Facebook's lighter side

Tzach Hadar  photo: Shlomi Yosef

Tzach Hadar, who leads Facebook's Lite Interfaces team in Tel Aviv, gives an inside view of the Cambridge Analytica affair, and extols freedom as a motivator.

In recent years, it has seemed that nothing can stop Facebook. The social network has been on the receiving end of criticism over a host of matters, including the amassing of detailed, in-depth information about its users, its privacy policy, its contribution to the dissemination of fake news, manipulations of its feed, and so on, but none of this affected its popularity. Surfers continued to flock to it, its results broke records every quarter, and its WhatsApp and Instagram units prospered. When Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a change in the feed in January, so that it would be devoted more to personal posts and less to brands and content providers, it even seemed that the company was being perceived as more attentive and beneficent than previously - but then came the Cambridge Analytica affair.

Two weeks ago, it was widely reported that a UK political consulting firm that had worked with US President Donald Trump, among others, had obtained information about 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge using an innocent-looking "personality questionnaire." The company used this information to compile psychological profiles of the users, and to create election propaganda appealing to their deepest feelings. Some of the particulars were known previously, but the real scandal erupted when "The New York Times," "The Guardian," and "The Observer" revealed Facebook's behavior in the affair: the social network knew in real time what Cambridge Analytica was doing, did not inform its users, and did not ensure that the information was deleted.

These investigative reports left no one indifferent. Regulators worldwide began investigations, brands and surfers (including Playboy, Elon Musk, and WhatsApp founder Brian Acton) deleted their accounts on the social network, and Facebook's share price plunged, erasing all of its gains over the past year in just two weeks. Zuckerberg apologized in the media and promised to mend the company's errant ways. Facebook introduced several rapid measures on privacy.

The imbroglio primarily concerns the social network's senior management in Silicon Valley, but its effects were also felt in its development centers. Facebook has only two development centers: one in London, the other in Tel Aviv. There, on Rothschild Boulevard, sits Tzach Hadar, Product Lead Lite Interfaces at Facebook. He is only 34, but is already responsible for one of the social network's most prominent projects in recent years - the Facebook Lite app. He is responsible for a team of 50, and until recently had many reasons to smile. Now he has a few less.

"Like other employees at the company, I had questions about this incident," Hadar tells "Globes" in his first interview in the Israeli and global media. "Facebook has a weekly question and answer session with Mark. Any employee, whether in the US or Tel Aviv, can freely ask the company whatever they want. People ask about everything at these meetings; it's not just lip service."

"Globes": What did you hear?

Hadar: "I heard the inside story, and I think that it was communicated outwardly fairly clearly. They presented the situation, the sequence of events, what happened. They took responsibility and looked ahead to see what should be done to improve the situation - how to strengthen and earn people's trust in the platform. Everyone regards it as a critical matter. It's an instance in which the details matter a great deal, and the details I know are very similar to what you know. Mark was pretty open about this."

Is there a feeling of everyone pulling together at Facebook in a crisis?

"People care a lot; that really stands out. There's no indifference. The company wants to respond quickly and correctly to what it learned from the incident. In order to make changes, and weigh solutions, the way they did, you need help from people sitting, thinking, planning, and implementing quickly. I think we've already seen this happen. Presumably there are more things that we'll do. It's not something instantaneous, it's thinking seriously about what the right solutions are. I'm satisfied with the answers I'm getting, with the opportunity to be involved, with the serious way that this is being addressed."

As employees, how much are you affected by the criticism of the company?

"We feel it, of course, but I have great confidence in the people coping with the problems and challenges you're talking about. As long as I believe in what I'm doing, and I see results in practice, that keeps me going forward."

"I said I'd never work at a big company"

Hadar came to Facebook four years ago, when he was 30. His mother was a programmer, and he was first exposed to code when he was in kindergarten. In high school, he already worked at companies like Merlynet Communication Systems and AudioCodes. After serving as an officer in IDF intelligence Unit 8200, he landed in the local entrepreneurship scene, and founded Mo'Minis, a startup, with three friends.

"We had a platform for developing and distributing mobile phone games, which began even before the smartphone era. We saw a huge opportunity there for distributing games and helping developers reach new markets. You would pay NIS 16 for an advanced version of Snake; it was crazy. We survived the transition to Android; we had games that reached tens of millions of people, and it was fun."

