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How Silicon Valley's Palantir Wired Washington (politico.com)
143 points by hownottowrite on Aug 14, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 108 comments

I cannot say enough bad things about Palantir. Their technology is worse than the free alternatives and their consultants are not worth the money. They are losing their big commercial customers because of this and now need 'Hail Mary' contracts from the US govt to remain in business.

There is already a lot of information out how bad Palantir is. I hear from friends who work there that the BuzzFeed article on them is accurate. In short, like much in the valley, Palantir financially set up as an unmaintainable pyramid scheme.

One way for them to get out would be to pay Goldman Sachs to get Meg Wittman use HP shareholder money to buy Palantir at face value. This worked for Autonomy - a similar scam 'Big Data' company where the founders got away with it.

>I cannot say enough bad things about Palantir.

I cannot comment about the technology but I sure as hell can at a people level. I was a speaker at a conference where one of the Palantir cofounders gave a keynote. This was a conference organized by college students for their peers. As with all such situations these kids worked incredibly hard and his talk was incredibly disrespectful to that.

If I hadn't been so disgusted I would have thought to record it. Rather than talk about anything relevant to his audience, or frankly anything informative, he told 'stories'. We have all seen that type of talk, but I have never seem one which so blatantly braggadocious about his interactions with this and other country's intelligence branches. I saw it somewhat ironic that for someone who works for Peter Theil the level to which the talk, and his representation of the 'good' the company does was so absolutely and apologetically statist and authoritarian. He talked about who's jet he rode on, who he knew, and other things that seemed simply organized to ensure we knew just how important he was. Several of the stories were overtly misogynistic, and none of them had any useful knowledge about Palintir or working for them. I was sitting with another speaker and we were literally shaking our heads. I felt bad for the organizers and felt the shame he[the speaker] seemed incapable of.

Edit: clarified ambiguous pronoun

This matches my experiences with them and other Peter Thiel funded startups.

This is the kind of Palantir criticism I want to hear more of on HN. Could you flesh it out? What are the open or free alternatives?

Sure, I'll give a few examples.

A guy from BP told me in 2013 that they forked iPython, replaced all iPython references with Palantir and tried to sell it to them for $500K p.a.

For me; back in the day (2010) they were less secretive about their technology which was essentially an ontological reasoner. This was pre the Big Data hype boom - and AFAIK Palantir has never been about Big Data. Ontological reasoners have problems that prevent them from scaling or generalizing so they generally fail. Due to a long long history of failing ontological systems have a very bad name. But they look good for guided demos and has a ton of academic backing so it's easy to sell - as long as you call it something else - which is what they did. So if you want to use ontologies a better open source alternative software is Protege. But for the problems Palantir targets I'd recommend using standard machine learning technology where all the good stuff is open sourced.

As an aside, Peter Thiel also helped found Quid. A start-up that ripped off the Gephi layout engine and charges people $20K p.a. a seat. They've since rebuilt it but like Palantir it's still not solving people's problem and they've evolved into a consulting firm.

They apparently say it right here about the ontology approach:


That's especially hilarious given that approach's failures are what led to investment in machine learning in the first place. Such approaches tend to assume precise information, variables, and rules about the world. Most problems Palantir wants to address... the hard ones... are imprecise with hidden variables/relationships. The machine learning techniques did very well on those kind of mess problems. So, research shifted.

If Palantir is using ontologies for that stuff, then that would certainly be a sign for buyers to run. I still encourage academics to look into such approaches with probabilistic, simple methods in case any advances come up. Fuzzy logic was main one in my day. Just stumbled on a claim today a drone AI did human-level performance using that. Some corroboration for R&D in underdog solutions but not production apps. Haha.

Huh, so they are open about it now. They definitely were not when I talked to them. I guess enough time has passed that people have forgotten the hard won lessons of the past.

I worked on scaling and generalizing ontologies at university and had already switched to working with Big Data / ML at a big company when Palantir tried to recruit me. I talked to some of their senior engineers about their tech and made the point that their tech sounded just like ontologies. I tried to get them to admit what it was so I could be sure I was having an honest conversation with them. They flatly denied it and made it out like the whole thing was their great new idea. I was unimpressed.

I was still interested in working for them. Access to hard interesting problems can be hard to come by. In the end I couldn't take their legendary arrogance and insecurities - to me these are bright red flags of a toxic corporate culture. And they low balled me. I would have temporarily put up with the toxic culture for large piles of money.

"I was still interested in working for them. Access to hard interesting problems can be hard to come by. In the end I couldn't take their legendary arrogance and insecurities - to me these are bright red flags of a toxic corporate culture. And they low balled me. I would have temporarily put up with the toxic culture for large piles of money."

