marcus Aurelius: And what would you believe?

Maximus: They fought for you and for *big tech*.

Marcus Aurelius: And what is *big tech* Maximus?

Maximus: I've seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark, *big tech* is the light.

Marcus Aurelius: Yet you have not seen what it has become. I am *retiring*, Maximus. When a man sees his end... he wants to know there was some purpose to his life. How will the world speak my name in years to come? Will I be known as the philosopher? The warrior? The tyrant...? Or will I be the emperor who gave *big tech* back her true self? There was once a dream that was *big tech*. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish... it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.

Mega-founders go through the same journey as Marcus Aurelius. The fight, sacrifice and bloody determination to rise to the top of a tough, hard world. But once there, once there is nowhere left to rise? We question why.

The emperor doesn't want or need more money, more prestige, more products. They think only of their legacy. How will they be remembered?

Voluntary wealth tax, no problem.

Dedicating their life to charity work, amazing.

Immortality? Nothing else to do.

They have transcended the purpose of creating businesses, and are now spending their energy thinking and feeling about metaphysical concerns. After you become ultra-wealthy, the next step is to question whether that is really important.

It’s ironic and beautiful that once one achieves what most consider to be the pinnacle of professional life; the next logical step in the human condition is not to celebrate that success but to question the very purpose of it.

So our founder, instead of celebrating success with his loyal general, has introduced a plot twist.

Why? Why crush our competition? Aren’t we just like them at heart? Why make more money? What happened to the reason we started this journey in the first place? Was money always our ambition?

We set out to make the world a better place, how did it end up with bloodied and murdered men face down in the sodden earth?

Here we are, in Chapter One we've reached the pinnacle of tech, a glorious and hard-fought victory full of valor and merit. Yet it is empty because we’ve lost the very reason we were fighting in the first place. More money?

The emperor makes a decision. He will reform the company. His legacy won’t be maximizing shareholder value, he’s going to return the company to the principles upon which it was founded. But how can he do this, the apparatus of power has twisted the soul of the organization beyond recognition.

Chapter 2

The succession, who shall rule?

Only Maximus is pure of heart. The emperor believes the only way to return big tech to its original tenets is to anoint a successor aligned with his original core values.

“Don’t be evil”

“Do the right thing”

“Arm the rebels”

"Work hard, Have fun, Make history."

This is a tenet of the movie and an irony of the human condition. The only people who can truly be trusted to execute power responsibly are the ones who do not seek power. The mother of Jesus is a virgin.

A simple observation for all who seek dominance over others, professional or otherwise. The motivation to seek a higher station is one that is routed in ambition. This desire for dominance almost certainly makes you less suitable to execute the power that you seek.

To be a true leader like Maximus, we must aspire to leadership through talent, merit, and honor on the battlefield. Hard work. Puritan values. Yet, this is rarely ever the reality. The inescapable truth is that those who ascend through cold ambition and a desire for dominance are the root of political corruption.

“Marcus Aurelius: Won't you accept this *promotion* that I have offered you?

Maximus: With all my heart, no.

Marcus Aurelius: Maximus, that is why it must be you.

So, the emperor and his loyal general arranged the succession. But the Senate and the executives lurking in the shadows haven’t yet learned of this proposed change to the status quo. They will fight it.

One does not simply change the power dynamics of such a large organization. The rightful heir hasen't yet ascended, the role of power is their right, it is their divine right. The CEO no longer has full control of the big tech company they founded. How many shares do they still have anyway?

Enter Commodus, the villain of the story. Next in line to the throne and arriving to bask in the glory of a victory observed from afar.

“Commodus: Have I missed it? Have I missed the battle?

Marcus Aurelius: You have missed the war.

Commodus: Father, congratulations. I shall sacrifice a hundred bulls to honor your triumph.

Marcus Aurelius: Save the Bulls. Honor Maximus. He *did the work*.

Commodus is a conflicted, complicated character. It is too simplistic to label him evil or corrupt. He simply wants what he believes belongs to him. The hard work, the dedication, the sacrifice. It is his turn to be emperor. It is his right. It is a divine right.

How many executives also turn up to a victorious battlefield, seeking a prize to offer up to their emperor?

But another twist, the CEO tells him he will not take over leadership of the company.

“Commodus: Which wiser, older man is to take my place?

Marcus Aurelius: My powers will pass to Maximus, who will hold in trust until the Senate is ready to rule once more. Rome is to be a republic again.

Commodus: Maximus?

