Facebook's got a lot of love for Seattle
Mike Schroepfer, Facebook's vice president of engineering, talks about the social network's projects and what drew the company to Seattle.
Seattle Times staff columnist
You would think Facebook could build a groovy photo-sharing app in no time.
The company has nearly 1,000 engineers, including a growing team in Seattle with expertise in iPhone and iPad apps.
Facebook also makes a big deal about hiring the best software developers in the world and empowering them to quickly build new products and features.
Then it turns around and pays $1 billion for Instagram.
Yes, tens of millions of people use Instagram to customize and share photos taken with their phones. Still. That's mega mega millions — and all of Facebook's profit last year — for a 13-person startup.
Whether the Instagram deal was smart or crazy is now a billion-dollar question looming over Facebook as it prepares for a gigantic stock offering. How and why the deal happened will be analyzed and debated by generations of tech entrepreneurs and investors chasing the next pot of gold.
They won't get any clues from Facebook's engineering boss, at least not for a while.
Mike Schroepfer wouldn't touch the topic, no matter how many times I poked him, during a reception last week at the Seattle team's new downtown office.
"Schrep" was happy to expound on Seattle's appeal to Facebook and other topics, though.
That was after he had used Instagram to share a photo of the office view.
Here are edited excerpts of my conversation with Schroepfer, a Stanford grad and former Mozilla and Sun Microsystems executive who is vice president of engineering at the Menlo Park, Calif.-based social network.
Q: Why couldn't you have built Instagram yourself?
A: That's something I'm not going to talk about today.
Q: That's fine. Can you talk about integrating the company?
Q: Can you tell me what it's like managing engineers who think, "Hey, I could have built that for you"?
A: I'm not going to talk at all about it, sorry. I like my job (laughs).
Q: OK. When you get more financing from the IPO will this office grow faster?
A: Honestly, the rate of growth is usually tempered by ... the time it actually takes to find and hire the right people. So we haven't really been limited by finances up till now. It's been: hire as many of the great people as you can find. That's been the limiting factor, not a monetary issue.
Q: Are the folks in Seattle doing infrastructure?
A:Yes they're doing all sorts of projects, but there's a good contingent of folks here doing infrastructure software. Many of the tools we use to manage and run the site are built here.
Q: Will you offer those tools?
A: We do, to the open-source community. A number of the projects we've built, we open-sourced. Actually much of our infrastructure — much more so than many of our competitors — is open-sourced.
We actually open-sourced the designs of our advanced datacenters. We built one of the world's most efficient datacenters not too far away from here — in Prineville, Ore. — and you can go online and download the CAD files for that building.
So if you want to build one just like it, we've got all the specs you need.
Q: Are you ever going to commercialize that stuff — and sell, instead of share it?
A: No, I think we want to see innovation in that part of the industry. We've got a great set of engineers and we can build more value by making the site faster and run better and getting more users to be happy with it. Who knows what we'll do in the future, but not any immediate plans for that.
Q: Does Seattle have special cluster infrastructure expertise or is it spread around the San Francisco Bay Area as well?
A: I think what Seattle has is a critical mass density of engineers. It's cool to be an engineer in Seattle; it's not a surprising thing. There's been a long enough history of it, a number of good universities like the University of Washington, a number of good tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft and Boeing who've been here.
It's that kind of culture and critical mass that is somewhat rare in the world and why we decided to come here specifically. That density of engineering is really valuable.
Q: The federal JOBS Act could boost startup activity and lead more to go public. Will that make it more challenging for Facebook to retain employees?
A: I think competition and innovation is really good for the industry. Obviously it's already a competitive market for talent. I think spurring innovation in the United States is unquestionably a good thing. We'll adapt and compete and be in good shape.
Q: So you're not going to have to change things for retention purposes?
A: The thing we focus on is making the company successful and a great place to work.
Q: You're approaching 1,000 engineers and you have a pretty flat management structure. How are you going to manage that increasingly complex organization? Will you have to rejigger things a lot?
A: I've been at the company almost four years and we've grown tremendously in that time. We've expanded from just the Bay Area to here. Things change every day and every week as we adapt because the world changes; things aren't as they were, but the core principles haven't changed, which is you hire really smart people who are focused on making the company a success and you figure out how to set up the organizational and process structures to enable them to get their job done.
Q: Did the success of the Seattle office convince you to open a New York engineering office this year?
A: It's a very simple calculus at the end of the day: Is this a return on investment? Are we happy these people are at the company? Are they having a big impact on the company? Was it worth it — me flying up here, and moving people up here? And the answer was a really resounding yes.
So that made us say: Are there regions in the world where that may also be true? And that's why we decided to go to New York.
Q: Will you also look at Boston, Austin and Raleigh?
A: I can't comment much on future plans, but I do think that our strategy is to have a very small number of larger offices. So we're not looking at lots of small offices but a couple of big engineering centers in a couple of key regions that allow us to have lots of people. People switch projects, they work very closely with each other, so it works much better when you have a big concentration of people.
Q: Big enough so you get the culture going?
A: You get the culture going. Seattle was fantastic because of the talent density. We were able to grow a big enough presence here that it feels really great. We are hopeful that New York is the same.
I actually don't think there are that many regions in the world that have the depth of talent that we need to draw from in order to build the kind of presence we'd want, like we have here.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
email@example.com | 206-515-5687