Ten Things I Hate About Working at Facebook

August 15th, 2012

These past two years at Facebook have been an absolute nightmare, something that I hope never to repeat in my career.  I’ve held my feelings back long enough.  Now that I’m coming upon my two-year anniversary at Facebook, I need to just come out and say it:  there’s a whole lot to hate about working here.  In the interest of brevity, I’ve trimmed my complaints down to just the top ten things:

  1. There is way too much code being committed and shipped.  Over the past two years, the number of engineers at Facebook has more than doubled.  But the rate of source code commits continues to grow proportionally with the number of engineers.  This is in clear violation of the law that Fred Brooks established nearly 40 years ago in The Mythical Man Month.  And that’s exactly what this “supposed” productivity is:  myth.  I see engineers around me committing code all the time, releasing new features onto the site every week, and I just sit back and chuckle to myself.  Happy, happy fools.
  2. There are too few meetings.  This is actually related to, and arguably a prime cause of, #1 above.  There’s even a “no meeting Wednesday” meme in the company, which you might as well call a “failure to communicate” death wish.  Software needs to be talked about and debated, not simply written.  It’s lunacy to be writing and shipping code at a blistering pace, instead of letting things bake a bit in committees representing broad swaths of all semi-affected parties.
  3. Zuck is too involved.  Now that we’re a publicly-traded company, the CEO’s job should primarily be interfacing with the public – specifically the major investors, analysts, and pundits.  Instead, Zuck is still planning upcoming products, talking with engineers, developing the strategy.  This is a complete misappropriation of time.  His job should be pumping up the stock price externally, not “building stuff.”
  4. There is not enough focus on short-term revenue.  This is related to #3:  specifically Zuck’s idealism (perhaps even naïveté) that focusing on building great products will lead to solid long-term businesses.  The stock is down this quarter.  We’re public now – we should be juicing next quarter’s revenues, not building cool stuff.  Seems to me that we show less ad pixels than other major web sites.  We should introduce banner ads (with eye-catching graphics and animations, ideally showing toe fungus or the spontaneous dancing that results from discovering low mortgage rates).  We should sell user data to interested third parties at a decent price.  Nobody in the company seems to be proposing these (admittedly obvious) business strategies, which, if anything, shows a clear lack of business acumen at the highest levels.
  5. The food is too good. What’s wrong with good food?  Well, here’s what’s wrong:  there’s too much of it.  Three meals a day.  Free.  Cooked by award-winning chefs.  And too many choices:  salads, entrees, desserts, vegetarian food, soups, whole grains, usually a second dessert, organic stuff, barbeque, ice cream, fresh-squeezed orange juice.  For someone like me with zero gastronomic self-control, this supposed “benefit” or “perk” is a complete disaster.  Why doesn’t the FDA step in?
  6. Too many decisions are being made by engineers.  Specifically, by just the engineers in the immediate product team of whatever’s shipping.  No one at Facebook seems to understand that hierarchies in organizations exist for a reason, one of which is to make sure people higher up can override decisions they don’t like.  I’ve seen decisions being made by lone engineers.  Or an engineer and a designer over lunch.  Or by interns.  All without telling their managers, even.  This sort of autonomous decision-making suggests a complete lack of understanding of how corporations are supposed to work, a disregard for people with titles and broad management responsibilities.  I’ve been preaching a much simpler approach:  always go with the opinion of the person who’s closest to Zuck.  Or the opinion of the person in the room who manages the most people.  No one’s listening.
  7. Too many new ideas are being created at Hackathons.  This is a direct corollary of #6.  I was told the other day that something like 70% of Hackathon projects, which are pretty much projects that engineers in small groups dream up and implement in single-day coding parties, end up shipping on the main site.  I’m all for creativity and supposed “empowerment,” but that’s way too much stuff shipping without being formally outlined and approved by committees of senior execs.  We have execs for a reason.  They should be telling us what to build.  Not the other way around.  Corporations should be autocracies, not democracies.  What – we should all just go off and create whatever amuses us?  Where’s the leadership?
  8. All the internal focus on Mobile and Platform is completely misguided.  I don’t mean to belittle your intelligence by belaboring this point, so I won’t.  I’ll just say this:  mobile devices are self-evidently of no consequence, and it’s ridiculous to give third-party developers the means to build on a common social graph.
  9. There is a fully-working hot tub in the New York office that interviews are conducted in.  I didn’t believe this until I saw the photos on Twitter.  It was billed to me as a way to test candidates’ resilience under pressure.  I was told that it’s used rarely, and only on exceptionally good candidates as a way to probe the extent of their mettle.  This is about the least professional thing that I have ever heard of, and I’m sure it violates laws in several states.  [Ed: This is completely untrue, in case this fantastical point seems plausible at first.  I installed a hot tub (non-functioning) as a conference room in Facebook Seattle.  Interviews are never done in them.]
  10. There is too much internal trust.  People at Facebook regularly assume – I kid you not – that employees they’ve never worked with will excel at their jobs, work hard, and deliver what they promise.  This type of idealism is frankly nauseating.  When it comes down to it, politics and mutual suspicion are ultimately what create the dynamism and drama that make work worthwhile.  Without these, it’s just code, code, code.  Ship, ship, ship.  I get tired just thinking about it.