Smart decision. Far as ontologies, the Cyc project to create common sense in machines was my favorite at the time. Used ontological, knowledge base if my broken memory is accurate. I was and still am firmly convinced that finding an architecture suitable to solve that problem is a pre-requisite for the AI's we really want. Deep-learning is approximating it but closer to how brain does vision than common sense. Minsky noted at one point he could count number of researchers doing common sense on a single hand or so. That's a hard problem if you want one. Also unbelievably hard to get funded. (sighs)

Thanks. There is some interesting work being done with Deep Learning mixed with Bayesian Models and external databases of facts. The training apparently ungodly slow though. My work these days is visual so CNN works well enough. I'm not an authoritative expert in this field though so I'm taking 6 months off to study it intensely, after which I hope to be able to make some meaningful contributions.

There is nothing wrong with the ontologies approach. Palantir is not aiming for a fully automated approach. Palantir's core product is a an entity graph mostly used and manipulated by humans for analysis. Basically their software is only meant to augment human analysis.

That being said, from my conversations with them, they also have a traditional machine learning team for whenever that approach is needed for a product. But their core product is meant to only help analysis that is mostly done by humans.

There is usually something wrong with the ontologies approach as it rarely works. There is roughly two decades of evidence for this for anyone who cares to look. Five decades if you loosen the definition to include the family of logic and constraint programming - see AI Winter. There is nothing new about these ideas. It always looks and feels like it's going to work which is why humanity has persisted with it for so long and will likely continue to persist for some time to come.

There is a whole generation of better techniques that have come out of machine learning that totally eclipses ontologies and I know Palantir isn't using them. Their corporate culture isn't set up for fostering that kind of applied research.

No-one is advocating for a fully automated approaches. I don't know where that notion came from.

In my view is that Palantir is a consulting company that is pretending to be a tooling company. And their consultants are not worth the money they charge. Just one of many Silicon Valley based frauds.

Is this ontologies within the field of AI not working, or more generally?

Do you have references to any specific discussions on this?

Curious as I'm doing some work of my own (well outside AI) in which developing ontologies strikes me as useful, though I'd prefer not falling into any well-worn traps.

(My use is largely comping up with useful descriptive models of otherwise hairy concepts.)

What bazqux2 said is accurate. I'll go further to say that the kinds of work Palantir is involved in is mostly probabilistic. Especially intelligence work. So, use of models requiring certainty or straight logic in areas rife with uncertainty & degrees of truth seems set up to fail outside easy inferences. One can encode the logical stuff in probability models but harder to do reverse. Hence, their underlying tech should be probabilistic, fuzzy logic, or something similar for best results instead of just some results.

Far as ontologies in general, they have a mixed, track record. They take a lot of work to create. Then, they have to be mapped to real world inputs and outputs. One way they got applied is so called business rules engines or business process management. It's like a subset of ontology approaches of past. Here's a company that uses the real thing for enterprise software with Mercury language for execution part:


Also, Franz Inc, of Allegro Common LISP, covers many of the same use cases as Palantir with their ontological tooling.


So, there's definitely companies using it for long periods of time for real-world, use cases. Palantir just seemed to be mixing it with hype and secrecy to maximize their sale price later. ;)

I meant generally they are generally not useful. Sometimes they are. It depends on the purpose and what you want to build and who it's for.

Given that you're building a descriptive model it would depend if you're working with facts or with probabilities. If it's facts then Ontologies should work fine, for probabilities I'd recommend Bayesian techniques.

The input for these are usually small. From the sounds of it you're generating the input yourself so you should be safe.

An ontology of technlogical mechanisms (or dynamics):


Particularly in economic and policy discussion, technology is just "technology". A black box. In economics, Solow's Residual is described, by Solow, as "the measure of our ignorance" of factor productivity growth influences -- it's quite literally, statistically, what's left over after accounting for labour and capital.

I see a few quite evident classifications which strike me as useful:

1. Fuels. Apply more energy to something, it tends to happen faster. Wood, plant and animal oils, fossil fuels, nuclear fission, possibly fusion.

2. Material properties. Some things are highly dependent on specific material properties. Conductivity of gold, silver, copper, and aluminium. Ferromagnetism. Hardness of diamond. Softness of graphite. Semiconducting of silicon. Fertilising properties of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Many others. Point being, you're now locked into availablity and other properties of that material.

3. Specific process knowledge. What used to be called "arts". Most of what's now considered "technology", from agriculture to zymurgy (though zyumurgy's actually fairly close to agriculture...). These approach theoretical efficiency limits.

4. What seem to be dendritic or web structured aspects. Computer chips and Moore's law are today's classic example, but I'd count communications, transport, and trade networks, cities and urbanisations, knowledge itself, and other elements among these. What they have in common is an increasing rate of progress with greater accumulation, modulo retarding factors.

There are several other elements. Sensing and measurement increase various capabilities -- navigation and fine metal machining come to mind. Symbolic processing, from speech and writing to abstract maths and programming. Organisation -- of people, states, business, and finance.

The final element, and one which popped out at me whilst devising the ontology, was the concept of hygiene or pollution factors. They're a distinct class of phenomena which if not addressed tend to put a damper on further growth, everything from infectuous disease in cities to heavy metal pollution, salination of croplands, traffic congestion, spam and fraud in communications and business networks. It's a superset of common categories such as "pollution" or "disease" or "social breakdown".

