Interview: Facebook’s big Seattle engineering office prepares for even more growth

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Vijaye Raji is one of the leaders of Facebook’s Seattle engineering office.

Facebook’s Seattle engineering office is the social networking giant’s largest outside of its Silicon Valley headquarters, with more than 500 engineers — and it’s about to get even bigger. The company is preparing to move into a new building on Seattle’s Dexter Avenue in the first half of 2016, with room for as many as 2,000 employees.

So what is Facebook doing in Seattle, and where is it headed next? GeekWire sat down this week with Facebook engineer Vijaye Raji, one of the leaders of the company’s Seattle engineering office, for an inside take on Facebook’s operations and ambitions as it prepares for its next wave of growth.

Listen to the podcast here, and keep reading for an edited transcript.

Todd Bishop: You’ve been at Facebook Seattle and at Facebook since 2011. Describe what it was like when you first got to Facebook, and how that compares to the Seattle office now. What’s the evolution been like?

Vijaye Raji: Sure. I remember sometime in August 2010, I got a call from a recruiter. I was working at Microsoft at that time. That was the first time I actually realized that there was a Facebook Seattle office. I was curious, so I just wanted to go and check it out. I remember walking into the office —  there were like five engineers I could count in the office. They had twelve desks, and five engineers. There was a disco ball going on at that time. This was like 11 o’clock in the morning.

There was some music playing as well in the background. I was like, “This has a pretty cool startup-ish feel. I want to learn more.” I got to talk to Ari, who at that time was the site lead — Ari Steinberg — and got to learn about their roles, their plans to set up an office here in Seattle and grow. That’s when it all started. I got hooked, and went down to Palo Alto, talked to a bunch of people, and then before I knew it, I joined the office in 2011. Little did I know that this office would grow up to be this big.

I remember when I was in boot camp — boot camp is where engineers go through orientation — we had about 500 engineers in all of Facebook at that time. Now, we have 500+ engineers in Seattle.

fb9TB: What’s it like to work there today with 500 employees? How has the culture changed over the years at Facebook Seattle?

Vijaye Raji: Surprisingly, the culture at Facebook has remained. There’s a few aspect of culture that we hold really strongly with, and you can hear that from the leaders as well on a regular basis. You’ll see even though the office has grown to 500 engineers, there are packets of projects that are being done in a startup fashion where you will think about Facebook as a big funding source. You get the best talent together, and you get funding, and engineers with an entrepreneurial spirit will go off and build projects on their own. A lot of these projects come from the ground up. It’s still really cool to see that that culture has been maintained all through these years.

TB: The company internally describes it as a hacker culture, which means something different in this context than it does with people who are thinking about computer security. It’s really this idea of build and break things, see what works, and then go back and start over again.

Vijaye Raji: Correct. There is this mantra of move fast and break things. Like when I walked in to the Facebook office, I remember seeing big posters plastered all around that said that. To this day, we still maintain that “move fast and break things” culture.

Effectively, what it means is that making stuff work is far more important than talking about it, and deciding about it. Putting things out early on, iterating on the product, is a lot more valuable than trying to polish the product. This is a great mantra, and it’s worked out really well for our company.

TB: I want to talk in just a little bit about where the company is headed in Seattle, because you are moving to a new space, and it’s going to be very different, and much bigger, but you’ve already done big things here in Seattle at Facebook. What kinds of products are built here by Facebook?

Vijaye Raji: When we established the Seattle office, it was always meant to be an extension of the headquarters. I remember, in the five people that I walked in to see the set of engineers that were there initially, they all worked on very different products. They all worked on a little bits of products from the headquarters. Back then, it was Palo Alto. Now, it’s Menlo Park. That actually grew organically.

We don’t look at Seattle as some kind of a detached satellite office, but more of an extension. However, there are also projects that enterprising engineers have started here in Seattle. We have a great talent pool here in Seattle. Some of the engineers have entrepreneurial spirit. They will come in, and be like, “I have this idea. I want to go and try this out. I want to prototype it, and let’s throw it out there and let’s see what sticks.” I can think of a few projects that came entirely out of Seattle, grew out of Seattle, and became extremely successful as well.

