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Making Things, Breaking Things At Facebook

At the end of the day (or the beginning of it, since people who work there tend to stay up pretty late) Facebook is a technology company. It is staffed primarily by engineers; even some of the non-technical positions. (Even Zuckerberg, whose schedule is overloaded with executive responsibilities these days, doesn’t code much of the site anymore.

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At the end of the day (or the beginning of it, since people who work there tend to stay up pretty late) Facebook is a technology company. It is staffed primarily by engineers; even some of the non-technical positions. (Even Zuckerberg, whose schedule is overloaded with executive responsibilities these days, doesn’t code much of the site anymore. “I just make things for fun and to keep my skills sharp.”) But Facebook is clearly a company filled with people who love to makes things. And like most people who are highly trained and focused, they have a charming way of being proud of what they create.

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Katie Geminder (pictured) the Director of Product, sounds like a cross between a den mother and an air traffic controller as she describes what she does all day. “Product management interacts engineering and design, takes the vision, turns it into the details and gets the product out the door.” She and her team work directly with Zuckerberg and other lead engineers – or the engineering teams themselves – to vet product ideas. But things get made at “an amazing rate,” she says. “The rate of development and iteration that goes on here – it’s different than any other place I’ve ever worked.”

Geminder has been there about a year, and is one of growing number of 1.0 veterans who have come from what are now established technology companies to ride the wave of a yet another start-up. (Geminder hails from Apple, and most recently Amazon, where she also knew Owen Van Natta, Facebook’s current COO. See? Networking works.) Geminder talks animatedly – in fact, an hour with her is more energizing than a double espresso and a fist full of chocolate – about the Facebook culture, which she describes as “flat”, and that allows for ideas to both bubble up (from any and all engineers) and trickle down from on high.

“There’s a lot of collaboration, communication, moving fast,” explains Geminder. Engineers and teams sit together on the second and third floors, so information about product status bubbles up into the collective in a variety of ways. Like shouting back and forth? “Uh,” she laughs. “Actually, there’s this thing? It’s called Facebook?” She smirks. “It’s a very good way to share information efficiently.” Got it. (Facebook employees love that joke.)

One of the important functions of the customer service staffers – who are all college graduates from top shelf schools and long-time Facebook users – is to provide user feedback information to the product teams for review. User suggestions, click and page view data, complaints and questions are all analyzed. They also use other forms and methodologies – product testing and listening labs, for example. “We get as much user feedback as we can early in the product cycle without slowing things down,” explains Geminder.

Tuesday is drop dead day at Facebook. New products are fine-tuned and show up on the site in what’s called a “push.” Some products are going to be new, and some are going to be nuanced tweaks of existing features. “The user might not see what it is,” she explains. “Most of the new features and functionalities are small.” A big new product comes out whenever it is ready to launch, however.

But hacker nation lives on at Facebook, and the many engineers I spoke to are clearly damn proud of that. Frequent hackathons pop up like geek insurgencies – engineering all-nighters where people go deep on ideas that they haven’t had a chance to develop during their pre-push schedules. It’s a tip of the hat to the rebel nature of hacking (more on Zuckerberg’s philosophy later) but it also, it seems, gives people who need time to think in order to be able to create, a better option for making their contribution to the greater good.

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One recent hackathon success story, says Geminder, was a tweak to the photo functionality that allowed people to see more pictures of, well, themselves. “People love to see themselves in pictures. So one of our engineers, Chris Cox, had this idea to make it easier for people to find pictures of themselves with specific friends in photos all throughout the site.” An already existing feature called photo-tagging made it possible. That functionality allows users to identify the people in their own photos. But the social aspect of the site provides the context necessary for the technology to correctly identify people in photos that are stored in other people’s albums. This lets users hunt for pictures of themselves with other people that may be stored on the site. Context counts – this can’t happen on sites that simply allow users to store photo albums. (And of course, privacy counts too. If you don’t want other people to see your photos, set your privacy controls accordingly.)

Den Mother Geminder sounds proud. “They whipped it out one night, and then out in the next push.” The functionality now lives as a button “see more pictures of me and so-and-so together.”

During the course of our several interviews, Zuckerberg talked early and often about the culture he is trying to build within Facebook. His stated goal is to create a system of openness that will foster a form of creative courage within the staffers. “Our company is full of really smart people – we emphasize intelligence over experience. We give people a lot of information, and give them a chance to contribute everywhere.” When things move fast, stuff goes wrong. The culture attempts to embrace that. “Our mantra is break things,” says Zuckerberg. “If things aren’t breaking, then you’re not moving fast enough. People learn by making mistakes.” And bottom line, “we just churn a lot of stuff out.”

And when things are moving quicky, things do break. They consider that a cost of doing business. For example, the gift feature – a small, low-impact feature that lets users send small icons as a “gift”, signifying a sentiment – broke down in about an hour, Zuckerberg explains. “But we also fixed it in an hour,” says Zuckerberg. This also explains why the whole newsfeed dust-up came as such a surprise. “Yup,” he says laughing. “That was interesting.”


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