CS106A: Programming methodology is easily one of the most popular classes here at Stanford. It’s where everyone converges to learn that lingua franca of the "post" post-modern information age: the almighty code. Every now and then a ‘special guest’ will drop by class, often coming as a pleasant surprise to the students. Today’s lecture was listed on the CS106A website with the mundane title of “class on special topic,” which of course is CS-speak for “someone really important is going to be at class today so you should get here early!”
Today in class Professor Mehran Sahami was joined by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. This has been Zuckerberg’s third 106A guest lecture in as many years. Since he last paid a visit to the class, Facebook has held its initial public offering (IPO), acquired Instagram and hit one billion users. Zuckerberg also married his long-time sweetheart, Priscilla Chan. This year Zuckerberg was joined by Mike Schroepfer, VP of Engineering at Facebook. For the record, Schroepfer was a CS106A section leader when he attended Stanford.
Zuckerberg’s return to Stanford was highly anticipated. CS 106A is one of Stanford’s more popular classes but it was still a surprise to find a line out the door nearly half an hour before class was to begin. The room was so crowded that Professor Mehran Sahami had to ask students to clear the stairs and walkways. The CS department was kind enough to have an overflow room next door where students could watch a live feed of the lecture.
This is what a class powered by the Zuck looks like
Students asked a range of questions covering topics ranging from the rise of Facebook competitors such as Google+ to integrating the platform with Skype as well as the accuracy of the depiction of Facebook’s early days in Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network. (For the record, Zuckerberg told us that the movie was mostly dramatized with the sole exception being that they got every single outfit he wore in college right.)
Essentially Zuckerberg is not concerned about competition or trying to transform Facebook into the next Skype, because as he said during the lecture, “What’s important is being really good at what we’re good at and making sure that has a good foundation.” Facebook will focus on being Facebook ensuring the core mission is backed up by solid features; do that and everyone else will integrate Facebook functionality into their own platforms. It’s simple really, Facebook is just that big.
At one point someone brought up “Facebook addiction.” Zuckerberg responded by saying that Facebook addiction “isn’t this real thing” because Facebook should be looked at as a utility, not this thing you do for fun. It’s what you use to keep and build relationships, which are a crucial part of being human.
CS106 class TA's offered some helpful hashtag advice to students for promoting Zuckerberg's visit (and this article)
“You wouldn’t say you’re addicted to your glasses because you wear them every day right?” he asked.
That was certainly a new way of looking at Facebook considering most people regard it as this toy that they automatically play with the minute they open up the Internet.
It’s clear that even after a tough year of enduring criticism from all fronts Zuckerberg’s strong belief in the company hasn’t been shaken. That sort of faith is telling. It’s a manifestation of that maniacal drive to succeed that venture capitalist like to see in young startup CEO’s so much. When asked if the decision to go public has forced Facebook to make compromises, Zuckerberg just shrugged it off with perfunctory response, “Ultimately it’s a choice. Nobody is making me make any decisions,” he said.
Other questions focused on Facebook’s organization as a company and some general life advice. Adhering closely to the advice he’s given 106A students at his previous guest lecture visits, Zuckerberg emphasized that engineering thinking isn’t simply the practice of learning how to code; it’s a fundamental discipline on understanding how to effectively solve problems. Zuckerberg pointed out that he strongly believes running a company should be done with the mindset that you are “programming an organization.”
Zuckerberg’s advice on managerial issues revolved around life lessons he’s picked up while running Facebook. Regarding the necessity of learning from mistakes he pointed out that, “the key thing to internalize is that you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, no matter what you do.” This is perhaps one of the more important things that he emphasized today.
“The lesson is not, ‘Don’t make mistakes,’ but instead it’s simply just focus on building something awesome,” said Zuckerberg. “It might be expensive and painful to fix the mistakes but if you’re building something that people inherently want and that you think is awesome and have a passion for, then just power through it.”
It’s been a tough year for Mr. Zuckerberg, yet even after all that’s happened Facebook powers on stronger than ever. After all the criticism and finger-pointing going on regarding the company’s IPO it was refreshing to see that Zuckerberg still inspires and fascinates a generation.
-Shout out to Jacob Chen for the awesome cover photo!