Facebook London checks in to a new identity

Facebook’s new London office in Euston, which occupies three floors of a gleaming glass-and-steel tower, is a sign of an outpost maturing into its role as an embassy for one of the world’s biggest technology groups.

Gone is the cosy office in Covent Garden, replaced by something big enough to host double the number of staff, providing ample room to grow.

The move has already caused a minor scuffle, with rivals Twitter reportedly pulling out of a plan to house its own London headquarters on the the floor below when it learned who it would be sharing the building with.

But now that Facebook is safely ensconced in its new building, the hard work can begin. The company wants its British employees to feel like they work in more than a satellite office, and the best way to achieve that goal is for them to come up with a successful standalone project, says Lars Rasmussen, a project lead at Facebook London.

He argues that most remote offices go through three stages. The first is mostly developers working on localisation for a specific country. They have to call head office most days to check on what has happened overnight, and to get guidance from their superiors.

Heading for ‘stage three’

Eventually, the office grows so that there is a full team based in the same country, which can be trusted to work semi-autonomously on its tasks. That is the stage Facebook London is at now. Rasmussen says: “Instead of having to check in every day to see what decisions you’ve missed out on, we check in maybe every week or every other week to tell the mothership what we’re doing and get the thumbs up, or maybe some general guidance.”

But according to Rassmussen, there is a third stage, “which is one where it’s not just that you have these full product teams here but that we have successfully built things that are massively successful, and externally visible on a worldwide stage”.

He should know. Before Facebook, he co-founded Google Sydney, the Australian branch of the search giant that began life in 2003 as mapping company Where 2 Technologies. After its acquisition in 2004, Where 2’s technology became the genesis of Google Maps, which remains based in Sydney.

“If you look at all of the major tech companies - Google, Amazon, Apple, of course Facebook, Microsoft - that have international remote engineering offices, very few of those reach that stage,” Rasmussen says. “And I think, actually, for a lack of trying. But I think an office should try to reach this stage, where you have a project that was initiated here, it’s fully staffed here, fully built here, but for the world. And it reaches a level of success where the office becomes known for it. It’s like the identity of the office.”

The first of the apps that Facebook London is hoping will lift the office up to Rassmussen’s “stage three” has already been released. Launched in October, Rooms is the product of a team put together by Facebook “acqui-hire” Josh Miller, whose discussion site Branch was acquired by Zuckerberg and co in January.

Rooms was painted by many as Facebook’s first response to the popularity of anonymous apps such as Whisper or Yik Yak. The app lets users create rooms dedicated to certain topics and then join them using a pseudonym.

Time to grow

But Miller describes the app differently, calling it a paean to the early days of the web, when users felt more comfortable hiving off niche interests from their public persona. “I’m kind of a policy nerd,” he explains, “and I like talking about that stuff. Facebook is not for that – my high school friends aren’t policy nerds, and don’t necessarily love when I talk about it. And even with Twitter, anyone that follows me on Twitter follows me for the tech stuff, but that’s also only a little part of what I’m interested in.

“So when we got to Facebook, the first time I talked to Mark, we hit it off about forums, and the early web. We talked a lot about how, if you add up all of these online communities and message boards and IRC, it’s actually a huge portion of the internet and the time spent on it, and it’s just something that hasn’t really made it to mobile.”

The app launched to muted reception, but has grown since October, and Facebook rolled it out worldwide in late November, with support for three new languages – an example of Rasmussen’s hope that the London office could build apps targeted at the world, rather than at Britain alone. Still, Miller expressed his irritation at the expectations placed on new apps from the company.

“Snapchat - no-one used it for a year… A year and a half into Twitter, they were like ‘I don’t know if this thing’s working, should we keep going?’ So I think that the thing that we’ll have to fight is public perception, like, ‘oh, Slingshot’s a dud’, or ‘Rooms is dead!’ It’s been three months! Every product needs to iterate, and every product takes time to grow.

“Mark knows that, and he’s told that to me,” Miller adds. “A big reason we decided to move to London is because he was like ‘I know these things take years and years and years, don’t worry, you have my support’.”

While Rooms gets its years to grow, Facebook London isn’t putting all its eggs in one basket. Rasmussen’s own project, still under wraps for the time being, will launch soon, and a third project, even earlier in development, is also based in the office.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 10th December 2014 10.27 Europe/London

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