Mike Schroepfer, better known around Facebook as “Schrep,” is the company’s chief technology officer — a role that has become increasingly wide-ranging in recent years, as Facebook has expanded beyond its core social network and apps to areas such as artificial intelligence, drones and virtual reality.
Schroepfer sat down with GeekWire on Wednesday to talk about many of those those emerging technologies, in addition to the growth of Facebook’s Seattle engineering office, the future of wearables and much more. Continue reading for edited excerpts from our conversation.
It has been almost exactly five years since Facebook opened a Seattle engineering office. What’s the state of your engineering center here?
Schroepfer: The update is it’s going awesome. It’s our largest engineering center outside of Menlo Park, so it’s our second-largest engineering office anywhere in the world. Well over 500 people, mostly engineers. We started just above Pike Place Market down there. I was looking back at a video of all of us doing one of those stupid jumping photos, and there were 12 of us, including the five of us who flew up. So to go from that to 500 is astounding. This office is now three or four times bigger than Facebook engineering was when I joined.
More importantly than size, we’ve now gotten to the point where a bunch of interesting projects have come out of this office, or have received major contributions from here. This ranges from the Hello app on Android, so a very consumer facing product; to the VoIP and video-calling infrastructure that we use for Messenger, which is now 10 percent of mobile voice calling and growing; to some really fundamental work on storage systems; things like cold storage, which is one of the ways we’ve been able to scale out that photo storing and sharing infrastructure; to the Facebook platform; to Facebook videos; and upcoming 360 video for News Feed in VR. I’m more excited about the work that gets done. The numbers are fun, but it’s much more than that.
The company overall is incredibly pleased with what’s happening. We’re moving across the way to a quarter-of-a-million-plus square-foot facility. That’s going to give us lots of room to grow, which is our best indicator of how bullish we are on the Seattle office in general.
Paul Carduner was leading the office here, and he left. What is the future of the leadership of this office?
Schroepfer: Paul is awesome, and we were sad to see him go, but a personal decision on his part. The thing we’ve realized, because we’ve opened several offices around the world now, is in the very early- to medium-term of the office it’s very helpful to have one person as the head. … As the office has grown, we just have so much stuff going on over so many different areas. We like to have the projects reporting into the teams that are working in those areas. No one person is going to be proficient across all of those areas, and things are just rolling on their own. My analogy for this is, there’s no head of Menlo Park. We have people who organize different functions in the company, but there’s no need to have a local head. To me, it’s a success sign. Seattle has crested to the point where, as we see it right now, we don’t need someone because it’s working so well.
There has been this crush of other companies coming in to set up their own engineering offices. What’s the recruiting landscape like now?
Schroepfer: It’s more competitive. It’s funny to see the clusters. Similar things happened in New York. We opened in New York and then a ton of people opened, too. We’ve just found that Seattle is an incredible market for talent. It’s absolutely incredible. Everywhere we are in the world, it’s gotten more competitive. The tech industry is booming; there are more startups; there’s more big companies who are hiring. So any candidate who is really good is going to have lots of other opportunities. That’s the downside. It’s gotten more competitive. The upside is, unlike five years ago, now there’s tons of different projects, spanning hardware to software. Tons of really awesome people who can say, ‘Here’s what I’ve shipped out of Seattle.’ Projects that are led out of here that we can talk about. It’s actually, in a lot of ways, gotten a lot easier to recruit people because they’re taking a lot less of a personal risk that we’ll decide this Seattle thing isn’t working. That’s just not going to happen at this point.
You’re wearing your Oculus shirt. What is the role of Oculus in Facebook engineering overall?
Schroepfer: We like to keep teams focused on their goals and mission, so Oculus is singularly focused on building the world’s best VR platform. If you watched the F8 keynote, you saw the basic layout. It’s 10 years of three pillars: Getting everyone on the Internet; the work we’re doing in AI to understand content and context; and then building these rich, immersive virtual reality experiences.
How long until we see Facebook integrated into an Oculus experience?
Schroepfer: You’re going to see parts of that soon. One of the easy applications of this is more immersive video capture. We’re going to be able to capture 360 or 3D video and share that via Facebook and then put it on and show it in my headset. So that will be probably the first integration you see. Then the deeper integrations you’ll see over time. What we’re trying to do right now is get the hardware right. With the headset without the controllers, you are more limited in what you can do in terms of social engagement. With the controllers, you get in there, and you can pick stuff up, give a thumbs up. It’s a two-person demo. You’re in VR with someone else. But that technology hasn’t even shipped to the consumer market yet. That’s early part of next year.
The trick with VR is, it’s going to be incredible, but everyone is going to have to be a little patient. I think everyone wants it today, including me, but we have a long roadmap for this. We are already planning out the second and third generations after the one we’re going to ship. It’s going to be amazing, but it’s just going to take a while for the hardware to get out there, and then to work with third-party developers to build all the experiences, because that’s going to be the real long pull.
