Facebook: the Platform of Success
On October 22nd Robert Johnson, Director of Engineering at Facebook, gave a talk at the Faculty of Business Informatics of the Higher School of Economics, invited by the Department of Innovations and Business in Information Technologies. His talk was devoted to the rise of Facebook from 10 million to half a billion active users.
The growth of Facebook, which started back in 2004 as a small social network for students at Harvard, is impressive, even for the Internet. Having reached a user base of 100 million in August 2008, in the next two years the social network increased its audience fivefold. “If you look at a graph of our growth you won’t see any ‘plateau’”, stressed Robert Johnson. «There wasn’t a time when we could say to ourselves: we have worked well, achieved our goals and can now catch our breath.”
But such a fast growth in both user numbers and number of applications that allow users to communicate much better caused a number of challenges. Firstly – reliability of the whole system. It’s important to avoid the ‘domino effect’ when a small problem becomes big one. For example, Facebook as a web application was written in PHP, but Robert explained that for performance optimization, the initial code on PHP was translated to C++ and then compiled to binary code.
The other challenge was that you can’t close the social network for ‘maintenance’ so all the patches and new features need to be installed in real time. That’s why Facebook’s engineers chose a process of incremental changes. “It’s not hard to create a project,” said Robert. “It’s hard to create a project that is useful for people. We’re not restricted by some external deadline but every day we improve our project.”
The flexibility of the Facebook platform makes it possible for other companies and developers to integrate with it: one of the first to use this possibility was CNN, and now Facebook is widely used by almost all major mass-media. Facebook itself has to regularly measure its audience, analyze its audience’s preferences and assess its own technological resources.
Along with the technology, another key to success was the management structure. Engineers are organized in groups of 5-10 people and every group works on a particular technical task. Every group is responsible for the whole process: from idea development to its implementation. Robert Johnson believes this enables Facebook to expand quickly and also solve possible problems rapidly.
Having shown a presentation with some impressive statistics for Facebook such as 100 billion hits per day, 50 billion photos, 2 trillion cached objects and hundreds of million requests per second, Robert offered the students the opportunity to ask questions. Students were keen to respond, asking dozens of questions.
Some were interested in the number of Facebook’s servers, others were interested in the copyright policy of Facebook towards copycats in different countries including Russia. “It’s simple. We try to have a better product than the others,” replied Robert. Regarding cyber-attacks Robert added that “there’s not as many of them as we expected.”
Students also learnt that there are no applications and features which Facebook can’t implement on its platform. If something hasn’t been implemented, it’s because there’s an absence of reasonable demand for it. Partly because of this and also because users can abuse translation processes, Facebook checks translation carried out by users
Robert Johnson doesn’t agree that social networks are a kind of psychological addiction. “Firstly, nobody is dragging you into social networks by force, secondly this form of communication with friends, relatives and colleagues can’t be called a waste of time.” answered Robert.
In conclusion it should be outlined that the talk had vivid interest among the students and even after the end of the Q&A session Robert Johnson was rounded by the participants asking extra questions. After that, storm of applause from the audience of hundreds and smile on Robert’s face marked the end of this interesting talk.