Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

Summary: As Facebook's revenue---and employee base---doubles and triples it will be increasingly hard to just iterate and maintain "The Hacker Way."


Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a letter to potential shareholders romanticized the "Hacker Way" of operating and the meritocracy that comes via good code. His challenge will be maintaining that ethos amid quarterly earnings conference calls, employees that will be instant millionaires and the politics that come with being a large lumbering company.

Mark Zuckerberg's desk.

Technology high fliers all have the same dream: Become huge yet maintain the nimbleness of a startup.

There have been so many pixels spilled on Facebook's IPO filing. That document may be the most examined IPO filing in recent times. But for me Zuckerberg's Hacker Way sticks out. Here's an excerpt from Zuckerberg's letter to potential shareholders.

The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.

Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once. To support this, we have built a testing framework that at any given time can try out thousands of versions of Facebook. We have the words “Done is better than perfect” painted on our walls to remind ourselves to always keep shipping.

Hacking is also an inherently hands-on and active discipline. Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works. There’s a hacker mantra that you’ll hear a lot around Facebook offices: “Code wins arguments.”

Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win — not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people.

Let's dissect this Hacker Way and its prospects as Facebook becomes a Wall Street darling.

First, Facebook had $3.71 billion in revenue in 2011. As Facebook's revenue---and employee base---doubles and triples it will be increasingly hard to just iterate. Facebook will face the same problem as any large company---legacy code. Iterations may mean that Facebook's infrastructure becomes to sprawling. The big question: Can the Hacker Way scale?

And then there's the keep shipping motto. That approach has worked well for Facebook even though it sometimes riles up the user base. As Facebook grows it's going to be increasingly difficult to keep thousands of versions of Facebook in the air.

As far as Facebook's open code-based meritocracy. I just don't buy it. Facebook will become a political animal just like all large companies. All you have to do is find an early Google employee vs. one today. Ditto for Microsoft. Companies change and ultimately management mumbo jumbo comes into play.

I wish Zuckerberg and his Hacker Way well, but it's going to be tricky to manage going forward.

More on Facebook's IPO:



Topics: Social Enterprise, Banking, Legal, Security

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

    Hacker: a term that screams lawbreaker...a perfect description of Zuckerberg and Facebook.
    • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

      @sanfranca1 As I am sure a plethora of others will say, hacker does not mean lawbreaker - at least it did not use to. When it was first coined it meant somebody that played with computers and code, but of course nowadays newbies see it another way.
      • Hacker vs. Cracker

        @Dknopp 100% correct. A hacker is someone who enjoys tinkering with software. Think of Dick Van Dyke's character in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He was a mechanical tinkerer and inventor. A hacker is a software tinkerer and inventor; someone who sculpts in the software medium for fun and personal satisfaction.

        Someone who breaks codes or software protection schemes, often with malicious intent, is a CRACKER.
      • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

        @Dknopp Bingo - must a newbie.
      • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

        @Dknopp: what you and other people fail to realize in your insistence that "hacker" is not a pejorative term is that language is not static. Words may accrue secondary and tertiary meanings, and even change meanings over time. A certain word 100 years ago was considered acceptable in common usage. Now it is a highly offensive racial epithet. The word "let" in Elizabethan English meant "to hinder, or prevent." Now it means the exact opposite: "to allow or permit." Common usage determines meaning, not elitist assertions that the common meaning is "wrong."
      • So being right is equated with being elitist now?

        @12stringer1975 Obviously language evolves and changes, but your argument is specious in this case. The only people who use the word "hacker" incorrectly are the clueless sheep who let the mainstream media define their terms for them. Those who've been immersed in the hacker culture know what it means first-hand. If you find that "elitist", so be it. I am proud to be an elite software professional.
    • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

      @sanfranca1...what you are referring to is "Cracker" which is the anti-thesis of a "Hacker". Do some reading on the term "Hacker" as it pertains to the pre 90's. The MEDIA is the one that turned the term Hacker into a back word. Zuckerberg did the work a favor and represented it correctly. "Cracker"s are the ones you think about that create virus's to introduce or take advantage of flaws in a program. "Hackers" are the one that fix those problems, ideally before they become a problem, but in Corporate america they fix it after the fact.

      As per How to Be a Hacker by Eric Steven Raymond "..The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.." (http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html)
      • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

        @GoldBishop: Common usage determines meaning, not elitist assertions to the contrary. If the term "hacker" has acquired a negative meaning, it is not the media's fault. The hackers have tried to create an arbitrary and false distinction between "hacking" and "cracking" which simply does not exist in reality. Facebook is hardly beneficent or necessary for survival. Their business practices, as far as they impact facebook users, while not strictly illegal, are deceptive, manipulative, unethical, and amoral.
      • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

        @12stringer1975: I'm a musician. I know I'm a musician, because I play music and play it well. If the media suddenly decides that the term musician should mean someone who does something illegal, like pirate music or something, and it therefore becomes the term non-musicians use for that illegal activity, why shouldn't I demand that the term really means what it really means? What else would I call myself?<br><br>If a hacker is a hacker (in the original sense of the word), why would they want to be called anything else just because the media and non-hacker sheep following it got the terms mixed up? "Elitist" is a term people who don't understand something use when they would rather follow the crowd and refuse to learn something and improve their life. Those people shouldn't tell those who do know about their chosen profession/hobby what to call themselves, then call them elitist when they refuse.
  • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

