November 1, 2014

Want a Job at Facebook? Fail Harder

Dave Ferguson spoke in my career planning class a while back. Dave is an alumnus of the Computer Science Department at CSU Sacramento. He works as an engineering manager at Facebook. That alone was a magnet - more kids showed up than are registered... Facebook has cachet. It is a company that hires technical talent and exudes fun.

What Dave shared was priceless. He traced his 25+ year career from a systems engineering position with IBM, management positions with Intuit, through engineering director positions with Caere Corporation and DST Output, to his own start-up Ignite Logic; then to his job as an engineering director at Google and present position with Facebook. Dave sold Ignite Logic to Google in 2004. It was the fourth company that Google acquired. The engineers who worked for Ignite Logic became engineers at Google and continue to work there to this day. (So that is how to get a job at Google…) Over the course of his career Dave has learned a few things. He shared some of his most important insights with the class… and he shared his failures. The depth with which he shared his experience touched and inspired every person in the room.

What was curious was how normal and how human Dave was in his presentation. You would think that someone who made it into the most innovative and successful companies in the world would be super human…

Dave shared what he calls the “4 Knows”:
  • Know the terrain – Are you listening?
  • Know fear – Do you know what you fear?
  • Know what matters - Don't get it WRONG!
  • Know Love - You can't always give people what they want; if you try hard enough you may be able to give them what they need.
Dave described the failures that led to his insight - the “knows”. He made it clear that failure was a huge part of his success. From every failure came insight.
Dave’s first failure was that he had failed to listen. He didn’t “know the terrain” at Intuit. In the early part of his career, Dave learned that he could out techie everyone else by knowing more about the computer code than anyone else. He thought he was being hired because he could learn the code inside out and that he could manage by helping the Intuit software engineers code better. He didn’t listen. Had he listened he would have known - that Intuit desperately wanted him to lead, to coordinate. He gained insight by listening, asking questions, and leading his team. As soon as he started solving the problems that needed solving – he looked brilliant!
Dave’s second failure was that he didn’t know his fear. He was invited to the “Thursday meetings” of the Google leadership team, that included Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and he was afraid to speak out and share his ideas. There he was, a Sac State graduate, sitting with Harvard and Stanford… How could he possibly know as much as them? What if he embarrassed himself by saying something dumb? His first clue that he had failed was when he noticed that his calendar no longer included the “Thursday meetings”. Larry couldn’t see Dave’s value if he didn’t share his ideas.
Stepping back, Dave realized that if he had made it all the way to the top leadership circle at Google, his ideas had value. He didn’t need to fear failure. At Google it is ok to share your silly ideas… Really! Google was a silly idea at one time. Now Google has a market value of $400.5 Billion.
Overcoming fear requires insight… Not facing fear is much worse than facing it - according to Dave.
Dave’s third failure was in the statistics at Facebook Pages Insights. "Some changes occurred and the data we were delivering to customers was WRONG." He was focusing on delivering data faster that was easier to understand. What really mattered was delivering data that was right. “Companies all over the planet depend on that data. Facebook had to publicly state that there was a problem and then we had to redo all of the data.”
Facebook actually allows engineers to fail. Learning to embrace failure is huge at Facebook. They have a sign encouraging it: Fail Harder.
To be successful at Facebook you have to know software but you also need to be fearless in the face of failure. Facebook looks for new ideas. That takes boldness and high energy to fail harder… Facebook hires highly motivated, highly competent individuals who they expect will fail… sometimes.
Knowing love, the fourth know, is about putting someone’s needs ahead of their wants according to Dave. (If you have ever had kids, you totally get that...) You also have to be aware of your needs and wants to avoid letting them cloud how you serve others. Knowing needs involves investing heavily in understanding the needs of customers. That is what makes Facebook so successful. Facebook does a ton of research to make sure users get what they need…
Failure really is success... as long as you know how to listen, figure out what you fear, know what matters, know what someone needs - and redo with the insight gained from your failure.