Commodus: You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: Wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, Father. Ambition. That can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, courage, perhaps not on the battlefield, but... there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family and to you. But none of my virtues were on your list.

So, we are introduced to the different types of power. Rome and big tech may have been built on the sweat of the engineers and the blood of it's soldiers. The tactics of the generals, victory in the battlefield, hard earned, hard work. Yet beyond the simplicity of hard work and explosive growth to build products, we have a darker force that holds it together.

Once scale is reached, the merits of what seeded big tech grow into something darker. To gain power, hard work and great products. To maintain power. Ambition, resourcefulness, courage and devotion. These are the values of the senate, of the political class who gradually take root in the pantheon of power. This is the cult of big tech. This is the manifestation of power in human ecosystems.

The beginning of the epic tale. An emperor is murdered by his own son, Steve Jobs is fired. The founder retires.

As for our hero Maximus, the loyal general who performed with valor and dignity is taken to the woods to be executed, his family murdered. Made a public example of as a traitor.

The sands of power turn, and the ambitious and resourceful Commodus takes over.

And business carries on as usual.

Chapter 3

From general to startup. Starting afresh.

Predictably, this is just the beginning. Maximus fights off the soldier sent to murder him. They tried to set him up for incompetence, but he was just too talented.

“[as an executioner tries to draw his sword but can't]

Maximus: The frost, it sometimes makes the blade stick.

[kills the executioner]

Maximus rushes across Europe to save his family. But alas, he is too late. This is where he fell out of love with big tech. All the effort and sacrifice, cast aside and with nothing to show.

Maximus hits rock bottom. He is cast out, sad, alone, isolated…

So Maximus is lying broken on the cold hard ground when the startup incubators find him. There are many reasons to choose to become a gladiator. To begin your own startup. Some look for prestige, others for glory. But many simply have no choice. It calls several types of people, the heroeic, the desperate and the lost. Many are all three.

The slavers pluck a wounded Maximus from the ground. They throw him into their crowded cart. Slave conditions. The general who become a slave. The tech wonderkid who become a founder.

Maximus has no ego or motivation anymore. He is simply an unknown. He is nobody. Another startup founder.

After a long journey towards Africa, they arrive at the startup incubator.

“[addressing his new recruits] I am Proximo! I shall be closer to you for the next few days, which will be the last of your miserable *careers*, than that bitch of a mother who first brought you screaming into this world! I did not pay good money for your *idea*. I paid it so that I might profit from your *startup*. And just as your mother was there at your beginning, I shall be there at your end. And when you *fail* - and *fail* you shall - your transition will be to the sound of...

Proximo: [claps his hands]

Proximo: *Founders*... I salute you.

Maximus has started again from the beginning. Character arc in full moon. Burned out at rock bottom, he is not searching for money, or prestige; Maximus is simply another person who has reached their limit and isn’t sure where to go with his life. Been kicked hard by the illusion of the lie of something they believed in and thought they’d loved.

Here we are. We see the comradery at the beginning of the road to the Colosseum. The startup flywheel. The prize is freedom, being acquired by big tech. The gladiators are fighting for their lives. The spectators are there to be amused. The stage and the scene is set. Desperate founders fighting for their lives. Battling tooth and claw for the attention of the mob. For glory.

But talent is talent, and even Maximus at rock bottom still has the skills that had taken him to the top.

Cast into the arena, the adrenaline hits. The sword in his hand and under threat of death, fighting for his very life. Maximus smashes expectations for his tiny startup.

“Maximus: [after swiftly *releasing an AI feature*] Are you not entertained?

Maximus: Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?

Crowd: Spaniard, Spaniard, Spaniard…

It’s easy for him.

But Maximus has not fully understood. The startup game isn’t simply about creating products. There are a different set of rules. Proximus calls Maximus into his office.

He coaches Maximus on how to succeed,

“Maximus: [laughing] You *were acquired*?

Proximo: [very quickly and defensively] I didn't say *I was a billionaire, I said I had a successful exit.*

The rules of the game.

“Proximo: Listen to me. Learn from me. I was not *acquired* because I *built great products*. I was *acquired* because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your *acquisition*.

The plan forms in Maximus’ mind, if he too could be acquired, then from the inside he can achieve the emperor's dream and return big tech to its true self. The colosseum is not about winning and losing; even living and dying. The colosseum is about entertainment. Success is not about making money. Success is about winning over the mob.

Tell your story. Build your brand. Build in public. Investors, journalists, entertainment. Maximus had to learn to build his brand and tell stories. Only then could he be acquired and return Rome to its true self. Success is nothing. Celebrity is everything.

