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 I think being at that phase of life means we can’t have Seattle be like, ‘Oh all the projects we didn’t think were important, we’re going to send up to Seattle.’ Really, it’s like, ‘Which one of these about-to-fall-over projects would you like to work on?’”

Of course, there are pitfalls when you’re playing that kind of high-stakes balancing act. Zuckerberg laughed while recalling an internal video that lampooned the amount of serious work thrown at the newest Facebook workers, and the big mistakes that can happen.

“After some intern committed a bug on photos that made it so that you couldn’t view any photos on the site for 20 minutes, there was this video that went around that was like ‘Yeah, of course it makes sense that we would send someone with three weeks of industry experience to fix the biggest photo site in the world,’” he said with a laugh. “Probably not our best moment. But I think it is one of the things that is coolest about the culture, though, is that we touch so many people using the products, hundreds of millions of people, but the team is small. And I think that’s one of the things that really characterizes working here now.”

Zuckerberg acknowledged it might not be that way forever, that at some point the growth might equalize and the ratio of employees to users would grow. But for now, it’s apparently a key part of the company—and enough of a balancing act that Steinberg has to get aggressive at times about managing what his people will work on and what they can’t be sucked into.

“Probably the hardest part is that there’s too many teams that are all trying to get people in Seattle,” Steinberg says. “I have to fight off some teams and say, ‘No, you guys can’t have anyone yet, because we want to double down on the things that we’re doing and get more cohesive groups up here.”

Zuckerberg pointed to the recent overhaul of Facebook’s mobile interfaces as probably the most notable area where engineers in the roughly 40-person Seattle engineering office played a major role.

“We have hundreds of millions of people using Facebook on mobile devices, and the majority of them are actually still using mobile Web, which is interesting, and I think not what a lot of people expect. I think a lot of people expect it to be iPhone or Android,” Zuckerberg says. “And we have this really big project that we just finished up here to relaunch the main mobile website so that all the code is unified … whether you’re using it in the iPhone app or a mobile Web app.”

As for the future, Zuckerberg says there’s “something awesome” coming from Facebook next week that was started in the Seattle office. Stay tuned for that announcement.

“I just think there’s so many good engineers up here, largely from Microsoft and Amazon traditionally, and Google a bit more recently, and there’s a really good startup scene up here,” Zuckerberg says. “I think it’s gone really well.”

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

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