'The Hacker Way' versus 'Don't Be Evil' - Facebook and Google cultures square-off

Summary:Facebook's IPO documents reveals a far different culture to that of rival Google...

Mark Zuckerberg's letter to prospective shareholders was incredibly vague about his company's social mission, and there was no announcement of a charitable foundation -- as Google had done when it filed its IPO papers eight years ago.

A comparison of the two founders' letter to shareholders reveals a surprisingly large difference in what motivates the rival organizations, what's important to them ... and what's not.

Some industry watchers expected Mr Zuckerberg to try to best Larry Page's eloquent and impassioned "Founder's Letter" that launched Google's IPO.

Both founders were close in age when they wrote letters introducing their company to prospective shareholders -- an important document that sets and explains the company's culture.

Larry Page jumps straight to the point: Google exists as a business so that it can make a big difference in the world.

He introduces the concept of "Don't Be Evil," a rule to guide senior management decisions. The doctrine of "Don't Be Evil" was remarkable, because it demonstrated Google's keen awareness of its growing power, and with that, a great responsibility to act ethically and to be careful in its actions.

Mr Page's letter explained that Google's ambitions for its social mission were greater than those set out for Google itself. In fact, the commercial side of the business would be used to fund the creation of Google Foundation, an organization that he expected would:

"Eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation...to the largest of the world's problems."

How would Mr Zuckerberg trump Mr Page's inspirational epistle?

His letter to shareholders starts off well, demonstrating a keen understanding of his assignment:

"Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission -- to make the world more open and connected."

But that's about as far as he gets. He spends many paragraphs saying pretty much not much at all, wishy-washy phrases, said in different ways: how Facebook enables people to share, that sharing is good, that open government is good, and that sharing helps people's relationships; and how it's good to connect people, and to give people voice. At times he makes Facebook sound like a phone company. Reach out and share with someone -- it makes the world a better place.

In the letter, Mr Zuckerberg struggles to deepen a collection of shallow sentiments about Facebook's social mission. He uses a bold typeface to emphasize key phrases: "We hope to strengthen how people relate to each other."

"We hope to improve how people connect to business and the economy."

John Gapper, Chief Business Commentator for the Financial Times called the letter, "The unbearable vagueness of Zuckerberg."

Mr Zuckerberg could have pointed to concrete examples of how Facebook was being used to "open" governments. The Arab Spring, the popular uprisings that spread throughout the Middle East in 2011 were at times called the "Facebook Revolution," yet he makes no mention of his company's key role in the matter.

At some point, Mr Zuckerberg realized he wouldn't be able to beat, let alone match Mr Page's letter, which is probably why the document is found deep within the SEC filing, on page 61.

Larry Page's letter is right at the beginning of Google's filing, even before page 1 -- spanning seven pages numbered i to vii.

Mr Zuckerberg's letter moves onto a different subject: a description of a core set of values, which he calls "The Hacker Way," a homage to Hewlett-Packard's celebrated "The HP Way."

It is mostly expressed as slogans that are used internally, and repeatedly, a technique used to indoctrinate rather than educate:

"Done is better than perfect."

"Code wins arguments."

"Move fast and break things."

"Focus on impact."

The Wall Street Journal reported that on the day of the SEC filing, Facebook printed stacks of posters with the slogan: "Stay Focused and Keep Shipping."

The use of slogans to help manage a workforce is interesting -- outside of North Korea and Foxconn -- it has long fallen out of fashion.

The Hacker Way explains Facebook's failed and sometimes controversial projects, such as "Beacon." There is no room to think if something might be "evil" if it turns out that way then as quickly as it was built it can just as quickly be dropped.

It's not a very encouraging prospect because Facebook is large and getting larger -- it can cause a lot of harm if it's not careful. Google's approach to think then act, seems far more responsible.

Mr Zuckerberg ends his letter by reminding staff: "We expect everyone at Facebook to focus every day on how to build real value in everything they do."

It sounds threatening, rather than inspiring, as Mr Page sought to do.

It's clear that Mr Zuckerberg doesn't believe he needs to make a song and dance about "social mission" to motivate workers, or impress shareholders. Facebook is clearly a different company to that of Google -- and maybe it also signals a new type of company, guided by a fast moving benevolent amorality.

Topics: Google, Banking, Legal, Social Enterprise

About

In May 2004, Tom Foremski became the first journalist to leave a major newspaper, the Financial Times, to make a living as a full-time journalist blogger. He writes the popular news blog Silicon Valley Watcher--reporting on the business of Silicon Valley.Tom arrived in San Francisco in 1984, and has covered US technology markets for leadi... Full Bio

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