TB: Like what? Can you think of a couple examples?

Vijaye Raji: If you go all the way back to 2011, the first product that came out of Seattle was the video calling product. It’s the one that lets you do one-on-one communication over video. There’s Skype integration on the web, and you click on this little icon and boom, you’re connected with your friend. That set the stage for all the products that were to come. Eventually, we owned the iPad app for Facebook, and then we launched mobile app-install ads — that came entirely from Seattle.

TB: That’s something that you’re pretty deeply involved with. It’s an ad and it leads you immediately to an app that you can download from a third party developer, which is a big deal for those developers.

Vijaye Raji: Yeah, absolutely. I think it came at the right moment, when mobile was just on the brink of just taking off, skyrocketing, and Facebook was in this transition mode from desktop to mobile. The app-install ads came in as a bonus for the developers who naturally found themselves in a sea of millions of apps, and there’s really no way of distinguishing themselves. Facebook gave this targeted audience to these app developers. When we launched, we didn’t really realize how far that was going to go. I’m really proud of it because it’s entirely from Seattle. That’s part of my team. That was great.

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TB: I know video in particular has been a focus of the office, and even recently 360 video is something that’s come out of Seattle. This is the whole idea where the video is shot with a 360-degree camera, and as people are watching it back, they can click and drag, and look at different angles on the scene. That’s another good example.

Vijaye Raji: That’s a great example. This was a big collaboration between the headquarters and Seattle. We worked on that project, and our engineers helped greatly with the launch of the product.

TB: I was reading an old post about you where you described your day. I think people would be really curious about an engineer’s day, and a Facebook engineer’s day, specifically. You said back then that you got in at around 10 in the morning, and you left at around 8 p.m. Has your day changed in the years since?

Vijaye Raji: Yeah. It’s changed a little bit. Since then, we’ve had a little boy. It was time to change that a little bit. I still come at around 10 o’clock to beat the traffic, and then at the end of the day, I leave at around 7 o’clock nowadays.

TB: People hear about the perks, and the free meals that tech employees get.

Vijaye Raji: Anytime I see someone straight from college coming into Seattle, (I tell them) how spoiled they’re going to be. It’s one of the good things about having the perks: you don’t have to worry about walking out to grab some food, or at the end of the day, where you have to go to get some dinner, or rush home to get some dinner. We tend to make everything available, in order to have people focused on the problems that they’re solving, that they are actually passionate about solving, and not the mundane things.

TB: I talked with some folks on last week’s show about this. They were concerned about that phenomenon inside tech companies. They worry that the tech companies become such a community unto themselves that they aren’t engaged with the outside community. Do you run into that, and do you try and counteract it?

Vijaye Raji: We think about it a lot. Especially, I can think about in Facebook Seattle, we encourage a lot of external participation. We have a very strong participation in Pride Week in Seattle. We have a regular tech talks where we invite leaders from around the area to come in, and provide context on things that they’re working on. We have leadership dinners. We bring in Boys & Girls Club groups that are interested in computer science. There’s a bunch of club activities that we encourage inside the office to share with the environment, share with the culture around us.

Facebook’s new building on Dexter Avenue in Seattle.

TB: Speaking of community, as I mentioned earlier, Facebook is moving to a giant office over on Dexter Avenue. What’s going to change for the company when you move there in the first half of 2016?

Vijaye Raji: The first half of 2016, we’re moving into a building on Dexter. It’s being built by Frank Gehry who’s a renowned architect. We’re all excited about that. We’ve seen the buildings in Menlo Park designed by Frank Gehry, and we are expecting similar things to happen here as well.

We’re all looking forward to having more space. Generally, we have been growing on a steady pace, and so this office gives us lot more opportunity to grow, and build more projects.

TB: I think it gives you room for about 2,000 people.

