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June 29, 2011 at 7:40 PM

Zuckerberg on Facebook’s culture, Seattle and the intern incident

It was supposed to be off the record, but Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg decided to share during a meeting with a few reporters Wednesday night and agreed to talk openly about the company’s Seattle engineering office.

His extensive answers to a few questions also provided insights into the remarkably successful company’s internal culture and hiring strategy.

Zuckerberg is making one of his periodic visits to the Seattle office – its first real satellite development center, which has grown to about 40 people since it opened last summer.

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The office is an open space on the upper floor of a tower overlooking Elliott Bay. On Wednesday a bunch of desks were pushed aside and chairs set up to create a sort of meeting room, in which Zuckerberg was speaking to a group of potential employees.

But first he spent a half-hour with a handful of reporters, letting a slice of Pagliacci’s Margherita pizza go cold on his plate, while we talked.

He declined to specify how much the Seattle office will grow but he said Facebook is growing its engineering team by about 60 percent a year.

It could grow faster but Zuckerberg doesn’t want it to grow so fast that it overwhelms the company’s culture.

Seattle’s become an important development center for the company, which will be releasing several products developed here, including improvements to Facebook’s mobile site.

“The office is going really well,” he said.

Rather than focus on a particular project, the Seattle office is integrated with the broader development work at the Palo Alto headquarters, he explained.

“Now we’re starting to get to the scale where we’re attracting a lot of really good people and we’re starting to lead a bunch of projects from out here,” he said. “Most notably there’s a lot of mobile development.”

“There are so many good engineers up here – largely from Microsoft and Amazon traditionally and then Google a bit more recently and there’s a good startup scene up here, so it’s going really well.”

Seattle is the only remote engineering office, aside from two people in Tokyo. “That’s more of an apartment,” he joked.

The office opened in part because Facebook was increasingly wanting to hire people from Seattle who couldn’t or wouldn’t move to Palo Alto for various reasons, explained Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering.

“It wasn’t just a numbers game for us – it was like, these people are really good,” Schroepfer said.

At the same time Facebook engineer Ari Steinberg had a “personal situation” that brought him to Seattle – his fiancee landed a teaching job at the University of Washington - and he could open the office and bring his knowledge of the company’s culture.

Asked about the career path for employees in Seattle versus Palo Alto, particularly product managers, Zuckerberg replied by explaining how the company has tried to cultivate a culture where people with different skills can lead projects regardless of their title.

“The leaders of a specific project can come from a lot of different disciplines,” he said, explaining that that’s in contrast to companies that are more heirarchical or led by product managers.

“Here it just depends on the person – there are definitely projects where the engineering manager is leading and there are definitely projects where the PM is leading,” he said. “We have as many where the tech lead on the project is leading … there are even a bunch where a designer is leading. I think that’s good, a good diversity.”

Zuckerberg then talked about how the company encourages people to “move quickly.”

“The saying internally is to move fast and break things – not trying to break things, but it’s okay if sometimes you break things because if you don’t then you’re probably not moving fast enough.”

Sometimes this goes a little too far at a company where there’s far more work than engineers. A video circulating within the company jokes about an incident with an intern, Zuckerberg said.

“This intern committed a bug on photos, I guess, that made it so you couldn’t view any photos on the site for 20 minutes,” he said. “This video (says) of course it makes sense that we’d send someone with three weeks of industry experience to fix the biggest photo site … probably not our best moment.”

The point was that it still feels like a small company, which indirectly answered the question about career paths:

“But it is one of the things that’s coolest about the culture though is that, we touch so many people using the product – hundreds of millions of people – but the team is small,” he continued. “I think that’s one of the things that really characterizes working here. That won’t be true necessarily forever … but for now I think that probably is the biggest thing that people feel working at the company, not necessarily the career path.”

Asked about Facebook’s growth plan for Seattle, Zuckerberg said the plan “is to try to hire really good people,” then provided another glimpse into the workings of the company.

“In studying the industry it seems like a bunch of companies – Google, Amazon, Microsoft – had a lot of really quick growth years where they doubled in size, or some companies even tripled,” he said. “I really 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 be done well – but it’s a lot less than 100 percent … It’s like the company has grown so quickly now in terms of revenue and users that 60 percent is actually pretty restrained.”

This requires another kind of discipline.

“I think the way you do that is by making sure that every person that you hire is like, really good,” he said, then joked about how every company says that kind of thing, but Facebook has a formula.

“One thing you find in engineering is a really good person is like 10 times as productive as pretty good person. I’m not talking about a bad person – I think bad people are negatively productive because of all the externalities of stuff that has to be cleaned up around them – but pretty good people, who would be the best engineer at a lot of companies.”

The trick is to find the best of these pretty good people, he said.

“If you make it so your recruiting process is optimized for getting the top 5 or 10 percent of those then you can keep the company small. And I think that that actually is the strategy – it’s like, how are you going to scale the company to be larger and still feel good? The best strategy is to not have to scale the company to be massive before you have to and we’re doing pretty well on that, with the user base that we have and then the employee base that we have. Obviously we’ll hire a lot of really good people here… that’s more the plan.”

Asked again if there’s a particular target, Zuckerberg explained how Facebook does its internal budgeting.

“One of the things that I think that I think is different about how we run Facebook is we try to do our budgeting and all that stuff on like the 50th percentile estimate. A lot of companies when they’re doing a board estimate or if you’re public, a public estimate, you try to budget toward what you think you will certainly hit, right?

We actually try to build our plans around what we actually think will happen. Then about half the time we’re wrong up and half the time we’re wrong down.”

Although Steinberg may have hiring projections for Seattle, they aren’t firm goals and quality is more important than quantity, Zuckerberg said.

“If he doesn’t hit it we’re not going to be unhappy,” he said. “We’re going to be unhappy if we’re working with (poor) engineers.”

Comments | More in Interviews | Topics: amazon, Billionaire techies, Entrepreneurs

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