Former Facebook Engineer Spills Beans, Moralizes

What’s a guy to do after vesting his options and leaving a hot startup? Tell all! Well, kinda.
I was laid up in bed sick this week, and had the time to read Karel Baloun’s Inside Facebook: Life, Work and Visions of Greatness. Baloun is no master wordsmith, and he errs on the side of over-moralizing, but not without giving valuable glimpses into the inklings of greatness he felt while working as an engineer at Facebook from 2005 to 2006.

Baloun left the company last summer under what he describes as mutual circumstances. He says he was an outlier, at 34, on the Facebook age chart, and had trouble fitting in with the young company’s young ethos. He’s now in the process of taking a CTO-level position at another socially oriented web startup.
The book (a PDF for sale online for $9) is punctuated by a few juicy tidbits: recollections of Steve Chen deciding to leave a promising job at Facebook to take the risk of founding YouTube; an anecdote about CEO Mark Zuckerberg getting held up at gunpoint in East Palo Alto the same day he closed Facebook’s $11 million first round. Baloun also reminds us of the forgotten Wirehog, a private P2P system that used to be integrated with Facebook, saying it was the reason Zuckerberg moved to Palo Alto.
A large part of the book is an ode to Mark Zuckerberg, or “Zuck,” as Baloun fondly calls him. Zuck is portrayed as an ascetic visionary, a managerial genius, even a “Greek god prototype.” Despite his colossal ambition, Zuck disdains advertising, writes Baloun:

I think [Zuck] had to be physically tied up at some executive meeting to allow that ad on the left side of the page. Facebook now serves many billions of pageviews a month. If it just sold cheap crappy ad network CPM ads (at like $1-$3 CPM) across all of its inventory, it could earn 10s of millions of dollars every month. But that would annoy people and Zuck loves his users. Ow! Zuck just mentally hit me. I meant his “student community on the site.”

Baloun is incredulous about the success of the Facebook system. He attests to a seat-of-pants approach to product engineering; developers pushed out new features by making changes on the live code on the Harvard site, fixing bugs immediately, then pushing it to all the other schools. This at a time when the site had more than 2.5 million members and over a billion page views per month.
In an interview with GigaOM yesterday, Baloun said, “Facebook and YouTube have a whole different way of doing things…and maybe it’s better.” He recalled that even as the Facebook team grew from 10 to 80 engineers, they all reported to a single person. Engineers were given a high degree of autonomy over the conception and execution of each product, with “a couple of product managers floating around.”
Before it undergoes the knife of an editor, I can’t in good faith tell you all to go read this book. Baloun interjects far too much how-to business-manual jabber, and he doesn’t spill much real gossip. Still, I was pretty engrossed by a discussion of whether or not social technology changes the nature of friendship, and I definitely tuned in for the tales of startup office hijinks.
With reference to the current acquisition brouhaha, Baloun doesn’t give great reasons for Facebook to be valued higher than YouTube, but he does give a whole lot of evidence that Facebook and Zuck are not in it for the quick sell.