Vijaye Raji: True. With all that space, there’s a lot of flexibility to bring some of the cultural elements in Menlo Park over to us. One of the things that they have built in Menlo Park is the rooftop garden, which is really exciting, and every time I’m there, I’m up there to just enjoy that. I’m hoping some of those cultural elements will transfer over to Seattle as well.

TB: One thing that I notice about the current Facebook office that always intrigues me is that the ceilings are unfinished. You look up there, and there basically there’s an exposed ventilation system. There’s a reason for that, right? Why is that?

Vijaye Raji:  This is a testament to our mantra, which is, we’re always 1 percent finished. We want to look back and see all the unfinished work that we still have to do, and that’s an embodiment of the structural architecture around us as well. It actually helps with the energy as well. When you walk into a Facebook office, you’ll see the buzzing, the energy. There’s no dampening of the noise. Noise is actually allowed to spread.

It’s interesting because when people are talking a lot more, communication happens, and less of the siloing happens. This is an important aspect of building projects. Engineers are free to communicate with each other.

TB: There’s a actually a debate in the engineering world over open floor plans. The trend is definitely toward open floor plans. Even cubicles have pretty much gone away. What’s that like? The main criticism of that is it would be hard to concentrate.

Vijaye Raji: When I first moved in to this open floor plan in Facebook, before then I was at Microsoft, and you know at Microsoft, the longer the tenure, the better offices you get. Been there for about 9 years. I finally ended up with a window office, which is considered like …

TB: Whoa.

Vijaye Raji: Yeah, I know.

TB: You’ve arrived.

Vijaye Raji: To give up that window office and move in to an open floor plan, I had my doubts about that. Actually, I’m happy to say that I find the open floor plan a lot more productive. I can just have a conversation with my fellow engineer the moment I want to. You think that that’s a simple thing: walking out the office, and walking to their office, and having a conversation, but it matters quite a lot. The difference between seconds and minutes is a lot.

TB: Do you end up wearing headphones a lot?

Vijaye Raji: When I’m in the flow. You see engineers in the Facebook wearing headphones. It’s an indication not to disturb them, they are coding in the zone. Every once in a while when I need a couple of hours of uninterrupted time, that’s when I wear my headphones.

TB: Got it. In terms of collaboration, and this maybe a trick question: What tools do Facebook’s engineers use?

Vijaye Raji: We actually use Facebook itself.

TB: I assumed that would be the answer.

Vijaye Raji: We use Groups very heavily. Facebook Groups, every team has two or three different Groups. One of them is for the internal team to communicate, one of them is for collaboration with other teams, and the other one is general feedback. Anybody at Facebook is encouraged to give feedback about any part of Facebook, which is really, really good for the overall health of the product.

We use Groups very heavily. We use Messenger very heavily. At any given point in time, there are threads that are running in my Messenger with different groups of people, and talking about different topics. These threads are generally organized in topics.

We also use email for asynchronous communications. If there’s anything that is not urgent, then that goes to the email.

TB: If you were just starting out again, starting with your computer science education, becoming an engineer, what would you have done differently, what would you have studied? What would be your advice to people in those types of situations now, looking at getting into a career in computer science?

Vijaye Raji: The thing that I’ve learned over the last 15 years is, technology problems are effectively the same, the more layers you peel down. At the end of the day when you’re solving technology problems, they’re all gratifying in some way or the other. Generally, I remember when I got out of college, I was chasing technology. I thought of myself as some compiler dude. I just wanted to go work on compilers, and write some optimizers.

Over the years, I figured out that every problem is masked, and when you peel out the first few layers, ultimately the foundation is the same. It’s all the same logic. What I would recommend for computer science graduates that are coming out of college is to be super strong in the foundations of computer science. Everything else is just layers.

TB: We were talking a little bit about the transition that Facebook made to be mobile-first. How has that changed things from a development standpoint? What kinds of things are different now for an engineer at Facebook because of the focus on mobile?

Vijaye Raji: The first thing that comes to mind is the iteration speed. When I joined Facebook, we were entirely web-based. I remember being surprised that every day there was code being pushed to production, which is incredible.