Anyhow, that's what I'm working on. I find it a useful organising tool, still developing the idea.

1. In semiconductors, we get more out of stuff when we put in less energy due to shrinking the transistors. Even increasing transistors in same node doesn't always result in more work since bigger chips have slower clock rates. I think you need to look at inputs, which include time, more than fuel given it doesn't apply to a lot of things. Even human body which, as you increase fuel, will work slower due to being gorged and then die with exploded stomach.

2. This is true. It's worth noting such dependencies.

3. Elaborate on that.

4. That's true. There's a lot of work on that topic already that you can draw on. I remember some showing that how the cities grew was similar to how bacteria looked. Weird stuff.

Re waste. You can model it as a separate thing that goes up when certain actions happen, then starts bringing them down. Definitely should be considered.

Semiconductors are a case of #4. To contrast fuel vs. dendritic structures:

Fuels feed processes in which energy is crucial. Food and metabolism, almost all ore refining and metalworking, heating and cooking, and transport. Air travel (at any significant level) and Earth-to-orbit space launch are both entirely dependent on fuel-driven processes.

I didn't mention energy transmission and transformation, which is another set of mechanisms, ranging from projectiles (force-at-a-distance) to the simple machines (lever, ramp, screw, pulley, gears), linear-to-rotary and rotary-to-reciprocating transforms. Electricity, in this this ontology, is for the most part an energy transmission and transformation mechanism: to heat, motion, light, sound, etc.

3. See the Ello link for a list. The key is that the understanding is of how to do a process, which approaches some theoretical maximum efficiency. There's probably a learning curve associated, see J. Doyne Farmer and Wright's Law (related to Moore's) of process improvement.

4. You're likely thinking of Geoffrey West. There's a lot of Santa Fe Institute thinking in this idea generally.

The hygiene factors are more than just waste.

An early realisation of this came when I was considering Metcalfe's Law and the Tilly-Odlyzko refutation, of network effects. What I realised was that while yes, additional nodes tended to produce lesser value, each node also had a tendency to impose a cost to others, that being roughly constant. In a message or information network, you could consider this to be the "is this worth reading or not" cost associated with any given message.

See: https://www.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/1yzvh3/refutat...

(If you have Reddit's RES installed, set to view images, as there's a set of graphs illustrating the cost function.)

Applying that to various group communication sets, you can estimate the cost constant, and it turns out that the maximum supportable group size is a function of that constant. Among other things, Facebook manages to scale to a billion or several members by keeping the negative cost constant really, really low.

That's just one instance.

More generally, there are other phenomena which show examples of cost:

1. The Silk Road increased trade but also created a "commerce" in disease from China to Europe and versa. Similar for interactions with the New World (smallpox, syphilus).

2. Greek and Roman city engineers were conscious of location especially as regarded water flow, with the associations with disease. Clean in, dirty out. And no deisel pumps.

3. Indoor fire gives heat and cooking, but contributes to air pollution. Chimneys help.

4. Disease and epidemics limited city sizes. ~1800 London could not sustain its own population through births given the death rate. Constant in-migration was essential. Life-expectency of new arrivals was frightfully low. This improved tremendously with creation of sewers. By the end of the 19th century, solid waste, sewage, and horse metabolites (solid and liquid) were a crisis for many large cities, which had populations of hundreds of thousands of horses alone. The automobile solved a crushing pollution problem. But you got sewage, freshwater, sanitation, etc.

5. Reducing costs of something inevitably increases the amount of undesirable activity enabled. You need highly differentiated reward/punishment systems to limit these. Highway congestion, cruising, fraud, spam, advertising, etc.

6. Systemic disruptions. Here, the issue is effects which operate in difficult-to-forsee, systemic ways. CO2 and global warming, CFCs and ozone, asbestos, endocrine disrupters, nonnative species introduction, light pollution and wildlife disruption, are all examples.

Some of this overlaps with various other areas -- pollution, ecological principles, health and sanitation, etc. But I think the concept may be more general than any of these, and in terms of a technological dynamic, it has its own space, where the factors act to limit growth unless themselves specifically addressed.

Again, Palantir is not an AI company. They are a data visualization and analytics company. So all your perfectly fine points about ontologies and AI winter are not relevant.

It is an ontology company - see their website. This is how they derive their analytics and visualizations. So my points are relevant.

Hey -- I wrote that BuzzFeed article in May. I'm always looking to learn new things. If anyone on here wants to chat and compare notes, off the record, please don't hesitate to reach out: will.alden@buzzfeed.com

What does "p.a." mean?

per annum = per year

Why do people replace transparent English phrases with opaque foreign abbreviations? We're not writing with quills on vellum anymore.

Even "$500k/yr" is an improvement on "$500k p.a.".

As far as I know, per annum is actually a part of the English language. I typically have seen it used in the context of pricing or finance which seems to be verified. [1] I don't disagree with you about p.a. less clear than /yr though.

