Zuckerberg, Schroepfer: Facebook’s Crazy Growth Means Balancing Small-Team Culture While Making Sure Things Don’t Fall Apart

6/30/11Follow @curtwoodward

As it marches toward 1 billion users, Facebook’s leaders are keenly focused on a defining tug-of-war: Making sure the company has enough hands working on critical projects without getting too big too fast and diluting the talent pool. That’s one of my key takeaways from tonight’s Seattle appearance by founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and head of engineering Mike Schroepfer, who stopped by Facebook’s growing Seattle engineering outpost to hold a Q&A with developers.

The Q&A part was off limits to the press, but Zuckerberg, Schroepfer, and Seattle office head Ari Steinberg did chat with a few reporters ahead of time about the Seattle office’s place in Facebook’s overall plans, and how that reflects on the larger issues of company culture as the social network manages insane-sounding rates of growth. Since its birth in a Harvard dorm room about seven years ago, Facebook has quickly grown to a reported 750 million monthly active users—a figure that would represent 50 percent growth in just the past year or so.

All three Facebookers said the growth plans for the Seattle office, and by extension Facebook generally, were more aimed at getting exceptional people than hitting any specific, hard number targets. Zuckerberg allowed that “Every company says that they hire only good people, and that’s, I think, generally bullshit, because it’s statistically not possible.” But he repeated his much-discussed point that the best people in engineering are not just somewhat better than the others, but vastly, exponentially better—thereby allowing a company even with Facebook’s growth pattern to keep its teams smaller than normal. Facebook presently says it has more than 2,000 employees to serve those hundreds of millions of users.

“In studying the industry, it seems like a bunch of companies—Google, Amazon, I think Microsoft—had a lot of really quick growth years where they’d double in size, or some companies even had these years where they’d triple. And I just don’t think a culture can sustain that. And so we’ve tried to grow the engineering team around 60 percent, which is still very fast. It requires a lot of work to do that well. But it’s a lot less than 100 percent—doubling—or 200 percent,” Zuckerberg says. “The company is just growing so quickly now in terms of users and revenue and all that stuff that 60 percent is actually pretty restrictive. And I think the way that you do that is by making sure every person that you hire is really good.”

The challenging side of that kind of growth management is, of course, that everyone is always busy with crucial things—to the point where interns are asked to immediately dive into major projects, Schroepfer says.

“Part of the phase of life that we’re in as a company is, there are so many important things that aren’t being done because there isn’t someone to work on them—and we can’t afford to work on non-important things.

“For example, our summer interns—we are having a huge summer intern program, and all of them are working on critical, shipping projects for the site. There’s not some project that we’ll stick on the shelf at the end of the summer and say, ‘Nice job.’ These are things where, if they don’t get it done, we’re going to have to figure something else out at the end of the summer because it’s so important. And … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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