Insider Perspectives: Ex-Googler Justin Rosenstein on Making the Jump to Facebook

Like many other top computer science students at Stanford University, Justin Rosenstein left his grad program early in the spring of 2004, not to start his own company like so many young entrepreneurs in the first dot com boom, but to join the rapidly expanding Google (still in its pre-IPO years). Justin had visions of services he wanted to build, but the chance to deploy products on a platform with the size and scale of Google’s proved too enticing. During the next three years, Justin worked on several projects and was the Product Manager for Page Creator, which he championed and led from start to launch.

However, a month ago today, I got this email from Justin,

From: Justin Rosenstein
Subject: Facebook.
Date: June 8, 2007 10:12:03 AM PDT
To: [xxx]

A couple of months ago, after three years as a Google product manager, I decided to leave for Facebook. I am writing to spread Good News: Facebook really is That company.

Which company? That one. That company that shows up once in a very long while — the Google of yesterday, the Microsoft of long ago. That company where large numbers of stunningly-brilliant people congregate and feed off each other’s genius. That company that’s doing with 60 engineers what teams of 600 can’t pull off. That company that’s on the cusp of Changing The World, that’s still small enough where each employee has a huge impact on the organization, where you think about working now and again, and where you know you’ll kick yourself in three years if you don’t jump on the bandwagon now, even after someone had told you that it was rolling toward the promised land. That company where everyone seems to be having the time of their life.

I’m serious. I have drunk from the cool-aid, and it is delicious. Facebook is hiring ambitiously across the organization. If you’re an engineer, UI designer, product manager, statistician, bizdev god, general entrepreneurial badass, whatever, and you would even consider considering Facebook as your new place for hat-hanging, please email me. We can have lunch, or I can give you a tour, or we can go kick it with Mark Zuckerberg — whatever it takes.


Needless to say, I was impressed with his enthusiasm for making the jump to engineering at Facebook and abandoning the posh meals, massages, and stock options that come with Google life. So I sat down with Justin to get more of his thoughts on making the switch.

IF: So much has been made of the culture Google has built, yet you decided to leave for Facebook. Why?

JR: You know, I still love Google. I was there for three years, and there are a lot of people there that I care a lot about. The food is excellent, and you get treated really well. I always assumed I was going to leave after four years, and that when I did, it would be to start my own company. But the more I learned about Facebook, the more I found it was an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse. And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

I think there’s a spectrum of expected value between very small startups and well established companies you can realize when taking a job. On the startup side, there is a chance that you’ll be a huge success, but that probability is very small, whereas in large companies, the risk is much lower, but the opportunity for significant growth and impact is also much smaller. Facebook fills the sweet spot between those two extremes. The opportunity for impact is large, but it’s still a small company.

IF: How does Facebook’s culture compare to Google’s?

JR: Facebook has an incredibly strong engineering team, but for some reason, it doesn’t yet get the recognition that Google gets as a technology company. Perhaps it’s because the technical challenges of search are obvious (like AI), but less so with Facebook. Everyone here is a total rockstar, and everyone is happy and excited and passionate. We’re able to launch a massive amount of cool stuff very quickly.

I also like that I can have a personal relationship with the founders of the company. I can walk over and talk to them about my thoughts and concerns at 2am in the morning. There’s a neat synthesis of top down strategy and bottom up product development at Facebook right now. Everyone is on the same page in terms of vision–the strategy has already been communicated, and people are making the decisions themselves about what are the most important things they can be doing with their time.

I think that the companies that have succeeded most are the ones that have focused on hiring the smartest people. If you can hire brilliant people and trust and empower them to do great things, that is more important than any strategic decision the company could make. I spend a lot of my time talking to candidates trying to get them excited about the company. There’s nothing higher leverage that you can do than build up a great team.

IF: So what are some of the technical challenges Facebook is working on right now that you find most interesting?

JR: Facebook has already achieved a number of technical goals that really impressed me when I was considering joining the company. Just to name a few:

  • Thrift is hands-down the best framework I’ve seen for a large class of applications that need to use multiple programming languages. Most companies that have systems like this keep them as closely-guarded intellectual property, but Facebook open-sourced Thrift a few months ago.
  • News Feed works so well that it’s sometimes easy to forget how sophisticated it is under the covers. If you have a lot of friends, your Facebook home page is displaying only a tiny fraction of what’s going on in your social network. The system that selects the right subset is impressive from both an AI perspective (with a ranking algorithm that uses signals based on user behavior throughout the site) and a systems perspective (efficiently processing 1.2 trillion story candidates every day).
  • And, of course, there’s Platform. As a software architecture geek, Facebook Platform inspires in me the same feeling that an Apple-enthusiast gets from holding a new iPhone. It’s a beautiful thing, built by a team of people who clearly knew what they were doing.

This only scratches the surface — I haven’t even mentioned photo storage, or memcache, or search, or ‘Tuna’ — and sadly I can’t talk about all the exciting/challenging problems we’re tackling next.

IF: What about the perks? 🙂

JR: There’s free food, but honestly it’s not as good as Google’s. But there is a housing subsidy for anyone that lives within a mile of the office, and there’s free dry cleaning and laundry twice a week.

IF: So where else are people joining Facebook from these days?

JR: Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo (a lot from Yahoo), Amazon. Creme de la creme.

IF: You joined just as the Facebook Platform was launching, but what are your thoughts on Platform so far?

JR: You’re right, Platform launched just two weeks after I showed up. Plaftorm is clearly a 1.0, but it’s exciting to see just how much room there is to improve the platform and offer more and more facilities for developers. But it’s still amazing to see how much success developers are having in its current state.

iLike gained about a million users in a week. A couple others have gone from 250,000 to 3 million users in a few weeks just because they ported their functionality onto the Facebook platform–I don’t know if that growth rate has happened for any piece of software in history! But either way, it’s still phenomenal.

IF: Have you found any applications particularly interesting?

JR: Graffiti comes to mind. I almost assume that Facebook users have Graffiti installed at this point. In my social circles, it’s become ubiquitous, and that kind of ubiquity is exciting, because it means that whenever I have a social interaction with someone, I can think of what type of thing I can draw on their Graffiti wall later, just like a regular wall. There are just so few pieces of software where you can assume that everyone has the same thing and that you can interact with them in the same way.

IF: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JR: This is a technology company. We’re working on some of the most interesting technical challenges right now, and finding more brilliant people to work on these problems is very important to us!