A math nerd who learned to program computers early and loved science fiction: “Yeah, I was that kid,” Chris Cox offers as explanation (by way of confession) of how all roads inevitably led to his role as Facebook’s product chief and keeper-creator of the social network’s culture of relentless innovation. Yes, in some ways he hails from central casting. But it was his early studies of jazz piano and the attendant dives into theory, patterns, and abstraction that helped Cox see the world through the lens of cognitive mystery, not merely as an engineering challenge. “Math and music try to solve some of the same problems,” he says. “I wanted to learn more about how it all worked in the brain.”
His quest took him to the legendary Symbolic Systems program at Stanford, and into post-graduate work in the university’s natural language processing group. “I loved artificial intelligence–it seemed like the craziest and most expansive thing in the Stanford course reader,” laughs Cox.
When Facebook came calling, Cox passed at first. “I didn’t think they were working on solving a serious problem.” But after a series of meetings, a picture emerged in his mind. “I could see an unencumbered ability for people to communicate with each other,” he says. “I saw it as a map–a modern form of cartography, but of relationships and people.” After Cox abandoned Stanford for Facebook in 2005, his inaugural assignment was to create Facebook’s first “probabilistic learning system,” which the rest of us call “news feed.” The product, despite the backlash, became the foundation for every stage of Facebook’s growth since. “I was building things that had to be felt to be believed,” he says. “That’s how I learned what iteration really is.”
Today, Cox manages all the engineers and designers working on Facebook, and as CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s chief of staff for product, he is singularly focused on scaling both the site and the philosophy behind it. All new hires attend an orientation led by Cox. It is not a pep talk. “I explain three things,” he says. “The social graph, the concept of [news] feed, and Facebook as a platform that can be brought anywhere.” Cox believes it is a critical step in surviving a culture that requires people to lead with their imaginations, bring forth unpopular ideas, and learn through experimentation. “I am constantly trying to find and articulate something that everyone can organize around–it’s what most people call ‘vision,’ but it’s really just a story line.”
Joining a story already in progress, Cox hopes, inspires some courage. “The things that have been the most successful here have been shrouded in disbelief or controversy.” He continues to focus on cognitive mysteries, the intersection of digital life and what real people are, need, and do. “We are talking about a brand-new form,” he says of social communities. “There is no common language yet.” A perpetual student, he looks to architecture, media theorists, and cognitive science for inspiration. “Anyplace,” he says, “where a pattern language has been created for talking about building something as complex, emotional, and intricate as a public space.”
Where do you look for inspiration?
I read a lot about adjacent fields, like architecture, fashion, or music. It’s not the obvious place to look for inspiration. Some of the most grounding stuff for me has been Marshall McLuhan who talked about the evolution of mediums and Stewart Brand, who is another sort of thinker, talking about the way that communities and places could be built. Christopher Alexander is a famous architect from Berkeley who talked about building a language of patterns that you can teach a designer to make something as massive as a new building. A lot of that thinking goes into how to create a home page for a social networking site.
I’ve never met Steve Jobs. I don’t think I’d ask him a question; I’d probably just want to hear his story. Let’s face it, he’s the reason a lot of us have come to do what we do.