Exposé Details Facebook's Growing Pains


Fortune magazine released an exposé of Facebook that portrays Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg as a leader who promoted friends over qualified Facebook employees and may have been too focused on "extracurricular" activities as the public face of the soon-to-be public social network.

"She encourages others to keep a low profile, but she embraces the spotlight, which 'made some people unhappy and some jealous,'" a former executive told Miguel Helft and Jessi Hempel, the authors of the story that appears in the magazine's March 19 issue and is also available for purchase on Amazon.

Facebook did not allow top executives from the company to be interviewed by Fortune. The story is built on mostly not-for-attribution interviews with current and former employees and may be one of the best looks yet into the inner workings of Facebook. The article reads more like a narrative page-turner than an analysis of Facebook's potential return for investors.

For example, the story's introduction reveals that the now famous photo of Mark Zukerberg's desk decorated with a sign reading "Stay Focused & Keep Shipping," on the night Facebook announced its intial public offering were actually words Zuckerberg had told employees at an all-staff meeting 12 days earlier. Many had gathered for the meeting thinking Zuckerberg would finally give details about the IPO but instead, he urged employees to stay on top of their responsibilities.

Other details from the story:

  • Newly-hired engineers undergo a six-week boot camp in which they're taught to "think like Zuck."
  • The company mandates all-nighters and often has employees switch projects midstream. Those practices, while controversial, are credited with helping the company develop some of its core features, including Timeline and Chat.
  • The Internet-transforming like button went through "dozens of iterations" before Facebook found something it was happy with.
  • Dissent, including dissent with Zuckerberg, is allowed and even encouraged.

The story portrays Facebook as a company divided, with one half, the coder-driven half, being led by Zuckerberg, while the other half, led by Sandberg, becoming increasingly important as the company's IPO approaches.

Even as the company rapidly grows, it is trying to remain nimble. Engineers are forced to leave their teams every 12 to 18 months and spend a month working on a different project. Even though most are allowed to return to their old teams after their month is up, one-third transfer to new teams, preventing "managers from establishing fiefdoms."

The practice helps Zuckerberg stick to his hacker's credo of always tinkering, always perfecting and, ultimately, avoiding a top-down management style. Indeed, if there is anything new or shocking to longtime Facebook followers in the report it is how much of the company's successes are a collaborative effort, driven, but not necessarily inspired or mandated, by its 27-year-old founder.

But Zuckerberg still comes off as a perfectionist. In one anecdore, Helft and Hempel report Zuckerberg was discouraged four days after the December 2010 launch of a major redesign. It had nothing to do with the recent overhaul, but that the company had fallen behind in its next redesign effort.

Sandberg, meanwhile, is portrayed somewhat less flatteringly. Facebook employees refer to co-workers who are FOSS, or "Friends Of Sheryl Sandberg." They are people she went to Harvard Business School with, or former co-workers from the U.S. Treasury Department and Google.

"You can't really cross a FOSS," one former senior manager was quoted as saying.