V-shaped drones that beam Internet signals to the world? Virtual-reality experiences for social networking? Facebook may be working on such far-out projects, but the social media giant’s Boston-area office remains focused on grittier areas like data storage, compilers, networking, and security.
Those are traditional strengths of the region, after all—though so is robotics. What’s new is that Facebook’s engineering office in Kendall Square is looking to double its staff this year. What’s more, it has been hiring both experienced techies and recent grads, not only from Boston schools but from all over the country.
“There’s been a shift, and we’re hiring into Boston more now,” says Ryan Mack (pictured), the Facebook Boston site lead. “People want to come to Boston,” he says, as a place to settle down, build their careers, and raise their families.
That’s pretty much what Mack did himself. He worked from home in the area for a couple of years before opening the office in late 2013. At Facebook, he’s been known for his work on Timeline (the user-profile page design), as well as projects in photos infrastructure and data de-duplication. In Boston he has been pushing projects on infrastructure that help Facebook roll out products more quickly and at massive scale. He’s also been getting Facebook more involved in local tech meet-ups, hackathons, and education policy issues.
One of his current areas of technical interest is mapping and location features. Facebook comes at it from the perspective of “providing context for social activity,” Mack says, not for routing or navigation. His team is working on optimizing the presentation of maps on mobile devices and other platforms—basically making the design fast and clean by sending the fewest bytes possible.
Facebook wouldn’t disclose how many employees it has in Boston, so it’s hard to gauge how many jobs will be added or how much impact the team will have. But Mack insists the local office has a big enough footprint that it “can help push the Boston brand” in terms of technology and innovation. It’s already become a leader in the company’s efforts to make its site—and its engineers—more efficient. For example, Ed Smith, the tech lead for HHVM, an open-source system for executing programs that Facebook runs on, is based locally; the system is also used by Box, Baidu, WP Engine, and Wikipedia.
Indeed, Mack downplays any notion that the Boston office is working on unsexy projects. “We want people to take speculative risks, because otherwise you never have those big wins,” he says.
Like a lot of engineers, Mack seems like a guy who’s happiest solving problems and writing code. He found out this week that he was issued a patent he wrote on a plane ride back to headquarters a few years ago. It was about compressing color profiles so that photos can be displayed more accurately online. (This looks like the patent application; he’s also listed as a co-inventor, along with Mark Zuckerberg and others, on a more recently published application for displaying social-network user information on timelines.)
Asked what he sees as a broader challenge for the local tech community, Mack cites public transportation issues—which have been top of mind for many civic leaders. (Keep in mind Boston has gone through its worst winter, snowfall-wise, in recent history, and Mack was a California guy.) He had just come from a meeting of the Kendall Square Association, and he noted that Cambridge and Boston “need to make sure we stay ahead” in terms of building infrastructure to support the growth of companies and businesses.