‘Hollywood has done tech a disservice’ – Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer

6 Nov 201516 Shares

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Mike Schroepfer, CTO, Facebook

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Hollywood’s portrayal of tech workers like coders and engineers is nothing like the real thing, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer told Siliconrepublic.com. He said the geeky portrayal of tech workers is potentially causing lots of young people from all walks of life to miss out on a rewarding career.

Schroepfer is the driving force for the overall Facebook product in terms of everything from smartphones and mobile to Messenger and video, apps and big bets like artificial intelligence, broadband-transmitting drones in the sky and the company’s big bet on virtual reality through the acquisition of Oculus.

His comments on Hollywood come at the same time as the release of the Steve Jobs movie about the Apple co-founder, which was penned by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote The Social Network, which attempted to portray the rise of Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

‘If I asked you to open your mind and to imagine a hacker or computer engineer, they are portrayed as socially awkward, evasive, only eat pizza. They are just not portrayed as someone you would aspire to be’
– MIKE SCHROEPFER, FACEBOOK

I spoke to Schroepfer at the Web Summit in Dublin this week about the war for talent and how as CTO it is his job to ensure that the Facebook product remains cohesive and on-trend.

“A lot of my job ends up being about finding the smartest, most capable people in their field and bringing them into the fold, whether it is a team working on the fundamentals of artificial intelligence, or bringing the Oculus through to final completion as a consumer product, or getting a team to work on drones.

“Ultimately, this is about finding the best people in the world to do this, building a structure around them and making it successful.”

He said that when it comes to finding brilliant people there are no hard and fast rules except being really honest about what is possible.

“The pitch we make to everybody is that we are the best place in the world to get your technology into the hands of a billion people – somebody’s crazy AI technology that we had in the lab last March is now in production.

“There are lots of places where you can do interesting work, but few places where you can do it and improve the lives of literally billions of people. It’s helpful that they can be seated next to other brilliant people and we have a track record of building great technology from very small teams.”

The Facebook economy has people at its core

Facebook started small, in a Harvard dorm room to be precise. Today it is a $12bn-a-year social media giant with 1.5bn monthly users that employs more than 10,000 people. The company has had its international headquarters in Dublin since 2008 and recently moved into a new building that can house up to 1,000 people.

The Facebook economy extends from advertising to apps to SMEs that have built a business on the platform and in Europe alone it is estimated that 388,000 people are part of this economy, according to Deloitte. In the US, the Facebook economy has generated more than 870,000 jobs and has had an economic impact of $8.4bn.

Across the world, there is a war for talent raging, and in Europe alone there are an estimated 700,000 ICT job vacancies. I ask Schroepfer how the world can go about fixing this anomaly.

‘I want our technology to be built by people who live in the real world, not by a small subset’
– MIKE SCHROEPFER, FACEBOOK

“I think it starts with trying to educate people in all walks of life – educators, children, people in college – about what it is actually like to be in a technical career.

“I think in many ways Hollywood has done us a disservice. If I asked you to open your mind and to imagine a hacker or a computer engineer; they are portrayed as socially awkward, evasive, only eat pizza. They are just not portrayed as someone you would aspire to be.

“What is funny is this is so far from the reality. The thing is, engineers come in all shapes and sizes and styles. Tell me one single thing that was created by a single person in this time and there are very few examples of that. Almost every single thing that is fundamental to engineering is a collaborative activity that requires you to work with other people. And so it is a social activity where you get to apply your mind, create things and create the future.

“I think when people are exposed to the actual practice of it they will go, ‘wow, this is cool.’ I am hopeful that as people get exposed to the technology industry they will realise the truth, that this is an incredibly fun and rewarding career and we need more people from all walks of life to join in.

“I want our technology to be built by people who live in the real world, not by a small subset.”

It is for precisely these reasons that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is pushing ahead with Internet.org to put technology tools and services into the hands of people in the developing world as well as plans to put aeroplanes in the sky that can transmit free broadband.

“This is the promise of the internet access for me; people often think of connecting the world as something worth doing for other people, but I think of it the other way around. How many genius creative literary types, artists, computer scientists are we missing because they are one of the several billion people who aren’t connected to the wealth of information and educational tools on the internet? What will the world look like when we add another 2bn or 3bn people to that firehouse of wealth creation, what will be the things they will create to make the world more beautiful and better? That’s the power of all of these systems.”

‘How many genius creative literary types, artists, computer scientists are we missing because they are one of the several billion people who aren’t connected to the wealth of information and educational tools on the internet?’
– MIKE SCHROEPFER

Explaining the 10-year technical vision of Facebook, Schroepfer breaks it down into three parts. “The first part is investing in technology that connects the billions of people; from satellite technology to high-altitude aircraft that can dramatically reduce the cost of providing internet access in areas that don’t have it.

