The grunts are geeks at Facebook Bootcamp
The first day on the job for employees at the Palo Alto headquarters of Facebook Inc. unfolds as it does at many other companies. New engineers get a welcome e-mail, a desk and their first of many free gourmet meals in the cafeteria.
But the next day, before they can begin cranking out code for the world’s most visited website, new recruits — no matter how senior — are thrust into Facebook Bootcamp, a crash course in all things Facebook that includes six weeks in the trenches doing the engineering equivalent of grunt work: fixing software bugs.
This is not the heart-pounding, muscle-building stuff of military boot camp. But engineers say the immersive training — including one-on-one sessions with mentors and in-depth talks from senior engineers — shows them the ropes and gets them into optimum shape to keep up with their new company’s runaway growth.
Facebook announced last week that it had surpassed 500 million users, a dizzying milestone for the 6-year-old social networking site that now has 1,400 employees. In a fiercely competitive market that has seen other top players including News Corp.’s MySpace fumble the advantage, Facebook relies on its 400 engineers to come up with engaging new features and make the website run faster and better.
Yet, at any given time, nearly half of the engineers at Facebook are new to the company. And Facebook has an anemic ratio of engineers to users: about one engineer for every 1.25 million users. For years, just one engineer staffed the site’s photo-sharing feature, the largest photo-sharing site on the Web.
That ramps up the pressure, especially in a crisis. In May, when Facebook came under fire for changes to its privacy policies, engineers camped out in a conference room and worked around the clock for three weeks to create tools that made it easier for users to control access to their personal information. It was a feat that may not have been possible without their boot camp training.
Facebook Bootcamp is the brainchild of engineering manager Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, a former Harvard teacher who was brought to the company by his former pupil, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. In two years, some 300 engineers have gone through the camp, fixing more than 2,000 bugs.
Bosworth calls it “cultural indoctrination” for new engineers who hang out together in a pod where they get assignments and advice from a crew of senior engineers. Isolated from the normal routine, they are dunked in the Facebook groupthink and urged to show off their ingenuity.
Boot camp is also engineers’ first exposure to Facebook’s hard-core geek culture, which embraces the concept of “hacking,” the idea that anyone can come up with innovative ways to make users happier.
The company supplies food, music and beer to fuel all-night “hackathons,” which have delivered new features such as video messaging and online chat.
That culture drew Ben Gertzfield, 31, who joined Facebook in November and got right to work on some of his pet peeves, such as making it possible to type comments when sharing a link from an iPhone. Sitting behind him in boot camp was Romanian programming guru Andrei Alexandrescu, now a research scientist at Facebook.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a PhD or a new grad; everyone goes through boot camp,” Gertzfield said. “It seems so egalitarian and focused on merit. It recognizes that people have chops from Day 1.”
By the time engineers graduate from camp, they have had the chance to interview all the engineering teams and decide which one they most want to join. That’s another way Facebook is thumbing its nose at convention.
Most companies hire to fill specific jobs. Facebook allows engineers to determine where they can make the biggest difference in the company, said Nicholas Arioli, a four-year Facebook veteran who runs the camp’s day-to-day operations.
Over six weeks in boot camp, engineers bond, forming friendships that carry on even as they disperse across the company. Daniel Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” said the Facebook Bootcamp program was helping to weave the kind of connections inside Facebook that Facebook was weaving for everyone else on the Web.
“It is very appealing to talent — particularly this kind of talent that needs these companies a lot less than the companies need them,” Pink said.
Most high-tech companies have orientation programs. Google Inc., for example, has a two-week program to familiarize new engineers with the company’s technology, culture and people, complete with live and online courses, campus tours and the colorful Noogler (a mash-up of “new Googler”) baseball cap with a propeller on top.
But industry watchers say it is unusual for a company as young as Facebook to devote so many resources to such an intensive program. Taking as much care to develop talent as technology could give Facebook an edge when competing for engineers, said Michael Lopp, author of “Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager.”
“I have never heard of an entire group of new hires being together for a six-week boot camp,” Lopp said. “That’s really a long-term investment.”
That investment seems to be paying off as Facebook has begun to win the tug of war for the best engineers.
Google still reigns as the place that the most interesting people work. But its fast-growing rival is encroaching on the Internet giant by hiring away some of its — and Silicon Valley’s — brainiest.
And Facebook’s boot camp is starting to generate buzz, said Jay Parikh, a director of engineering at Facebook who joined the company in November after interviewing at Silicon Valley’s top companies. Parikh said he had never experienced anything like boot camp in his 15 years as an engineer.
“It was eye-opening that a company would give you that dedicated time to learn and understand the people and the technology,” Parikh said. “That only sets you up for success here.”