Consider this fair warning if you’re a software engineer.  I can only call it as I see it.

Chinese Translations for Farewell Post

December 25th, 2010

Two good friends were kind enough to translate my farewell letter to Microsoft into Chinese.  Bing Han made a translation based on the work of Freedo Chen and a colleague of his (whose name won’t paste into WordPress correctly, unfortunately).  I won’t be able to assess the translations, since I don’t read Chinese, but I provide them here for those of you that might find it useful.

Thanks to Bing, Freedo, and Freedo’s colleague for translating the letter!

Goodbye Microsoft, Hello Facebook

September 4th, 2010

Just posted my final email to coworkers at Microsoft, after twelve awesome years right out of college.  Read its entirety here.  I put a lot into capturing my best thoughts for my fellow Microsofties.  I hope you enjoy reading it.

Death Bound

June 13th, 2010

Have you ever watched something or someone die?  We’ve all seen dead people and dead animals, but I mean being present at the very moment of death, the instant when the essence of a life departs from its body, a hand deftly and irrevocably withdrawn from the puppet it once animated.

I once watched a hummingbird die slowly over several minutes, its frantic breaths gradually transforming into shuddering, haltering gasps, ending finally in a prolonged, almost exaggerated exhale.  This was of a whole different quality as witnessing the sudden – sometimes violent, sometimes public – deaths of animals.  I was sitting in the front of a brown Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera as it powered roughly over a full-grown retriever that had made an impulsive choice which turned into the decision of a lifetime.  It had been stranded in the grassy median of a six-lane road by its owner:  she having jogged spritely across the road, turning back to encourage him along;  it diving once, twice, into the road, each time startled back onto the median by the passing cars;  she waving at it laughingly, calling out to it (You silly goon!  Hop on over!);  it taking a determined plunge into the narrow gap between our car and the car in front, it folding under the front bumper improbably, awkwardly, with a yelp sharply interrupted;  me feeling the texture of its bones – breaking, skidding, dragging – under the floorboard, under my adolescent feet, too young to have been driving, too old to resist glancing surreptitiously back at the road (“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear…”);  she screaming, screaming, kneeling, screaming, shaking, screaming;  my mom, agape, noiseless, breathless, hand covering mouth, foot on gas, too late to stop, too horrified and ashamed to stop;  me forcing my gaze away from the blood and the hair to the screaming, the incessant, choked screaming;  we never speaking of this, not at the time, not ever.

Sudden, violent death leaves no room for reflection.  I don’t even remember the dog’s color.  (The girl, however, was blonde.  That I know.)  I recall the sensations and sounds of that day, but I feel nothing for the dog other than a vague undercurrent of guilt and inevitability.

The hummingbird’s death was, as I said, of a whole different quality.  I was eating lunch in the quiet corner of a cafeteria at work, my table abutting a floor-to-ceiling window exposing the bright, mildly breezy day.  In the middle of my meal, paying no particular attention to anyone, looking purposefully occupied with the deliberate chewing of my food, I heard a light, muffled tap on the window, as if a small marshmallow had been flung against it.  I would not have noticed this but for my awkward idleness and the stillness around me.