TB: Especially for somebody coming from Microsoft where there was maybe a three-year Windows development cycle.

Vijaye Raji: Correct. I was on the Windows team so I’m fully aware of how long these clients-side software cycles take. When I came over here, they were super happy about being able to wake up in the morning, have an idea, go code it up in the day, and then by 2 o’clock — 2 o’clock is when the train leaves the station …

TB: The coding station.

Vijaye Raji:  … the coding station. That was pretty awesome. Being able to ship code that fast. When we moved to mobile, we had to slow down a little bit because you have client-side bits that you ship over to customers and users where you cannot update them on a regular basis. It takes time for the upgrade cycle. That’s one big difference.

We are working through that, as well. I think right now we release our mobile clients every month, which is still much faster than what I would have expected for a mobile client.

TB: For a while, there was a big struggle between native apps coded specifically for those mobile platforms — iOS, Android — and then you had HTML5 coming in. Where is that in the balance now? Are things more in the realm of native apps, or more in the realm of HTML5?

Vijaye Raji: I think it’s always a hybrid. We have a different points. We’ve settled in the middle. There are apps when you start up that are all native, and then there are islands that are HTML5, web-based, so where there is lots of innovation necessary, we generally fall back on the web side.

TB:  I know you’re also involved with data storage. What exactly does Facebook do in terms of data storage, and what are the engineering challenges that you’re taking on?

Vijaye Raji: Facebook is unique in terms of data storage. It’s just the sheer amount of data that flows into the system. We’re one of the biggest photo storage companies out there. Facebook Seattle has a team that is dedicated to solving these storage problems, and they have to scale the storage problem in such a way to be able to absorb petabytes of data. We’re talking like thousands of terabytes of data coming in on a regular basis.

These photos, people want to see these photos in an instant. They want to click on this thing, and then have it be there instantly. That’s a hard problem, especially detecting where the photo blobs are stored, and going and fetching them. Not only that, we have to be able to keep backups of these photos. You never want to lose those photos. These are precious to people. It’s a very hard problem. That’s what our Facebook Seattle engineers on the infrastructure side are solving.

The 'Zuck Couch'
The ‘Zuck Couch’ at the Facebook Seattle office

TB: One of the features of the Facebook Seattle office, I know from visiting, is a couch that’s there. Whose couch is in the office?

Vijaye Raji: At Facebook, we really embody the work-hard, play-hard mentality. I don’t know if you remember seeing a bath tub with balls filled in.

TB: There’s also like a sleep chamber, or something like that. What is that thing called?

Vijaye Raji: The sleep pod. We have plenty of those little things scattered all around the office. There is a foosball table, there is a ping pong table, there are Xboxes …

TB: Also, Mark Zuckerberg’s couch from his dorm room, right?

Vijaye Raji: Yes, you’re talking about the Zuck couch!

TB: Yes, yes, exactly. Come on, what other couch would I be talking about?! (Laughter.)

Vijaye Raji: It’s a story, somebody wanted to sell that couch. It landed in some employee’s office. This was the famous couch where Zuck interviewed about Facebook, I think for the first time. It’s probably on YouTube. Someone moved to Seattle, and brought it to the office and put it over there, and we now have a little picture on top of the couch that explains what that couch is.

TB: What I appreciate about that is, Facebook is still a relatively young company in the scheme of things. You worked at Microsoft, which just turned 40 years old. Facebook has not been around nearly as long, but I’ve noticed that you do have, as a company, an appreciation for the history, and you see it throughout the office.

Vijaye Raji: Absolutely, if you walk around the office, you’ll see a big framed pieces of drywall. In Palo Alto, we had a mural built up in the old office. When we moved out of the office, we had them cut the drywall, and then we framed it, and now we have it hanging in Seattle. We do keep our history pretty close.

TB: Speaking of drywall, what’s the greatest prank you’ve ever seen pulled at the Facebook Seattle office?

Vijaye Raji: You’ve heard about the drywall prank? This was right before I arrived in Facebook Seattle, so I only know it secondhand.

