How to build an audacious and fearless engineering culture

Srinivas Narayanan, ex-VP Engineering of Facebook, appeared on Prime Venture Podcast to talk about the engineering culture at Facebook. He started off by defining Facebook’s motto of “move fast and break things” and explained the importance of goal setting, having a productive mindset, and more
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Srinivas Narayanan had joined Facebook when the company was still testing the idea of having usernames. And from the get-go, Srinivas says, Facebook was all about taking calculated risks and deploying ideas fast.

Mark Zuckerberg did not believe in getting bogged down by bureaucracy. He wanted “audacious” decisions to move fast without hurdles and the team to be “fearless” about taking bold risks. And Facebook, as a company, created the perfect harmony between ideas and risks by inculcating a culture of goal setting where every individual, team, department has clear goals, and where everyone works in unison, which allows the entire company to march ahead, reminisces Srinivas in a recent episode of Prime Venture Podcast.

The importance of goal setting to prevent chaos

Srinivas points out that Facebook has been able to expand at such a rapid rate because of its goal-setting culture.

“Every six months, all teams at all levels sets clear goals on what they want to accomplish. And those goals are communicated [so] everybody knows what your goals are,” says Srinivas.

The entire company then marches ahead in unison and every six months, these goals are reviewed. He adds that having a transparent culture about what is important in the company is important because people cannot dream about building something big by having their own individual agendas and losing focus.

And how do you set those goals?

“[There’s] a classic saying in Facebook, which is that you should set goals so that you meet 50 percent of them,” explains Srinivas. He cites the company’s initial days as an example when it had set an overall goal of having everybody on the planet on the social media platform. They are already 50 percent there, and Facebook also dreamt of becoming a trillion-dollar company when they were still a startup, and the brand has never looked back.

“The intent here is that you are encouraging people to be bold enough,” adds Srinivas. If your employees or your company is hitting all the goals, then you are not ambitious enough. That is how Facebook had infused the “audacious and fearless” mindset among its staff. But “you have to fail a little bit to make sure that you actually set ambitious goals,” he remarks.

The other side of engineering audacity - failure

Elaborating on the failure part, Srinivas agrees that the risk of things not working out remains constant. He stresses on the importance of exploring bold ideas in a thoughtful way. Sharing an example from his early Facebook days where they were testing two different versions of writing and compiling PHP, he recalls that Facebook had two teams working on the same project and the management knew only one version was going to work. However, the team’s version that did not work out was also rewarded.

“You want to separate out failure due to being bold and taking something that’s inherently risky versus failure due to just poor execution,” he adds.

Constant communication is key to people in the company knowing about the risks they are taking, the milestones involved, the associated pivots, and the right time to stop. This also helps to align individual goals with the bigger picture, he says.

Balancing freedom with accountability

To be bold and fearless, a company’s engineers need freedom and autonomy. But they also need to take responsibility and accountability for their ideas to see their ideas through. Srinivas reveals that Facebook’s way of infusing accountability was reviewing everyone’s goals every six months, but people also have a lot of freedom in how they want to accomplish their goals. This creates a balance and a bottom-up culture that engineers enjoy. “They have the freedom to change things, [and] there’s nobody telling them what to do,” he concludes.

To know more, listen to the podcast here

Note:

02:10 - True Meaning of “Move fast and Break Things”

08:00 - When & How to Reward Failure

15:00 - Goals, Accountability & Shipping Velocity

25:30 - Dealing with Failure When You Haven't Failed Before

27:00 - “Hiring is an engineering problem, not a recruiting problem”

Edited by Anju Narayanan