1. http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/3933/what-is-the-...

I'd argue "per annum" or p.a. isn't a foreign term and just standard English. English is full of Latin words, transparent, opaque, foreign, those are all words of Latin origin.

> I'd argue "per annum" or p.a. isn't a foreign term and just standard English.

Did you notice that a fluent English speaker had to ask what "p.a." meant? Do you think that would have happened if it had been written "per year" instead?

The same could be argued for any jargon outside of one's own field.

As a counterpoint: I'm not a native English speaker, I do understand "yr" just fine, but it takes me a split second longer to read that abbreviation.

Because p.a. is also part of my language.

How could one tell the OP was fluent?

Complaining about p.a. in a finance context makes about as much sense as complaining about "etc".

Well it makes sense to complain about etc when we have etcd now. Embrace the future!

Per annum, per centum, per mille, per capita, et cetera, et cetera.

These are Latin phrases, borrowed especially in British English as Great Britain was occupied by Latin speakers for nearly 400 years -- 43 CE through 410 CE. Latin continued to be the language of diplomacy, religion, philosophy, and science through the 18th and 19th century.

It is, for all practical intents, proper British English.


Though yes, $<value>/yr. is more frequently seen especially in American English.

> borrowed especially in British English as Great Britain was occupied by Latin speakers for nearly 400 years -- 43 CE through 410 CE.

Can you explain how Latin loanwords were loaned into English during this period? In your explanation, please make use of the facts that (1) there were no English speakers in Great Britain before 410 CE, and moreover (2) there was, by definition, no such language as English until Anglo-Saxon migrations into Great Britain (around 450 CE) established a distinct West Germanic linguistic community on the island.

You're more than welcome to explore this yourself.

You are, otherwise, being what the modern English derivative of the Sumerian ansu describes.

You are being worse than Palantir.

I think this is the most surprising thing, from my understanding, Palantir's user-facing tech is an ancient c.2007 era Java web start tool backed by a fairly ho-hum enterprise ontology system, some free-text search and fairly basic geospatial map server.

It sounds like a 3-6 month, 3 person project to replicate with modern tech. I think all of the pieces of a Palantir-like system exist with open/free alternatives, but nobody has just bothered to write the glue code to make it happen.

This makes me wonder at the ultimate utility of the particular shape of a Palantir system if nobody else is bothering to do it in quite the same way.

It's probably some combination of PostgreSQL (plus PostGIS) + Elastic Search + Neo4j for the storage tech, pick-your-web-framework for the server-side, D3.js + some mapping library for the front-end and have all the major pieces. A few months of glue code and CRUD writing and it would be done. I'd definitely welcome a quick-to-deploy open/free alternative.

The real money is in the integration, ETL, ontology consulting service bit and so anybody could really build a company around that stuff.

That matches my understanding of their tech stack as well. I also understand why people don't do an open sourced version - it doesn't pay nearly as well as having a job.

What I find interesting about this is that in effect Palantir is acting as a consulting company while pretending to be a software tooling company. This allows them to claim a higher earnings multiple to inflate value and extract more money out of VCs and offer a lower percentage of equity to employees. This is a very old trick. The problem is that consulting companies are much harder to scale than software companies and the inevitable disappointment will lead to a loss of equity.

There is good money in consulting (I am one) but it's hard to build a large consulting company when the 'tooling' companies can poach your talent away with cheap VC money and fairy tales about future piles of cash. It spoils the market. VC powered tooling companies masquerading as consulting companies are a real problem right now.

What's pretty interesting is that my understanding of their licensing scheme is that it is not cheap per seat per year. Something on the order of $10-12k. There was a pricing sheet that floated around a few months ago that was released through a FOIA request. So it sounds like they covered their initial development R&D costs through licensing, led with that tool into consulting.

My understanding is that many of the tooling companies who became consulting firms mostly jettisoned the tools along the way. Palantir has just let theirs stagnate.

You should check out Ab Inito, an even more secretive ETL company that predates Palantir and is also milking the DoD (it's an age old racket). They're $90K per seat per year and it's basically a crappy version of Jenkins. Apparently they have staff that search the internet and sue anyone who mentions them. Not even Palantir does that. So let's see how long this posts lasts :)


Wikipedia: "Ab Initio maintains a high level of secrecy regarding their products. Some people working with their product, even those who work for organizations who use Ab Initio, operate under a non-disclosure agreement which prevents them from revealing Ab Initio technical information to the public."

> The real money is in the integration, ETL, ontology consulting service bit and so anybody could really build a company around that stuff.

Yes, and that stuff takes years to build. You're missing the whole point of Palantir when you leave this as essentially a footnote.

As a sidenote, your info is outdated. At least for the user-facing portion (which I saw - I obviously didn't get to see the graph/backend internals), it's all web-app-based now. At least from a superficial perspective, the UI seemed pretty slick.

> Yes, and that stuff takes years to build. You're missing the whole point of Palantir when you leave this as essentially a footnote.

