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Summary:

In answer to a question on Q&A site Quora.com about what it’s like to work at Google vs. Facebook, an engineer who worked for Google for four years and now works at Facebook describes his take on the different cultures and approaches of the two companies.

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One of the notable things about the question-and-answer site Quora is the quality of answers that are posted to interesting questions. One recent example is the in-depth response posted to the question: “Which is better to work for, Google or Facebook?” The answer comes from David Braginsky, who worked as a developer at Google for four years, then moved to Facebook, where he’s worked for three years. His take? The search company is like graduate school, filled with big brains working on complicated problems, while the social network doesn’t think as much about the deep implications of things; it just does them.

Braginsky says when it comes to culture, Google is more technically focused, in that staffers there “value working on hard problems, and doing them right… things are often done because they are technically hard or impressive [and] on most projects, the engineers make the calls.” He adds that when projects are undertaken at the search company, “the code is usually solid, and the systems are designed for scale from the very beginning. There are many experts around and review processes set up for systems designs.”

At Facebook, however, the attitude is “something needs to be done, and people do it. Most of the time they don’t read the literature on the subject, or consult experts about the ‘right way’ to do it, they just sit down, write the code, and make things work.” This can cause problems at times when things are rushed into production, he says: “Sometimes the way they do it is naive, and a lot of time it may cause bugs or break as it goes into production. And when that happens, they fix their problems… and (in most cases) move on to the next thing.” Although he’s talking about programming, this seat-of-the-pants approach could help explain some of Facebook’s backtracking on privacy features and other elements of the service.

While engineers and technical specs rule the day at Google, Braginsky says, “Facebook values products and user experience, and designers tend to have a much larger impact. Zuck [CEO Mark Zuckerberg] spends a lot of time looking at product mocks, and is involved pretty deeply with the site’s look and feel.” Another interesting aspect of the developer’s take on the two companies is the way he describes how Google’s size has affected its culture and processes:

Google is really big. There are multiple teams doing the same thing and don’t know about each other. There are teams that strongly believe that other teams should not exist. There are giant sections of Google that have been described as “non-Google” because of culture drift and acquisitions.

It’s odd to think that parts of the web giant might be seen by others at the company as “non-Google,” but not surprising, given the rate at which the company has grown and the number of acquisitions it has made (something it has stepped up even further in the past year). Meanwhile, Braginsky says that at Facebook “there is sometimes duplication of work, but it is almost always intentional.” And from a developer’s point of view, he says that working at a giant technology company like Google has benefits because it does world-class research in computer science, which can pay off “if you are good enough to convince the Google management structure to not place you into one of the many critical but not very interesting teams.”

There are some other interesting observations in Braginsky’s answer, including the fact that Google employs “a noticeable number of people that should have never been hired, and the company seems reluctant (or unable) to remedy that” (although he says that’s based more on reports from friends at Google than personal experience). Facebook, he says, “is much more willing to fire people,” so the overall average quality of engineers is higher. While there are people at Google who’ve made the computer industry into what it is today, Braginsky says, “it is very unlikely that you will work with, or interact with, those people.”

While the engineer’s answer is just one person’s perspective on working at Google and Facebook, it is interesting to see the contrasts and similarities — and possibly a glimpse of the kinds of size-related problems that Facebook might wind up dealing with if it continues to grow at the pace it has been. If you have any experience working at either place, feel free to share your impressions in the comments.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Will Games Help Google Figure Out How to Be Social?

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  1. Facebook, he says, “is much more willing to fire people,” so the overall average quality of engineers is higher.

    really, are you kidding me?

    All those PHP coders at Facebook, rolling unstable code into production, not reading background literature, are better than Google’s army of Stanford-educated CS grads with deep knowledge of langs like Java and C++?

    I’m sure FB’s engineers might beat the Ruby devs over at Twitter, but google??? give me a freaking break.

    1. I can’t say whether you’re right, but I think debating whose engineers are better distracts us from the only thing that matters: who delivers a better product. Facebook has always seemed very stable to me, so why should I, a non-programmer, care if they use PHP?

      1. That’s a good point — rolling out unstable code or not, I have had very few problems with Facebook from a user standpoint.

      2. Yeah a content sharing website a better product than Google search, mail.. wake up kid

  2. so are people actually reading the articles or just cutting and pasting directly onto gigaom?

    Lets try to reconcile these statements:
    1)“the code is usually solid, and the systems are designed for scale from the very beginning. There are many experts around and review processes set up for systems designs.”
    2) Facebook, he says, “is much more willing to fire people,” so the overall average quality of engineers is higher.
    3) Most of the time they don’t read the literature on the subject, or consult experts about the ‘right way’ to do it, they just sit down, write the code, and make things work.” This can cause problems at times when things are rushed into production, he says: “Sometimes the way they do it is naive, and a lot of time it may cause bugs or break as it goes into production.

    /vijay

    1. I don’t think those statements are mutually exclusive, Vijay — or at least not necessarily so. If Facebook has good engineers but lets them rush code out rather than waiting until it is stable and can scale the way Google does, then FB engineers might be able to sit down and write code without consulting the experts, but also see more bugs or breaks in production. It’s a difference in approach.

  3. It sounds like Google is having the problems Microsoft developed a few years ago – they’ve grown so large that the different parts of the company refuse to cooperate, even when it would be in their best interest in the long run. An interesting comment on Microsoft’s problems at Daring Fireball: http://daringfireball.net/linked/2010/02/04/microsoft-creative-destruction

    1. Yes, that’s a good comparison, Alex — I thought about that post at Daring Fireball as well when I was reading the Quora answer. In addition to trying to beat Facebook, Google also has a fight on its hands trying not to become a big, slow-moving, bureaucratic company.

  4. The difference between Facebook and Google is clear but invisible.

    Facebook gets direct Feedback from its mistakes from its users.

    Google just becomes more unpopular but no one at Google can really understyand why it has occurred.

    The real reason is that Facebook’s alterations are easy to pin down to a rule, change, area of operation…. whereas Google is now so diverse and difficult to use by the public, that the reason for its decline in popularity (if not yet use) is much less easy to spot.

    This problem is spreading through Google like a virus.
    Facebook still has the ability to react, does Google ?

    1. That’s a good point, Simon — as a social network, the feedback loop is likely a lot shorter at Facebook than it is at Google. If people get bad search results, they probably just move on or get frustrated, but there is no easy way of providing that feedback.

      1. so how come bugs on FB take forever to fix? Bugs are just part of life on FB, people don’t care anymore. The bugs that reveal your email and photos when you key in a wrong password had been there for 2 months before it’s reported in the news. Feedback mechanism is sh1t in both cases, it’s mostly due to limited resources rather than the size of the company and the ability to react. You can’t simply say “likely” because it’s a “social network”, do a comparison to prove the loop is shorter and more effective.

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  7. There is also the problem with Google on their insistence to hire Product Managers with computer science backgrounds only. That reduces the level of diverse thinking within product groups and makes their products more utilitarian than social.

  8. I used to work at one of the Telcos, the behaviour you are describing at Google was the same there. Very large Tech Company-itis. Facebook will be there in 10 years or so too, if its still around.

  9. Paramendra Bhagat Tuesday, August 17, 2010

    A fascinating read.

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