Facebook's Letter from Zuckerberg, The Hacker Way, and Higher Ed

Tech bloggers were awake and ready in the wee hours of the morning to "live blog" the highly anticipated Facebook IPO today.  While the filing didn't come until later this afternoon, there's still going to be plenty of ink spilled over the numbers that it reveals. What's interesting to me as part of the S-1 filing is a letter from CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg. In it, he speaks of "The Hacker Way" as part of the Facebook culture. When we think about how technology can and will change education, what's to be learned from this sort of philosophy?

February 1, 2012

Unlike hundreds of other tech bloggers, I confess:  I really haven't been waiting on pins and needles all day to live-blog or scrutinize or analyze the high-anticipated Facebook IPO. These are the benefits, I would argue, of covering ed-tech specifically. (It's also the benefit of still recovering from all those years in grad school -- I'm too poor to buy stocks and too free-spirited to worry about an investment portfolio. You can give me grief over failing to plan for my retirement in the comments.)

Nevertheless, the filing for a $5 billion IPO today by the folks who helped redefine "share," "like," and "friend" is an important moment for the economy, for the Web, for the tech industry, for our culture, and of course for all those early Facebook investors and shareholders.

While many folks are poring over the accounting that an IPO reveals -- Facebook's profits, the sources of its revenue, and so on -- I'm fascinated by the letter that CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg penned as part of the filing. It's a statement of Zuckerberg's personal philosophy meant to explain his vision for the company.

Wired's Tim Carmody offers an annotated version of the letter -- it's worth a read for Tim's thoughts of what Zuck is "really saying." Below, I've excerpted part of the letter at length, a section called "The Hacker Way." Considering the name and the impetus of this blog, this is the part that interests me most:

We have cultivated a unique culture and management approach that we call the Hacker Way.

The word “hacker” has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I’ve met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world.

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.

To encourage this approach, every few months we have a hackathon, where everyone builds prototypes for new ideas they have. At the end, the whole team gets together and looks at everything that has been built. Many of our most successful products came out of hackathons, including Timeline, chat, video, our mobile development framework and some of our most important infrastructure like the HipHop compiler.

To make sure all our engineers share this approach, we require all new engineers — even managers whose primary job will not be to write code — to go through a program called Bootcamp where they learn our codebase, our tools and our approach. There are a lot of folks in the industry who manage engineers and don’t want to code themselves, but the type of hands-on people we’re looking for are willing and able to go through Bootcamp.

The examples above all relate to engineering, but we have distilled these principles into five core values for how we run Facebook:

Focus on Impact: If we want to have the biggest impact, the best way to do this is to make sure we always focus on solving the most important problems. It sounds simple, but we think most companies do this poorly and waste a lot of time. We expect everyone at Facebook to be good at finding the biggest problems to work on.

Move Fast: Moving fast enables us to build more things and learn faster. However, as most companies grow, they slow down too much because they’re more afraid of making mistakes than they are of losing opportunities by moving too slowly. We have a saying: “Move fast and break things.” The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.

Be Bold: Building great things means taking risks. This can be scary and prevents most companies from doing the bold things they should. However, in a world that’s changing so quickly, you’re guaranteed to fail if you don’t take any risks. We have another saying: “The riskiest thing is to take no risks.” We encourage everyone to make bold decisions, even if that means being wrong some of the time.

Be Open: We believe that a more open world is a better world because people with more information can make better decisions and have a greater impact. That goes for running our company as well. We work hard to make sure everyone at Facebook has access to as much information as possible about every part of the company so they can make the best decisions and have the greatest impact.

Build Social Value: Once again, Facebook exists to make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company. We expect everyone at Facebook to focus every day on how to build real value for the world in everything they do.

Source: Facebook S-1, page 69

Carmody says that it sounds like this portion of the letter was pieced together from a variety of agile Web development guides and that it sounds like the sort of "mission statement" crafted at a company retreat. Fair enough.

But as someone who thinks a lot about the necessity for more fearlessness, openness, speed, flexibility and real social value in education (technology) -- and wow, I can't believe I'm typing this -- I find this part of Zuckerberg's letter quite a compelling vision for shaking up a number of institutions (and not just "old media" or Wall Street). "Hacking is ... an inherently hands-on and active discipline," writes Zuck. "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." This is an important lesson for us to heed in educational institutions, I'd argue, although I'm certain it's not one that a lot of folks want to hear.


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