By Christina Pan (Social/Mobile Games Product Manager, Self) I found Mark Zuckerberg’s class Product Development at Facebook. As someone who has long drank the Facebook kool-aid, I had to see what he had to say - especially if it was about product.
The class is an interesting peek into his mind back in 2005 when he was 21 and Facebook was still only open to college students. Facebook had just launched the Photos application, and keep in mind that this was before Zuck famously turned down Yahoo’s $1 billion acquisition offer in the summer of 2006 with less than 7 million users (it’s amazing to think that Facebook has grown over 100x to 850 million monthly active users today).
5 Lessons We Can Learn from Mark Zuckerberg
Lesson #1 - Just Do It. Make stuff. Lots of stuff.
The biggest risk is not taking one at all. If you accept that failed or unused (or private) projects are part of the tinkering around required to get to a good idea, and that that’s entirely normal, you will eventually work your way to a good one. The culmination of learnings from various projects of “making stuff” builds your product intuition.
Zuckerberg naturally lives this way. He made “a ton of random things at Harvard. And most of them no one ever saw. Like a lot of them just weren’t meant for other people to see. They were just things I made for myself because I’d thought that they’d be cool.” By the time he got around to making “this random project” (aka Facebook), it felt intuitive to him.
I got my start in Facebook apps in similar fashion. I had no idea how to make them but I knew I liked them and wanted to work on them in some way or another. On nights and weekends, I worked on a bunch of apps with developer friends when the Facebook platform first launched five years ago.
We didn’t get millions of users and didn’t know how to make money, but they were invaluable stepping stones. I then joined Zynga and made Facebook games that did get a ton of users and made money.
Even better, there’s a positive health benefit: it helps create and maintain inner happiness. Martha Beck in the latest issue of O Magazine advises us to “make something” because “creative work causes us to secrete dopamine, a hormone that can make us feel absorbed and fulfilled without feeling manic.” She goes on to explain: “The aftermath of a creative surge, especially one that involves a new skill, is a sense of accomplishment and increased self-efficacy -- which psychologists recognize as an important counter to depression.”
Lesson #2 - Purposefully create a culture where people “click.”
There’s a good reason why the work environment at Facebook is like college, and it’s not immaturity. It creates a familiar setting reminiscent of college, where life is comfortable and friendly - exactly the culture that Zuckerberg purposefully fostered, even if informally. He explains how he wants people to have the comfort level at work that they would with friends, where people communicate freely. Even though Zuck recognizes that you can’t force friendship, he hits upon the notion that you’re more likely to be open with your friends, even with “stupid” or controversial ideas. If you had that level of comfort with colleagues, you would tend to be more open and more comfortable sharing ideas with them as well, which would in turn lead to better ideas and informal collaboration, and eventually hacking on new products.
Click by Ori and Rom Brafman is a great book that studied what Zuck intuitively knew. It examines why some people “click” better than others. They found that certain environments can promote what they call quick-set intimacy, or “clicking,” including factors such as a place where people are willing to show vulnerability, be themselves, and work out disagreements in a healthy, productive way, which is essentially what Zuckerberg was trying to achieve.
The best part is when people did bond through quick-set intimacy, the book shows examples of how it elevated teams to perform at a much higher level than as individuals.
Lesson #3 - He studied psychology, not computer science at Harvard.
When he revealed this, I thought, “OHH that explains a lot!” It doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to program - he said he’s been programming since he was 10. But it does partially explain why making Facebook was so intuitive for him, as well as how he developed strong product intuition for making a great product that inherently revolves around understanding human psychology, emotion, and communication.
As a liberal arts undergrad and an avid reader of psychology- and sociology-related topics, I was delighted to hear someone like Zuck give props to psychology. Psychology is one of the most useful subjects to being a good product person. Our job is to understand human behavior. Why do customers like our product? Why would anyone pay for it? Why on earth do people like [insert product that other people love but you don’t get, e.g. Facebook, FarmVille, Pinterest etc.] and won’t stop talking about it and won’t stop sending me !#%#! requests?!
Furthermore, human psychology is fundamental to getting things done as a product manager, or as a leader in general. Product people are at the hub of managing many different personalities and competing priorities, even though everyone is working on the same product. It takes strong interpersonal relationship skills to bring together all these factions and keep everyone motivated and striving towards the same goal.
Lesson #4 - It’s okay to not know the answer. You will figure it out.
“In terms of managing this whole process ...I have no idea what I’m doing.” Even Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have the answer to everything. Oh my god, he’s HUMAN! He admits a few times during his lecture that he doesn’t have the answer. And that’s entirely a-ok!
Some people fantasize about making or starting something but then they fall back on, “Oh but I don’t know how to do it.” We need to remember that no one knew how to do anything the first time they tried it.
One of the best things from the book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston, was that many of the founders of well-known startups didn’t know what they were doing in the early days. But they figured it out.
You figure it out along the way. You teach yourself. You watch YouTube videos or take classes. You ask other smart people. Even Mark Zuckerberg apparently asks the smartest people he can find for advice (even if those people might be Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin).
Lesson #5 - Remember, no one’s a movie star overnight. So NEVER GIVE UP.
As time passes, I hear less people say, “Oh Mark Zuckerberg just got lucky.” But people don’t create a company valued at almost $100 billion by accident. If it were so easy, then someone else would have done it or at least created a decent competitor (ahem Winklevoss twins). In 2005, Zuckerberg tells us in the video that Facebook had 230 million page views, was about to surpass Google in page views, and they “aren’t even doing anything cool yet.” That’s astounding. This was with single digit millions of users, all college students! If only the outside world knew.
This reminds me of a Louis Pasteur quote: “Luck favors the prepared mind.”
“Prepared” as in the culmination of many years of hard work, successful experiments, failed experiments, perseverence, building product and business intuition, and of course knowing when to pursue an opportunity at a good time.
One of my yoga teachers said, it’s easy to envy people when you don’t know the path they took to get there. Zuck has been programming since age 10. He talks about the many random projects he worked on at Harvard in this video, but he has actually been making stuff since middle school and high school. It’s like how Lady Gaga seemed to come to fame out of nowhere at age 22, when in fact she had been writing music and performing since her teens, with a ton of perseverance in between. The same is true for most “movie stars” or people at the top of their game.
I leave you with the words of Kobe Bryant (on Jeremy Lin, but just as applicable): “When a player is playing that well, he doesn’t come out of nowhere. It seems like he comes out of nowhere. Go back and take a look, and the skill level was probably there from the beginning, it’s just that we didn’t notice it.”
Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Christina Pan is a product manager for iOS and Facebook games, as well as a failed and aspiring entrepreneur. Her passions revolve around connecting people and social games/apps. She graduated from Wellesley and MIT Sloan. She is also grateful for organizations like Women 2.0 for encouraging women in tech/entrepreneurship. Follow her on Twitter at @crispypan.