Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg swung by MIT yesterday to tell a packed 26-100 about Facebook’s corporate culture, what it’s like working in Silicon Valley, and — not surprisingly — why MIT students would make good Facebook engineers.
Zuckerberg’s talk, which took the form of a moderated discussion with Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 and Facebook Vice President of Engineering Mike Schroepfer, was not open to the media, but I got a ticket through the lottery process. According to Grimson, over 2,600 students signed up to win one of over 500 seats. Zuckerberg also made a brief appearance for the media outside Lobby 10 just prior to the talk (see sidebar).
Though never explicitly stated, Zuckerberg’s appearance here was unambiguously a recruiting event. Zuckerberg and Schroepfer peppered the conversation with praise of MIT students’ entrepreneurial spirit and drew parallels between Facebook’s corporate culture and that of MIT.
“You gotta love what you’re doing” to be a good Facebook engineer, said Schroepfer. “We like people who like to get stuff done.”
And when asked by the Chancellor as to what kind of talent the social networking company is looking for, Zuckerberg put it simply: a core Facebook value is a “focus on impact.”
With a user base of 800 million, said Zuckerberg, and a relatively small number of engineers, Facebook is in a “sweet spot” where the “impact” from each engineer is high compared to other technology firms.
Working at Facebook “is the one job you don’t get fired [from] for using Facebook all day,” joked Schroepfer.
Facebook in Boston?
Facebook’s tour through Cambridge — Zuckerberg also visited Harvard yesterday (his first time back to the college since dropping out) — has fueled media speculation over a Facebook expansion to the East Coast. A little over a week ago, Zuckerberg mentioned in an interview with Startup School’s Jessica Livingston that if he were starting Facebook now, he may have chosen to stay in Boston.
At the MIT event yesterday (and in his Lobby 10 press conference), Zuckerberg clarified those remarks, saying that “I don’t think I could have kept Facebook running out here,” but that Boston and Silicon Valley each have their ups and downs from an entrepreneurial perspective. For example, he said, Silicon Valley businesses share many common philosophies, which can be helpful to new startups but might hinder innovative approaches.
“Silicon Valley thinks certain things as a community,” he said. “It’s like one big organization, in a way.”
But, he added, Boston could be just as good a place to start a company. And during Facebook’s transition to California, the company still felt like Boston.
“For a while we did not feel at home in the Silicon Valley community,” said Zuckerberg, saying that Facebook initially drew heavily on Harvard alums (and faculty) to power its Palo Alto operation.
Zuckerberg and Schroepfer did not rule out the possibility that Facebook could open a Boston or New York office, but offered no immediate plans.
“It’s inevitable that we will expand to other geographies — East Coast of the U.S., Europe, and others,” suggested Schroepfer. But for the time being, Facebook plans on learning from its experience opening a new office in Seattle, said Zuckerberg. He also cited the time shift and travel time as a hindrance to immediate Facebook expansion beyond the West Coast.
Privacy and security
Grimson also asked the Facebook team about their often-controversial privacy and security policies. In the past, users have alleged that Facebook’s privacy policies are difficult to understand and make too much information public.
The team noted that Facebook gives users control over what information they share and who they share it with, but that users with little or no computer and internet experience may not understand how to protect their information.
“This is a challenge when people don’t understand the rules of the game up-front,” said Schroepfer.
Zuckerberg added that with the imminent release of Facebook’s new Timeline format, users will be able to easily “go back in time” and change the privacy settings on any post, sharing it only with the people they want to.
Facebook has also changed broader conceptions about privacy, said Zuckerberg.
“People embrace mistakes nowadays thanks to Facebook,” he said, suggesting that public but personal information means people will try less and less to cover up their past.
Zuckerberg hinted, albeit briefly, at where Facebook might be going in the next few years. Media — like books, news, music, movies, and TV — said Zuckerberg, might be the next place to foster social connections online, like Facebook has already tried with games. The CEO suggested that Facebook’s integration with Spotify — a streaming music platform — will increase soon.
In a question-and-answer session with the audience, Zuckerberg said that social media’s impact on society was diverse.
“I personally don’t think social media had as big of a role as people say,” for movements like the Arab Spring, he noted. People in the Middle East wanted change, he said, and that is what has driven recent revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
But, he added, social media has profoundly empowered individuals, who can now broadcast information and opinions without needing large-scale media organizations.