Facebook Boston Looks to Build Tech for the “Next Few Billion Users”

The Boston area’s prominence in biotech and life sciences has an unexpected side benefit for tech companies. Consider Ryan Mack of Facebook.

Mack has been with the social-networking giant for almost five years. Originally based at headquarters in Silicon Valley, he moved to Boston about three and a half years ago when his wife got a job in biotech. He worked from home, along with a handful of other Boston-area engineers, who tended to have one thing in common: spouses in biotech.

Mack is now Facebook Boston’s site lead. Last year, the company opened an engineering office—its fifth—in Kendall Square at One Broadway, in the same building as the Cambridge Innovation Center startup space.

Not surprisingly, Mack downplays the biotech-spouse angle, emphasizing that Facebook is in Boston/Cambridge because of the area’s strong technical talent in fields crucial to the company’s future.

“We’re getting our footing here, and getting to know the community,” Mack says.

There’s some irony, of course, because Facebook got its start in the Boston area before Mark Zuckerberg and friends left for greener pastures out west. Local innovation leaders have been trying to stop that brain drain ever since (see also Dropbox, Meraki, Zendesk).

Facebook has joined tech giants Microsoft, Google, and more recently Twitter, Amazon, and Apple, in establishing a presence in Kendall Square. The trend may not be good for local rents and office-space availability, but it’s great for local engineers looking for jobs.

Ryan Mack, Facebook Boston site leadFor his part, Mack (pictured) was the tech lead on Timeline, the Facebook user-profile page design that was rolled out in 2011-12. He has also led efforts in photos infrastructure, including work on facial recognition and data de-duplication. Before joining Facebook, the Caltech grad worked at videogame developers Rockstar San Diego and Sony Computer Entertainment. (Yes, New England weather has been an adjustment.)

Under his watch, Facebook Boston is working on deep infrastructure problems in data storage, networking, and compilers. It’s interesting that these old, traditional-sounding fields have such relevance to modern Web companies’ performance reliability, site speed, and product development. In other words, as Facebook grows, it needs to make sure its site stays up and running efficiently, and it also needs to keep its product teams moving quickly. (See Wade Roush’s in-depth story on Facebook’s “ginormous data” problem.)

“We’re thinking about the next few billion users,” Mack says, especially in “markets where we don’t have saturation now.” As part of that, the Cambridge office’s big goals are to “make our product development faster,” he says, and to improve the site’s plumbing. “The infrastructure needs to make sure that when they’re ready to roll out to 100 million-plus users, it can scale.”

Facebook won’t disclose its number of employees in the Boston area or its specific growth plans (following the obscurity model of Google and others). All Mack will say is, “We’re getting started small, and looking to grow.” On the recruiting front, he says Facebook Boston is “focusing on hiring technical leadership—the first couple people on projects to drive the effort.”

The local office is also home to Ed Smith, Facebook’s tech lead for HHVM (HipHop Virtual Machine), an open-source system for running programs written in PHP and Facebook’s own programming language, Hack. As Mack puts it, “HHVM is one of the biggest levers for improving efficiency of the site. And Hack is a way to improve the efficiency of engineers.”

Some casual trolling on LinkedIn reveals a few more Facebook Boston employees: recruiter Abby Rose and software engineer Jessica Lin, among others.

Mack makes a point of saying the Boston outpost won’t be marginalized—a common issue with big tech companies. Instead, his team seems to be taking ownership of major projects in the company. “We are building infrastructure here in Boston,” he says. “We’re not [just] a remote office.”

Is there anything unique about its culture? “Boston is a great town for families,” Mack says. “We’ve been pushing for a lot of family-oriented [activities] at the office.”

The local team has been involved in Olin College’s senior capstone projects this spring, and has been active on big campuses like Harvard and MIT, Mack says. In addition to recruiting, Facebook Boston is taking part in meet-ups on programming languages like PHP and Python, distributed databases, and other topics. And just last week, Facebook expanded one of its startup outreach programs, called FbStart, which now targets mobile developers worldwide—including Boston.

“We’re excited to be part of a really fast-growing community,” Mack says of the local innovation scene.

Asked whether he thinks the Boston area will produce another consumer-tech company as big as Facebook—and keep it here—he is unequivocal in his response. “I don’t see why not,” he says. “I’m impressed by the startups I see. It’s just a matter of time.”

Trending on Xconomy