Facebook's director of engineering Mike Shaver on the social shift to mobile-first

Q&A with the Canadian tech executive.

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Earlier this month, Facebook reported in its first quarter earnings that mobile advertising accounted for 30% of its total revenues of $1.46 billion. Last quarter, mobile ad revenue was 26% of its total and since then mobile monthly active users have grown from 680 million to 751 million, a 54% increase year-over-year.

Which is all to say that Facebook’s stated goal of becoming a “mobile-first, mobile-best” company looks to be progressing largely as planned. Sure, there’s been the underwhelming adoption rate of its new Facebook Home app-erating system on Android, but overall people are increasingly using the social network through their smartphones.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told the All Things D conference recently that Facebook now takes up one of every five minutes we’re on our mobile devices, which significantly impacts and improves what it can offer to its advertisers.

One of the people at the company responsible for keeping up with this shift in behaviour is Canadian Mike Shaver, Facebook’s director of engineering. The former longtime Mozilla VP and co-founder moved down to Menlo Park, CA from Toronto last January and has helped preside over the company’s internal shift to a mobile frame of mind.

Shaver was recently in town to speak at the Canadian Undergraduate Technology Conference. I sat down with him at Facebook’s Toronto office to chat about his first year at the company, where the company’s mobile strategy is headed next and more.

The Q1 results had some good mobile news and there’s been a lot written about the “mobile first, mobile best” focus. Did you drop into the midst of that shift?

Actually it was pretty early on when I got there and it was a surprisingly fast and clean pivot. Pivoting a successful company is one of the hardest things in the world, because you have something to lose, so I was a bit skeptical about how quickly we could turn this ship. But now it’s every part of the business and every part of the product. From user experience to design to how we deal with clients and advertisers.

Prior to this shift, was mobile treated as it’s own separate silo?

Facebook’s mobile products—the Android, iOS, mobile website—were like Photos, Events and Messaging in that they were important and needed to connect to other stuff but were sort of independent pieces to all of this.

But to create a mobile experience that is all of Facebook, in terms of its breadth and depth, you can’t do it like that. The mobile experience, for a lot of people, is Facebook. If you wake up in the morning thinking about photography, how images connect people and where they can be relevant, you should be thinking of that regardless of the interface—desktop web, mobile web, mobile apps, everything. We don’t have separate teams for Internet Explorer and one for Firefox. You have to treat it as just an aspect of Facebook. That’s been really great in that you get the consistency of experience, mobile context informing desktop and vice-versa.

What’s been the most significant challenge in this process?

If you want to get mobile into the mix that deeply, you need people to know how to do it. So we needed to find a lot of Facebook-grade engineers—which is a very high bar—who had knowledge of these platforms, especially iOS and Android. There are a lot of developers out there but that intersection is pretty rare. We soon realized we had the people on the Facebook campus with us. We could hire some, but we could also build some.

So we brought in a company called Big Nerd Ranch, which does corporate training. They teach iOS at Apple and Android at Google. They’re for real. We got them in and every week since then, over the last eight months, they teach either an Android class or an iOS class. It’s eight hours a day and it’s all you do for that week. We’ve had about 600 people go through it now.

How is the strategy evolving?

There’s no finish line with this stuff, but as more and more of the product teams are hitting a really good rhythm, we’re able to look farther ahead in how we’re going to deal with some structural problems. We’ve got 1.1 billion visitors and we look at the 6 billion other people we haven’t got yet and realize very few of those are ever going to use a hardware keyboard to access Facebook. Their first experience with modern computing will be through a smartphone.

So there are a bunch of technical challenges there, like what the devices and networks will be like. You could have a very rich photo experience but what happens if you have a big screen and a terrible network? The growth numbers in these regions are very steep, so we have to figure out how to calibrate against that to make sure you’re doing the best job you can.

You’re a tech veteran but new to Facebook. What surprised you most about the work culture or company itself?

I think I underestimated how collegial and welcoming an environment it is. There are all sorts of stories told about Facebook, some of them on film, that really give a sense of a place where it’s immature not only in terms of the jokes you choose but also in how you value your relationships. And I haven’t found that at all.

It’s all about getting all the tools on the table and solving the problem. There’s an assumption of trust here. You and I are here at Facebook and that tells us that we’re both going to work really hard. It’s easy to say this stuff, any company can, but I was really surprised at how quickly I felt that from the executive level on down when I got there.

I was also surprised at how rarely I noticed I was the oldest one in the room. Sometimes I’d reference a movie and there would be silence but that’s fine, they can see Dune at some point on Netflix.