Finding a Cure for Cancer: Philip Su on Facebook’s Future

By David Knight |

How many of you know that Facebook has an office in Berlin? And how many of you know that it occupies space in one of the city’s most prestigious addresses, right on Pariser Platz across from the Brandenburg Gate?

As the site directer of Facebook’s London engineering office, Philip Su is one of the company’s most important figures in Europe. He was in Berlin recently as part of a recruitment drive especially aimed at attracting more women to engineering jobs. Silicon Allee caught up with him to ask him whether Facebook can hold onto its startup roots.

The view is one to remember – the hundreds of tourists milling around the square which has seen some of the defining moments in German history; from Nazi marches to Communist walls to, nowadays, the hustle and bustle of modern city life.

With the grand old Brandenburg Gate in the background, it was rather strange to be talking about startups and technology. Philip Su spent 12 years at Microsoft before becoming the second employee at Facebook’s Seattle office where he worked on video calling and messaging.

And for the past four months, he has been living in London setting up the company’s first engineering office outside North America. With the talent pool available in Europe, it is no surprise that he wanted to look beyond the UK for new employees – hence the mini-tour taking in Bucharest as well as Berlin. Joined by a Facebook colleague from Seattle, Denise Noyes, Philip arrived in the German capital to take partin a Berlin Geekettes panel discussion. It was his second time in the city, having attended Campus Party at the former Tempelhof Airport in the summer – an event which left a good impression on him.

Deeper and More Focused

“I thought it was amazing,” he said, “because, from a Facebook perspective, the spirit of Campus Party is what we really aspire to. I totally loved it. When I came back from that I felt that we needed to go back to Berlin to do something more deep and more focused.”

That focus was on encouraging more women to become Facebook engineers. The women in tech topic has been in the headlines frequently in recent months, with a minority of people suggesting that it amounts to ‘affirmative action’ – but Philip is adamant it is more about encouraging talented women to do the kind of jobs they might not otherwise consider.

“There is a big difference, I think, between bias and selection towards any set of people versus supporting what we think specific sets of people need.” His office looked at studies which suggested it is far more common for women who are looking for jobs to go to two or three events before they consider applying – unlike men, who are more likely to attend just one and then apply right away.

“So I don’t think it’s at all an attempt at bias towards selecting any sub group of people, but [rather] knowing that in the past we have needed to do more consistent outreach to women to get the equally qualified ones in the door. At no point are we changing our hiring bar in terms of bringing in less qualified women. Honestly, we just need to look a little harder to find the qualified candidates. They are out there, but maybe they don’t think that this is a position for them.”

The London engineering office is the first one outside of the US. It came into being, according to Philip, partly because more than 80 percent of Facebook users are outside of North America. “From a philosophical perspective, it feels like we should be building our software closer to where the people are who use it are.”

Server Side Performance Enhancements

One of the London office’s main focuses is extending the open graph platform – with London the ideal place because, slightly surprisingly, it has the second-highest density of registered third-party Facebook developers. Behind San Francisco, presumably?

“Yes – but not by that huge a margin. Which frankly surprised me before I got out to London but now that I’m there I understand it. Everybody with a startup is going to build some form of Facebook integration. So having a platform team there is great because we can talk directly to the people who actually use the APIs.”

In a post on his personal blog earlier this year, Philip makes clear his love of this hacker culture. This hands on approach is of the genetic make up which defines Facebook and which, as the company grows and matures, is at risk of disappearing. And it’s especially pertinent in the wake of Facebook going public – and the ensuing plummeting stock price and much gnashing of teeth.

But he argues strongly this culture won’t die – and he does seem to be doing more than just toeing the party line.

“Nothing about it having gone public has changed the hacker culture. I think the more subtle question that is important is how do we protect and preserve that culture as Facebook becomes more and more successful and grows, from both a world footprint perspective but also from a staff perspective?”

Demonstrating Ideas Through Code

That, he hopes, will be achieved by the company’s working practices – if someone comes up with an idea, they are constantly pushed to actively demonstrate it through code: “There is a lot of general cynicism within Facebook for people pitching things with PowerPoint. People just want to see it built first. With many things, after you build it and use it you think, well, maybe that idea wasn’t that clever after all. So it’s very much a culture that pushes people to exercise their ideas as code.”

And the frequent hackathons which Facebook holds around the world are another way of encouraging people to get their hands dirty, so to speak. The hackathons themselves are developing, with Philip keen to see more collaboration with outside entities. One he is lining up in London is with Cancer Research UK, which has the world’s largest database of patient outcomes in cancer studies.

“They have a premise that they believe is true which is that human visualisation of that data makes quicker and better decisions than computational methods. So they want to build a mobile social game using the data from Cancer Research that as you play over time, you actually contribute to finding the cure.” And that game, in turn, could come out of a hackathon.

So what else does the future hold for Facebook? “If we do our jobs right we can help people be more open and connected with each other; real relationships, authentic identity. I don’t think growth of user numbers is what we’re really looking for next, because at this point we have a quorum of people that are clearly online and active. I think what’s far more interesting is now that we have authentic identity on the Internet, what can we do for the rest of the Internet that is independent from Facebook in general but is built on open graph, for instance?”

That means deeper collaboration with startups which isn’t simply all about how great Facebook is. “Today app developers think, I’m not going to rebuild the idea of identities and relationships and everything else. I’m just going to assume that there is a social layer that’s available for everyone on the Internet, funded by Facebook, and then just skip the whole ‘who am I’ question and just get right into what my app is doing.”

There you have it – Facebook, sitting opposite the Brandenburg Gate, curing cancer. Such is the power of hacking.