Well, I think that's their intention. Pretend to be a software tool maker, but really be a services group. However, that radically changes the investment/return story. Because software, once you make a tool, you can sell it a hundred billion times for pretty much no additional cost and make pure profit after the first few thousand seats pays off the initial investment. But humans (services) don't return investment like this and most services work is very one-off by nature.

> As a sidenote, your info is outdated. At least for the user-facing portion (which I saw - I obviously didn't get to see the graph/backend internals), it's all web-app-based now.

This is important either way:

- if they're still pushing out the JWS client they used to have available as a demo for most of a decade (Op Tradestop), then the VC money isn't funding technology, it's funding sales and marketing expansion of the core services business

- if they're using web tech, there's plenty of very good, very mature web tech that's open/free for anybody to use, killing off their "secret sauce" sales lead-in and their customer stickiness. Here's their only known publicly facing web tech [1] I'll let readers decide if this is the output of a $20billion valuation company or something a couple guys over a weekend could cook up.

- if their back-end is just big-data scalable whatever (and their technologies page seems to indicate it is [2]), then they aren't offering any value to their customers there either

1 - https://d3svb6mundity5.cloudfront.net/dashboard/index.html

2 - https://www.palantir.com/palantir-gotham/technologies/

They have core tools, but obviously the majority of their code is bridging the core tools and their client's services.

Are you kidding me? If that extremely-slick dashboard (I hadn't seen it before) is representative of the quality of their UI for all their products (I actually doubt it is), as an enterprise/government company I am shocked they have not yet annihilated their competition. If it is representative, we now know why they have to spend money on lobbying - the only reason their competitors are alive is because of entrenched influence.

What's hilarious is you've broken down individual components of Palantir's offering and made the case that each individual component can be replaced by open-source or by a competitor. But that's literally missing the forest for the trees. It's the whole integrated package that matters. Nobody (or very few) is doing the whole package as well as they are.

> Nobody (or very few) is doing the whole package as well as they are.

If you read what I've said in this thread, I actually completely agree with you.

That map dashboard is like hundreds of similar dashboards I've seen elsewhere. I literally just saw a guy put something like that together in a couple weeks for an internal project where I work using mapbox and some d3.js bits. It even had a time slicer like this one and clickable map features.

So why isn't everybody as visible? I suspect getting a billion+/year in VC helps. But they've also managed to unify several key user-facing tools into a nice package and generalized it enough to support lots of different problem sets. Something that still seems beyond most companies.

From what I recall of their old public demo (Op Tradestop), their ontology data-input engine was pretty nice (if labor intensive) and it allowed for some easy to use queries against the enterpise graph. You can get pretty far locally with Visio, omnigraphle or yED, but they've managed to centralize the information input and retrieval in a nice way that seems easy enough to do by anybody who's seen it.

It might turn out that at scale it just doesn't provide enough value, or the labor intensive data entry parts make it not work well. Who knows?

Their competition isn't dashboards it's modelling.

Customers want dashboards and Palantir provides excellent dashboard tooling. Dashboards make people feel smart and feel like they are learning something. But dashboards are not as useful as people think and usually fail to return enough value to cover the cost. As Palantir is so expensive the bar is higher and often not met - hence the losing of customers.

Customers need data models but they don't know it yet. The charts used with models are usually not interesting if they exist at all. If you did show charts of the data models to the customer it often makes them feel dumb and out of control - few people like that. They're also dependent on you to interpret the models and customers don't like that either.

So given the choice of comforting lie or uncomfortable truth the vast majority will choose the lie. So if you're in the business of selling comforting lies don't be surprised when they fail to work.

How do you know the government has such shitty tech that even a dashboard of metrics isn't a huge improvement for them?

My bet is Palantir knows more about their customer's needs than you do.

Impressionistically, over the past 6-8 months or so, I've seen a lot of new resume flow coming out of Palantir (as a hiring manager at a large fintech co). I get the impression that they're bleeding talent.

After the BuzzFeed article and Unicorn Flyers they bumped pay and bonuses by ~20%. This was around 6-8 months ago. From what you're saying it sounds like it wasn't enough.

My experience, limited as it is, is that nobody talks out loud about turnover until something awful has already happened. It's always too little too late.

Maybe that's because these things tend to only happen when there's a serious lack of respect and the employees have noticed. You can't bribe people into thinking you respect them. It just looks like being bought off. Twist the knife a little won't you?

What are some free alternatives ?

But... Didn't Palantir find Osama Bin Laden?

This is the kind of low-quality vague mudslinging ("my friends tell me they're bad and also I think they're terrible") that makes me lose faith in the HN comment section. I'm sure my sibling post asking for details will lack for a detailed response.

