Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World
The Software Update That Changed Reality
In the early hours of September 5, 2006, Ruchi Sanghvi rewrote the world with a single software update.
A round-faced, outspoken programmer, Sanghvi was 23 years old when she arrived to work at Facebook. Raised in India, she had long dreamed of growing up to work for her father’s company, which lent heavy machinery for the construction of ports, oil refineries, and windmills. But while studying at Carnegie Mellon University, she got intrigued by computer engineering, and then she fell in love with it. It was like constantly solving puzzles: trying to make an algorithm run faster, trying to debug a gnarly piece of code that wasn’t working right. The mental chess colonized her mind, and she found herself pondering coding problems all day long. “You’re at it for hours, you’re not eating, you’re not sleeping; it’s like you can’t stop thinking about it,” she tells me.
Sanghvi was, by programming standards, a late bloomer; she was studying alongside kids, nearly all male, who’d been coding since they were nine and playing video games, and they seemed to effortlessly get it. But she kept grinding away, got good grades, then graduated and got hired for her first job in Manhattan, doing math modeling for a derivatives trading desk.
When she arrived in New York, though, she was horrified by the sight of the gray cubicles at the workplace. She wouldn’t be having much of an impact on the world here. She didn’t want to be a cog in a machine, writing code to support finance work; she hungered to work for a company where the technology itself was the core product, where computer scientists were the main players. She wanted to actually make a product that people used—something tangible, useful. She wanted to do something like Facebook, a site that she’d joined in her last year of college. Now that was an addictive bit of software. She’d log in all the time to stay in touch with college friends who’d recently graduated, checking their pages to see if they’d updated anything.
So Sanghvi bailed on Manhattan, quitting the job even before her first day. She fled to San Francisco, where she got a job at Oracle, the database company. And then, one day a college friend invited her to come by the offices of Facebook itself.
It was a tiny firm, serving only college students; everyday folks weren’t yet allowed to use Facebook. When she walked up to the office on the second floor above a Chinese-food restaurant, she found a passel of mostly young white men, some who’d recently bailed on Harvard: a 21-year-old Mark Zuckerberg walking around in nearly wrecked sandals, Adam D’Angelo (the guy who’d taught a younger Zuckerberg some coding), and Dustin Moskovitz, Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard. They worked in a haze of intensity, laptops open on cluttered desks, while playing video games at their nearby dorm-like crash-pad houses, or even while sunning on the roof of the Facebook office. The graffiti artist David Choe was hired around that time to bedeck the walls with murals, one of which depicted “a huge buxom woman with enormous breasts wearing this Mad Max–style costume riding a bull dog” (as early employee Ezra Callahan described it).
They were aggressive about tweaking and changing Facebook, regularly “pushing” new code out to users that would create features like Facebook’s famous “Poke,” or a “Notes” app that let people write longer posts. They were daredevils; sometimes a new feature would have been written so eagerly and hastily that it produced unexpected side effects, which they wouldn’t discover until, whoops, the code was live on the site. So they’d push the code out at midnight and then hold their breath to see whether it crashed Facebook or not. If everything worked, they’d leave; if it caused a catastrophe, they’d frantically try to fix it, often toiling until the early morning, or sometimes just “reverting” back to the old code when they simply couldn’t get the new feature working. As Zuckerberg’s oft-quoted motto went, “Move fast and break things.”
Sanghvi loved it. “It was different, it was vibrant, it was alive,” she says. “People there were like humming along, everyone was really busy, everyone was really into what they were doing . . . the energy was just so tangible.” And as it turns out, Facebook was desperately seeking more coders. It’s hard to imagine now, with the company being such a globe-spanning behemoth, but back in 2005 they had trouble attracting anyone to work there. Most experienced software engineers in Silicon Valley thought Facebook was a fad, one of those bits of web ephemera that enjoys a brief and delirious vogue before becoming unspeakably passé. They had no interest in working there. So Sanghvi arrived in a lucky window of opportunity: young enough to have used Facebook and known how addictive it was, but old enough to have actually graduated college and be looking for a coding job. They hired her a week after her visit, as the company’s first female software engineer.
