This week, The Fetch London’s Community Ambassador, Andreea Magdalina spoke with Jackson Gabbard, an engineer at Facebook’s new London HQ in Covent Garden. He spoke about what it is really like to work at Facebook, why he moved from San Francisco to London and his favourite hackathons.
Let’s get to know each other. Hello, I am Andreea and I work as a Community Manager at Mixcloud and blog for The Fetch. Your turn!
Hello Andreea, I’m Jackson. I work as an front-end engineer at Facebook’s London office in Covent Garden. I’m here to deliver some new projects and help build up the engineering team. I’ve worked on a few things, but at the moment I’m focusing on mobile and internal tools. Also, just to make sure I’m keeping myself out of trouble, I want to make clear that I’m speaking as an and individual and not on behalf of Facebook, Inc.. Okay, enough legal speak, let’s get to the fun things.
What do you LIKE most about your job?
Is that Like™ like or, like, “like” like? I’m going with the generic like. The thing that makes me want to keep coming back to Facebook day after day is that it’s a really smart, focused company that knows how to let loose when the time is right. We’re all really excited about the stuff we’re working on. We take joy in it. If you don’t dig what you’re working on, you just stop working on it and move to something else. As long as you’re doing something that matters, everyone wants you to do something that you care a lot about and will put yourself into. Compared to every other place I’ve worked, FB really, really enables people who want to kick ass to actually kick ass.
People say Facebook is mostly run by its engineers, there is little management involved. Is that true and if so, how does it work?
I don’t entirely agree with the question. I agree with the first part – Facebook is definitely an engineering-led company. The tricky part is that the engineering managers *are* engineers. You could be an epic manager in the generic sense, but if you aren’t technical and can’t code, FB isn’t the place for you. Facebook is the first company I’ve worked in where I know I can trust everyone to be really strong technically, include the higher-ups. Of course, different parts of the company don’t function exactly the same way, but within the engineering org, management means helping the team members be as bad ass as they can be. Since we tend to attract and retain women and men who are really self-motivated, this means that the managers mostly just make it easy for their reports to do their work. I’ve been here three years now and I don’t think I’ve ever had a manager tell me “here – do this.” We prize the ability of the individual contributor to know where her or his effort will matter. Managers help guide that decision making process as much as the person needs. There’s a saying I picked up from a friend who works at a startup back in SF – “zero tolerance for Dilbert shit,” with respect to management/process overhead. We don’t really use that expression inside the company, but the philosophy is there through and through. I think that’s how our low-touch management style works.
There is a lot of chatter about Facebook’s fierce commitment to its hackathons. What’s this all about?
This is a topic there is a lot discussion about in a bunch of contexts online, so I’ll keep this fairly brief. It’s not really so much about fierce commitment as it is complete certainty that when you give creative and talented people the freedom to try anything without any fear of failure or expectation of breakaway success, that they make amazing things.
Freedom to explore an idea is some of Facebook’s special sauce.
Hackathons are one major embodiment of that. We also embrace the idea that proving a concept (or disproving it) is way more valuable that arguing about it. Hackathons are an excellent forum for this sort of thing. Some of the most-used features of Facebook were born out of Hackathons based on hunches individual engineers had about what people would get a lot of use out of. In a sense, Facebook itself is a Hackathon idea. Zuck and the early engineers hacked the site together as fast as possible in the context of holding no idea sacred, putting the people using the site ahead of making money, and being really bold about what features they released. That’s why Hackathons matter.
What is a product/feature you’re most proud of that came out of a hackathon?
Ah geeze, this is a super long list. The interesting thing about Hackathons is that they don’t just birth products and features. For instance, Girish Patangay, one of the other Facebook London engineers did a Hackathon a few years ago with some friends. They built out a way to use BitTorrent to deploy Facebook amongst the many servers that make the site available to users. That project has rolled on to become on of the critical pieces of infrastructure that allows us to make really fast changes to the site.
I think the thing that is most interesting about hackathons is that they often don’t yield direct results. In a lot of cases what you build at a hackathon is a complete throw-away, but the lessons you learned in the process give you insight that allows you to make your next move a major success. We keep a history of all the hacks that have ever been attempted. It’s fascinating reading back through them because you can see the spark of an idea in some cases years before it becomes a feature of the site. For instance, being able to tag people and places in status updates is something that has been hacked on in a bunch of different ways by a bunch of different engineers over the years. Facebook wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for all the daring, ill-fated attempts people have made during the hacks.
What does it take to impress Facebook and make them hire you?
