TITLE: Ideas, Execution, and Technical Achievement
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: October 28, 2010 4:27 PM
Four or five years ago, my best buddy on campus and I
were having lunch at our favorite Chinese buffet. He
looked up between bites of General Tsao's and asked,
"Why didn't you and I sit down five years ago and write
You see, he is an awesome programmer and has worked
with me enough to know that I do all right myself. At
various times, both of us have implemented bits and
pieces of the technology that makes up Facebook. It
doesn't look like all that big a deal.
I answered, "Because we didn't think of it."
The technical details may or may not have been a big
deal. Once implemented, they look straightforward.
In any case, though, the real reason was that it never
occurred to us to write Facebook. We were techies who
got along nicely with the tools available to us in
1999 or 2000, such as e-mail, wiki, and the web. If
we needed to improve our experience, we did so by
improving our tools. Driven by one of his own itches,
Troy had done his M.S. research with me as his advisor,
writing a Bayesian filter to detect spam. But neither
of us thought about supplanting e-mail with a new medium.
We had the technical skills we needed to write Facebook.
We just didn't have the idea of Facebook.
Turns out, that matters.
That lunch conversation comes into my mind every so often.
It came back yesterday when I read
Philip Greenspun's blog entry
on The Social Network. Greenspun wrote one of
my favorite books,
Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing,
which appeared in 1998 and which describes in great
detail (and with beautiful photos) how to implement web
community software. When his students ask how he feels
about Zuckerberg getting rich without creating anything
"new", Greenspun gives a wonderfully respectful and
dispassionate answer: "I didn't envision every element
of Facebook." Then he explains what he means.
Technically, Greenspun was positioned as well or better
than my buddy and I to write Facebook. But he didn't
the idea, either, at least not to the same level as
Zuckerberg. Having the core of an idea is one thing.
Developing it to the point that it becomes a platform
that changes the world in which it lives is another.
Turns out, that matters, too.
I like Lawrence Lessig's most succinct summation of
what makes Zuckerberg writing Facebook a notable
He did it.
He didn't just have an idea, or talk about it, or dream
about it. He implemented it.
That's what great hackers do.
to hear Zuckerberg himself say why he built.
His answer is also central to the hacker ethic:
Because he wanted to.
(Also read through to the end of Lessig's article for
a key point that many people miss when they think about
the success and achievement of things like Facebook and
Twitter and Napster: The real story is not the invention.
Zuckerberg may or may not be a genius? I don't know or
care. That is a word that modern culture throws around
far too carelessly these days. I will say this. I don't
think that creating Facebook is in itself sufficient
evidence for concluding so. A lot of people have cool
ideas. A more select group of people write the code to
make their ideas come alive. Those people are hackers.
Zuckerberg is clearly a great hacker.
I'm not a big Facebook user, but it has been on my mind
more than usual the last couple of days. Yesterday was
my birthday, and I was overwhelmed by all the messages
I received from Facebook friends wishing me a happy day.
They came from all corners of the country; from old
grade-school friends I haven't seen in over thirty years;
from high school and college friends; from professional
friends and acquaintances. These people all took the
time to type a few words of encouragement to someone
hundreds of miles away in the middle of the Midwest. I
felt privileged and a little humbled.
Clearly, this tool has made the world a different place.
The power of the social network lies in the people. The
technology merely enables the communication. That's a
significant accomplishment, even if most of the effects
are beyond what the creator imagined. That's the power
of a good idea.
All those years ago, my buddy and I talked about how
little technical innovation there was in Facebook.
Greenspun's answer reminds us that there was some. I
think there is another element to consider, something
that was a driving force at
big data. The most impressive technical achievement
of Facebook and smaller web platforms such as Twitter
is the scale at which they operate. They've long ago
outgrown naive implementations and have had to try to
offer uninterrupted service in the face of massive
numbers of users and exponential growth. Solving the
problems associated with operating at such a scale is
an ongoing technical challenge and a laudable
achievement in its own right.