Love it or hate it, Facebook has done incredible things. Although a lot of narrative stories have been told about the company, little has been said about its strategies, until now. Jeff Meyerson interviewed a collection of former and current Facebook engineers and with additional research, turned those conversations into his new book, Move Fast: How Facebook Builds Software.
On Author Hour today, he shares how the company navigated some of its earliest challenges, how it’s able to maintain a creative and innovative culture, and why there’s so much to be learned from Facebook’s playbook even if we don’t agree with 100 percent of it.
Jane Stogdill: Hi Author Hour listeners. I’m here today with Jeff Meyerson, author of Move Fast: How Facebook Builds Software. Jeff, thank you so much for being with us today.
Jeff Meyerson: Thank you for having me on, Jane.
Jane Stogdill: You call this book a case study. Why Facebook?
Jeff Meyerson: Facebook is one of the definitive products in our lives and as a company, it’s one of the definitive companies of our generation. Yet, there has not been substantial coverage of how Facebook actually builds their products, as opposed to companies like Amazon or Google that have had more books written about their processes.
Facebook has more been in the subject of literary scrutiny, as opposed to reverence or curiosity. I like the idea of exploring Facebook from point of view of somebody who is interested in building products.
It Started with a Podcast
Jane Stogdill: Okay, this book has kind of a unique origin story. How did it come to be? Can you tell us a bit about who you are?
Jeff Meyerson: Yeah, I started a podcast called Software Engineering Daily six years ago. I cover a lot of engineering subjects and two of my listeners were Facebook engineers named Pete Hunt and Nick Shrock. They developed some of the foundational technologies that have made Facebook really popular in the open-source community, and I was having a conversation with them. They said, “Hey, you should do some shows on Facebook engineering. We think there’s actually a lot of secrets within Facebook, like open secrets, not things that they were keeping confidential.” Basically, practices and engineering methodologies that could be uncovered if you were to dive deep and interview some people.
I said, “Okay, cool. I’ll interview some people, we’ll do some shows.” I did five or 10 shows on Facebook engineers, and then we were talking about it more and we realized, “Actually, it seems like there’s some real significant material here, and I think we can actually go even deeper than just 10 podcast episodes. I think we can do an entire book.” I think this was Pete’s idea. In any case, all three of us just said, “Yeah, there’s definitely a book here. Let’s put a book together.”
Jane Stogdill: Wow. It does go much deeper than what was in the podcast. How did you approach all that additional research?
Jeff Meyerson: Well, first I should say that the team at Scribe, the company that put us in touch, is phenomenal at helping shepherd a first-time author through the process. Now, I’m not being paid for this promotion, but Scribe has been really, really helpful in shepherding me through this process. My process, basically, I had these transcripts of interviews, and I was delving into the transcripts, looking for interesting quotes, organizing the quotes, thinking through the themes that the quotes highlight, and constructing a book from those quotes.
Jane Stogdill: Let’s get into it. The title comes from a quote that was part of Facebook’s ethos when they first started–Move Fast and Break Things. That has become a pretty provocative phrase, can you tell us a little bit more about it?
Jeff Meyerson: Yeah, the reason I titled the book that is because it is misunderstood to a hilarious degree. Move fast and break things–the idea behind that phrase is essentially that we’re building in a product space where there is so much potential that we need to explore it as quickly as possible, and we’re exploring it quickly because we’re happy to throw caution to the wind, and yeah, maybe a little bit reckless. We’re doing that because we are in a massive greenfield space, and we need to capitalize on this rare opportunity.
The question of what you do in that modality is a very novel engineering question because it’s rare that you’re in a situation where you have massive greenfield opportunity, massive user adoption, massive financing resources, and it really puts you strategically in an interesting position.
If strategically you’re going to take the position that we need to move fast, then that’s going to have all of these downstream effects of how you’re going to manage the company from a point of product strategy, financial management, strategic management, onboarding your search for products that are going to make money, and so moving fast is really about this modality.
Jane Stogdill: Okay, but then they did update the phrase, is that right?
