IPO Filing Provides Peek at Facebook Culture

Susan Hall

I've written a lot about how companies try to build a culture where engineers want to work. We've had glimpses before of the Facebook culture, though the social network's IPO filing lays that out in more detail.


It mentions its "hackathons," short, intense (often overnight) sessions in which developers come up with a prototype of a new product, which later evolved into "hackamonth," in which those who have worked on a long-term project basically do an exchange with those in the next pod. And we know the company spreads leadership around. In an interview last summer with The Seattle Times, Mark Zuckerberg said:

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The leaders of a specific project can come from a lot of different disciplines. ... 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. 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.

In the IPO letter, however, Zuckerberg more fully explains its "hacker" culture:

As part of building a strong company, we work hard at making Facebook the best place for great people to have a big impact on the world and learn from other great people. We have cultivated a unique culture and management approach that we call the Hacker Way.


The word "hacker" has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I've met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world.


The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it - often in the face of people who say it's impossible or are content with the status quo.


Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once. To support this, we have built a testing framework that at any given time can try out thousands of versions of Facebook. We have the words "Done is better than perfect" painted on our walls to remind ourselves to always keep shipping.


Hacking is also an inherently hands-on and active discipline. Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works. There's a hacker mantra that you'll hear a lot around Facebook offices: "Code wins arguments."


Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win - not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people.


The letter goes on to list these principles:

  • Focus on impact
  • Move fast
  • Be bold
  • Be open
  • Build social value


The Times article quoted Zuckerberg on moving quickly:

The saying internally is to move fast and break things - not trying to break things, but it's OK if sometimes you break things because if you don't then you're probably not moving fast enough.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal draws clues to Zuckerberg's management style from a 2010 internal memo called "Working with Zuck" by a Facebook engineer named Andrew Bosworth. In it, he says Zuckerberg expects people to challenge and debate his ideas and looks at each product with fresh eyes, without being burdened by perceptions of what existing or competing products are like. Said Bosworth:

At the end of the day, building the right thing is what it is all about, and while Zuck isn't always right about what that is, he isn't often wrong. He has an ability to detach himself from previous success and make decisions based on an acute awareness of timely opportunities, which often leads to bold, sometimes even schizophrenic, direction changes that can be difficult for the faint-hearted to stomach.

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