When I think about Facebook and integration with the real world, it seems like augmented reality or blended reality should have a role. Especially when you think of the Internet of Things — literally going up and tapping an object in the real world to ‘like’ it. Is that where things are headed?
Schroepfer: I think so. Our view on this is that VR is ready for the mainstream by end of this year, early next year, in terms of actual technology that you can ship at a reasonable price point that provides a really compelling experience. We’re really bullish and agree that there’s a lot of interesting things you can do with augmented reality. It just requires some more advancements in the core technology to get to the level of experience that we think is good for the average consumer. We’re working on that, along with other people. There are some really hard problems to solve in fundamental optics, displays, 3D tracking and things like that to make this something that is really compelling for a consumer.
Is Facebook working on an app for Microsoft HoloLens?
Schroepfer: We’re deep partners with them, so we’re working with them on a lot of things, but not a lot I can talk about there.
Facebook Connectivity Lab — you need a sexier name for that.
Schroepfer: Any ideas?
It’s drones, and satellites and lasers! You’re building a drone with the wingspan of a 737 to deploy Internet to the far reaches of the globe. Why did Facebook decide to take that initiative through Internet.org and Connectivity Lab? Why was that important?
Schroepfer: What we want is the whole world on the Internet. Access to information is the basis of knowledge. Knowledge is critical to help people make the best lives they can, and be happy. I don’t think anyone who has the Internet today would be excited about losing it. It’s just a shame that there are billions of people who just don’t have it. We want to change that arc of the adoption of the Internet.
We’re hitting it in two dimensions. One is things we can do right now, which is Internet.org and working with partners to solve this in places where it’s an economic problem. We’re trying to work with people to build business models. And then Connectivity Lab — which we’ll rename to “Space, Lasers and Other Awesome Stuff” — is trying to say, hey, for people who are building basic connectivity infrastructure right now, they have to build on technology that mostly exists, because they’re spending billions or trillions of dollars and they can’t take a risk on new stuff. We’re really good at building new, crazy disruptive stuff. We did this in the data center, with Open Compute. So with Connectivity Lab, we’ll take all the risk, so if our plane crashes, it’s our money not yours, and then if it flies, and it’s great, then we will work with you to get you that technology so we can deploy it around the world and get more people around the Internet.
Google has Project Loon; Elon Musk has his satellite plan; Facebook has Internet.org and Connectivity Lab. Will one of these reign supreme?
Schroepfer: I’m excited that everyone is doing it. When we have something that’s really important inside the company, we’ll often set up multiple approaches to the same problem. I’m excited that people are taking alternative approaches to the problem. I hope multiple approaches will work, because that’s the outcome we want, and it also just makes it fun.
The thing about the plane, if we can get it to work, is that this is something we’re trying to keep aloft for three months, 90 days. This is a pretty big leap, flying at super-high altitude. The advantage of that is it’s powered flight. You control it, and you can keep it loitered over a very specific area, looping in a very specific pattern, to provide very wide-ranging and reliable access. These other approaches, one way or another, you have something that’s whizzing by, and then you’re waiting for the other one to whiz by, to make sure you have connectivity. So all the work is in managing whether you get constant coverage with these things moving in all the time, whereas with ours it’s fairly straightforward to keep it on constant station.
With Oculus and Connectivity Lab and other initiatives, you’ve got a lot more hardware engineers in the company now. How has that changed the company?
Schroepfer: What it requires is for you to be a lot more conscious about the way you run a project. If I’m building a brand new mobile app, and I have no idea whether it’s going to work in the market, I should run fast and try things and break things. Who cares if I have some bugs? Go, go, go. If I’m building a data center, you don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, we tried some things and they didn’t work, so give me another 18 months.’ That doesn’t work. We have a date that thing is going to open. You run that project quite differently. Obviously if you’re flying things in the air or strapping things to your face, there’s just a whole different set of requirements.
It’s just required us to be more sophisticated in how we approach solving different problems. There isn’t one way of doing things at the company. You have to really mold your approach to the project, and the problem at hand.
You’re wearing an Apple Watch. How are you using Facebook on the Apple Watch, and where is that headed?
We use Facebook Messenger all the time, so I get notifications for Facebook Messenger, and I love the workout features on the watch. I think it’s early days for wearables. I think the fitness stuff is very, very compelling. I think calendaring and time is interesting. I’m personally still trying to figure out what beyond that is going to be great on wearables.
Is Facebook working on a more full-fledged Apple Watch app?
We work Apple on a bunch of stuff, and we’ll see.
So that will come out when the HoloLens app comes out.
Schroepfer (laughs): Don’t make me get on Twitter to correct my own words.