Jeff Meyerson: They did, they updated it from Move Fast and Break Things to Move Fast with Stable Infrastructure. I think that shift epitomizes the recognition that Facebook had reached product-market fit and profitability. I think they were profitable when they changed to move fast with stable infrastructure.
Whether or not they were profitable, they had a large and growing cash cow. I think they were saying, “Okay, look, we’ve got this thing, it’s actually working quite well. Let’s transition to a strategy that’s a little more sustainable because we know we’re going to be around for the long haul, we’re going to continue to explore stuff, we’re going to continue to explore aggressively, but we now have this foundational product that is kind of like a dial tone for a lot of people, and we don’t really want to shake up that dial tone at all. We want to explore in a way that maintains that dial stability.”
Jane Stogdill: You’ve broken the book up into three sections–product, culture, and technology. You write that this is a book about strategy. How did you come to determine that product, culture, and technology would be your main sections?
Jeff Meyerson: That was a process of pulling back from the lower-level details of the book and trying to see it from a higher level, and trying to pull it together in a way that would make sense. What I found was that you could organize a product strategy in terms of product, culture, and technology because I think product effectively comes first, you really need to have a product before you have anything else, but if you have a product, then you can develop a culture because you have a culture that is in pursuit of improvements and new products that are adjacent to that first product. Once you have those first two things as a foundation, then you have engineering, and the engineering is informed by the culture and the product. I was able to layout the guts of the book underneath that rubric.
Jane Stogdill: The book begins in 2011, it’s almost an oral history of sorts, spanning the early days, would you say that’s right?
Jeff Meyerson: Yeah, definitely.
The Shift to Mobile
Jane Stogdill: The first struggle you tackle is when Facebook was switching to become a mobile company after iPhones had come out. What can we learn from the way the company maneuvered that platform shift?
Jeff Meyerson: I think that the lesson there is, when your cash cow is threatened, you need to immediately start looking for a new way to make money in a sustainable fashion. The longer you deny that your current cash cow is going away, the harder it’s going to be to discover a valuable new alternative.
I’ve heard Jeff Bezos say that you never want to be in a position where your company has to throw a Hail Mary, and especially as you get to a later stage of a company. You don’t want to be backed into a corner. It’s not like Facebook was going broke when their desktop display advertising business was threatened by the shift to mobile, but the writing was on the wall that the world was shifting to mobile.
There was this Facebook F8 event, I can’t remember what year it was, but it’s in the book, where basically, they were presenting all these products at F8 and then they realize, halfway through the F8 conference, that we’re not really doing that much on mobile. It was this recognition that the company needed to shift lots of resources into mobile.
Everybody knows that Facebook has gone through the shift in the software industry, everyone that has studied Facebook a little bit even with a passing glance. But if you understand just how much work it took to shift Facebook to mobile, and how nascent the mobile tooling was, how hard it was to make that shift–and by the way, this shift was kind of hard to compel, especially before there was a real mobile advertising business that was doing well, because people didn’t really know if mobile advertising would work, which sounds crazy but people just didn’t know.
During this period of time where Facebook was looking for its next cash cow, it was evaluating things like gaming, it was evaluating things like hosted infrastructure, and that’s why it acquired parts, and eventually, they just realized, “Okay, this mobile advertising unit is going to be our salvation.”
Jane Stogdill: How much of this is oral history and how much of this is a case study with the intention to be emulated?
Jeff Meyerson: The case study and the storytelling aspect of it serve to drive a through line of entertainment. I wanted the book to be entertaining and I think it tries to accomplish that by exploring anecdotes and characters within the Facebook story that have not been really highlighted in the past.
By framing the book around that entertaining storyline, it creates ample opportunity to do these many case studies, these many lessons, these many takeaways, and whether or not you disagree with those or whether or not you find it useful, I hope you find the storyline throughout the book entertaining.
Jane Stogdill: Okay, A little bit of both? There are some exciting stories for sure, and you also uncover Facebook’s response to Google plus.
