Inside Facebook’s World

A visit to the social-networking giant's amazing Silicon Valley campus.

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Harry McCracken /

The scene at Facebook's Hacker Square, the central space at the company's campus in Menlo Park, Calif. The bridge connecting two buildings is painted the precise color of the Golden Gate Bridge; the tiles paving the square spell the word HACK in enormous letters.

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.

(PHOTOS: Take a tour of the new Facebook campus and check out some of its former homes.)

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.”

(MORE: Do Facebook Ads Work?)

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.

(PHOTOS: Life Inside Facebook Headquarters)

And then there’s the stuff written, and drawn, on the walls.

It’s tempting to call it graffiti, but that’s not correct. Graffiti, Merriam-Webster tells me, is “unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface.” At Facebook’s campus, putting stuff on the walls is not only authorized but encouraged. It’s a tradition that extends all the way back to Zuck’s dorm whiteboard, alluding to the walls that are a principal feature on Facebook itself. Rather than being antisocial, it’s social.

Some of Facebook’s wall art is clearly temporary and off the cuff, done in chalk on expansive blackboards and whiteboards. (On the other hand, one of those blackboards has been gathering doodles and jottings since 2008.) Some of it looks as though it could stay there for the long haul. And some of the art is by invited artists-in-residence.

It ranges from rather sober slogans such as “Stay Focused and Keep Shipping” and “Done Is Better than Perfect” to drawings of inspirational figures: I saw Calvin and Hobbes (separately), Pac-Man, Superman, Yoda and Zuckerberg. A stairwell, decorated during an event for female hackers, includes stenciled images of Oprah, Judge Judy, legendary computer scientist and Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper and Disney’s Mulan.

The Facebook community’s customizations of its surroundings are epic in scale in certain instances. One rooftop has a 42-ft. QR code, designed to be visible from space. And there’s a giant sign on the side of one building that reads “The Hacker Company.” Facebook acquired it from … the Hacker Company, which happens to be a family-owned signmaking business in central Florida headed by one Roger Hacker.

The Hacker Company sign is on a building that faces Hacker Square, the campus’ single most important public space. It’s paved in a mosaic of tiles that spell out HACK in enormous characters, and it’s where the community meets to begin hackathons, the nonstop jags of creative programming that are an institution not only at Facebook but all over Silicon Valley.

Hackathons traditionally begin underneath a mysterious yellow crane, which Facebook discovered at previous headquarters in a former HP building; the company adopted it as a talisman of the hacker spirit and transported it to the Menlo Park campus.

The campus with hacking reflects Facebook’s desire to be a place ruled by intrepid programmers who make the world a better place by creating ingenious computer code that doesn’t necessarily follow established rules. Hacking is imbued in the culture of Internet companies large and small all over the world, but Facebook wears its obsession on its sleeve.

The first Facebook hacker of them all, Zuckerberg, sits in the building with the Hacker Company sign. He doesn’t have a fancy executive suite. In the tech world, that’s nothing special; plenty of big-time executives work out of cubicles rather than offices, as a sign of solidarity with the foot soldiers and an acknowledgement that walls and doors tend to stifle collaboration.

Zuck, however, doesn’t even have a cube. Like everyone else at Facebook, he and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg work at tables that are out in open space and in close proximity to other employees sitting at similar tables. He does have a conference room to call his own, but it’s on Hacker Square, and passersby can peer in and see who he’s meeting with. (Presumably, it’s not where he struck the deal to buy Instagram.)

Facebook may not provide staffers with plush offices, but that doesn’t mean it wants anyone to feel uncomfortable. On the contrary. Like other ultracompetitive Silicon Valley companies, it wants employees to feel very comfortable at work — so much so that they aren’t tempted to engage in such productivity-killing activities as running errands or going home at the earliest opportunity.

Like many of its competitors, Facebook provides luxuries such as complimentary dry-cleaning service and copious amounts of free food and beverages. Even prosaic necessities like networking cables and laptop batteries are provided via vending machines conveniently situated around campus. And if you need a bicycle, well, there are communal ones there for the riding. (They’re mostly intended for pedaling around campus, but staffers are welcome to take them off-site.)

Such amenities are part of how Facebook vies for the attention of the brainiac computing-science graduates it must hire in droves. And they’re particularly important, given the campus’ somewhat isolated location.

When Facebook was a tiny start-up, it had an office — eventually multiple offices — in downtown Palo Alto. It was close to other tech companies; lunch spots and other local businesses were everywhere; a general sense of geek community was palpable. By contrast, 1601 Willow Road’s neighbors include a toll bridge leading to Fremont, copious amounts of marshland and a smattering of businesses, including a mini-storage facility and a Jack in the Box. If the company wanted its new home to feel as if it was smack in the middle of everything, it would have to provide the everything itself.

So that’s what it’s doing. “We’re not trying to manufacture an urban environment. That could be cheesy,” says Katigbak. But the more it builds, the more the campus feels like a community unto itself.

The campus features the requisite cavernous cafeterias, one of which is wallpapered with pages from vintage food magazines. It’s also got cozier dining options, such as Tony’s, a pizza joint that is literally a hole in a wall, and a barbecue pit. There’s a doctor and a dentist, a gym with personal trainers and a bicycle shop and bike-repair facility. Facebook is even erecting on-site versions of familiar businesses such as local Starbucks rival Philz Coffee.

All of these venues provide opportunities for employees to not only take a break from work but also meet with fellow staffers and talk shop in social settings. The company is also ripping out some of the exterior walls erected by Sun and replacing them with garage-style doors that it can leave open, allowing the collaboration that happens inside buildings to spill out into the campus’ outside areas.

Facebook wants the collaboration to eventually spill out of the current campus altogether. The company plans to build five additional buildings on the other side of the Bayshore Expressway and connect them to the current campus by tunnel. The project, which Facebook would like to complete by the end of 2014, has already required a mountain of environmental-impact paperwork and ongoing negotiations with not only Menlo Park but also neighboring Atherton, one of the richest cities in the U.S.

The expansion is designed to result in a facility capable of accommodating up to 9,400 staffers. If Facebook were a city, that would make it larger than Atherton, and nearly a third as populous as Menlo Park itself.

Of all the challenges the company faces on an array of fronts, none will be more crucial to its ongoing success than preserving the hacker-centric campus culture no matter how big it gets. The upcoming buildings may be the first brand-new offices Facebook will design and build for itself, but you can bet that it’s already thinking about ways to keep them feeling humble and unfinished. The ceilings are going to be exposed. The floors will be bare. And the moment the paint on the walls dries, everyone will be invited to begin writing on them.

(MORE: Read our feature on TIME’s 2010 Person of the Year, Mark Zuckerberg.)

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