An emerald hummingbird now lay on the cement footing at the base of the window.  Its back was arched, its head yearning away from me, its neck exposed and delicately, almost imperceptibly, fluttering.  There was none of the majesty of all the mid-flight photography I had seen of hummingbirds.  Its wings rested against its side.  It was not darting flower to flower, holding motionless in spurts as if the air itself was solid.  The magic had gone.  It breathed heavily like a sprinter just across the finish line, bent over, heaving, every breath fully in and fully out, his entirety pulsing as one large heart.  The hummingbird’s breaths came faster than I would have believed plausible but for its size.  Perhaps the same lightness that allowed for wings to beat fast enough to blur would permit gulps of air twice a second after all.

I looked at the hummingbird, the two of us each alone on his side of the glass, bound together by the awe of what was sure to come.  Its breathing began to slow and stutter.  What did it feel at that moment?  Was there only pain, the kind of deafening, omnipresent pain that overwhelmed thought, demanded all attention?  Or was the hummingbird possibly beyond feeling, enveloped in the kind of quiet solitude left by eardrums blown after an implacable crescendo?

The hummingbird’s breaths became shallow and sporadic, making it hard to decide where one ended and the next began.  It seemed every shuddering exhalation could be its last.  What was certain was that I would be the only witness of these final moments, moments within what I presumed was, until minutes before, a blissful, lighthearted life flitting nectar to nectar.

At this moment I swelled with an intimacy unexpected.

* * * * *

We typically grow close to others through sharing a lifetime of experiences.  Familiarity seems almost prerequisite to intimacy.

There is however a frightening, awful intimacy that floods the void between strangers who share a terrible secret.  Show me quickly before she comes back.  Let’s kill it.

In these moments we recognize that the particular person with us is irrelevant.  What matters is that someone – anyone – also knows what we dare not tell, what we will unavoidably recall at the most inopportune of times, what must always color and distort the way we see other experiences that remind us of this, the awesome, dreadful moment.

* * * * *

The hummingbird barely moved now, each of its breaths separated by increasingly long periods of stillness.  Did it sense that I was right beyond the glass, close enough to touch it, powerless to save?  I was about to witness one of only two experiences universally shared by the living.  I opened my mouth to speak.  I wanted to stand.

Stay.  At last, the hummingbird kept its secret no longer.  I am dying.

Its feathers moved subtly, spontaneously.  The breeze could go on animating it, but to what purpose?  This was no bird.  This was a green marshmallow with a long protrusion thrown against glass.

I rose, moved it to a shaded corner under flowering rhododendrons, and went back to work.

Embarking on the Great Adventure

April 28th, 2010

This past weekend, I had the great fortune of being the best man at Neil and Kelly’s wedding.  It was a great celebration!

Below is my toast.  The first three sentences have been cut off, but I’ve included the full transcript below.  Congratulations, Neil & Kelly!

Ladies and gentlemen,

It’s a privilege to celebrate this happy day with all of you. I’ve known Neil since college. He’s one of the most considerate people I know. To see Neil and Kelly so happy together is proof that good guys do win and that life is beautiful.

In addition to his great sense of humor, Neil has his peculiarities. I was the one who first convinced him to try lettuce. We were at Subway. After taking a few thoughtful bites, he looked up and declared, “I can’t believe I went through life without trying lettuce.” To this day, he still gets lettuce in his sandwiches.

Months later, I offered him tomatoes. He politely refused. “Have you ever even tried tomatoes?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “but they can’t be good.” As if that explained it all.

Neil didn’t even like Paris the first time, when he went alone. It’s true!

Then he met Kelly. And things began to change. Neil began to try more things. Eat more things. Adapt to shifting plans with a spirit of adventure. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like he went skydiving, Rocky Mountain climbing, or spent 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chew. But he did love deeper. And he spoke sweeter. Mexican food, a favorite of Kelly’s, now had a fighting chance. It seems love is great enough to conquer even cheese, and possibly tomatoes.

