Inside Facebook with Jocelyn Goldfein, FB Engineering Director

jocelyn.goldfeinA friend pointed me to this frank and insightful talk by Jocelyn Goldfein, Engineering Director at Facebook.  In this hour-long interview at Stanford she shares her perspective on engineering culture, and a few stories about how things are done at Facebook.  Here are some of the things I found noteworthy…

Aim for impact, and your career takes care of itself:

“There was never a moment when I walked into my boss’ office and said ‘where is my next promotion coming from?’.  I was always just thinking ‘how can I have the most impact I can have on the company, on my team, on our users?’.  And I think that by just trying to have impact my career kind of took care of me.  I never really thought of myself as consciously managing my career.”

You must make sacrifices to reinforce your values:

Culture arises from so many small things.  ’Culture is the behaviors that you reward and punish.’  You’ve also got to show people what behaviors you want.  …   The concrete floors [at Facebook] show that we’re not finished.  The open space is another huge one …  You know if you program you need flow time.   The idea of having programmers in open space is controversial.  For many years the gold standard was offices.  Why would we sacrifice engineer productivity?  It’s not to save money.  It’s because one of the key values of Facebook is to be open.

What happens when you really break something:

I wanted to try automating bug triage.  I called it ‘The Task Reaper’.  I wasn’t careful enough with my testing.  I accidentally ran the test on live data.  It pinged 14,000 bugs, and sent 14,000+ emails.  I basically launched a DOS on our email infrastructure.  It also brought email down.  I was kind of terrified.  There was definitely a vocal company response.

They just got in the trenches and fixed things. … No one acted like I didn’t have the right to try. …  It was like a lightbulb went off in my head.  This is what lets this company still innovate. … We are willing to take risks, we are willing to face up to the consequences of failure if it was in the spirit of trying for something, of trying to innovate.  It’s not that you can come to Facebook and be incompetent or do things wrong all the time … there’s a lot of feedback and actions if that’s happening.  We expect you to deal with the consequences of your failures, but we also rally and have your back when you fail. And we expect you to rally and have our back when we fail.

On Innovation:

Writing “Be Bold” on the wall is one thing – I think that’s helpful – but actually seeing that you can try things and not have them work out and still thrive definitely contributes. What I tell BootCampers during on-boarding is Innovative ideas by definition look like bad ideas.  If they looked like good ideas they would be obvious ideas.  And so to be innovative, to be un-obvious, something about them has to look stupid, or dumb or impossible.


As a company you’d rather be trying 10 things and having 9 of them fail and have one of them be a 20-fold success – that’s just good ROI for anybody who owns the portfolio.  The problem is that it’s bad ROI for the actual individuals on the 9 things that failed.  And if you’re a human being I really think the biggest thing that kills innovation is not that companies suddenly wake up one day and say ‘I don’t want to innovate’, companies all want to innovate, they want their employees to be bold and to try risky things, the problem is innovative ideas are going to fail at a pretty high rate.  And if you’re a human you hate failure.  You are going to try something, … have a horrible experience, and not try it again.  Maybe if you have exceptional grit you will try two things that fail.  But you have to be willing to try 10 things in a row that fail if you’re going to be a successful entrepreneur, and I do think that is what distinguishes successful entrepreneurs is that particular brand of insanity that is ready to keep trying and keep trying in spite of failure and keep believing in yourself.  But ordinary humans do not.  And so i think you just have to provide incredible cultural back pressure to support people in that instance of failure if you want them to keep trying crazy ideas.

On Permission:

It’s a try/catch model of decision-making, not an if/then.

On Mark Zuckerberg’s style as CEO:

Mark has organized the company so he can spend the bulk of his time on product and product strategy, and he has very able lieutenants so that allow him to do that.  He has set up his calendar so that each day of the week has a theme and the theme is one of the departments – so one day might be mobile, and one day might be platform, etc.  There will be a block of four hours and teams rotate through that block and just present stuff to him and talk stuff through with him.  And its amazing – because he’s probably the most gifted product thinker in the company and maybe in the valley … certainly in this space.

But he can only pay attention to so many things at a time too, and so if he’s not paying attention he doesn’t expect you to sit around and wait around for him.  He expects you to run forward while he’s not looking, and if he comes back and finds you havent moved from where he left you he’ll be pretty disappointed.

About brendansterne

Sr Director, Product Incubator
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3 Responses to Inside Facebook with Jocelyn Goldfein, FB Engineering Director

  1. This is great — “It’s a try/catch model of decision-making, not an if/then.”

    Also good — trying 10 times and wildly succeeding once being good ROI for the company, but bad for the individual. That is a great insight.

    Are you familiar with John Gottman’s marriage research that basically says you need 3x the positive interactions in a marriage to the negative ones? I’ve started running across it in other interpersonal research, too, but I think it’s worth a review in this context. If failure is a big negative emotion (it is for me!), how do you buffer it with at least 3 times as many big positive (or perhaps 30 smaller positive) emotional interactions to help keep emotions/ego positive and therefore productivity high? I know when I fail, or get beat up (criticized), it effects my emotional state for months (in some cases years) and I quit trying. (Suspect women who grew up aiming at being “perfect” are particularly susceptible here…)

    • @Sara – Interesting point about the outsized effect of negative outcomes / feedback / interactions vs positive ones. Maybe that’s why I see so much advice to entrepreneurs to focus on areas that they’re genuinely passionate about – the power of your passion works to overcome the emotional cost of setbacks along the way. I think it also helps that so much of the tech world talks openly about how common failure is – you see these kinds of war-stories in books like Lean Startup and at conferences. It’s almost a sign of maturity / experience that you’ve got a first-hand failure story you can tell.

  2. Pingback: Why People Hate New Ideas | Brendan Sterne

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