ANNUAL MEETING: Mark Zuckerberg Addresses Facebook’s Hacker Culture, 2014-Style

By David Cohen 

MenloParkOverheadHACK650When Facebook officially registered its initial public offering in February 2012, Co-Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote about “The Hacker Way.” What does The Hacker Way mean two years later? Zuckerberg discussed Facebook’s hacker culture during the company’s annual meeting Thursday at the Sofitel San Francisco Bay in Redwood City, Calif.

Zuckerberg wrote in February 2012:

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.

To encourage this approach, every few months we have a hackathon, where everyone builds prototypes for new ideas they have. At the end, the whole team gets together and looks at everything that has been built. Many of our most successful products came out of hackathons, including Timeline, chat, video, our mobile development framework, and some of our most important infrastructure, like the HipHop compiler.

To make sure all our engineers share this approach, we require all new engineers — even managers whose primary job will not be to write code — to go through a program called Bootcamp where they learn our code base, our tools, and our approach. There are a lot of folks in the industry who manage engineers and don’t want to code themselves, but the type of hands-on people we’re looking for are willing and able to go through Bootcamp.

Has anything changed in two-plus years? Here were Zuckerberg’s remarks during Thursday’s annual meeting:

Now, there is one more thing that I wanted to talk about before we go to Q&A besides these three big themes in the next 10 years of connecting everyone, understanding the world, and building the knowledge economy, and that’s what kind of culture I think we need to build in Facebook in order to achieve these goals over the next 10 years.

So we’ve talked a lot about the hacker culture that we have in Facebook. And what we mean by that isn’t that we’re hacking into things — that’s a different definition of hacking that we strongly do not condone — but what we mean when we say hacking is the MIT definition, which is people messing around, experimenting with ways of building things, trying something, seeing what works, trying something else, and tinkering a lot until you come up with something that serves people really well.

And that’s been a really good approach for us over time. And it helped us move very quickly and build a lot of different things, but what we found is that our culture is very internally focused. When we talk about our hacker culture and our culture of building, it’s all about how we do things, and it’s not about the people we serve. And we have a stated goal inside our company, which is to build a culture of loving the people we serve — although it’s more than 1 billion people who use our services — that is as strong, if not, stronger than our internal culture of how we build things.

And we think we need to do that over the next 10 years in order to actually achieve these goals of helping to connect everyone, and understand the world, and help build the knowledge economy and the economy that we all want.

So we’re really excited to do that. And a lot of what we started to do is just looking at the problems that people have using our services and trying to fix them. And some of the problems are really basic things like content uploading as quickly as people want. So we focused a lot on making that grow quickly.

Readers: Has The Hacker Way changed in the past two years?