After all, life is a great adventure. It’s about sharing experiences with people you love. Seeing Neil with Kelly has shown me how we can encourage one another to explore the unknown. If that’s not the power of love, I don’t know what is.

Neil’s a big fan of music, so I tried to find some profound insight from the radio this morning about how we should capture life’s fleeting moments and take chances. It’s a lot to ask of a radio in 15 rushed minutes, but here’s the best I could do:

Lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance
Opportunity comes once in a lifetime.

Remarkable the type of sage advice you get from 106.1 KISS FM.

To help you seize life’s opportunities, I bought the two of you a few gift certificates: to go skydiving (with Skydive Snohomish), Rocky Mountain climbing (well, actually, a three-day Rainier hike with REI), and – I assume you know this – there’s no bull named Fu Man Chew. But I’m told there’s a bar in Pioneer Square that has a mechanical bull, so I got you a gift certificate for that as well. I’m sure you can beat 2.7 seconds.

Ladies and gentlemen, please raise your glasses with me. To Neil and Kelly:

May you live long, happy, fulfilled, and leave nothing on the table.
May you do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.
May you spur each other on in life’s great adventure.

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance – I hope you dance.

Musical Chairs

April 23rd, 2010

I used a bank drive-thru for the first time in twenty-five years today.  My three year old son watched from the back seat as I handed over the checks:  first the $11.95 refund from the ritzy gym where I had long since not been a member, the same gym that had been sending me statements every three months for the past several years reminding me of my credit balance, the same statements that, once I compared their collective postage to the actual balance, compelled me back into the gym’s marbled halls to settle my account;  next the $965 windfall from completing a mortgage refi that nearly fell through due to the loan processor’s many delays.  I felt oddly giddy depositing such a large check (“Almost a thousand!  And a ridiculously low fixed rate!”), not for the amount but for the fact that it was my own escrowed money coming back to me.  Strangely, or perhaps not, I’m convinced I wouldn’t feel the same pleasure writing then depositing a check to myself.

I hadn’t previously used a bank drive-thru in my adult life.  It always seemed a bit passé, the type of thing you’d expect of retirees in Cadillac Devilles.  Why bother with the sliding drawer, the calcified creak of the metal snake as the teller adjusts the microphone, all the potential pauses and misunderstandings of human interaction, when you could instead slide a card, press a few buttons, and move on?  I only deviated from my plan to park in front of the ATM at the last second, mid-arc in the minivan, once I considered the logistics of keeping a three-year-old safe mere feet away from a busy parking lot while juggling a wallet, two checks, a secret four-digit pin, and deposit envelopes.  Perhaps better to let the steering wheel unwind an inch and drift into the drive-thru.  Boy stays buckled, dad turns small sheets of paper into tiny magnetic fields in some distant computer.

Before today, I never understood why my mom always took my brother and me through the bank drive-thru.  There were always lines.  Maryland was hot.  But today I understood.  Perhaps somewhere she, too, changed paths mid-arc in order to juggle her many responsibilities.

That was twenty five years ago.  I was my son’s age.  My mom was mine.  An actor was President.  The Soviets were bound to end the world any day.  It was unthinkable that Knight Rider himself would one day dance on the Berlin Wall.

Twenty five years.  Everyone shifted one seat over in life’s musical chairs.  When the music stopped, life didn’t have a seat for my grandfather – my dad took his.  My son joined in at my previous seat, my seat in Childhood, my seat in the back of a sweltering Nissan Sentra wondering why we seemed to visit the bank every other week, wondering why we always waited in that drive-thru instead of just going in.

There’s a photo of my mom taken when I was a toddler.  She is young.  She is beautiful, confident.  Beaming with the optimism of being thirty.  Would she smile that same smile at double her age? Could anyone?

Did she dream the same things for me that I dream for my son?  Did she also sit contentedly for an hour watching me play in the sun? How would she feel looking at that photograph today?  Have the years failed the brightness of her youth?  Did life reward her as deeply as she had expected?

