Zuckerberg Discusses Passion for Innovation with Senator Hatch On Stage at BYU

Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke to an audience of over 10,000 at Brigham Young University last night. The conversation, moderated by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), chair of the U.S. Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force, focused on why passion for one’s product is the defining characteristic of successful entrepreneurs.

The discussion, as Search Engine Land covers, also touched on Facebook’s potential for driving empathy and world peace, and the continuing shift towards openness in the privacy norms of the internet community.

Zuckerberg has spoken to several high profile audiences, including the Silicon Valley elite at Mountain View’s Computer History Museum, but never to such a large crowd. Hatch chose questions from about 450 submitted to the BYU Facebook Page, sticking to inquiries about Zuckerberg’s high level opinion rather than grilling him on specifics of Facebook’s product and policy choices.

Speaking about the type of climate that promotes innovation, Zuckerberg said “we believe there will be much better services for all the people who use Facebook if millions of people around the world can develop those services.” This ties to many of the company’s efforts to facilitate experimentation on the Platform, such as its Girls in Tech developer garage and college hackathons, and his own commitment to improving math, sciences, and technology education.

Though the company strives to remain agile and iterate quickly, Zuckerberg insisted that the social networking space could still be disrupted, “A good independent entrepreneur should always be able to do something better than a division of a company.”

Zuckerberg asked the Hatch about his views on the government’s role in fostering innovation. Hatch responded saying he though government should stay out of industry’s way. This falls in line with the recent White House-initiated Startup America program, which aims to inspire job growth by without issuing grants.

When asked how social media could influence important issues, Zuckerberg spoke about the evolving communication channel between businesses and their customers, and Facebook’s general ability to inform the world about governance issues. He didn’t cite specific examples of political discourse accelerated by social technology such as Egypt or Tunisia. Facebook recently came to agreement with the US government outlining how state and local agencies could disseminate information through Facebook.

He did mention a project called peace.facebook.com, launched in 2009, that visualizes friendship creation across geographic and religious boundaries, such as the number of friendships forged between Israelis and Palestinians. “Empathy is developing in the world between people who otherwise might not have had the ability to connect. In the long term that’s going to create more understanding between countries, more reasonable policies”, he said.

Regarding privacy, Facebook’s founder explained that “If you go back 10 years, people were very afraid of sharing anything on the Internet”, indicating that we are amidst a broad shift in norms towards openness, even if Facebook sometimes pushes people’s limit.

Finally, on what it takes to succeed, Zuckerberg said it was less dependent on technical skills, and more about passion and dedication, “If you don’t completely love and believe in what you’re doing, it becomes the rational thing to stop doing it.”

He said the company brings this philosophy to how it chooses who to hire. This confirms reports we’ve heard that it prefers to employ those who are sure they want to work at Facebook much more than anywhere else, rather than convince those who are on the fence between the social network and other companies. Underscoring the high emphasis put on talent in Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg said “The success of Facebook is really about the team we built.”

Overall, the crowd seemed receptive and excited, cheering loudly when Mark discussed dropping out of Harvard and donating to education. By accepting speaking invitations like this one, Zuckerberg can continue to use his amiable, informal demeanor to improve his public perception while learning more about what the general populace wants from the product, and alleviating fears about how Facebook treats user data.

[Image credit: Mark A. Philbrick, BYU)