Why Silicon Valley is obsessed with ‘The Lord of the Rings’


Curl is among a broad swath of executives within Silicon Valley who are avid fans of Lord of the Rings, or LOTR for short.

Courtesy of Matt Curl

As San Francisco marketing-tech start-up Fivestars struggled to raise money in late 2015, Matt Curl, senior vice president of business operations, gave his deputies three books as assigned reading to inspire them and keep them from despair.

The three books were “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King,” collectively “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“There are profound human truths that were written in those books,” said Curl, who first read the books when he was in middle school. “I’ll reference ‘Lord of the Rings’ things a lot, and I want them to understand what I’m saying.”

Curl is among a broad swath of executives in Silicon Valley who are avid fans of “The Lord of the Rings,” or LOTR. These techies use the fantasy world dreamed up by Tolkien as a common ground, a shared passion they can reference to communicate with and relate to one another.

Although it’s been 66 years since the books were first published and more than 16 years since the premier of “The Return of the King,” the final film in director Peter Jackson’s beloved series, LOTR fandom in Silicon Valley has continued to swell. Techies have been known to mimic characters’ voices around their office, code-name secret projects after things in the series or throw LOTR-themed parties for their friends in the industry.

Facebook’s vice president of AR/VR, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, for example, referenced the elf queen Galadriel in a leaked memo to his employees that was published by The New York Times in January. This wasn’t Boz’s first reference to LOTR, either. He is credited with nicknaming Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous silent stares “Sauron’s gaze,” a reference to the main villain in LOTR. The gaze has been used as the inspiration for video imagery used atop Salesforce Tower, which is the tallest skyscraper in Silicon Valley and has been lit up in bright orange as the Eye of Sauron each of the past two Halloweens.

Famed venture capitalist Peter Thiel, meanwhile, has named companies after objects in LOTR. This includes data analytics start-up Palantir Technologies, a reference to spherical stones in LOTR that allow characters to see events in other parts of the world. It also includes Austin, Texas, venture firm Mithril Capital, which is named after a magical lightweight metal with surprising strength. Palmer Luckey, co-founder of Oculus VR, took a similar approach when he named his defense start-up Anduril Industries, which is named after the sword used by the character Aragorn.

“When you see conference rooms or companies named [after LOTR] … what they’re saying is, ‘This profoundly affected my life and profoundly affected the way I think about things,'” said Curl. He said he will probably also have his deputies read LOTR at his new job as head of revenue operations at Checkr, a background-checking start-up. “And I think there’s a desire for more people to read it and to understand it.”

LOTR is a big deal for Alex Farr, CEO of Zammo, a start-up whose service enables clients to build apps for voice assistants such as Alexa and Google. Farr has named his cars after the elf warrior Legolas and he has named his horses after the wizard Gandalf. He refers to his home in Marin County as “the Shire,” in reference to the home of the hobbits in LOTR. He also frequently attends and hosts LOTR-themed dinner parties and events with others in the tech industry.

“It just is a great story,” Farr said. “It’s just a beautiful story of which direction in your life you can go.”

Zammo CEO Alex Farr has named his cars after the elf warrior Legolas and he has named his horses after the wizard Gandalf. He refers to his home in Marin County as “the Shire,” in reference to the home of the hobbits in LOTR.

Salvador Rodriguez / CNBC

For Alan Cohen, partner at venture firm DCVC, LOTR has been present throughout his technology career. His partner Matt Ocko, for example, is known for going around the office impersonating Gollum, a creature addicted to an evil magical ring, the “one ring.” This fandom has allowed Cohen and his partners to make quick connections with prospective entrepreneurs looking for investors.

At his first board meeting with Kentik, a networking start-up, Cohen wore a black shirt that read “One does not simply Telnet into Mordor,” a meme referencing both a networking protocol and a famous LOTR line about the land of the villain Sauron.

“They just smiled and got it immediately,” Cohen said. “It made them understand that we were on the same plane.”

The shirt pales in comparison to the LOTR influence during Cohen’s days as an executive.

While serving as the vice president of product management and marketing at Airespace, a networking hardware company, in the early 2000s, Cohen and his co-founders made LOTR a key piece of team building. When the movies came out, Airespace would take the entire company out to see them.