* * * * *

“What does that sign say?” my son asks, pointing to the printout taped to the green glass of the teller’s booth.  I notice a coffee machine right next to her monitor and wonder whether it’s just for her, alone at her perch, or whether other tellers come back during breaks to pour from the same pot.  This matters more to me at the time than it should.

“It lists the things you can do at the drive-thru.”  I quickly scan the sheet and summarize.  “Withdraw less than $1000.  Deposit cash and checks.  Verify balances.  Anything else and you’ll have to go in.”

“Next time, maybe you can take me to the ATM machine.”  He adds the superfluous “machine” like most adults do.  Like I do.

“Sure.  Let’s try that next time.”

I take my receipt and turn towards home.

That’s Not My PC

February 7th, 2010

Due to a cease and desist letter from Usborne’s lawyers, I have removed this book from Amazon and from this site.  Lawyers tell me that though the parody can be defended in court, it’d likely cost on the order of $25,000 to successfully defend it.  It’s unfortunate that they’ve chosen to attack me on this, given that I’ve been a fan of their books for years, but I can’t afford to defend this right now.

I’ve left the original post as-is below, but I’ve removed the actual PDF file from this site.

— original post below —

I’ve just published my first children’s book, That’s Not My PC, now available on Amazon.  It’s a parody of a series of great children’s books published by Usborne that started with That’s Not My Puppy.  The series’ format is simple:  in each page, the narrator highlights one characteristic of the object on the page which identifies it as someone else’s.  (“That’s not my PC… its keyboard is too gritty.”)

That's Not My PC -frontcover That's Not My PC -backcover

That’s Not My PC is a parody of this series meant for the Internet generation.  It even contains 14 bonus pages of games and puzzles!

You can view the full book as a PDF here [edited and removed due to lawyers].

Please spread the word! It makes a great gift and is an excellent conversation piece.

Ace Ventura Delivers Again

June 11th, 2009

One of the Ace Ventura movies begins with a hilariously-exaggerated scene of the main character delivering a package by essentially drop-kicking it down the hall and manhandling it the entire route.

I received an exercise bike via UPS recently.  Below is pictured the state of its arrival (I am not making this up):

DSC_0607 DSC_0600 DSC_0601 DSC_0602 DSC_0603 DSC_0604 DSC_0605 DSC_0606

As if in knowing acknowledgement, the delivery guy had circled the phone number on the UPS note where you call to complain about damaged deliveries.  He at least seems to have a sense of humor.

Farewell Shanghai

June 11th, 2009

Well, we’ve left Shanghai and have returned to Seattle after a year in China.  It was a great year that gave me many insights about key differences with the local software industry as well as with local culture.  I aim to share some of those thoughts in an upcoming post.

Forbidden CityIn the meantime, I leave you with two pictures.  The first is all about  globalization.  You’ll see that I’m pointing at the bottom-right corner of a sign that explains a key historic building within the Forbidden City.  Until about 1911, no civilian had ever seen the inside of the Forbidden City because only the emperor and his staff were allowed.  Now anyone can visit and see the hidden gems of history.  Well, that and the logo I’m pointing to in the sign:  it’s an Amex symbol.  That’s right –Amex has managed to get its logo plastered on every sign in the Forbidden City.  Globalization at its starkest, I suppose.  Next thing you know, Tide With Bleach will be sponsoring the Washington Monument.

IMG_1692 The second photo is just for fun.  It’s an outdoor statue outside of the Jin An Temple in the heart of Shanghai.  Outdoor statues have been gaining popularity both in Shanghai and in the US, as far as I can tell.  Hours of entertainment.

Wither Movie Theaters?

April 24th, 2009

There aren’t that many movie theaters in Shanghai.  Certainly, compared to the size of the population (around 17 million is what I hear), you’d expect far more theaters.  But it’s nearly impossible to find one.

When you run across the occasional theater, you discover that their prices are extraordinary.  Normal tickets are about $12.  This may not sound like much – say, if you live in Manhattan – but college graduates in China often earn under $15,000 a year.  $12 is, in local prices, “ridiculous.”