So, the movie progresses. Glorious victory. Battle after battle. Incubators, startup events, media attention, funding rounds. All based on the heroic talents of Maximus, who is now pleasing people as well as developing products. This culminates in the Colosseum of Rome, where our incubators have recognized the talent they have and gotten Maximus an invitation into the biggest arena of them all.

The tiny startup shall stand face-to-face with big tech once again.

And so he does, and Maximus is revealed to Commodus. Talent rises. Talent is inevitable.

“Commodus: Rise. Rise.

Maximus stands up, clenching an arrowhead in his right hand

Commodus: Your fame is well deserved, Spaniard. I don't think there's ever been an *entrepreneur* to match you. As for this young man, he insists you are Hector reborn. Or was it Hercules? Why doesn't the hero reveal himself and tell us all your real name? You do have a name.

Maximus: My name is Gladiator.

[turns away from Commodus]

Commodus: How dare you show your back to me! Slave, you will remove your helmet and tell me your name.

Maximus: [removes helmet and turns around to face Commodus] My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, and loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

[Commodus trembles in disbelief]

Praetorians point their spears at the gladiators while the Colosseum crowd chants for them to live. Commodus shakes his head and motions to the crowd for silence. He then raises his fist and reluctantly gives the thumbs-up signal.

So here we are, the general who became a nobody, a nobody who became a founder, and a founder who defied an emperor.

Chapter 4

Learning to scale. Growing as a politician.

Now, Maximus is very much in the public eye.

“Juba: You have a great name. He must kill your name before he kills you.

The machinery of politics takes over. Senators court Maximus, factions divide. Maximus is building products, while in the background the shadowy ruling class fight their own war. Each looking to ascend, usurp, or shift the flow of power.

Under pressure, Commodus forms a plan. He must consolidate his own power by appeasing the public and fighting back against the growing influence of Maximus. How does a politician consolidate their power? Hearts and minds. Maximus has a hot startup, a trending product. Commodus must be seen as giving people what they want. He decides to acquire a series of hot AI startups to cover the cracks of his own hegemony.

“Falco: You really think people are going to be seduced by that?

Gracchus: I think he knows what *big tech* is. *Big tech* is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they'll be distracted. *Steal their data* and still they'll roar. The beating heart of *big tech* is not the marble of the senate, it's the sand of the *startups*. He'll bring them *AI* - and they will love him for it.

There are lessons here: smoke and mirrors are what distracts the mob, you and I. Conjure magic and release a new AI feature, and they’ll be distracted. Take their data, and still, they’ll roar. The beating heart of tech is smoke and mirrors. The tech company will deliver shiny baubles, and they will love him for it.

Meanwhile, our startup is ticking along. Commodus knows that he can no longer crush Maximus as he has too much public attention. So his plan is to create increasingly complex obstacles until the startup eventually fails, a public and innocent death not at his hands.

“Commodus: And now they love Maximus for his mercy. So I can't just kill him, or it makes me even more unmerciful! The whole thing's like some crazed nightmare.

Falco: He is defying you. His every victory is an act of defiance. The mob sees this, and so does the Senate. Every day he lives, they grow bolder. Kill him.

Commodus: No. I will not make a martyr of him.

[Commodus walks around]

Falco: I have been told of a certain sea snake that has a very unusual method of attracting its prey. It will lie at the bottom of the ocean as if wounded. Then its enemies will approach, and yet it will lie quite still. And then its enemies will take little bites of it, and yet it remains still.

Commodus: So, we will lie still and let our enemies come to us and nibble. Have every senator followed.

The contrast between the gladiators and the senate is made very clear. There are those that build/fight and those that do politics. The senators in their marbled halls, deciding who will live or die. They are assigning glory and manipulating the mob. Their swords are schemes and plots. They are abstracted from the victories and measured by their favour from the emperor and the mob.

The moral is not one of right and wrong or good and evil. There are good politicians and bad ones, something that is equally applicable to the soldiers. But the execution of political authority is rooted in the darker, complex echelons of power. Going deeper into the dynamics of power, the aim of Marcus Aurelius was actually to create a healthier political class, not to remove it. Were there simply soldiers and the emperor, we end up with a dictatorship. Dictators are more vulnerable to the corruption of power even than dedicated politicians.

So, politicians are necessary, even if the act of politics is detached from the better virtues of people.

“Gracchus: I don't pretend to be a man of the people. But I do try to be a man for the people.