Airespace also internally code-named all their products and their projects after LOTR. This includes a small wireless LAN controller named “Bilbo,” one of the shortest characters in the series, and when they introduced the larger, better, second-generation of the product they code-named it “Aragorn.”

These code names were also used when Airespace entered into acquisition talks with Cisco, which ultimately bought the company for $450 million in 2005. Cisco was named “Gondor,” after one of the cities of men in LOTR, while rival companies were code-named “Mordor.”

For Alan Cohen, partner at venture firm DCVC, LOTR has been present throughout his technology career.

Courtesy of Alan Cohen

Cohen said LOTR resonated so strongly with him and his Airespace colleagues because they were a small player facing long odds in a highly competitive market. They saw themselves as the hobbits of networking, a reference to the smallest characters in LOTR, who have to accomplish the most difficult tasks.

“Hobbits are the smallest people and can become the biggest heroes,” Cohen said.

Perhaps the most popular hobbit in the tech industry is Samwise Gamgee. Although Sam is a secondary character and his main purpose is to help fellow hobbit Frodo destroy the one ring, he delivers one of the most powerful lines of the series, said Andy Ellis, chief security officer at Akamai Technologies.

“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you,” Sam tells Frodo before lifting him up and carrying him up Mount Doom.

“To me that’s the true hero,” said Ellis, who can recite the inscription written on the one ring in Tengwar, a script in LOTR that was created by Tolkien. “We don’t celebrate the people who get up every day and do the work that needs to be done and support somebody else.”

When the LOTR movies were coming out in the early 2000s, the tech industry was in a vastly different place than it is now. At the time, Silicon Valley was reeling from the dot-com bust, and hobbits very much embodied the goal of start-ups seeking to disrupt entrenched corporations.

Over the past couple of years, Big Tech has been vilified and has faced a so-called techlash. This may be why so many in tech are starting to turn back to LOTR.

“It’s tempting to try to retreat to this simple good vs. evil narrative rather than acknowledging some of the ambiguities of where they are,” said David Fullerton, Stack Overflow’s chief technology officer and a long-time LOTR fan. “They want to go back to the good old days of when tech was good.”

And yet, LOTR is a paradox for many in the industry. Many of the LOTR tech fans who spoke with CNBC noted the series’ themes regarding the importance of harmony with nature, the dangers of greed and the evils of technology itself.

Take Palantir, for example. In LOTR, the palantir stones are powerful tools that allow characters to see events in faraway places, but what they see is not always reliable and it can create more trouble for them than what they gain. Similarly, Palantir Technologies has come under fire over the years for its controversial technology, which is used by the military and law enforcement for surveillance.

“Maybe Palantir didn’t really think through the connotations that come with that,” Ellis said. “But maybe when you look at the company and its clients, it might be an appropriate name.”

Evernote Creative Director Forrest Bryant became a fan of “Lord of the Rings” just before the first movie was released in 2001. He says the series offers an important lesson on the value of diversity.

Courtesy of Forrest Bryant

Another key lesson many of the executives say they take from LOTR is its emphasis on diversity. In the series, the evil ring is only destroyed when men, dwarves, elves, hobbits and other creatures work together to defeat a common enemy.

“Without that unity in diversity, the mission would be doomed to fail before it began. With it, they can do the impossible,” said Forrest Bryant, creative director at Evernote and a fan who read the books in 2001, just before the movies came out.

And yet, the cast of LOTR is not very diverse, Bryant pointed out. There are only a few women, and there are no people of color. That’s a similarity that the tech industry, which is often criticized for its exclusion of women and minorities, would rather not hold with its beloved fantasy series.

And while mentioning LOTR can be a way to quickly connect with others in tech, it can also be alienating to any tech workers who don’t happen to be LOTR nerds, said Talkdesk Chief Marketing Officer Kathie Johnson, a fan of the series since she was 12.

“As I’ve grown up professionally and in age, the one thing frustrating as a woman is that the fellowship is all male,” she said.

As tech faces more and more backlash, these tech executives said they hope they and their colleagues heed the lessons of LOTR.

“A lot of tech people have a fascination for what the world can be rather than what it is today, and I think books like LOTR open your eyes to what you can imagine,” Johnson said.


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