Chris Hawkins: Seeing how Facebook has scaled technology is mind-blowing

Chris Hawkins.jpg

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

It’s the pipe dream of many engineers and technologists around the world; working at a Silicon Valley tech giant, where an innovative, entrepreneurial ethos is embedded in a company’s DNA.

Chris Hawkins is a Partner Engineer at Facebook – a job he describes as “50% writing code and 50% talking about it” – and he is doing exactly that, working at his dream job amongst some of the "best people in the world at what they do." 

Well-placed to comment on the many burning questions we had about life in Silicon Valley (including dispelling/confirming the myths of Facebook work-perks), Chris shared his insights on the sustainability of San Francisco’s technology monopoly, the pressure to be entrepreneurial and the current morale amongst tech companies.

How long you've been living in San Francisco and what initially drew you to the city?

I've been in San Francisco for about a year and a half. I moved to the Bay Area in 2014 to work in the technology research and development lab in San Jose for Accenture. I really loved my job there, it was a really cool opportunity that was half technical and half business, but Facebook presented a compelling offer that I couldn’t refuse.

What is it really like to work at Facebook, one of the companies that helped develop Silicon Valley as we know it today?

A lot of the things you hear about working at Facebook are true in terms of the quality of life and perks. All meals are provided; there are micro kitchens on every floor of every office where you can just help yourself to whatever you need to get you through the day. There are three gyms on campus at Menlo Park, one of which is open to employees on weekends.

In terms of organisational structure, there’s very little hierarchy. Mark Zuckerburg does Q and A every Friday where employees can ask him quite literally anything they want. The training opportunities are also incredible. Every engineer who joins Facebook goes through an 8-week boot camp training program, which is an incredibly cool experience where you learn all about how Facebook's infrastructure works, which in itself is a really fascinating thing. If you're in technology, seeing how Facebook develops infrastructure and how it has scaled technology is mind-blowing. It’s easy to nerd-out about it.

At the end of the day, the thing that I love about working for Facebook is the opportunity to work alongside some of the best engineers and technologists in the world.

Does Facebook constantly foster an atmosphere of innovation?

Absolutely. We still have hackathons every month that are companywide events. A lot of our products have been launched from experiments that were built in those hackathons.

One of the products I'm working on at the moment – Instant Games – started as a hackathon project. It’s a platform that's built into Facebook messenger that gives you the opportunity to play games directly in the app, for example, if you tap the basketball emoji, it takes you into a digital basketball game. It has been a pretty amazing evolution from one engineer's idea to a full-fledged initiative with partnership involvement and a full platform behind it.

How many employees are there at the Menlo Park campus now?

I think it would be in the order of around 15,000 people or more. It's a huge space.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed, being in a workplace of that magnitude?

Coming from Accenture which was around 370,000 people worldwide, it's a much smaller, product-focused organisation.

Can you tell me about the specifics of what you do in your engineering role?

I'm a partner engineer, which means I split my time between engineering work and business development work. It's a fascinating role because I get to work with the internal product managers and engineers and be heavily involved in building the products within Facebook, but then also get to liaise with external companies.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

Working with the other engineers and the people within Facebook in general, who are some of the best people in the world at what they do. I also get to work with some of the largest and innovative companies externally. So, although I write code, I get to work with a varied scope of Facebook partners from PayPal and American Express, to small independent studios and guys working in their basement.

Do you work crazy hours?

I think I probably do, but I’d characterise it as a personality thing rather than specifically around Facebook itself. There are people at Facebook who have good work-life balance, but I don't think I'm one of those people. It’s the type of company where there’s always going to be work to do. Even with so many employees, there's always going to be opportunities to pursue. And that's really exciting, but it also means you can't do everything.

Being immersed in Silicon Valley – is there any pressure to break off and be entrepreneurial, or is there enough scope in these companies to feel like you're making your own individual contribution?

I definitely feel like I’m making own individual contribution in my role at Facebook. I can't necessarily speak for everyone there but it's hard to feel like a widget in a machine when there's so much to do. I still feel a lot of ownership of the work that I get to do and like a co-owner of the platforms that we try to build; those have become a huge part of my personal profile as well.

How much of San Francisco's identity now do you think it tied up with being a tech innovation hub?

I think a lot of San Francisco’s identity has become tied up in tech. Certainly socially, most people I meet are working for a tech company or a startup, or involved in tech somehow. Now with the Salesforce Tower – the tallest building on the west coast of America – it's a giant reminder in the middle of downtown that tech is a dominating force.

Do you think the cost of living is something that ultimately is going to cap itself? Or is it just going to continue to rise until only the elite can afford to live in San Francisco?

That's certainly the concern. Unless the local government is able to react and help policy-wise, I would be worried that that is what is going to happen. It’s obviously unsustainable because you can't run a city of only people who work in tech. The worst thing is seeing people whose roles are really important in society, such as teaching, who are being pushed out of the city.

What's the morale like working within the big tech companies at the moment after cautionary tales like Uber?

I think in this part of the world there has been resentment towards tech companies for longer than there has been in other parts of the world. So locally, I think that their reputation was already nixed. But globally, I think tech companies are still coming to terms with what level of responsibility they have in the world. And I think there are a lot of companies that are used to thinking of themselves as the scrappy startup, when in fact that they're actually the incumbents now.

The people inside these companies tend to be people who really deeply care and the majority of people who work for these companies are dedicated to making things better; making sure that we are trying to do the right thing and do good things in the world. I'm very optimistic from an internal perspective about our place in the world, and how that will reflect in our reputation.

What’s the future of tech in San Francisco?

I hope to see tech democratise across different cities. I don't think that a single city should have the monopoly on innovation. I really like that Google and Facebook are both invested heavily in Seattle, which is also the headquarters of Amazon and Microsoft. There are also a lot of new startups and a lot of exciting things happening now in New York.

I'm excited to see how it pans out. As much as I love this city and love living here, it'd be good to see some of that power be dispersed!

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