In 2014, however, Mo'Minis made a business pivot that Hadar had difficulty identifying with, and after long hesitation he left the company. He started looking around, but one thing was clear to him: "I thought I'd never work at a big company," he recalls. Several of his friends, who had started working at Facebook Israel when it was founded a year earlier, tried to persuade him to change his mind. "They told me, 'Listen, it's nothing like what you know. It's not slow, it's not heavy, it's exactly what you want. It's an entrepreneurial environment, you have space, you can really make an impact, and on a large scale.' The trouble with a startup is that the chances of really making a big impact are very limited. Few companies succeed in doing that."

Hadar gave in to the pressure, but without enthusiasm. "My attitude was, 'All right, I'm half persuaded. I'll join for a year or two, and if even half of what they told me is true, I'll learn how Facebook does it, and then I'll start my own company.' I've been here almost four years, so it would seem that it's better than I thought. I joined as a product manager, and after a fairly short time, I moved to Facebook Lite."

That is how he became the manager of one of Facebook's fastest growing projects, although it is not well-known in Israel. The reasons for developing it are obvious: if you have a telephone three or more years old, it is hard to escape the feeling that it "pulls" less and less. The operating system comes up more slowly, apps falter, available space runs out, and the device has trouble taking the load. The average user solves these problems by upgrading their smartphone, but what does someone who cannot afford that do, and people who live in regions where the network infrastructure does not support effective use of even "normal" apps of the popular social networks?

To meet this challenge, Facebook came out with a light version of its app in 2015, which it called "Facebook Lite." This version uses less data, and takes up less than two MB, instead of 80 MB for the regular app, and can therefore be installed and opened quickly. The Lite version works on all Android devices and supports all networks. The Lite app initially offered only Facebook's basic features, and up until several months ago, offered only the simple Like, not Facebook's range of emotions (heart, laughing face, etc.). The app is now more advanced, and even includes a histories feature.

Facebook Lite was developed altogether within Facebook's development center in Israel. The team behind it, which originally consisted of five people, worked on the project for a year before Hadar joined as product manager, a modest title that actually meant global management of Lite.

The app was originally launched in Asia and Africa, but Facebook later made it available in developed countries that also have regions with weak infrastructure, or where users are trying to save on their surfing packages. It arrived in Israel in February 2017, and recently also spread to the US, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK, and France. It works in over 60 languages, and the number of monthly users is nearing 400 million.

Meanwhile, other Internet giants have hopped on the bandwagon. Microsoft launched Skype Lite early last year, joined by Twitter in November, while Google began launching light versions of its products, such as YouTube Go. At the MWC mobile conference last month in Barcelona, the first devices running on Android Go, a light version of Android Oreo designed for weak handsets, were displayed. "We started a trend here," Hadar says. "They (the other companies) are saying, 'Wait a minute, if Facebook is doing this, there's a market here, there's an audience here, there's a place for it.'"

Data package or lunch

Hadar says that from a technological standpoint, the Facebook Lite project made it necessary to breach some of the basic principles of mobile applications development. "The idea is to add new features and capabilities without enlarging the app," he explains. "Most of the app's 'brain' is usually on the device, which is why they take up so much room and are so heavy. That's fine for advanced telephones - people live with it, and it's not a problem - but Facebook Lite has to be light and consume a fifth as much data, and it has to work even when the network is slow."

What did you do?

"With us, a lot more of the brain and the logic is on the server. We emphasize what's in the middle, the way the server communicates with the app. In this way, we create a situation in which the app does not grow in size when more capabilities are added; it merely has to be able to run the commands that are on the server. In order to make this possible, we created a very efficient communications channel, and adapted it to slow networks."

What does that mean?

"Take for example the browser you have on your computer. When you reach an Internet page, you receive all the pictures at once, not one picture after another. With a very fast network, that's the right thing to do, but on a slow network, if you download many pictures at once, everything gets stuck and nothing works. That’s the experience of people who use slow networks with apps developed on the assumption that the environment is very, very fast. So we work in the opposite way from 'the right thing to do' in order to create a better experience."

Hadar does not stay cooped up in Facebook's offices to improve the app's technical efficiency; he also goes out into the field to see how it works in practice. "At the beginning we sat there with people in the lab in a controlled way, saw how they used apps, asked them questions, examined their difficulties. But it also gets to the level that I stop someone in a Mumbai market and ask him: 'Tell me, do you have a telephone?' He answers, 'Yes I have,' and I ask him, 'Do you have Internet?', and he again answers, 'Yes.' And I ask, 'Do you know Facebook?', 'Sure,' he answers. 'Could you show me?', and then he shows me Facebook Lite.

