Facebook engineers talk privacy, Friendship Timeline and the hacks we never saw

Facebook panel @ Betahaus '12
Facebook panel @ Betahaus '12

Facebook panel @ Betahaus '12

Some of the best of the Facebook engineers’ panel, hosted by the Berlin Geekettes at Betahaus last night, revealed what might have been.

“Someone did something as a joke – a hack, where you’d get a notification whenever someone you’re in a relationship with is tagged in a photo with someone of the opposite gender,” Philip Su, site lead at Facebook’s new London engineering office, said. “Clearly we’d never ship something like that…”

Though, Su said, 70 per cent of Facebook’s hackathon projects actually do make it up on the site. Timeline, introduced late last year, is one example.

“A friend of mine built it for hackathon,” Facebook privacy and tagging engineering manager Raylene Yung said. “He was like, hey, why don’t we show more things on your profile, not just what you did last week, but what you did all last year? So he built this pretty ugly prototype called Memories…”

The group showed it to Mark Zuckerberg, it got traction, it became Timeline – now so much a part of Facebook that many of us can’t remember what it used to look like.

Another hack – Facebook’s friendship pages, which show the relationship between any two people, and are due to launch as Friendship Timeline “pretty soon”.

Betahaus

“A lot of times you don’t know how a billion people will react until you put it in front of them.”

The panel – Su, Yung,  video calling tech lead Denise Noyes and product infrastructure engineer Jing Chen, moderated by Berlin Geekettes founder Jess Erickson – offered rare insights into what it’s like to work on a social platform used by a billion people.

Even tasks that seem simple, like migrating tag data to a new format, can be extremely challenging – not to mention rolling out new features. So, what’s the process?

“A lot of times you don’t know how a billion people will react until you put it in front of them,” Noyes said. That doesn’t mean there are no test-runs. Facebook uses a lot of internal testing and feedback and a gatekeeper feature to turn on code for certain users first, often small groups in the US. “Sometimes we launch things in New Zealand…”

Betahaus

Tough topics did come up – including privacy, which the panelists seemed to view as an education issue rather than just a design one, and how to deal with user protests, for example, against changes to the way Facebook News Feed works.

Facebook wants women

Other topics included Facebook’s work culture for engineers – flexible hours with “sprints” when needed, smart people, a “really open” culture – and for women.

If last night’s event is an example, Facebook is making a serious effort to recruit more women as engineers. “Women self-select out of tech at 14, 15 – it’s important to reach out at 12, 13,” Su said. “It’s really important for the industry.”

Last night didn’t hit that age bracket but was a solid step in the right direction. Here’s to the future?

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