TB: By legend.

Vijaye Raji: By legend. Philip Su, one of the original members in the Facebook Seattle office, pulled this prank on his fellow employee. The fellow employee was on vacation, and came back after a week. Philip removed his fellow employees’ desk, and then in place of his desk, he built a full-on pillar that looked just like other ones in the office, and this was just drywall. He even put an electric socket.

TB:  I saw this. It was impressive.

Vijaye Raji: Yeah, it is. It looks very, very real, and you would mistake it for a real pillar. Where his desk was, he put this pillar, and he moved his desk, the other employee’s desk, three feet over. When this other employee came back from his vacation, he was all confused. The electrical socket did not work, “Where did this pillar come from? Why is my desk in the other place?” I think that’s a fantastic prank.

TB: One thing that’s really interesting that Facebook has done is 2G Tuesdays. Have you actually participated in 2G Tuesdays?

Vijaye Raji: Yes. I think everyone participates because the moment you jump into the mobile website, then it takes you to the experience that you normally get from a 2G connection.

TB: For people who are wondering what we’re talking about: All of the world is not on the high-speed LTE 4G connections that many of us are here in the United States, and Facebook is developing software and tools for many of these other countries around the world. Facebook is a global service. You want to have some empathy as a developer for what these people are going through when they’re using these services.

How have 2G Tuesdays changed your own outlook on technology, and the world?

Vijaye Raji: This is extremely important as developers. Unless we put ourselves in the shoes of the users, people that use our products on a day-to-day basis, we will not understand what they’re going through. 2G Tuesdays is a great idea where we get to experience Facebook the way the rest of the world experiences it.

We are constantly working on a high-speed network, we’re developing for a high-speed network, but we fail to understand the performance, and the latency issues that are faced by people in other countries. It is common for people from my hometown in India to get 2G.

It’s one of the dogfooding techniques. We also dogfood our own apps. When I’m using Facebook, it’s on the latest build, and if there is a problem, I will file a task on that problem. If it’s large enough, then they would hold off the ship. This is how we get to test our products.

TB: As a T-Mobile user, I can tell you that I occasionally participate in 2G Tuesdays as well. (Laughter). We’ll see if John Legere is listening to this show, we’ll get some feedback from him. I think it’s a really fascinating idea. I think that empathy is sometimes lost among developers.

One of the news items this past week was Facebook earnings. One of the key metrics that came out was Facebook’s global, monthly active users were up 14 percent to 1.55 billion users. That is a large chunk of the world. What’s it like as an engineer to be making products for that large of a population?

Vijaye Raji: It is incredible. The products that we build reach 1.55 billion people around the world. It is truly exhilarating to be an engineer, to be able to code up something, and think of a product idea, or a problem that people are facing, and then code it up, and then push it out to production for 1.55 billion people. Just like that. That’s one of the impactful things that we can do at Facebook. It’s one of the attractors for people that want to come to Facebook.

TB: Does it ever create any challenges, coding for that many people?

Vijaye Raji: Yeah. When we’re dealing with that many people, yes, you are totally right. There’s going to be specific use cases that we have to solve. One of the things that actually strikes me as incredible is the infrastructure that we have at Facebook. The infrastructure is built up to such an extent that we can actually target different segments of the population with a different feature.

For example, we have this thing called a Gatekeeper, which will allow us to launch products only to English-speaking countries, so you don’t have to go translate things before you can launch something, and test it, and get valuable feedback. This is the kind of tooling that we support to enable or to solve the problem of, how do you reach that many people with one product?

TB: What has the recruiting landscape been like over the last year or so? Has it gotten even more intense here in Seattle?

Vijaye Raji: It’s incredible to see all these companies set up offices. I’ve heard about Uber, Apple, Twitter, and a long list. New startup companies just popping up here in Seattle. It’s been great. We’ve been recruiting, and our growth has been strong as ever.

TB: Vijaye Raji, thank you very much for being on the show.

Vijaye Raji: Thanks for having me, Todd.

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