‘Silicon Valley’ star Thomas Middleditch on startup life, Microsoft Windows, and his own game project

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GeekWire talked with actor and comedian Thomas Middleditch, star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” after his appearance as a judge at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup in Seattle on Friday. Listen below and continue reading for excerpts from our conversation.

You may know Thomas Middleditch for his character Richard Hendricks, the CEO of Pied Piper on the hit HBO show, “Silicon Valley.” But you probably didn’t know that Middleditch, in real life, has a passion for video games and game design, and is working to get his own game project off the ground.

That’s one of the details we picked up in our behind-the-scenes conversation at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, the global student competition, where Middleditch appeared as a judge for the worldwide finals in Seattle. We talked about startup lessons from “Silicon Valley,” his own technology preferences, and his experience as an Imagine Cup judge — including his thoughts on the potential intellectual property challenge facing the winners of the competition.

Unlike his character, Middleditch isn’t a programmer, but he has a strong interest in technology. Before we started recording, Middleditch was quizzing Microsoft exec Steve Guggenheimer about the Windows 10 upgrade process.

Continue reading for excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Thomas Middleditch, second from right, with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, right; Alex Kipman, left, HoloLens and Kinect creator; and Jens Bergensten, the Minecraft lead developer, at Imagine Cup.

Q: Your character on HBO’s Silicon Valley, based on the end of last season, could be looking for a job. Microsoft has a Silicon Valley campus. Could it end up that you’ll be working for Satya Nadella?

Middleditch: You’ll have to speak with Mike Judge and Alec Berg, the show creators and head writers. I have no say in it. I don’t know what’s going to happen at all.

Q: A lot of these students from Imagine Cup will be doing their own startups. Are there any lessons, positive or negative, that you can pass on to them, from your experience on Silicon Valley?

Middleditch: From my fake experience as a company CEO? I don’t know, memorize your lines and say your lines? No, wait, that’s as an actor. I don’t know. I mean, look, from what I’ve heard — from people who are in the industry and have seen the show, it almost acts as a cautionary tale. Richard definitely makes some choices that he feels are tough and good, but come to bite him in the tushy at the end. Can I say tushy?

You can’t predict the future, and you’ve got to go with your gut on these things, and I’m sure if you speak to a laundry list of CEOs, and people who have gone through the startup process themselves, they’ll say it’s an endless hurdle race, and you are inevitably going to catch your legs on hurdles, and it’s just how you roll with that. Do you just give up or do you keep running.

Excellent metaphor. Such a kush metaphor. Kush, you’d call it kush? Purple kush?

Q: You are in Seattle, after all, in Washington state. So after having been through the fake experience for a couple of seasons now, would you ever do a real startup yourself, or would it just feel like a parody of itself. 

Middleditch: Every time I go into situations like this, like I did today, it feels like I’m living my own show, and I laugh. I do laugh.

Thomas Middleditch, right, with Alex Kipman, left, HoloLens and Kinect creator; and Jens Bergensten, the Minecraft lead developer.
Thomas Middleditch, right, with Alex Kipman, left, HoloLens and Kinect creator; and Jens Bergensten, the Minecraft lead developer, on stage at Microsoft Imagine Cup.

I saw how you were looking at Alex Kipman (Microsoft Kinect and HoloLens creator) on stage, by the way. I think you were thinking, this is a character for next season.

Middleditch: There are plenty of characters, to be honest. Characters welcome. USA Network. What is happening?

Anyway, you know, not necessarily a startup, but I’m a gamer, an intense, super hard-core gamer. Game design has always been a secondary passion. I don’t know how to program, though, so I’m at this strange crossroads where I’m like, I wonder if I can convince people who know what they’re doing to hear me out on one of my ideas. Which sounds super-annoying. It’s like someone outside of the Hollywood business saying, “I’ve got an idea for a movie,” and you’re like, “Sure.” But still, that is something I’m pursuing. I’m talking with a couple people.

Q: Really? 

Middleditch: Yeah, it’s not CEO, Richard-level, but it’s something in the world. Yeah.

Q: So what’s your game about?

Middleditch: I’m not going to tell you on live radio!

So this is your lesson, protect the IP. I thought that was interesting: One of your questions was about patents, which the students totally dodged, by the way. 

Middleditch:  The judges agreed that project will affect the most people. [Imagine Cup winners eFitFashion created an e-commerce platform for custom-tailored clothes.] But that’s the big hurdle that they are going to come up against. It’s like 3D printing. It’s just IP. Say someone creates a design that other people like. How are they going to prevent someone stealing from a designer, because that is how designers make their money. Like I know what the hell I’m talking about, but still. You get it in Hollywood. You do your thing, and then someone does a thing like you, and you’re like, what the heck?

Thomas Middleditch behind the scenes at Microsoft Imagine Cup.
Thomas Middleditch behind the scenes at Microsoft Imagine Cup.

Q: Before we started you were talking with Steve Guggenheimer about Windows 10. So you’re a Windows user?

Middleditch: I’m a Windows guy. I have been for many, many years. I play games, and it’s where games run, baby.

Q: OK, so these questions are what we call the “binaries of geekdom.” You’ve already answered one of them, but I’ll ask it anyway: Mac or PC?

Middleditch: PC. But getting heated about it is a little silly. You know, it’s like PlayStation-Xbox. I like both. So nothing against Mac, but I do use Windows.

Q: iPhone or Android? 

Middleditch: I have a Droid. Sorry, Windows.

Guggenheimer: We create great software for them. We’ll help you out with your calendar and Office apps.

Q: Einstein or Tesla?

Middleditch: I guess Einstein. It’s tough, because I know very little about physics, but I think he has something to do with it.

Q: And then the most important one of all: Legos or Lincoln Logs?

Middleditch: GI Joe. Screw that creative shit. I want some battles and some wars, and some big tanks.

Q: So in all seriousness, to bring this back home before we conclude: What did you think of the students out there? It was not an easy decision — I know from having been a low-level judge myself.

Middleditch: Since you don’t know the high-stakes, high-level judging that I took part in. … So these are all first or second year people at college or university, and they’re probably like 18, because they graduated high school when they were 15 or something. I just think it’s pretty impressive, because where they’re at right now — at least the three projects that I saw — it seems well beyond a prototype level. It seems like this is almost ready for market, unless I’ve been bamboozled by their presentations. And to have that, at that age … pretty great. Gives you hope for the future.

Q: What was it about the winners, the e-fashion project, that really put that over the top?

Middleditch: For the people who knew what they were talking about, which was both judges except for me, it was the fact that, if done well, if executed, it could affect the most people. That’s the thing. … But it’s all IP. I’m like the only one. It’s like, guys, you’ve got a massive hurdle. But hopefully they’ll be able to figure it out. What’s great about the Imagine Cup — here you go, right, this is why I’m here — is that hopefully it will pair them up with people who can answer that question. The IP question. It’s the biggest question that is either going to prevent or allow them to make it commercial.

Q: Any final words of wisdom here, having gone through this experience, having been on a fake startup for two seasons now? 

Middleditch: Words of wisdom?

Guggenheimer: Would you stop calling his life fake?

Middleditch: Yeah, don’t be a dick. …

Oh, just keep at it. My passion lies in the environment, so if anyone is listening your little thing here, I hope the next batch gives us some solutions to, essentially, world extinction. Saving humanity and all other life. If there’s ever a team that conquers that, maybe next year bring me back and I’ll vote them ahead.

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