Years at Facebook Taught Me How to Build a Real-time Analytics Startup

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When building a startup, once you’re clear on your vision, it’s time to pull together the right team to execute on it.

I worked at Facebook for eight years, during the height of the company’s hypergrowth phase. When I joined back in 2007, its user base was doubling in size every four months. In my initial role as software engineer, I was part of a team of three tasked with building the back end for the original Facebook Chat. By 2015, I was an engineering director responsible for all online data infrastructure that powered user-facing products, and my team had grown to over 120 people.

At Facebook, I was surrounded by exceptionally talented people who were able to do incredible work in a culture that empowered everyone to learn and progress quickly. That rubbed off on me for my later life as a startup CEO. I learned the importance of strong leadership, building a transparent culture, and recruiting an exceptional team.

Eventually, when I felt I was no longer being challenged, I knew it was time to move on. But there are lessons I carried over to my own startup.

Post Facebook search

After my departure from Facebook, I took a year off before starting my own company. Prior to jumping into a new venture, it’s critical to get a clear picture of what business problem you’re trying to solve, why it matters, and how you can create the technology to remedy it.

I used this time to go out into the field and talk with over 40 companies about the data challenges they were facing. I spoke with many organizations outside of tech in Silicon Valley — such as Bank of America, Kaiser-Permanente, and other large enterprises — in an effort to determine where they were running into hurdles keeping up with data and meeting customer demands. It was essential for me to get outside of my “bubble” and talk with people at different types of organizations to identify problems that were worth solving.

To see the bigger picture and gain an understanding of what tools companies are in need of, branch out from your usual network and get face time with the people who will directly benefit from your technology. 

Your first hires are critical

Once you’re clear on your vision, it’s time to pull together the right team to execute on it. You cannot be too discerning when it comes to your first few hires. These folks serve as the starting point and foundation of your company, and they end up having a large influence on its culture. 

Hiring people from different backgrounds is key. When you have a diverse range of initial hires with varying business experiences, you’re more apt to identify your blind spots and be able to navigate them effectively. It’s important to hire people who can create not only an amazing product but also those who can help to tap the market.

Your first few hires will always have the most context and historical knowledge of your company and its products. They impact culture, determine what’s important, and influence how the company makes decisions. Ensure that your initial set of people are diverse, but also that they have a shared value system at their core.

The Facebook way: Know how to challenge your team

Facebook was always successful at finding the right balance when it came to challenging its employees. This is a practice I’ve carried over into how we operate at my company. 

When managing smart and driven people, keeping them engaged comes down to challenging them to a healthy level — without pushing them to a panic zone — while providing them with the freedom to make contributions without overbearing guidance. This approach should be highly individualized and tailored to each person within the company. 

We do this by assigning each employee an experienced mentor in addition to their manager. The employee has regular one-on-one meetings with both, and the mentor and manager often meet to compare notes and determine the person’s strengths, weaknesses, and where they’d like to see them improve.

Using this (or a similar) strategy will let you easily determine which opportunities are the best fit for each employee, based on their interests and skill level, which in turn will accelerate their growth and keep them more engaged.

Foster a culture of transparency

Creating a culture of transparency and personal ownership is key to empowering your employees. When you’re transparent with your people, they feel confident in owning their role and can more easily find success within the company. 

Today, I uphold this value by having weekly all-hands meetings where we talk openly about where we’re at as a business, top objectives, what’s happening in engineering, product, etc. — nothing is off-limits. The goal of these meetings is for everyone to leave with a crystal-clear understanding of our priorities.

From there, employees should feel empowered to work toward those company goals in the way that is most suitable for them. One of the most detrimental things a manager can do is hire exceptionally smart people and give them too much direction or pigeonhole them into doing things a certain way. A giant perk of transparency culture is that everyone is on the same page, which creates a collective consciousness for attaining common goals. 

When working toward fostering a culture of transparency in your company, have regular touchpoints of communication and meetings with your employees. This deep understanding will fuel momentum and spark creativity and innovation within your organization. 

I took some important lessons from my eight years at Facebook through to my next chapter. I hope others who are embarking on a similar journey will find this information useful.

Venkat Venkataramani

About Venkat Venkataramani

Venkat Venkataramani is CEO and co-founder of Rockset. He was previously an Engineering Director on the Facebook infrastructure team responsible for all online data services that stored and served Facebook user data. Collectively, these systems worked across five geographies and served more than 5 billion queries a second. Prior to Facebook, he worked on the Oracle database. 

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