Mike Schroepfer, VP Engineering at Facebook on what they do, how they do it and when they do it.

The Guardian talks to Mike Schroepfer, the head of Facebook’s 500 strong engineering and development team.

An insightful read for anyone working in tech environment. I’ve posted some of the bits which I found interesting below:

You’re in charge of a team at a company that famously does things fast. How far out do you plan what projects you’re going to assign people to?
In general our projects are very iterative – often they last one or two months. Facebook Messages was bigger and longer [Mark Zuckerberg said that a team of more than 15 people worked on it more than a year] so we had to make a longer-term commitment. Others are about working on a piece of technology that has a huge effect on [site] performance. So for example there’s Hiphop [which compiles the interpreted scripting language PHP into runtime C++] which took two years to finish.

How do you know if they’re running to plan? The big problem as organisations like Google or Microsoft get larger is keeping what they’re doing synchronised.
Well, intuition is what gives us the ideas for what to do, and data tells us if we’re getting it right. We iterate to find out if a project’s doing it right. Or you might make something live and then you look at whether people are using it frequently, or whether they use it once and don’t come back.

If they don’t come back then we probably didn’t get it right. It’s a constant process of iteration. The longer it gets before you get in data from the outcome, the worse it’s going to be if it’s not right.

How do you decide on the getting the balance between what’s commercially important – what will bring in cash from ads – and what’s just “cool”?
We’re trying to run the company in a growth and investment phase. We can invest in R+D but there do some opportunities where you can show more ads, so how do we balance it. A lot of projects that we are working on focus more on getting more users to the site and have an engaging experience so that they come back and recommend it to their friends.

It’s easier to build a business model on a big site than a small one. So our efforts are aimed at getting more people to come to the site for longer. We’re trying to make sure that we generate enough revenue that we’re never blocked from doing something by commercial considerations.

But for example we’re the largest photo sharing site on the web. So that has some benefits.

You said earlier that you’re focussing on machine learning. What’s that for?
Deciding what stories to show you when you log on and look at your wall, for example. There’s only a limited number of stories we can display there, so we need to know based on what you like and what there is what to show you. Or to figure out what ads to show you. And for security, to detect whether somebody is sending out a suspicious number of friend requests, or spamming people, or sending spam links.

As companies get bigger, they face the problem of decisions having to flow up and down management, and inevitably things ossify – it’s been like that for Microsoft, and there are signs of it at Google. Is there a way to avoid that at Facebook?
(laughs) Yes, we don’t have the layers of management approval! We don’t pass things up and down the chain. The team working on the product development makes the decisions. If there’s a problem or if they think it merits it then they will talk to Mark [Zuckerberg] directly. We try to do a good job of setting out the context of the task and release people to get on and do it. People are pushing new features and code to the site every day. It’s really about trying to remove barriers and reduce friction in development.

How do developers get oriented when they join?
We have an introduction to the team culture, where we’ve set up a boot camp, which lasts the first six weeks. No matter what role someone comes in as, they go on it, so they understand the code stack, and we encourage people to try their hand, to push changes up to the site; so that if you haven’t made a change to the live site in first week, well, we’d think actually that’s wrong.


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