The newly released novel “Sophia of Silicon Valley” chronicles the fictional world of Sophia Young, a recent college graduate navigating the Silicon Valley tech scene in the mid-90s.
The book follows Sophia as she’s fired from an investment bank, rises through the ranks at a top Silicon Valley law firm, and eventually becomes an investor relations guru — first, to an eccentric, passionate CEO with a penchant for jeans and black t-shirts who was famously fired from his own computer company. Later, Sophia works for a younger, genius founder who wants to build electric cars and rocket ships.
If any of that sounds familiar, it should: the book’s author, Anna Yen, worked under Steve Jobs at Pixar and Elon Musk at Tesla.
So while Yen’s book might be fiction, the people and companies portrayed in it are based on real life. “Sophia of Silicon Valley” is essentially one woman’s account of navigating the Valley in its heyday, and working with some of the most powerful people in tech.
A perspective ‘very few people have ever seen’
Yen has been working in Silicon Valley for nearly 25 years, and she says “Sophia of Silicon Valley” is a culmination of her experiences and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Apart from timeline changes and tweaks to the characters — Yen says she took “bits and pieces” of people she worked with over the years — the book is essentially a memoir.
“Sophia is a toned-down version of me — I have a much worse mouth,” Yen told Business Insider. “But she is me. That part is very autobiographical.
While Yen had considered writing a book for awhile, she said, there was one particular impetus for getting started: “Steve Jobs,” the 2015 film starring Michael Fassbender.
“I actually have always had this policy, I don’t read anything about him, I don’t watch any of the movies — the TV movies or the films that have come out about him,” Yen said. “I just always felt like, I knew the person that I knew and that’s all I needed to know. But that Michael Fassbender movie, for some reason I watched it, and I was upset by it because I felt like it was unfair.”
Yen said she wanted to use to book to present a perspective that “very few people have ever seen and will ever get to see” — the other side of Jobs, if you will.
The Jobs character in the book, Scott Kraft, is demanding, eccentric, and quick to anger. In one memorable scene in the book, he asks Sophia — who had just started working for his animation startup, Treehouse — if she’s “stupid or f–king stupid.”
But Kraft is also painted as a mentor and a fatherly figure to Sophia. When Sophia mulls leaving Treehouse for Ion, the electric car company, Kraft encourages her to leave in order to take on new challenges. He even presents her with an extravagant parting gift: an enormous fish tank occupied by an octopus, which Kraft calls his “spirit animal.”
While Yen declined to give many specifics about how much of Kraft’s character is inspired by Jobs’ real-life actions, she said that she wanted to portray the softer side of Jobs.
“I think he gets a ton of respect as an innovator and as a leader,” Yen said. “But I don’t think he gets any respect for being a good person.”
“A lot of the time when I say, ‘I worked for Steve Jobs’ or ‘I worked for Elon Musk,’ the first thing people say, no joke, is ‘Oh, I hear he’s a real a–hole.’ I am not kidding! They are tough characters, absolutely. They’re not easy — they’re demanding,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re an a–hole.”
Yen did verify one real-life aspect of Jobs that she incorporated into the Kraft character: his nervous habit of constantly tugging up his socks through his pants, which eventually wore through the fabric.
“He did funny things. I don’t know if anyone got it, but he used to pull on his jeans all the time. Holes, in the bottom of his pants!” Yen said. “It was like a stress relief.”
Passing on lessons to the next generation
Yen wants people to know her book is not a salacious tell-all. It was intended to entertain and educate, she says, not to take tech billionaires to task over their behavior 20 years ago.
“I wrote the book based on the major lessons I learned that I always used day-to-day,” Yen said. “I wanted it to be fun and yet something that young women might be inspired by — and that’s all I wanted it to be. I wasn’t trying for more.”
Yen says she’s the person that everyone comes to for advice — “I don’t know why!” she said. “I’m a total screw-up!” — and she wanted to pepper the book with some of the mantras she repeats to herself on a daily basis. The most notable line, “six minutes at a time,” is a play on how law firms bill their time, which Sophia repeats to herself whenever she’s stressed. Yen uses it in real life, too.
“Life has not always gone my way — I’ve gotten fired a ton,” Yen said. “But life isn’t easy in general. These little things that I’ve learned that helped me get through life are things that I wanted to teach my nieces and nephews, and everyone.”