Facebook Developers - The Offensive Line

The Best-Kept Secret at Facebook? The Offensive Line.

A lot has been made of Facebook’s developer-centered culture. Most of us have heard stories of its users per engineer figures and its “no fear of failure” culture. And it makes sense – Facebook is doing big things…and at a scale that most of us have trouble comprehending. (We’re talking 1 million users per developer, here. Most companies would be thrilled to have 1 million users altogether.)

Any company who grows to that size – yet who still practices their internal motto of “move fast and break things” daily – will naturally earn a lot of respect in the lean startup world.

But there’s another part of Facebook’s culture that doesn’t get a lot of media attention. And it’s a very important thing: Facebook has a culture where the un-sexy jobs are held in high regard.

Focusing on the Hard Problems

In his article How Facebook Ships Code, Yee Lee notes that at Facebook,

Engineers generally want to work on infrastructure, scalability and “hard problems” — that’s where all the prestige is. It can be hard to get engineers excited about working on front-end projects and user interfaces. This is the opposite of what you find in some consumer businesses where everyone wants to work on stuff that customers touch so you can point to a particular user experience and say “I built that.” At Facebook, the back-end stuff like news feed algorithms, ad-targeting algorithms, memcache optimizations, etc. are the juicy projects that engineers want.

Think about that for a moment. How often have you been in a company culture where the focus is less on the big features of a new product, and more on the logistics behind a product? How many times is the Operations person celebrated, compared to the Product team that just shipped a new product?

I’d venture to say, not a lot. In my experience, it’s certainly a rarity.

Which Brings Us Back to Football

In a pro-style football offense, the wide receivers, running backs, and quarterbacks are the heroes. As a kid, everybody wants to be the guy who gets into the end zone and puts points on the board.

But where would all those players be without the offensive linemen?

As the quarterback drops back to pass, the linemen protect him. As the wide receiver crosses into the end zone and does a stupid little dance, the linemen are still throwing blocks and making sure the play flows as designed. They’re the ones who grind it out, play after play, doing the hard job.

Without them, the team couldn’t function.

And yet they’re the ones who are rarely – if ever – featured on SportsCenter Top 10.

Facebook - Offensive Line

The same thing goes for tech companies – without every player on the team pulling their weight, the offense falls apart. But all too often, crucial parts of the team don’t get nearly the attention they deserve.

It’s sexy to be working on a new feature, sure. But without infrastructure that’s lightning fast, and processes that can scale to meet expectations as you grow, no one will get the chance to know about the cool features your product team has built.

It’s a team effort. And no matter what your business, you need people on your team who are doing the heavy lifting.

Creating a Linemen Culture

That’s one of the key things that sets Facebook apart from other companies: Facebook celebrates the linemen. It makes sure that the difficult jobs – the ones that don’t have the most obvious effects on their end users – are the ones that people want to do.

The end user may never know all the work that went into making a network like Facebook – that tracks 140.3 billion relationships in real time – scale without a hitch. But internally, people know. And they respect it. And they’d rather work on that problem than they would on building a flashy new feature.

Facebook has grown from 1 million users to 1 billion users without missing a beat. And it can continue to do so, while adding a ton of new features each year (public outcry notwithstanding). All because they’ve created a culture where being part of the O-line is respected.

Which begs the question – what are you doing to cultivate a “Linemen Culture” in your business?

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