"When I say 'I', it's me and the team of course. There are designers and there are engineers, and you want every one of them, with his or her different perspective, to be able to understand how people use the app. At a certain stage I got fed up with flying all the time and telling stories to people who weren't there, and we managed to organize a trip for 50 engineers to India. We went and bought a telephone and a local SIM card, walked around the marketplace, and saw that nothing worked. The effect on the team was unbelievable. After a thing like that, you find it almost impossible to understand how you can sit as a startup in a basement and solve problems for people you just don't know.

"These days we're used to developing an app and thinking that it's slow if the response is time is, what? Four seconds? There, all of a sudden we saw that every click involves a wait of 20-30 seconds. Sometimes the Internet stopped working altogether, and then the user would have to wait five minutes. Not only does he waste five minutes, but after that he has to hook up again and start over what he has already done. At the perceptual level it's just a different experience."

How can such a user be helped?

"By informing him that the connection is working or not working, and what can be done to make it work, or in the meanwhile to provide information that I have prepared in advance so that he won’t have to wait. That's not easy either, because there are places where every mega costs money, and it's expensive. I met someone in Africa who buys Internet packages once a week. They last 3-4 days, and to buy them he sometimes has to forego lunch. When you hear a thing like that, you say, 'Wait a minute, I have to be careful. If I make a mistake, and for example download to him a video clip via the app that's too large, I'm liable to finish off his weekly data allowance.'"

The Israeli development center, Hadar says, is given a fairly free hand to develop Facebook Lite and the other products for which it is responsible in the way it sees fit. "The reason that Facebook has just two development centers is that it's not an organization in which you work on some sub-region, and wait for approval from head office to decide on cooperation with someone from a different country. When Facebook Lite is here, it means that the head office is here, the decisions about the products are made here, and almost everyone I need is here. That allows us to work like a startup."

Is there no-one across the sea who tells you what to do? No responsible adult who says "That's OK, go for it."?

"No. When we want to launch something, we decide. Am I not old enough? I'm very old, I'm 34." (The same age as Zuckerberg).

And who sets the general direction?

"You listen to Mark, or to Javier Olivan (Vice President of Growth, Engagement and Mobile Adoption). Mark is a very, very sharp person, who isn't focused on the numbers, the tactics, what will happen in another two weeks. He is constantly trying to navigate this huge ship to solve big problems. To me, that's inspirational."

The freedom of action that Hadar describes is also expressed in the ability of Facebook engineers to choose the projects they will work on. "We take this very seriously, because if I choose where I go and what I do, then I should also believe in what I do. It creates a great deal of openness and raises faith in the enterprise from within."

How does that work in practice?

"After initial basic training, whoever is accepted as an engineer at Facebook goes out on 'dates' with the teams, and sees what excites him or her. What we look for here is not 'perform the tasks' but do what you invent - everyone here has to be an entrepreneur. Apart from that, there's a culture of internal feedback for all the products. Every engineer sitting here can join the feedback group of augmented reality, or of the news feed, and so on. In this group, he sees all the internal experiments and responds to them, even though he works in a completely different team. This is considered legitimate practice, and it's encouraged."

Sounds like a busybodies' paradise

"You want to engender an environment in which people will be open, and not feel that they are being intolerable and shut up, so they created a culture in which everyone knows how to be constructive. The idea is that, as an engineer, you should assume good intent. Looking at it from the other side, if something seems idiotic in someone else's code, the idea is that you should say to yourself 'OK, there are some really smart people here, let me think whether I haven't missed something, and if I haven't, how I can ask them about the project in a way that will be helpful to them.' When you see that kind of exchange, it's something amazing."

You have been in the job for four years. Do you have plans for the future?

"We have a crazy challenge that I'm still in the middle of. In the work group that I lead, Lite Interfaces, we're working on at least two more projects that I can't talk about at the moment, but in my view they are on the same scale as Facebook Lite. I want to make technological capabilities accessible, even augmented and virtual reality and things like that, not just to those with a Galaxy S20; I want limitations of data and price to cease getting in the way, so that at a basic level everyone will be able to do the same things."

And on the personal plane, is there a project you dream about?

"The thoughts about what I'll build when the time comes are my own. There are always thoughts."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on April 2, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Tzach Hadar  photo: Shlomi Yosef
Tzach Hadar photo: Shlomi Yosef
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