Felt compelled to create an account to describe my experiences with Palantir as well. We tried to engage with them for some threat intel work. They set up an instance for a client and in the course of the engagement:

- they exposed our data to other clients and other clients' data to us by accident

- had significant unplanned downtime

- their platform buckled under relatively small amounts of object graph data

- provided a fat client app that was the most bloated mess of repackaged and unacknowledged open-source JAR files I've ever seen

I've always found Palantir's sales&marketing strategy to be unique and fascinating among Silicon Valley startups.

Palantir is a high-touch, B2B enterprise software startup, and as such, they are no different than other startups when it comes to sales&marketing. They need to find leads (= potential customers), close them as customers and retain them.

Yet, Palantir's leadership and employees have repeatedly emphasized that they don't do sales or marketing. The OP confirms that they meant that they do sales and marketing differently than other companies.

Retaining lobbyists and policy advisers is one example. Typically, enterprise software companies retain industry analyst firms like Gartner, Forrester, etc. and "influence" their opinions via briefing/consulting. These industry analyst firms also work with technology buyers and make recommendations to them based on their knowledge of software/service providers and the needs of the buyer.

To be sure, no analyst firm is 100% pay to play because if they favor select vendors too much, they lose credibility, access to information and hence influence. That said, it's naive to think that they are 100% free from monied vendor incentives.

It did not occur to me until reading this post that the same model applies to lobbying, and that's where Palantir invested their influencer marketing budget.

Palantir often emphasizes their technological innovation and unique culture (again, a great marketing strategy to attract great technical talent and put them in sales engineering roles). However, I've come to believe that Palantir's greatest innovation is in their business strategy.

> Yet, Palantir's leadership and employees have repeatedly emphasized that they don't do sales or marketing.

That was definitely a matra a few years ago, but then they started plastering adverts all over D.C.'s metro stations [1] and started hiring sales, BD, marketing and advertising people in huge numbers [2]. In addition, they've clearly hired some great PR firms to get "news" articles written about them in high profile newspapers.

At this point, looking at their venture raises and the lack of major technology investment (outside of integration and customization), I'd say they're probably one of the best funded traditional sales & marketing organization in this space.

1 - https://www.quora.com/How-much-is-Palantir-Technologies-spen...

2 - https://www.palantir.com/careers/

> While still a fraction of what the Pentagon's biggest contractors spend, Palantir's lobbying expenditures grew from $300,000 in 2010 to over $1 million by 2015.

Expected this number to be a lot higher as this seems to be the articles thesis: palantir aggressively outspent and outmaneuvered the traditional war contractors.

Also, given that palantir has secured $500m in gov contracts (1.2b*40%) the ROI on the ~$10m they've spent on lobbying is massive. I find it hard to believe that it accounts for a substantial portion of palantir's success.

Maybe their intelligence is so good that they knew exactly which wheel to grease and that it didn't need a lot of grease.

More seriously, it's interesting to consider them turning their expertise against their customers.

Lobbying can get great returns if you target it well plus bring in people on defense side into your organization for "old boy network." I don't recall if Palantir does that but I wouldn't be surprised. Far as lobbying, to illustrate the ROI's achievable: oil companies spending tens of millions got billions (Solendra too with less); casino industry got $650 million in tax breaks donating around $3 mil to Nevada reps; banks probably put in tens of millions then got $1 trillion bailout; big defense contractors put in millions plus give Pentagon chiefs or acquisition folks six-figure salaries to get billions in return at good margins. Common stuff, my man. Nothing unusual with effective bribery, err corporate participation in democracy. ;)

Thus the reason I hang up on startup recruiters the moment they say "A peter thiel funded start-up". I'm not sure what is a sadder waste of this amazing braintrust we have in the United States today, all of the advertising start-ups, or sociopathic dreck like Palantir.

This is the wrong attitude - there is no "waste" of braintrust. Innovation doesnt work like that, it comes from all over by people working on what they want to work on.

What's wrong with advertising startups? Some of the most valuable companies on this planet are advertising companies because it's an essential part of success for any business.

Most people in most startups are not "working on what they want to work on" they are working on what their boss wants them to work on.

Heck, I would wager that >50% of startup employees are not even doing the work they think is most important for the success of the startup. They are doing the work their boss (who by definition is further removed from the facts) thinks is most important.

Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if >50% of startup employees are doing work they know is not important for the success of the startup.

That's what happens when you run a command and control organization. You lose >50% of your output, in exchange for guaranteed alignment of whatever is leftover. As long as you pay people <50% of what they are worth you can still make money.

"their boss (who by definition is further removed from the facts)"

While I agree that poor leadership is common, I strongly beg to differ with the reasoning that leadership is removed from the facts.

Friend - 'Engineering' is not 'the facts', or not usually.

Customers, business opportunities, markets, investors - these are usually the 'facts' in a business, and sometimes it means doing things that don't seem obvious to a coder.

I've never seen something great come to fruition that involved a linear progress from 'need' to 'product'. It's usually messy, and involves all sorts of actors.

For example, hacking together a 'throw away' something to impress a customer or to ensure they believe in the capacity of the company would likely been seen as a 'waste' from an ops perspective, but it's certainly not if the business situation calls for it.

