10 lessons from a 5 year rollercoaster ride at Facebook

I joined Facebook (before it went Meta) in 2016. At that time, the company size was just shy of 15,000 employees, which, even at that scale, is much much more manageable than what it is today (the only publicly available number so far is 58K by the end of 2020 – watch out for the company’s earnings Feb 2 as that number can only go up). That is close to a +400% growth, just in employee size.

In comparison, the employee size growth is equal to going from Zalando (14,986) or Ubisoft (17,882) to a Salesforce (59,895) or Hewlett Packard (59,400). source

I recently asked myself the question, “What would I want to tell myself, before embarking on a 5-year journey in a mega-high-growth company?” –– the following is the result of that internal monologue. It is by no means a prescription for you to follow, nor a comprehensive list of all things I wish I knew (otherwise we’d be looking at a book and not a blog post). Take this as someone’s experience snapshot.

Secretly, I’m also writing this in case myself from 5 years ago stumbles on it…

1. The world moves so much faster outside the train

Once you assimilate to the rhythm of the business, you start to feel like things are moving slow – no matter how fast they are actually moving. The more time you spend inside the wagon, the more you assimilate to a new reference point. You will forget you are sitting on a windowless bullet train, and fail to view the distance traveled since you got onboard.

2. Your entry skills will be very different than your exit skills

You hopped on the train from sunny San Diego, and you will find yourself in snowy Tokyo. The weather will be different, and so are the people, and the food. There is, unfortunately, no weather map. But you can hop off the train at every station it stops at, to at least get acclimated with the changing environment.

Your skills, and everything you thought true about the world and about yourself, will likely change. From your favorite programming languages and frameworks becoming “old” and your favorite libraries “unmaintained” or “deprecated”, to Figma taking over Sketch as designer’s favorite tool – it will take time to realize, once there, just how the world is different outside your frame of reference.

In addition, you will hopefully pick up new things. Otherwise, what a waste the journey would’ve been. Out of those new things, some will be good and help you for the rest of your journey, and some will be not-so-good behaviors you’d need to unlearn.

3. Embrace “The Bad”

Beside the toxic behaviors you might pick up along the way, you will go through rough patches – at times, bad episodes straight out of a horror movie. But often just nuisances that, in the moment, will make you feel like the world is collapsing on you.

The fastest way to get out of The Bad, will be to embrace it. The Bad is how you will grow. The Bad is how you will be defined after you leave. The Bad is what accelerates your learning about the world, people, and business.

Lactic acid will eventually develop, but that’s what separates athletes from the rest of the world; athletes can continue their workout routine past that. The Bad will be necessary to your growth. Ski down the hill of The Bad and let it carry you wherever it goes; and then if you try resisting, you will fall.

4. Fa(i)lling won’t be the worst thing that will happen to you

In addition to being able to embrace The Bad, being OK with failure (and falling, metaphorically, or literally from the ladder or from someone’s grace) will be your key to survival.

If embracing The Bad is how you accelerate learning, failing is how you will develop and enforce your learnings.

Alas, falling is a skill, as well. The first thing they teach you in ski school or a rock climbing gym, is how to fall; ungraceful falls lead to injuries, and might lead to death or permanent damage. How failing isn’t thought as a skill in first grade is beyond me – but that’s for another time.

In fact, all your neuro-programming up to this point was to avoid failure. Don’t fail that exam. Don’t move fast on the person you’re dating or you’ll scare them off. Don’t run faster than your normal pace without proper training. The list goes on forever.

Instead of avoiding failure, find microfails. Similar to how a micromort is defined as a one in a million chance of dying, a microfail is a one in a million chance of getting fired on the spot.

Examples of microfails:

  • Showing up late to a team meeting once: 10,000 microfails
  • Not showing up to an important meeting where you have to present a project: 500,000 microfails
  • Failing to close an important deal because of external reasons: 100,000 microfails
  • Failing to close an important deal because you slacked: 700,000 microfails
  • Forgetting to reply to an email: 10,000 microfails

The other thing worth knowing about microfails, is you get assigned an invisible microfails counter that starts at zero the day you join, and keeps on increasing. Learning, and behavior correcting, from your last microfail, is the only way around that.

Find your own microfails, and learn from them. The faster you do, the better off you’ll be long term.

5. The higher in a ladder you find yourself, the more you will lean on politics to get shit done

If you’re like Kamala (49th VP of the United States) and don’t like to deal with DC politics, you will be in for a treat.

The higher up in an organization you are, the less technical problems become – to the point where every problem becomes a people problem. People problems are three kind: coordination, allocation, and performance. Performance is how you will guide, help improve, and judge. Allocation is how to distribute N people -with often varying skills and experiences- across M problems to solve. Coordination is how to make sure the people working on the M problems don’t end up killing each other and are indeed working towards a shared future and a common goal.

