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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Facebook and Google

A few months ago, I wrote Tips for Nooglers. That post became far more widely read than I expected, and one of my friends at Facebook, Steven Grimm said that the next time I visited Facebook Michael Schroepfer would like to speak with me about some of the background behind that blog post. Since I'm terrible at off-the-cuff remarks, I prepared a presentation. I further modified the presentation tonight because the original presentation relied on me being around to elaborate on the details (think of it as "talking points"), while obviously, I'm not about to elaborate and answer questions on my blog interactively.

Since everything on the internet gets misunderstood, I will emphasize a few things (repeated from the slide because it should be):
  • Google is an incredibly successful business and organization.
  • Google was far more agile at 1500 people than most 200 person startups.
  • At every point in its growth, Google was/is the best in its class as an employer for engineers.
  • Many consider Google's #1 mistake to be having a tech ladder in the first place. I covered that topic in my post on Promotion Systems, so did not feel the need to belabor the point.
I will admit to thinking long and hard before putting up this presentation. Everything on the internet gets mis-represented, and I'm already dangerously close to being persona non grata on Google campus. On the other hand, with all the recent flap about high profile defections from Google to Facebook, I thought this would lend some much needed context.
Before, during, and after my presentation, I spoke with various Facebook employees. I was very impressed by a few things:
  • Facebook has deliberately throttled its growth in the engineering organization. While Facebook could afford to double every year, its deliberately maintained its growth at well below that rate because of acculturation problems otherwise. In 2004, a senior manager at Google begged the founders to reconsider doubling every year. Google probably would be very different if that manager had successfully won that political battle.
  • Every manager I talked to spoke about the need to balance different contributions to Facebook's engineering efforts. In particular, many people echoed Yishan Wong's statements on Quora:
    There is a part of Facebook culture that is actually against the "we're only here to work on innovative, ground-breaking, glory-seeking projects" that grew out of a reaction against the perceived Google culture[1] of the time (approx. 2006 - 2008), as well as a recognition that long-term, sustainable success is built far more on hard, thankless grinding than brilliant innovation.

    As a result, Facebook actively respects people who do the "thankless, dirty work," like rewriting spaghetti code, making build systems, crushing annoying bugs, etc (obviously, it ends up being much less thankless in that case). High-profile projects at Facebook get respect from the press and the outside world, but "doing the dirty work" gets you respect from your peers and management. At least while I was there, we had a tendency to prefer engineers for advancement who had spent considerable time "grinding it out" and supporting their peers.

    Lastly, the occasional notable innovation or well-executed project is made possible because one's peers have put in the time to ensure that all the mundane groundwork is done well (i.e so that critical subsystems do not fail on you when you are trying to launch something new and risky). This is appreciated on a peer-to-peer basis and, while I was there, most everyone took their turn doing "the dirty work."
  • Facebook's engineering organization is much smaller than Google's. Even better, people are mostly compensated with stock. This makes it easier to ignore "what's best for me" and do "what's best for the organization."
  • Sanjeev Singh (who has a deep knowledge of both organizations) said to me, "Facebook has done a far better job of promoting from within than Google did at the same size."
  • Facebook is much more engineering constrained than Google was. Part of this is deliberate, but the other part of it is that Facebook had a much tougher time recruiting than Google did.
Now, how much of this is true, and how much of this is true only because I'm given a rosy picture, I don't know. For instance, you could work around the "growth throttling" by hiring lots of contractors (Google certainly did that). In case you're wondering, I own a heck of a lot more Google stock than I do Facebook stock, so in at least one way, I wished that everything I'm saying here was not true. On the other hand, it's a good thing that big companies screw up. Otherwise, there would not be room for startups to succeed. And no, I was not paid for the presentation, unless you consider free food payment. The life of a struggling author continues.


Allan Folz said...

Hmm, I've always been curious whether you'd have any comments about the politically correct censorship at Google. Since it seems you're not overly worried about persona non grata status, do you have any comments?

If you're not familiar with it, the PC actions started (to my knowledge) with mysterious deletions of blogspot hosted blogs, then there was the Pat Buchanan "unpersoning" from Search's auto-complete feature, then late this summer we had the whole Lincoln Memorial shenanigans, and most recently an Adsense purge.


Piaw Na said...

I haven't heard of such actions. My suspicion is that any data loss is far more likely to be incompetence (either on the part of users or on the part of Google) than malice or PC-ness.

Allan Folz said...

Thanks for the quick reply. I figured it was a 1 in 1000 chance you'd have had any interaction with that end of things. The blogspot deletions could have been incompetence, the Adsense purge most certainly not.

Benevolentprof said...

Thanks for sharing. The culture at Facebook sounds a bit like the culture at the team that wrote software for the space shuttle. Years ago, Charles Fishman wrote a nice article for Fast Company. It's literally no guts and no glory; engineers aren't expect to dig into their guts and go for glory.