Jeff Meyerson: Yeah, absolutely and you know, that story has been told a lot, so I wanted to tell it in a way that seemed a little bit fresh. I thought that basically the best Google Plus storyteller is actually this guy who is a controversial figure right now. This guy, Antonio Garcia Martinez, was at Facebook during the time of Google Plus and he’s quite a good storyteller. Then from the engineering point of view, you have Keith Adams, who also told me about his experience during Google Plus.
It’s kind of like this Death Star moment where Google appears with Google Plus, and it’s a product that looks like it is designed to kill Facebook–that’s exactly what it looks like. It looks like basically a copy of Facebook except it’s got this fresh Google tinge to it. I remember being in college when Google Plus came out and I used Google Plus for a while. I was like, “Maybe I don’t need to use Facebook, maybe that’s fine.”
You know, back at Facebook headquarters, it was wartime. The engineering strategy completely shifted to, “We need to defend against Google Plus. We need to iterate so quickly, we need to build products, and morale so quickly that we just completely crush Google Plus.” and they were successful.
Jane Stogdill: I want to ask you a little bit about the second section of the book now, culture. What is Facebook doing with its culture that it’s unique or emulatable?
Jeff Meyerson: Facebook does a few different things with culture. I think there is the before you get into Facebook and then after you get into Facebook phase. You know, the hiring process is extremely astringent and before you get hired by Facebook, the hiring process is adversarial just like a lot of Silicon Valley places. They want to make it hard for you to get into Facebook. They want to make it very, very challenging because navigating engineering challenges and solving technical problems is quite difficult, but once you get into Facebook, Facebook does a lot to make you successful.
The way that they do sort of cultural indoctrination and I say that in the most friendly terms, there is nothing wrong with their indoctrination strategy, but it convinces people of the Facebook way. They take you through this bootcamp process where essentially you get introduced to all the ways that Facebook builds software. You get introduced to the Facebook tools and services and internal engineering practices.
You’re going to build some software with the assistance of people that have worked at Facebook for a long time, so it is a very comfortable, safe environment. It is this great leveling field because whether you have a PhD, or you’re a brand new graduate from a computer science school, or you have been in the industry for ten years, if you are coming into Facebook you’re going to go through bootcamp, and you’re going to solve stupid little bugs. So you have this great equalizer that’s at the beginning of the Facebook engineering journey.
Then in order to find a job that will be a good fit for you within Facebook, they have this thing called headcount. Headcount is an allocation of engineering resources that every team gets like I might be on the ads team and during my quarterly planning, I may have three people allocated to me in headcount, and then when bootcamp happens, these people get hired into bootcamp and they don’t know what they’re going to work on yet. They are floating around in bootcamp and somebody with headcount can–it’s a little more complicated than this, but somebody with headcount could basically go into bootcamp and say, “I want to take this person from this pool and see if they’d be interested in working on my team.”
It becomes this kind of sales process or negotiation process to the extent that I understand it. It’s a negotiation process between these teams that have headcount and these pools of engineers that are at bootcamp. When I heard about this, this is the first time that I have heard about that process, and I thought that was a really cool process. I’m not sure if it’s entirely true if I have it entirely accurate because it sounds almost utopian.
As an engineer who has worked at companies where I was assigned work I didn’t really enjoy, the idea of having this bootcamp where you essentially get paired with work that you are going to enjoy was kind of utopian to me, so I’m not sure to what extent is true, but this was I thought a defining feature of Facebook’s culture.
Jane Stogdill: Returning to the beginning of your response that it’s really hard to get in but then once you’re there, you’re kind of taken care of, I feel like that’s what I’ve always heard about Harvard University–that it’s impossible to get into but once you’re there, it is actually pretty easy. Of course, Zuckerberg went to Harvard.
Jeff Meyerson: Well, I mean that’s kind of like any super exclusive club, right?
Jane Stogdill: Yeah, and then this whole utopian process you’ve just described also sounds a little bit like college like you get in and you get to try different things and pair with what fits best.
Jeff Meyerson: Absolutely. I think what a lot of people who go into the software industry miss is the days when they were working all day on something that they were passionate about, and something where they could explore ideas that they were interested in. A lot of people wind up in jobs in the software business where they’re not really that happy with what they’re working on, and I think Facebook does as good a job as any big corporation I’ve seen with pairing engineers with interesting work.