If you want to get things done, learn how to be a great politician.
Politics as a concept has a bad reputation, but it’s not a bad thing onto itself – it’s a way to solve problems by leveraging people, as opposed to using technical skills. It’s a mix of good communication, ability to create a vision, influence so others join your vision, and having a service mindset. The most common politician image is someone that does all of the above, but lacks the service mindset; and speaking of service …

6. You are always in service

You are joining to trade your precious time in service of the company, for money. But what is a company anyways? Users? Shareholders? Employees? Your manager? Your skip? Up the chain to the CEO? Your peers? Your direct team? Your external business partners?

All of the above. Unconditionally. Your work doesn’t matter if it exists in vacuum (i.e., no one cares about it if it’s not impacting them), and the only work that will matter will be that of service to others, and ultimately everyone above.

The trick is to realize you can’t serve all of the above – instead, consider prioritizing them (company culture and priorities, how far along in your career you are, how big of a team you have, etc. will all be factors in this exercise, and the priorities change over time) and ensuring you are mindfully spending your time on the things that serve as many people from the above list as possible.

Note that being in service isn’t the same as sucking up, nor it is to be taken advantage of. Those are two opposite ends of the service spectrum – find your spot somewhere in between and keep dancing around it.

7. There will be more motion than progress

And the bullet train analogy I used before is wrong. The train behaves more like a rocket-train: it advances in massive bursts. There will be periods of uncomfortable downtime, and then periods of work. People, including you, will spend a significant time escaping the uncomfortable downtime by doing a mix of “busy-work” and “appearance-work”.

The busy-work will make you feel great about yourself in the moment. Appearance-work will help stroke your ego and buy you time until you can actually do work that matters.

The two are intertwined in a way that won’t be obvious to you: the better you get at appearance-work, the more busy-work everyone else will do, leading to more appearance work, and more busy work, and eventually forcing you to do more busy work.

But it’s easy to break the pattern and get out of the vicious circle. When you spot yourself doing busy-work or appearance-work, stop. You might rack up a few microfails along the way, but that’s better than going insane trying to keep up with appearances. If you are the first to stop and call it out, chances are you’ll gain a good reputation for being the one whose work is likely to matter.

8. Love, without falling in love

This one you will likely have to learn the hard way. Recognize the difference between “loving” and “falling in love”. Love requires passion, optimism, trust. Falling in love is to completely surrender.

To succeed, you really need to love: your company, manager, users, peers, team, and work. But falling in love with them might hurt you: a corporation will always prioritize the group above the individual (duh), and if you find yourself in the wrong group … well, shit.

9. Make friends

For the longest time, I put a wall between me and making friends at work – fueled by a mix of trust issues and a habit of avoiding unnecessary interactions. But then things will happen, and you’ll make the first friend, and the second, and tenth. Then you realize work is much, much, more fun with friends.

When you make friends at work, you go from a Solo mission, to Multiplayer mode with people on your side. You might also find that one person that never played Fortnite to join your multiplayer party, and you bond over the craziness that is losing in the first two seconds of every game, and five year olds making fun of your skinless character …

10. Life is short, and so is your career stint

But you only get to pick which one impacts which, and there is only one correct answer.
If you let your career get ahead of your life’s priorities, then you are trading your soul, and not just your time, for money. You might, then, as well be Cousin Greg, and say, “what am I gonna do with a soul anyways? Souls are boring. Boo, souls.”

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7 Comments

  1. Article plein de sagesse. Notamment pour une personne qui veut se lancer chez les géants et grandes multinationales.
    Zak, il faut te faire des amis. Le plus important n’est pas de se faire des amis, mais que de ces amitiés, tu arrives à évacuer le stress que seul tu n’aurais pas pu, tu puisses t’améliorer.

    1. Layhfdek a khouya Zack for the tips you learned along the way your experience.

      As first baby stepper in this field, I’m going through those things you mentioned and debating myself about it haha :) now I got some feedback from a time traveler ;).

      Ps : discovered you from twitch with marouane, looking forward to see you in again with us in twitch

  2. I enjoyed reading this, Zak, thanks for sharing and enjoy your recharge!

  3. Thank you for putting these thoughts into words. The part about “busy-work” and “appearance-work” struck me for a second and I went back and read that a second time. Would love to discuss a bit more about it with you sometime.

  4. Layhfdek a khouya Zack for the tips you learned along the way your experience.

    As first baby stepper in this field, I’m going through those things you mentioned and debating myself about it haha :) now I got some feedback from a time traveler ;).

    Ps : discovered you from twitch with marouane, looking forward to see you in again with us in twitch

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