In February 2004, Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook. His workspace, such as it was, consisted of a PC, a desk and his beloved whiteboard, all crammed into his less-than-tidy quarters in Suite H33 at the university’s Kirkland House. His collaborators — Chris Hughes, Eduardo Saverin and Dustin Moscovitz — were fellow Harvard students and therefore close at hand.
Fast-forward to 2012. Facebook now has 3,500 employees and more than 901 million members around the world. The site that Zuck cobbled together to help his classmates keep track of one another has changed how human beings communicate with one another — and continues to do so.
And yet some fundamental things about Facebook haven’t changed at all. I recently visited its new headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., and found an environment that was in many ways like a king-size re-creation of Suite H33. Employees were toiling at tightly packed desks strewn with coffee cups and other detritus of creativity. Whiteboards were everywhere. So were blackboards, as well as artwork and slogans applied directly onto walls. The public spaces outside weren’t exactly Harvard Yard, but they were full of people who weren’t all that much older than Harvard students.
Except for the sheer scale — the new headquarters is on a 57-acre plot of land, and the company already has plans to expand beyond that — the general personality of Facebook’s workplaces has remained surprisingly consistent as the company has repeatedly outgrown offices and moved into new ones. A photograph of Facebook employees cranking away in cramped quarters in downtown Palo Alto, Calif., in 2005 looks very much like what I saw at the new premises.
“Tons of us are still here because it still feels the same way,” says Naomi Gleit, who started as a newly graduated assistant in July 2005, when the company had about 20 employees and the simplest way to describe it, as she explains, was to say, “It’s like MySpace.” Today, as a director of product management, she’s the company’s longest-serving staff member other than Zuckerberg himself, responsible for the service’s continued user growth.
“Even though it’s big, it feels small,” Gleit says of Facebook circa 2012. In part, that’s because of the effort the company has poured into retaining its start-up spirit, but it’s also because its ambitions continue to outstrip even the awesome resources of its new home.
According to Gleit, “There’s still way too much to be done. There are never enough engineers, never enough designers.” Or as an oft-repeated Zuckerbergism puts it: “This journey is just 1% finished.”
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Once upon a time, America’s iconic corporations wanted skyscrapers to call their own: the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler Building, the Sears Tower. What today’s tech companies crave are campuses — collections of small buildings with outdoor common areas and a collegiate air. That’s what Apple, Google and Microsoft have, although Apple’s plans for a spaceship-shaped megabuilding are a departure from the norm.
Sun Microsystems, one of the most successful tech behemoths of the 1990s, had a campus too. Several of them, actually, including a facility located at 1601 Willow Road in Menlo Park, one town over from Silicon Valley’s epicenter in Palo Alto.
Sun’s software and hardware boomed during the Web 1.0 era, but the company crashed when the Internet bubble burst in 2000 and never really recovered. When it was acquired by Oracle in 2010, it no longer needed the somewhat isolated Menlo Park campus, which employees had snarkily nicknamed Sun Quentin.
In February 2011, Facebook announced that it would be moving out of its offices on California Street in Palto Alto and into Sun’s former quarters. The California Street office — a former Hewlett-Packard facility, back when that company needed a lot more real estate — was one giant building without much of an outdoors to call its own. That makes the Menlo Park headquarters Facebook’s first real campus since, well, Harvard.
Recycling real estate left behind by fallen giants is a tradition in these parts. (Google’s Googleplex was formerly the home of once mighty Silicon Graphics.) And even though Sun’s business seems unrelated to Facebook’s at first blush, there are certain parallels.
During Sun’s heyday, the Web was young and the company’s servers were vital building blocks that helped to make the new medium possible. The company’s nerdy slogan, “The Network Is the Computer,” summed things up nicely.
In its own way, Facebook is building infrastructure too. It’s the single most pervasive platform for using the Internet to communicate with other human beings; over 9 million sites and apps sport its Like buttons and other features designed with a Facebook-crazy world in mind. A clever quip painted on one wall connects the dots with the campus’s Sun legacy: “The Social Network Is the Computer.”
Like nearly all of the office space in Silicon Valley, the campus Sun left behind is resolutely mundane from an architectural standpoint; you might mistake its anonymous-looking structures for a particularly expansive Courtyard by Marriott. That isn’t a problem. Actually, it’s in keeping with the company’s attitude about itself, which is that its work is incomplete and it therefore shouldn’t put on airs.
And so rather than sprucing up Sun’s buildings, Facebook stripped them down. The environment has what Everett Katigbak, a communication designer who helped create the new campus, calls a “workshop-laboratory feeling,” with “raw and honest materials.”
The company removed a large portion of the ceiling tiles, exposing the HVAC system above; it also ripped out carpeting, revealing the concrete below. And it knocked down Sun offices to open up the large spaces where employees sit at rows of tables.
The in-the-rough aesthetic replicates the feel of Facebook offices dating back to the company’s first real headquarters, in downtown Palo Alto, which opened in 2005.
Facebook the workplace is reminiscent of Facebook the website, which has never been about sizzle. Instead, the site is an intentionally utilitarian place — Zuckerberg has called it a “utility” — that’s interesting only because of what its users fill it with.
Facebook headquarters, too, is about people: how they interact with one another and what they do with their surroundings. “Nobody gets anything different in terms of their workspace,” says Katigbak, “but they can customize it.”
Meeting places are everywhere, in the forms of both traditional conference rooms and out-in-the-open comfy chairs and sofas. A small, fully stocked bar that looks as if it was pulled out of a 1960s bachelor pad sits in one hallway; it’s a Facebook fixture that has traveled with the company from headquarters to headquarters
The furniture in Facebook’s public areas is eclectic and switched around frequently to keep things fresh. Much of it has a college-dorm feel; items in “Facebook blue,” the color that dominates the website, are avoided. One ex-Sun employee — who happens to be my wife — tells me these informal collaboration spots were important fixtures in the old days too.
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