Jane Stogdill: That’s important, certainly, yeah. When you were doing all of these interviews with former Facebook engineers, what did you learn that you found particularly either surprising or exciting that you didn’t know before?
Jeff Meyerson: The extent to which Facebook is able to hire really, really smart people, people with amazing personalities, immense personalities. I interview a lot of engineers. I’ve interviewed probably 1,500 engineers over the last six years of doing my podcast and the interviews with Facebook engineers stand out, not just because these people are astoundingly smart, they have distinctive personalities. If you go and interview a cadre of Google engineers, I’ve interviewed lots of Google engineers, the average personality there is somewhat different than the average personality of Facebook.
For whatever reason, when you apply some filtering criteria at scale, you’re going to get a distillation of that hiring criteria, and I find Facebook engineers to have different kinds of personalities than Google engineers. I talk a little bit in the book but this–think about the foundational seeds of Facebook, it came from this guy hacking on a random project that he may or may not have stolen from somebody effectively, I don’t think he really stole it, he was very inspired by previous ideas but he was just hacking on it, and making something that he thought people would be really excited to use, and that they’d be really intrigued by.
As opposed to the Google founding story, which is two graduate students working on this deep computer science problem search that has been evaluated for many years but hasn’t really been cracked. You have two very different founding environments.
I think that has shaped the kind of person that goes to work at these companies. At Facebook, you have these scrappy creative engineers that may or may not have gotten a degree in computer science, and at Google, you have these people who are really well-credentialed and it leads to very different philosophies. I would say that’s one of the things that really stood out.
Jane Stogdill: Did you hear from Facebook? Is anyone saying, “Hey, stop giving away all of our best practices.”
Jeff Meyerson: Not yet. I wasn’t super public about the book. You know, I was just interviewing a lot of the engineers who were ex-engineers from Facebook. They are people that are no longer there, and the other thing is the book is actually very complimentary of Facebook.
I’m pro-technology company as you can find, I think, and so I was never really thinking of this as yellow journalism. I was just trying to find some cool engineering practices from Facebook, so I doubt I will fall into any kind of conflict with the company.
Jane Stogdill: Speaking of that, Facebook has received a lot of criticism especially since The Social Dilemma came out. How did you navigate that or choose not to?
Jeff Meyerson: Facebook is a company that is on the frontier of what is possible and anytime you’re writing that frontier, whether you’re a software entrepreneur or a musician or an artist or a filmmaker, you’re going to have critics. The more prominent you are, the more critics you’re going to have because the more you’re going to shake up the status quo, the more you’re going to alter people’s lives in ways that may make them uncomfortable.
That’s just what Facebook does because of the scope of its impact. You take out Instagram for an hour a day, it’s this weird product, it’s affecting your brain in weird ways, if you don’t use it responsibly it can effectively destroy your life. That’s high stakes and so there’s no way you can, if you’re building a product that is that high stakes, there is no way that you can walk around unscathed. You’re going to have controversy.
Jane Stogdill: It seems like that’s not the focus of your book.
Jeff Meyerson: I talk about it a little bit. I mean part of the book is and in fact, at its essence the book is meant to be a little bit irreverent, in the sense that I don’t even really pay attention to the fact that Facebook is a “controversial company” because a lot of those arguments are pretty dumb. Whether or not they’re dumb, they get in the way of thinking about this company that is able to produce so much productivity and human ingenuity.
Like it or not, Facebook is an incredibly creative and innovative company and what this book is saying is that there’s a lot to learn from what Facebook is doing.
Jane Stogdill: Well, that seems like a perfect stopping point. Jeff, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Again, listeners, the book is Move Fast: How Facebook Builds Software. Jeff, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
Jeff Meyerson: You can follow me on Twitter and check out Software Engineering Daily.
Jane Stogdill: Great, thank you so much.
Jeff Meyerson: Thank you so much, Jane. Thanks for hosting me.