Then there are the $50 seats (not a typo).  Some theaters in China, like the ritzy theater in the Grand Gateway mall, have “VIP” tickets that cost $50.  You essentially sit in a glass-enclosed box, much like movie stars do when attending stadium games in the US.

Not that I actually know from experience.  $50 is a wee too much for me to spend on one movie (a five minute bathroom break would cost the price of a latte!).  I’m also not sure why you’d want to go to a theater just to sit in an enclosed box all by yourself.  Isn’t the whole point of going to the theater to share an experience with the audience?  If I wanted a completely silent box with no one near me, I’d rather watch at home.

Which brings us to why theaters are so scarce and expensive in China.  They used to be all over the place, and cheap, from what locals tell me.  But in recent years, the advent of DVD piracy has decimated the theater business.  Why pay several dollars to watch a movie in a theater when you can pay $0.80 (not a typo) on the street to buy the DVD?  This is essentially the thought process that Chinese citizens underwent in the past decade.  As cheap pirate DVDs became available, less people went to theaters.  Theaters started closing down.  The remaining theaters had to charge more and more in order to justify staying open.  As movies raised prices, even more people fled to pirate DVDs.  This self-reinforcing cycle has now driven the movie theater business to its new equilibrium in Shanghai:  one theater for every several hundred thousand people, each charging $12-50 for tickets.

If there’s one thing that’s interesting to a computer scientist in China, it has to be the bit about intellectual property rights.  As everyone knows, pirated software and pirated DVDs are everywhere not only in China, but in most of the Far East.

[As an aside, there are cases, albeit limited, where piracy actually seems to fill a legitimate niche.  Here's an interesting case I ran into recently.  Employees of Microsoft are allowed to download any Microsoft product for business use through an intranet site that's notoriously slow when accessed overseas.  Coworkers from Thailand tell me that downloading a large product, such as Visual Studio, can take many hours (or in some cases even days).  It turns out that if you're a Microsoft employee in Thailand and want to install a large Microsoft product, it's faster to simply buy a pirated version of the product from a local store.  It takes ten minutes of walking and costs about $3.  Once you buy that disc, you can share it with all your coworkers so that their installations also go faster.  Isn’t this an odd case of data-transfer arbitrage?]

Back to China and DVD’s.  You can find pirated DVD’s on many streets in Shanghai.  In fact, most pirate establishments are so formalized that they have their own store, many as large as your local Blockbuster.  The types of pirated content include major Hollywood movies, entire seasons of popular TV shows, as well as a huge collection of Chinese movies and TV.  You can find just about anything.

Pirated movies range in quality both in how they’re distributed and in the original recording source.  For instance, the cheapest movies are the ones that actually come on CDs (VCDs).  The more expensive ones come on multilayered DVD’s (and “more expensive” is a relative term – we’re talking the difference between $0.80 and $1.20).  As for source recording material, television shows are often recorded straight off the network with commercials cut out.  The best movies are recorded directly from the source DVD, but the worst ones are recorded by filming the movie in a theater with a portable video recorder.  Somewhere in the middle are the preview editions of movies which studios send to critics prior to a movie’s release.  These often come with watermarks prominently displayed in the movie (“Property of Warner Bros.”).

This leads to interesting moral dilemmas.  For instance, I subscribe to Netflix in the US.  For several dollars a month, I have the right to stream most US TV shows onto my computer.  However, studio distribution laws don’t allow streaming into China (thereby, funny enough, encouraging piracy).  I can bypass Netflix’s attempts to detect my location using VPN services (such as Witopia), but it’s arguably more efficient just to buy the pirated DVD’s.

Similarly, most major networks (e.g. NBC) now allow you to stream recent shows for free.  But they don’t allow access from outside the US.  This, once again, poses a moral dilemma for US citizenry worldwide.

I’ve always paid for my digital music as well as for movies and TV shows.  However, the restrictive usage rights demanded by major corporations in the US have the side effect of tempting me (some might say encouraging me) to pirate the content.

I’d happily pay for access to the  material (and continue to do so).  But let’s take a lesson from Shanghai’s movie theater business:  we need to carefully structure our digital rights laws to encourage and enable legitimate use, not to further encourage piracy.