Commodus uses the art of espionage to ensure that Maximus has to overcome hurdles at every corner. His startup can’t integrate with anything useful, he plants press releases and undermines the product at every opportunity. Doesn't get approved on the App store... Commodus must kill the growth of the startup but cannot be seen to be involved.

“Proximo: He knows too well how to manipulate the mob.

Even Maximus is drawn into their Machiavellian schemes. Growth, even heroic growth based on Puritan principles of honest labor, still ends in the ascension into politics. Where there is power, there is politics. Another irony of the human condition, that the more success we attain in our endeavors, the further we grow from the talents than enabled that success in the first place.

“[Lucilla tries to convince Maximus to conspire with Senator Gracchus]

Lucilla: This man wants what you want.

Maximus: Then have *him* kill Commodus!

Gracchus: And after your glorious coup, what then? You take your five thousand and... leave?

Maximus: Yes, I will leave. The soldiers will stay here for your protection, under the guidance of the Senate.

Gracchus: So, after *big tech* is all yours, you just give it back to the people. Tell me why.

Chapter 5

The acquisition. Selling to the enemy.

So, we approach the climax of the epic tale. Maximus has overcome every obstacle. An increasingly desperate Commodus has run out of options. Just one risky gamble remains. He has been unable to crush and dampen Maximus' startup. But he is the emperor. He will acquire it.

“Commodus: The *genius* who became a *founder*. The *founder* who became a *entrepreneur*. The *entrepreneur* who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous *acquisition* will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?

Maximus: You would *acquire* me?

Commodus: Why not? Do you think I am afraid?

Maximus: I think you've been afraid all your life.

In the ultimate Hollywood character arc. The political emperor himself descends to the great arena. How else to save his image than to prove that he has more valor, courage, and innovation than the startup founder himself? A true UFC combatant. But of course, a great bet that it is must be made with loaded dice.

“Maximus: I knew a man once who said, "Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.

Commodus: I wonder, did your friend smile at his own death?

Maximus: You must know. He was your father.

Commodus: You loved my father, I know. But so did I. That makes us brothers, doesn't it? Smile for me now, brother.

[stabs him]

Wounded and betrayed, Maximus fights Commodus in front of the baying mob. Finally, the people see, the people know. They can see that the emperor has wounded Maximus. They understand the loaded dice, the unfair odds. The public can finally see right through the emperor and his games, and the cycle is complete. The people turn, and what is left of the emperors authority dissolves.

“[during the fight with Maximus, Commodus loses his sword]

Commodus: Quintus, sword!

[Quintus does nothing]

Commodus: [to his guards] Sword, give me a sword!

[the guards unsheathe their swords]

Quintus: Sheathe your swords! Sheathe your swords!

Even wounded, battered and dying. Maximus still has the strength to publically defeat the flailing emperor. As his sword pierces the heart of the corruption, Maximus breathes a sign of release, his journey is at an end. There is no happy ending, Maximus is dead. But he has killed the corruption of power with his final action.

Even in Hollywood, there is no happily ever after. But the lesson of hope is that throughout the corruption of power and politics, beneath it all are still good people and noble intentions.

“Lucilla: Is Rome worth one good man's life? We believed it once. Make us believe it again. He was a soldier of Rome. Honor him.

Gracchus: Who will help me carry him?

[Gladiators surround Maximus to carry him out of the arena]

Neither The Gladiator itself nor this blog is a story about good and evil or right and wrong. There are heroes and anti-heroes because Hollywood demands it; but the moral of the story isn’t a judgment, it is an observation on human nature. In life, like in fiction, there is no happily ever after.

“Proximo: Marcus Aurelius is dead, Maximus. We mortals are but shadows and dust. Shadows and dust, Maximus!

Maximus is a fictional character with a Hollywood story, but most of the other participants are fair reflections on real corridors of power.

Most in any walk of life are simply good people doing a job. Simple soldiers. Even the political class are naunced and deep characters. Not bad or corrupt, potentially ambitious. Their values are different. But systems of power will always necessitate the Machievellian and the ambitious. If not, power will ultimately be lost.

And the alternative? Without a political class, we have a dictatorship.

And for all the undesirable characteristics of a shadowy and powerful political class, the alternative remains far worse.

So who are the heroes? In life or fiction? Should we aspire to be like Maximus or better to live a simple and good life? If the alternative to corruption is absolute corruption, what should we strive towards?

Does the very wielding of power necessitate the descent into politics of the wielder? Is success ever a noble aspiration? Can a good man ever rule? Would they want to?

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.

Lord Acton

Like life itself, there are no answers. Only questions. And that is fine.