Soon, she was given a weighty task. Zuckerberg and the other founders had decided that Facebook was too slow and difficult to use. Back in those early days, the only way to know what your friend was doing was to go look at their Facebook page. It required a lot of active forethought. If someone posted a juicy bit of info—a newly ended relationship, a morsel of gossip, a racy profile photo—you might not see it if you forgot to check their page that day. Facebook was, in effect, like living in an apartment building where you had to keep poking your nose in people’s doors to see what was up.
Zuckerberg wanted to streamline things. He’d been carrying around a notebook in which he’d sketched a vision (in his tiny, precise handwriting) for a “News Feed.” When you logged in, the feed would be a single page that listed things friends had posted since you last logged in. It’d be like a form of ESP for your social life. As soon as someone posted an update—Ping!—it would arrive on the periphery of your vision. The News Feed wouldn’t be just a slight cosmetic tweak to Facebook, like a pretty new font or color. It would reconstruct how people paid attention to one another.
And now Sanghvi had to make the News Feed happen. She set to work with a small “pod” of collaborators, including Chris Cox, Matt Cahill, Kang-Xing Jin (known as “KX”), and Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, Zuckerberg’s former teaching assistant at Harvard. For nine months they worked intensely, batting ideas around and then clattering away writing code, while Cox blasted James Brown or Johnny Cash from his laptop. Like the other coders, Sanghvi began programming almost around the clock, staying at Facebook until dawn and then staggering home to San Francisco; after nearly crashing her car from lack of sleep, she moved to a house near Facebook’s office, from which she’d sometimes wander to work in her pajamas. Nobody minded. All the coders blended socializing and working, playing poker or video games at work; during a video interview in 2005, Zuckerberg chatted while toting a red-cupped beer, and an employee did a keg stand.
It was a boys’ club, though for Sanghvi, that wasn’t anything new: The world of computer science she’d known had always been a boys’ club. There were only a few women in her class of 150 at college. She’d learned to yell back when others started yelling, which, in a roomful of cocky young men, was often. Being loud, and a woman, brought repercussions: “Everyone called me super aggressive,” she says. “And that hurt. I don’t think of myself as aggressive.”
But she kept her head down, grinding on the code, because it was mostly what she cared about—and it was thrillingly fun, weird, and hard. Creating the News Feed required her and the other coders to grapple with philosophically hefty questions about friendship, such as What type of news do friends want to know about each other? The feed couldn’t show everything that every single one of your friends did, all day long. If you had 200 friends posting 10 things each, that was 2,000 items, way more than anyone had time to look at. So Sanghvi and the coders had to craft a set of rules to sift through each person’s feed, giving a “weight”—a number that ranked it as more or less important. How would you weight the relationship between two people? they’d ask each other, sitting around the Facebook office late at night. How would you weight the relationship between a person and a photo?
By mid-2006, they had a prototype working. One night Chris Cox sat at home and watched as the first-ever News Feed message blinked into existence: “Mark has added a photo.” (“It was like the Frankenstein moment when the finger moves,” he later joked.) By the end of the summer, the News Feed was working smoothly enough that they were ready to unleash it on the public. Sanghvi wrote a public post—entitled “Facebook Gets a Facelift”—to announce the product to the world. “It updates a personalized list of news stories throughout the day, so you’ll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again. Now, whenever you log in, you’ll get the latest headlines generated by the activity of your friends and social groups,” Sanghvi explained. The changes, she wrote, would be “quite unlike anything you can find on the web.”
Not long after midnight, Sanghvi and the other coders pushed the update out to the world. News Feed was live; the team cracked open bottles of champagne and hugged each other. It was this type of moment that got her into computers: writing code that changes people’s everyday lives.
Also by Clive Thompson
The Software Update That Changed Reality
The Four Waves of Coders
Constant Frustration and Bursts of Joy
Among the INTJs
The Cult of Efficiency
10X, Rock Stars, and the Myth of Meritocracy
The ENIAC Girls Vanish
Hackers, Crackers, and Freedom Fighters
Cucumbers, Skynet, and Rise of AI
Scale, Trolls, and Big Tech
About the Author
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