Ezra Callahan joined Facebook as one of its first employees and went on to head up internal communications.
In this extract from the latest Journal of Internal Communication, Ezra explains how face-to-face channels kept the culture thriving at the world’s largest social network.
I joined Facebook as its sixth employee through an old roommate.
I was its first product manager, and as the company grew I evolved from product management to internal communications.
Facebook very quickly had satellite offices outside of headquarters in Palo Alto, and through my role within product management, I was essentially doing internal communications simply to keep the company up-to-speed with what was going on. Once we had 1,000 employees, keeping everyone in the loop and fostering the same culture required a lot of effort and a considerable number of internal tools and programs.
As Facebook grew its offices internationally, a big reason why people were dedicated to Facebook was because of the emotional investment the company cultivated.
It felt like you had access to information and the right to voice your opinions, which were going to be heard. You knew the CEO heard your opinion, because you were encouraged to say it directly to him! Direct lines communication were very important, and employees eagerly tuned in to the company’s Q&As and all-hands meetings and engaged with our internal communications tools globally.
Facebook was always a very open and transparent company by design. Mark Zuckerberg and the other founders really liked the idea of debate and made sure to avoid keeping things confidential internally as much as possible.
This was essential for two reasons:
- Firstly, it was this culture of debate and transparency that made Facebook an amazing place to work and helped us attract a lot of talent who would invest themselves fully in the company.
- Secondly, because Facebook was a controversial site, with new features and privacy blowouts always causing controversy in the press, everyone needed to be able to speak their mind both to steer the company in the right direction and to maintain their level of commitment.
At Facebook, I really wanted to keep it organic and foster the culture of debate and openness rather than direct it. A big part of this was to lead internal communications by example.
Building on this idea of debate, every Friday, anyone could ask Mark Zuckerberg anything they liked.
If nobody was asking questions or people were asking less interesting questions, Mark told me one of my jobs was to ask him the hardest questions I could think of every week. So I’d say: “Mark, aren’t you completely wrong about ‘x’?” or “Why are we doing things this way?” At a company like Facebook, there were plenty of hard questions, and a lot of them stemmed from the fact that Mark ultimately made most of the major decisions himself. That role of asking him questions in front of everyone was fun on the one hand, but also terrifying – I was always thinking one of these days I’m going to say the wrong thing and it’s going to be a disaster!
These Q&As had been casual not-so-corporate affairs, but by the time I took on internal communications they were large enough that they required more organisation. As it happened, Facebook was big on building its own tools and systems for organising information internally. Cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, left Facebook in 2008 to found Asana, which can trace its roots to some of the tools we developed internally at Facebook.
We had a lot of employees who came from Google. Google has this really strong company culture that’s tied to its identity, but this sometimes seemed very contrived.
There are things that you do at Google just because it’s Google and that’s what you do there. It’s like there’s a top-down decree: “This is what our culture is.” It may have evolved organically initially, but at some point it becomes artificial when someone decides: “Oh, our culture is people ride scooters around the office and wear goofy hats” for example. It becomes what new people are taught. That was something we wanted to avoid at Facebook, though clearly it becomes more difficult as you get larger. Early on, the culture was just what we did, but as a company grows it’s hard to find that balance between letting the culture evolve into what it will versus holding on to what we had been doing and deciding that that was, in fact, our culture.
At Facebook, internal communications was a great role. I always think that the culture of any city is not determined by the mayor, it’s what the sum of all the people in the city do. That’s really how the culture at Facebook was. Communications is a great opportunity to influence, drive and preserve company culture.
Internal communications is especially interesting as you are in this unique position to coach and work with people above you and help them understand the best way to communicate. You can really influence how messages are communicated and potentially turn anything negative into a positive – or at least provide a cathartic avenue for helping keep negative things from derailing people’s passion and commitment. A really big part of Facebook’s success was our ability to bring in passionate people and find ways to sustain and fuel that passion through a culture of openness.