    New target for us: Facebook! Let's start keyin' peeps!
  • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

    When the legacy code was mentioned, it brought something to light to me. IF they change the user experience too much, a lot of people will just drop out. I personally do not have tons of time to reconfigure my home page everytime they want to change their code.
    • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

      @Dknopp So far they've done a good job of taking stability of the user experience into account. I think the real issue is this: Why would instant millionaires continue working? I'd quit my job, get my money invested properly in tax free income generating instruments, and retire to the Caribbean! Now I am sure that "key" people had to sign an agreement saying they would not leave for a period of time (4 years is typical), but I expect anyone who didn't have to sign such an agreement will be gone within the first 6 months. And the "key" people will likely retire after 4 years and 1 day. That's a lot of turn over and it will be disruptive, probably in a bad way.
  • Caveat emptor

    That's a funny article. It's worked so far supporting 850m users (nearly 500 million every day) but it will not work for Zuckerberg as he handles 900m or more. Your justification? "I just don???t buy it."

    I'm no fan of Facebook (even one of the nuts that doesn't have an account) but most companies would given anything to have a process able to handle that volume of traffic and keep the site up-to-date. Amazon is supposed to pit teams against each other. When Microsoft was in its prime it did the same.

    The beauty of risk capital is that it is just that. CEOs don't have to listen to shareholders who can vote with their stock certificates if they are dissatisfied. In the offering Zuckerberg has made it clear nothing is changing. So, buyer be very wary.
  • Controlled or not, it sounds like chaos to me.

    What does it mean to "try out thousands of versions of Facebook" at any given time? It seems without a meaningful way to compare usefulness, usability and feasibility, it's just an ocean of versions and the "better" versions may never float to the surface. <br><br>I can tell "hacker" types created Facebook because the code seems great but the usability sucks. I'm sure the company employs usability experts...one would hope. Apparently they suck too. <br><br>Done may be better than perfect, but done is never better than useful and usable.
  • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

    Larry, I believe you're correct. One thing I never figured out is, "why?" Why all the politics in a large corporation. Why not be nimble? My experience has shown me plenty of waste in large corporations. For instance someone points out a hemorrhage of thousands of dollars due to process waste. It's discussed. Then it's measured ad nausium. Then plans are debated... Then it blows me away when intead of the the CEO patting everyone on the back for doing something about it he isn't asking why did it take so long to fix and millions have been wasted?
  • Watch what happens after they become responsible to shareholders

    At least where I work, all that matters is the bottom line and not how we get there, so Management BS rules the day. You'd think it would be productivity, but it isn't. It comes down to the typical fuzzy budget crap we all hate.<br><br>If Facebook can somehow avoid that, then great. If it becomes a typical company where shareholders expect a return on investment, forget it.
    • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

      Yeah, I can understand what you mean. I once worked in a plant where the CEO had all these ''brilliant'' and pompous visions, policies, rules and regulations etc, published everywhere for whoever cared to read. In the end, it didn't matter much if you did what was right because things got messy when the company began losing money. Some so-called rules and regulations especially concerning safety were flouted (on the grounds that their cost was too high). In the end, everything just seems like BS. Nonetheless, it is necessary to have these visions and policies. It might actually motivate one or more employees, and who knows, sometimes that's all it takes - one man's determination.
  • "Hacker" not a criminal, but not much better

    The problem with the 'hacker' monicker is that it screams unaccountable and unplanned. I was there when it first became a term of honor, then a term for a criminal, and now Zuck's gussying it up again. But his description much better fits Agile approaches than "hacker."
  • RE: Facebook's post IPO challenge: Keeping its 'Hacker Way' intact

    Wow, I'm a software engineer with several degrees. I have many years of experiance building large systems. I was thinking of investing in Facebook, but now that I hear it is an evolutionairy prototype hacked together under some kind of wild-fire agile build-driven schedule, I'm hesitant. I have my eye on other tech companies who's senior scientists have pedigree's in in sustainable innovation. Hmmm. Oh, BTW, that's Voltaire. And it's "The better is the enemy of the good".
    • I was wondering when a builder was going to Opine.

      @wegetmail and @bullgoose (who is a few posts down);<br><br>Problem with a "hack" is it's oftenly system dependent. I'm in level 2 of learning C++ at a University and as my teacher has stated, 'use no magic numbers'. While something may compile and run on what I/we author the code on (for me its Debian 4.4.5) DOES NOT MEAN the code will even compile let alone run on the Universities computer (Red Hat with 4.4.6). Just because I can't say why something may not work does not mean that it will work. <br><br>And, with my couple of decades experience using computers and limited knowledge of coding I can see where software could be stellar on one machine and make another machine 'go away', Pfffft.<br><br>About testing: Testing is a really good thing but it just makes sure the code plays well together, doesn't mean you'll get back anything more than a blinking cursor, if that.<br><br>.