With the day-to-day craziness at Pied Piper, it’s easy to forget that the general public has yet to use the product. They have borne witness to it at TechCrunch Disrupt and via the streaming of that poor guy trapped beneath a condor nest. But no one outside of Richard’s team has taken it for a test drive. It’s always been Richard’s desire to bring his platform to the tech community, an intent that formed the crux of his dispute with Action Jack Barker. So, why is he reluctant to show Pied Piper to the public now?
To soothe Richard’s anxiety, Dinesh suggests a beta release. The platform is stable enough to handle it, despite still being somewhat buggy. Dinesh explains the beta concept: “You give it to people in the real world, they use it, and that is how we find the bugs. That is what a beta is for!” Flagging a release as “beta” gives users a specific expectation in the tech world. Think of it like test screening of a movie, except unlike test audiences, beta release users rarely do anything to make the product worse.
When Richard fears a flaky Pied Piper 1.0 would embarrass him, Jared counters with something that sounds like Microsoft’s mission statement. “If you’re not mortally embarrassed by your initial release,” he says, “You released too late.” Richard remains unmoved. Unbeknownst to him, however, the beta process has already started. Tara, Gilfoyle’s partner in hedonistic love, who was last seen distracting Dinesh and worshipping Satan, has been testing Pied Piper all day. In the middle of Richard’s expected freak-out, Tara shuts him up with her review: Despite a few interface bugs, the system kicks ass.
Also kicking ass? The million-dollar debt that’s hanging over Erlich’s head, courtesy of Bachmanity Insanity, the failed Polynesian party on Alcatraz that a now-bankrupt Big Head couldn’t finance. “I got a scoop for you,” says C.J. Cantwell, the tech blogger whose silence Erlich bought with Big Head’s last $500,000. “It’s about two young tech businessmen who flew too close to the sun.” While looking at their melted, Icarus-brand wax wings, Erlich and Big Head realize C.J. is talking about them. Paid off or not, she still has a tech blog to write — and her exposé on the humble bartenders, waitstaff, and cooks who were not paid for working Erlich’s party will be chum in the shark-infested waters of social media.
“You were supposed to be my meal ticket,” Erlich mumbles. But there may be a chance for Big Head to still deliver on this promise. While reviewing Bachmanity’s finances, Jared discovers an accounting error: Seventy percent of Big Head’s money had been allocated for taxes. This is too much, even for Palo Alto, or as Erlich accurately calls it, “Taxo Alto.” Suddenly, there’s a 6-million-dollar surplus in Big Head’s bank account. Erlich’s “reputation” is saved!
Or is it? Writer John Levenstein proves the old adage that the loudest vessels of piousness have the most sins to hide. Arthur Clayman, the financial advisor who spent the last two episodes chewing out the Bachmanity duo for their frivolous monetary pursuits, made that tax error on purpose so he could keep the money. And no, Clayman did not buy a Bionic Man with the six million dollars; he used it to pay debts he incurred from bad business deals. “Give me back Big Head’s fucking money!” Erlich futilely screams.
Erlich goes to the D.A to report this “Claymanity Insanity,” but the D.A. isn’t particularly sympathetic. Homegirl is woke about the situation, and she aims to enlighten these fools. “I see two able-bodied young white men who lucked into more money than most people see in five lifetimes,” she tells them. “And who, if they hadn’t had their millions stolen from them, would have squandered them.” If Bachmanity doesn’t pay those workers what they’re owed, they’ll play right into the public’s perception of rich, entitled, tech-bro douchebags. And if you think this perception doesn’t exist, might I suggest you visit San Francisco? Or maybe just read this.
The D.A. calls Erlich “not particularly likable” and points out an equally unlikable solution to his problems: He can settle his debts by selling his stake in Pied Piper. Erlich balks at this idea, especially considering that Pied Piper has an almost unimpeded shot of selling like gangbusters once it goes live. Erlich’s stake could be worth far more than the paltry million dollars he currently owes. But it’s either that or the D.A. will prosecute Erlich.
When Erlich visited Laurie to sell his shares, I felt something I don’t think I’ve ever felt while watching this show. I felt sorry for Erlich Bachman. Back in season one, Erlich called Richard “my Wozniak,” and for better or worse, he has been Richard’s Steve Jobs. Pied Piper looks poised for the kind of success Erlich has yearned for, a yearning that fuels every stupid fucking thing he does on this show. Relinquishing the one thing that will yield his desired success feels kind of tragic, even if the wound is self-inflicted.
Back at Hacker Hostel, Dinesh convinces Richard to do a limited beta release for friends and acquaintances. Each team member gets ten invites. Gilfoyle gives his keys away because having friends violates his religious beliefs. “Trust no one!” he warns. While Jared reels off the names of all the women he’s slept with, Dinesh stares at an empty piece of paper. He has no one to invite. Eventually, Monica gets one of Dinesh’s keys, as does an acquaintance of Richard’s. Two down, eight to go.
To save face, Dinesh creates five fake accounts which, of course, get exposed because Gilfoyle has built a God view into the beta. Richard can see the IP and GPS location of every user. In addition to serving as Dinesh’s weekly humiliation, the God view also shows that someone at Hooli has obtained Pied Piper’s beta! “How the hell did that happen?” Richard asks anxiously.
When the two rehired guys on the Nucleus team hear about the beta from a mutual friend’s email, they refuse to tell Gavin because Nucleus is nowhere near beta-ready. However, Gavin already knows about Pied Piper … because Hooli reads its employees’ emails. Let this be a cautionary tale for you readers. Twenty years ago, I worked for a place that had an entire department devoted to this very thing. Occasionally, I’d send out bogus emails to myself in which I’d trash the company, and then in parentheses, I’d put, “Hi email guys! Thanks for reading!” My attempts at satire eventually got me fired, but I digress.
Gavin’s security guy creates a fake account. Posing as Richard’s friend, he sends an email requesting a beta key. After Dinesh sends it to him, like a dumbass, Gavin installs the stolen beta into his phone and his personal laptop. He sees how brilliant Pied Piper is, then demands that the Nucleus team imitate it. But while Gavin demos Pied Piper, Gilfoyle sends a zip bomb to Gavin’s account, frying his phone and his personal laptop.
“You put a stolen beta into your personal machine?” a rehired Nucleus guy asks. Matt Ross takes Gavin’s reactionary freak-out to new heights, screaming like Mortimer Duke at the end of Trading Places. “Turn the building power off!” he yells, but it’s too late to prevent total computer annihilation. (Plus: Laptops have batteries, Gavin. So do phones, dude!) The rehired guys end their second tenure at Hooli by quitting, leaving Nucleus without its two lead engineers. “You didn’t even remember us!” one tells Gavin. “I invited you to my wedding,” the other says. “WHY?!” Gavin asks.
Friends, and the lack thereof, are a central theme of “To Build a Better Beta.” Richard is disappointed when Monica, the one friend whose opinion he admires most, hates his software. Erlich’s dilemma might have been solvable if he’d had a friend to call. Ditto for Dinesh’s problem. And Jared invokes the wrath of both Gilfoyle and Dinesh by suggesting that they are each other’s best friends. “Fuck you, Jared!” they reply in unison, proving there’s more than a bit of truth to the claim.
With all this focus on camaraderie, I expected the end-credits song to be that obnoxious Bette Midler ditty that goes, “Ya gotta have FRIEEEE-ENNNNDS!” Instead, the episode ends with the mouse click that sends the Pied Piper beta into the hearts, minds, and machinery of the general public. I pumped my fist in programmer solidarity. Releases are awesome, folks! What could possibly go wrong now?