Sometimes the facts are in the code, but this is much less often than one would realize.

That said, Palantir is a little scammy. They're just CGI or Accenture by another name.

> Friend - 'Engineering' is not 'the facts', or not usually.

Not sure why you're referencing engineering? I didn't say anything about that. Not all startup employees are engineers.

> Customers, business opportunities, markets, investors

Customer support is going to have more facts about customers, investors are going to have more facts about investment terms and opportunities, marketing team is going to have more facts about markets, biz dev is going to have more facts about business relationships.

Management is not going to have more facts in any area than anyone really. Their job isn't to understand what's happening in detail, it's to maintain the structure of communication which allows different parts of the company to make good decisions.

If management starts thinking they know more than their employee on a topic, something has gone terribly wrong. They hired someone who doesn't know what they are doing, or they are preventing information from flowing to where it is needed, or they are just being hubristic.

What? The point is that you can't force people into or away from certain industries. There's nothing wrong with advertising startups as the parent poster seems to think.

How much freedom you have within a company, the power structure and the actual composition of the work is a completely different discussion.

> Most people in most startups are not "working on what they want to work on" they are working on what their boss wants them to work on.

That's a rather naive statement. should be: s/startups/organizations/g

Most of my employment experience is within startups, so I am just making claims about what I know.

I guess I look at waste because of the motivation. The only motivator in the Silicon Valley, in the end, is greed. Even if it begins with wanting to change the world, or wanting to work on cool challenges, $3k/month rent inevitably leads to "omfg, gonna be homeless, gotta make lots of money".

My time in refugee camps teaching Syrian music to Syrian refugees had more of an impact on the world than any of the companies where I've worked.

When you were a little boy, did you ever say "Mommy, when I grow up I'm going to sell banner ads?"

You are kind of begging the question with your second paragraph. You argue that advertising is valuable because it's essential, but advertising is only essential because of its own existence. That doesn't make it valuable to society's broader goals.

> society's broader goals.

What are these exactly? Society is a summation of it's people and the success of the ventures they start are a big part of that.

> You argue that advertising is valuable because it's essential, but advertising is only essential because of its own existence.

What's that even mean? Lookup the definition of marketing and you'll see that connecting product information to consumers is needed to actually sell anything, and advertising is the distribution of this message. It's not only valuable, it's critical and necessary for business success.

You might not like being interrupted by ads (especially today's incarnation of ads online) but that is entirely separate from the concept of advertising itself. Saying that advertising isn't valuable is a gross misunderstanding of what advertising actually is.

Advertising is a zero-sum game. Advancements only improve the product, there is little/no change in spending from the point of view of society.

I might venture to say it's negative sum, because the need to advertise in order to compete diverts resources away from positive sum activities (R&D).

"zero sum" doesn't mean "zero net benefit". It's about competition, not utility. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-sum_game

I know, I'm saying that one company'd ad spend negates their competitor's, and vice versa, so the more everyone spends, the more everyone loses. That is non-zero-sum, in the negative direction.

Ad Hominem attacks like this add very little value to the discussion.

That's not an ad hominem attack, it's a statement based on reputation.

Ad hominem, properly, is based on an irrelevant characteristic of the person being attacked. "I won't work for a Peter Thiel startup because he wears white shoes after Labour Day", or "... because he mixes stripes and solids".

Stating that he's got a track record of founding and backing ventures with a net-negative social value, or which simply waste talent, is absolutely spot on.

>founding and backing ventures with a net-negative social value

According to his Wikipage, the major things he's done: Paypal, Facebook, Y Combinator, and a couple investment/VC/Angel ventures. None of these are net-negative social value in my opinion, or at least not any more so than virtually any other big business on the planet. He's also backed an impressive number of philanthropic endeavors.

Your comment comes across as someone's angry at Thiel because of the Gawker lawsuit and/or Trump endorsement.

The factual value of whether or a relevant comparison is justified or not is open to question. That would turn the attack into an unjustified one.

But not ad hom.

I'm not convinced of PayPal and Facebook's net social value. They're quite mixed, though I'll allow transformative.

You should see huge sectors of the pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries, you'd weep.


Both of those involve actual research, which is to say, trying the impossible and unknown, to discover the possible and knowable.

Though I'm also aware that there's a tremendous difference between chasing markets, which gives you drugs such as Viagra, or lifetime (type-II) diabetes management, rather than, say, wiping out tropical disease or promoting diet which would avoid diabetes in the first place.

But what did you have in mind?

Chasing markets, while antibiotic resistance grows for one.

This article makes Palantir sound really weak to me.

Palantir makes money selling their product. They are not a real competitor or Northrop Grumman or Raytheon. The big primes are massive and organized to win lots of different big contracts over a long time period.

If they wanted to compete with the big primes they would be at a massive disadvantage paying expensive SV engineers who are hard to clear versus cheap DC engineers who are easy to clear.

