In Schrep, Facebook Trusts

A chat with Zuckerberg's other, geekier No. 2
Facebook Vice President of Engineering Mike Schroepfer onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2011 Photograph by Araya Diaz/Getty Images for TechCrunch

In 2008, an alarming number of Facebook’s top brains left the company. Dustin Moskovitz, the Harvard roommate of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook co-founder, decided to start his own software company. He teamed up with Justin Rosenstein, a Facebook engineer who had driven much of the work behind the Like button and Facebook’s Beacon advertising platform, to form Asana. Adam D’Angelo, a computer science wunderkind and chief technology officer at Facebook, bailed out to start Quora, a type of question-and-answer hub, with Charlie Cheever, an engineer responsible for Facebook Connect and Facebook Platform. And Jeff Hammerbacher, one of the first data scientists at Facebook, left that same year and started Cloudera, a maker of data analytics software.

Following the exodus, Facebook still had plenty of computer science whizzes on staff and the cultural leadership of Zuckerberg. But it needed someone to inject fresh life into the engineering organization to help it create an infrastructure that would have to grow to support 1 billion people. One of the main figures who would end up playing this role of the engineering team’s Obi-Wan was Mike Schroepfer, who came to Facebook from Mozilla in the middle of 2008.

Today, Schroepfer—or Schrep, as everyone at Facebook calls him—is the vice president of engineering and sits next to Zuckerberg at the office. He works on the company’s infrastructure and guides the development of its products, making him more or less the nuts-and-bolts complement to Sheryl Sandberg’s business strategizing.

Schroepfer, 37, grew up mostly in Boca Raton, Fla., where his parents ran an AM radio station. Get Schrep going on the subject, and he’ll recount working shifts at the station from midnight to six in the morning and battling Fidel Castro over the airwaves. “Cuba had built this giant radio transmitter,” he says. “Every once in a while, they flipped this radio station on and essentially the entire Eastern seaboard would be Fidel Castro.”

When not burning the midnight oil at the station, Schroepfer and his brother were at home playing games on their Commodore and learning how to code. They would take turns, with one person reading a program aloud from a magazine while the other person typed in the commands. “We would stay up for two days doing this,” Schroepfer says.

The programming bug really took hold, though, when Schroepfer made his way to California to attend Stanford University. He devoured computer science courses and began working with startups in the area doing a variety of projects and consulting. After bouncing around a bit, Schroepfer co-founded a data center software company called CenterRun in 2000, which Sun Microsystems then acquired in 2003. Schroepfer worked at Sun for 18 months, spending time on the very campus in Menlo Park, Calif., that Facebook now owns. And then he went to Mozilla, where he oversaw engineering of the Firefox Web browser and watched as the product became used by hundreds of millions of people.

Where Sandberg seems comfortable in the limelight, Schroepfer tries to stay out of it. He’s a behind-the-scenes operator, who gets credited time and again with having a knack for assembling teams and making sure they follow through on their goals. He tends to be easygoing but direct in meetings and tries to mix data and intuition to make decisions. Zuckerberg describes Schroepfer as the “cultural center” of the engineering teams. As such, he’s the guy that makes sure the new Facebook recruits get indoctrinated in the company’s “move fast and break things” mentality.

In the years ahead, Schroepfer will be guiding Facebook’s attempt to function as something of a personal assistant. He talks about people today playing 20 questions when they meet each other for the first time, trying to figure out where someone grew up or went to school, or what sports team they like. “You are fishing that common ground and then, when you get a hit, you spend the next 25 minutes talking about the Red Sox and growing up in Boston,” Schroepfer says. “If you never find that common ground, the interaction is unfulfilling. I think we can help people find the common ground better than anyone else.”

This line of thinking stretches to include people using their smartphones to glean more information about the world. “You might see that your friend is in town, or you might be on vacation in Paris and see that your friend Peter visited Paris two years ago and said the duck was great at a particular restaurant,” Schroepfer says. “The question is if we can get to a point on a very regular basis where people are having amazing, serendipitous experiences because of Facebook. I think the more we can make your life be like that and not be boring and lonely, the better.”

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