I think this is a pretty easy one actually. Passion is the number one thing. If you’re the sort of person who builds stuff at work then goes home and builds different stuff at home because you just have a passion for it, you’d probably fit in great. Creativity is pretty impressive. There are lots of great algorithms people in the world, but we tend to go for people who can use their knowledge and skills in creative ways. Also, proven skills matter a great deal. The best way to impress Facebook is to do work that solves problems we’re trying to solve or innovates in ways we weren’t expecting. We love that.
Describe your life as a Facebook developer in one song and one colour.
Hrm… one song and one color. The color is easy — #3b5998. Burnt into my mind over the years of CSS refactoring. One song is much, much trickier. “Teach Me How to Dougie” by Cali Swag District leaps to mind. It’s a song that you’d find people just randomly dancing to at their desks, or in the walk ways, or on ripstiks. It has especially value because one can do the dougie while wearing a snuggie.
I guess if I were trying to go for something a little more metaphorically rich, I would say “Times Like These” by Foo Fighters. Working at Facebook the last three years has given me the opportunity to push myself to the edge of my abilities without running out of role models to aspire to. It’s really intense at times. It’s really challenging. It’s the sort of place that rewards bold thought and action (in that order). You can sometimes find yourself way, way out of your comfort zone. You go home, you rest, and you come back to find that the spirit of boldness is still there. Still eager to have you there, putting aside your fears, and going for what you think really matters. Also, as long as you’re pursuing worthwhile goals and being honest with yourself, FB is one of the most supportive places you could possibly be. It’s also the most open minded place I’ve ever worked. Facebook’s internal culture is one that deeply appreciates variety of perspective and variety of background. We want to keep the work we do and the impact we have in the world in front of everything else. Gender, sexual orientation, formal education, etc. are details that just don’t really matter in the company if you have the skills to deliver awesomeness. It was really hard for me to learn to accept and trust that after having worked at so many bad companies prior to Facebook.
I’m Romanian and I keep telling people our vampires are not as hot as Twilight makes you think. What is a myth that you can bust about Facebook?
Well, I think a lot of people have a sort of cloudy notion that Facebook is the sort of place where people party constantly, Justin Timberlake hangs out all the time saying pithy things, Zuck walks around giving darting glances and speaking at superhuman rates. Where there are constant power plays. Where aggro dudes scowl at computer screens with headphones on while drinking redbull and wearing aviator glasses. Basically everything about all of that is false. Well okay, actually, a lot of us do talk pretty fast — but that’s the most similar part. Okay, to be fair we do have a lot of celebrities come through as well. But what I mean is that Facebook’s internal culture is really all about building things for people, exploring ideas, and collaborating with others who love building things. There are definitely some really intense people and strong personalities. However, a person being boisterous doesn’t give them voice or respect on its own. It has to come with skills. We’re a super collaborative and warm culture internally. Also a bit impish.
We want people to dive into what they don’t know. If you’re really trying to answer a hard question, you’ll meet support rather than resistance. We also know how to have fun. For instance, when you close a task using our internal tasks system, you collect a pokemon for it (via an elaborate on-screen animation). When you’re reviewing code you can use special image macros that trigger meme images. One of my favorites is a macro called “dogscience” that triggers an image of a dog wearing a labcoat mixing chemicals. The text of the image is “I have no idea what I’m doing.” The idea is that we just don’t take ourselves too seriously. Another favorite is “supercorn” — which triggers a massive sparkling gif of a unicorn. Perfect for when you accept someone’s diff that makes a change you’re really happy to see. We also throw huge parties a few times a year. Okay, I guess those can be a little like the movie.
Finally, what made you leave sunny San Francisco for the rainy hills of London?
Well, to be honest, it’s actually somewhat inaccurate to label San Francisco as a sunny city. It’s also way, way hillier than London. My first place in San Francisco was at the top of Nob Hill, which made every day a 400ft hike right at the end of the walk home. It’s also pretty chilly and gray there a lot of the year. Aside from being darker more of the day in the winter months, London feels surprisingly similar to SF to me. To actually answer your question though, what made me come here was the opportunity to really diverge from what I had been doing and jump into something very important for the company. There are so many bad ass women and men in London and all over Europe doing exciting engineering. We didn’t want to miss out on hiring them and building up teams here that will stay here. If I’m allowed to shamelessly plug our efforts, here is a link to our careers page. Back to the question, I’m only really happy when I’m really challenged, which is a big part of what makes London so enticing. I’m also a massive Monty Python fan. Any culture that can appreciate self-irreverent, demented comedy and farce like that has got to be one worth exploring.