If they have had 1b in revenue I'm not sure what that means. They have raised about 1b, but paid like 5000 employees. Financially not bad but they are big, I kind of expect a lot more federal money than that to keep them in a good place.

I'm not sure what the future of Palantir looks like.

They have had a DC office for almost 10 years, and they hire plenty of engineers for it. Still lots of disadvantages, but hiring isn't one of them.

Having worked in DC and SV I'm not sure DC engineers are cheap, especially the ones who can clear.

I have too. The ceiling for an engineers salary is much lower in DC. Also young people have a much lower salary as well. Some managers might be pretty close in compensation though.

We are talking about DMV. Working in the city is very uncommon for big primes. All their HQs are in Tysons

It's more than DC though. Big primes have satellite offices everywhere.

I have noticed that about DC. I've met plenty of quality engineers but the salaries seem surprisingly low here. It would almost be better to take a slight pay cut but live in Richmond, VA where the cost-of-living is much lower.

Either way I have major doubts about having an engineering career in DC.

Like most of the US, DC is not an engineering or manufacturing culture as much as a sales culture. Politics and customer-facing roles are valued much more than engineering typically. What's the evidence for this? Most technology companies don't have engineering-centric offices here, they have federal and commercial sales offices - literally entire offices of nothing but sales teams with an occasional visit by a sales engineer. If the engineers aren't in the Bay Area, then they're typically associated with New York finance connections. Barring that, you're looking at even defense contractors that source to lower cost of living engineers in the South / Southeast while the majority of the revenue goes to pay for the lavish lifestyles of the already-rich and well-connected in the DC metro area.

It creates culture and political problems.

When I worked for a .gov, the amount of political blowback from a consultant billing $600/hr and workforce resentment at a consultant making $500k made the untenable.

I recently read how Palantir is currently suing the government because they got pissed the Army is considering dumping them and is trying to bid out the work to others. They're coming across as a bit desperate in this whole thing and to be fair they probably are since if Uncle Sam pulls out they're probably toast.

There was a lot of press a few months back about how they've been dumped by a lot of their private sector customers for costing too much and delivering too little. If the government catches on and and does the same thing that sort of destroys their business model.

Are you kidding? The government LOVES to overpay for underwhelming software.

That's really not accurate.

While it happens, there are many projects and efforts that are tightly controlled, managed, and executed.

And when projects go off the rails, people are generally pretty unhappy. The government is huge though, so bad apples and bad actors exist... but it's not accurate to write hyperbolically as you do.

> but it's not accurate to write hyperbolically as you do.

Yes it is. Give me 5 on-time, on-budget IT projects I'll give you 50 that flopped.

It's one of those situations where 99% of the examples ruin it for the rest

Maybe after a few months, this is the PR course they've decided to take? If so... yikes.

Lots of questions over how much firms of this type spend on lobbying, here's an article with some figures.


As an example Lockheed Martin spent around $14.4m in 2013 and does about $45b/year in revenue.

According to this Palantir spent around $1m in 2015 and gets about $1b/year in revenue.

Lobbying from what I understand is a more polite form of corruption for the most part. I think in the parts of the world where corruption is more direct (bribes) you actually have to pay a lot more to get this kind of returns.

Palantir is just a secretive CGI: mediocre devs doing outsourced work. There is no product. Just a brand.

>mediocre devs

Really? They pretty much hire from the best (Stanford, etc) - how are they mediocre?

Because coming out of a prestigious school doesn't make you good by default. It just means you were able to pass their tests well enough, whether it is from actual skill or playing the tests.

Just because someone studied biology at standford - or even computer science at Stanford - does not necessarily make one a good dev., that said, smart kids who get into such programs are likely higher in potential. Moreover, good devs usually have a few years under the belt.

They hire from a lot of places and do piecemeal, often shoddy consulting work, it's not a product company, there's nothing special about them.

Going off akhilcacharya's point, some of the best CS college classmates I knew went to Palantir after graduation.

Is a million a lot to spend on lobbying?

Not sure relative to revenue, but the top lobbying group (US Chamber of Commerce) spent $85MM last year.


I look at consultants like home improvement, if you can spend $100 and improve the value of your home by $70, you've basically won.

As an aside, there should be a JP Power rankings for consultancies. Is there?

Maybe this is a typo, but the way you wrote it, you lost $30.

no, it very much depends on what your time is worth and the time it would take you vs. someone you pay to do a job.

If I pay someone $100 to raise the value of my home $70, but it would take me 10hrs and I value my time at $100 an hour then it would cost me $1,000 to do what I hired someone to do for $100

Why would you do it in the first place? By definition your EV is $30 higher by just not doing anything.

a combination of "this time it's gonna be different", and I need some on-demand expertise.

I just love the name of the company and its perhaps unintended implications.

The Palantiri were seeing stones ... allowing rulers to observe distant events, but ...

The Orthanc-Palantir was used by Sauron (the big bad) to enslave Saruman (the lead Wizard), causing him to betray the forces of good.

So, now we finally see why Thiel (Saruman) endorsed Trump (Sauron).

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