“The second part is artificial intelligence. There is so much information out there on the internet and people have to sort their way through it, so we need better tools and technologies to help understand the content of the world and get what you are interested in and need in order to spend time on the things and people you care about.

“The third part is virtual reality. We are building systems that are amazing, immersive entertainment devices that will allow you to experience something – not as a picture or a video – but in a 360-degree immersive experience that engages all the senses and makes social connections.

Things are about to get virtually real and artificially intelligent

Schroepfer said that virtual reality will be a transformative experience for many people around the world.

“I think there’s a lot of promise in the long run for things like this. The video conference as we know it is a flat experience and there’s a lot more expression you can get in VR that you can’t with video conferencing – the whole social aspect, the social cues and in the long run that is what we are most excited about.

“You could take a pottery class from a world master or go visit all the world’s museums in an afternoon. It’s the ultimate in scalable technology.”

In March last year Facebook agreed to acquire Oculus VR for $2bn in cash and stock.

“The first products will ship next year, including a headset and touch controls,” Schroepfer confirmed.

“This will be the first consumer version. The focus up until now has been building, prototyping multiple versions of the technology, including touch controllers, and making sure the content is ready for the consumer to use.”

However, initially, Schroepfer predicts that the growth of virtual reality will be slow. “As excited I am about this technology, it is going to grow slowly. It is a brand new platform, a brand new technology and it is going to take it some time to achieve any sort of scale that people expect. It is going to be incredible for everyone who buys it, but it will be small scale at first.”

Mike-Shoepfer-Facebook-1

 

‘I grew up reading Popular Mechanics and I read about carbon fibre airplanes, AI systems and virtual reality, now I get to build it’
– MIKE SCHROEPFER

In the meantime, Facebook has become something of an innovation factory, introducing new innovations on an almost weekly basis. This week the company introduced a new Music Stories feature that puts Spotify and Apple Music clips into News Feed and the company has already begun testing its own text-based artificial intelligence agent, enigmatically entitled M.

In fact, at the recent F8 developers shindig, Facebook revealed plans to put artificial intelligence and e-commerce capabilities inside its Messenger platform in a move that could transform online shopping forever.

I tell Schroepfer I was enchanted at the notion that you could simply type or talk to Messenger to find out the status of an order or if your favourite fashion vendor has a jacket in your size.

“Right now we are just testing M and the idea is that it will be a personal assistant that you just message and ask to do things like deliver flowers, hook up your cable and other things like that.

“AIs can either automatically respond or we can give suggestions to operators to make it quicker. At the moment it is people and AIs together but then over time as AIs get more sophisticated they can solve problems for the whole world.”

Another major trend driving Facebook is its emergence as a media powerhouse. Facebook is already rivalling YouTube as a video platform and for many people it is Facebook that is the front page of their news flow and not a newspaper.

“Our goal is to connect you to the content you want to see. We want to get you all the best sources, whether it is video, online news and the happier we make you the more time you will spend on Facebook. We think by doing that we can actually help all media outlets and others by doing things like Instant Articles that load faster and so people will read and consumer more media.”

In catering for 1.5bn people all over the world, mostly through mobile, most people don’t realise that Facebook has become by default and design one of the world’s biggest enterprise IT players. To curb costs and reduce energy, Facebook was the driving force behind the Open Compute Project to challenge how data centres are built and ensure effective use of technologies like software-defined networks (SDNs).

Facebook recently received planning permission from Meath County Council to build a €200m data centre in Clonee and the company operates data centres all over the world to ensure optimum service levels across all devices.

“There has been a tremendous amount of work to build infrastructure that scales and is economical.

“One of the reasons Facebook is as successful as it is is because we build all of this infrastructure ourselves, otherwise we would not have been able to afford to do it. It is actually cheaper for us to build and cheaper to operate because it is incredibly power efficient.

“If you look at these data centres that we are building and the equipment that is in them, they are way more power efficient than the average data centre and so this saves us an incredible amount of money every single day.

“The average Facebook user would in an entire year use as much power at our data centre as the cost of a single latte.”

I ask Schroepfer how as CTO he can go from spearheading new products and services to discussing SDN and data centres and then talking blue sky ideas such as broadband-emitting drones from the clouds. It’s a vast range of things to keep on top of.

“I grew up reading Popular Mechanics and I read about carbon fibre airplanes, AI systems and virtual reality; now I get to build it,” Schroepfer concluded.

“The thing that ties it together is finding the smartest most capable people in their field and bringing them into the fold.”

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com