Q&A: Facebook’s new chief in Seattle on 23 years at Microsoft and the future of engineering centers

Facebook’s Rajeev Rajan. (Facebook Photo)

Rajeev Rajan first came to the Seattle area as a Microsoft intern in 1994, and ended up staying with the company for 23 years. Four years into a new career at Facebook, Rajan is working to bring other engineers to the region to continue to grow the social media giant’s sizable hub.

Rajan is currently vice president of engineering and head of Facebook for the Pacific Northwest. He started at the company on its Marketplace platform, supporting engineering before moving to support the video engineering team.

Rajan replaced Vijaye Raji in leading the thousands of Facebook employs who work in region. Raji was also a Microsoft veteran and he’s now founder and CEO of a new startup called Statsig that helps developers build and launch features quickly.

GeekWire caught up with Rajan to discuss his long tech career, Facebook’s continued growth in the Seattle region, the future of engineering centers and remote work, and navigating Facebook’s much-publicized troubles. Keep reading for our Q&A, edited for length and clarity.

Microsoft vs. Facebook

GeekWire: 23 years at Microsoft is like a lifetime. Talk about the differences and the similarities between Microsoft and Facebook, the culture and everything around that.

Rajan: “I had a very wonderful time at Microsoft, super happy there. I started as an intern on Windows 95, came right out of school. I was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was actually doing a PhD program, but then I happened by chance to come for an internship in the summer of ’94, fell in love with the Seattle area and Microsoft and stayed on full time. I did not actually go back and finish my PhD, I just joined the fun and the party. I worked on many different things over the years — Windows operating system, Exchange server, email, SQL server. Towards the end, the last few years, I was part of the team that built Office 365, which was super successful for the company.

RELATED: Former Facebook exec Vijaye Raji leads new startup Statsig to help developers build features quickly

“Along the way, they made me a distinguished engineer and I left as VP of engineering. So I was doing really well and happy there and with a great team. I happened to know somebody who knew [former Facebook Seattle site lead] Vijaye [Raji], so Vijaye called me over to the Seattle office for lunch. I was really struck by the energy I saw there and just the office itself and the people I met. Vijaye suggested that I go to Menlo Park and meet some leaders. So I flew down and met with some folks there. I was again, super impressed with the Menlo Park campus.

“I guess inside me, I was thinking, ‘Do I do another innings? Or do I finish it up at Microsoft?’ I felt like, perhaps I could try a different thing. Back in the day in Seattle, Microsoft used to be the only choice, or Amazon. And now we have much more opportunity in the Seattle area. So I was like, ‘OK, let me try something new and different.’ Also it reminded me very much of Microsoft in the ’90s. The company was much smaller, I felt the same energy, Zuck is a little bit like Gates in terms of the founder/CEO. I just felt that was sort of like Microsoft, but 30 years in the future in terms of generational shift and things the company’s working on, and also just the impact you can have on society in terms of the broad scale set of what Facebook does seemed very appealing. The culture really was the thing that attracted me and I felt like it should be a good change for me.”

A rendering of what was supposed to be REI’s new headquarters complex in the Spring District in Bellevue, Wash. Facebook purchased the property for further growth in the Seattle region. (Image via Wright Runstad & Company / Spring District)

Facebook in Seattle

GeekWire: Talk a little about Facebook in Seattle — how many folks are here now?

Rajan: “Right now we have more than 7,000 people total in the Pacific Northwest. We started in 2010, one of the first offices outside of Menlo Park. It’s the biggest hub outside of Menlo Park for Facebook. We started in Redmond in 2014 and then Bellevue in 2019. And so now we are all across the region. We are super excited about our new Bellevue campus that is opening. The buildings are ready to go and but for the pandemic, we would have opened up already. We also bought the REI headquarters over in Spring District. Given the buildings we already had and the REI headquarters, we now have a nice hub, or campus, if you will. We think it could be very similar to what we call the ‘classic campus.’ It affords an opportunity for a lot of talent on the Eastside that previously might not have wanted to make the trip across the lake to commute.”

GeekWire: Is Spring District and what you mentioned in Bellevue going to impact South Lake Union or are you going to stick around down there?

Rajan: “We’re going to stick around. We love the South Lake Union area. We have have a number of buildings there. We’re growing in general in the region, Facebook as a company is growing quite a bit. And we’re definitely looking to tap into the capacity in the Pacific Northwest. So we are going to be looking for real estate all over the place. Eastside is great to have a location, but Seattle, if we find good properties, we’ll expand there. So we’re not looking to move out of Seattle, we’re looking to expand in all the different areas.”

Facebook’s Arbor Blocks 300 Building in Seattle. (Facebook Photo / Jen Leahy)

GeekWire: How important is Seattle to Facebook overall? You mentioned it’s the biggest hub outside of Menlo Park. Why did it become that way? What about Seattle made sense?

Rajan: “I think lots of things. First of all, I think Facebook was one of the early companies to open a hub. Now every Silicon Valley company, I think, has an office in Seattle, but we were the first to do it. I think there are many reasons that drove that, one was we knew that there’s a lot of good talent in the region. It has all the elements of a great tech hub, which has proven to be the case. And so because of our early start, we were able to start many teams and products and projects in Seattle. For example, one of the first teams I joined in Facebook was Marketplace. And Marketplace was completely built in Seattle.

“When you look at some of the Silicon Valley companies, they tend to start in the Bay Area and then have maybe a smaller team in Seattle. Even Microsoft is famously very Redmond centric. With Facebook, I think the philosophy has been we want to be distributed across many different locations. So having more locations outside the Bay Area was part of the strategy. We have Seattle, we have New York, we have Boston, we have London, we even have one in Tel Aviv. So we have a few locations around the world and from the beginning the philosophy was we want these locations to really work and we want to be able to create products in these locations that are not necessarily Menlo Park-based. We started Marketplace in Seattle, we started Gaming in Seattle, we have a big presence in Groups and Community. And we also have, now over time, all of the parts of the Facebook family of apps represented in Seattle, from infrastructure all the way to the Facebook products. Therefore, if you join Facebook in the Pacific Northwest, you can work on pretty much anything that Facebook works on.”

GeekWire: Anything that’s coming or products or services that you’re working on now that are particularly noteworthy or that you’re excited about?

Rajan: “We do have a big presence in Redmond and a little bit in Seattle around Oculus and the Facebook Reality Labs. Obviously AR and VR are a big future trend for the company as well as for the world. I personally run the video engineering team and we did a few announcements recently, and Mark did a few announcements, around audio. One thing that’s come out of COVID is we are all on these Zoom meetings and it’s a little tiring to be on video all the time. So imagine you had a meeting like this, it’s all audio, you’re walking outside, enjoying the good weather and you’re just talking. We think audio has a big future.”

Facebook plans a larger return to the office this fall, including in the South Lake Union neighborhood. (GeekWire File Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Remote work

GeekWire: Let’s talk a little bit about remote work and your back-to-office plans, Seattle specifically. Do you have a percentage on who you expect back and when and what your offices are going to look like in a post-pandemic world? You’ve mentioned a lot of real estate.

Rajan: “I think the office is always going to be a big part of our future. In terms of getting back to the office, we’re looking at the health data locally. We are being super conservative with respect to what’s a good timing for it. We’ll probably have some 10, 20%, some small percentage return to office somewhere perhaps in the July timeframe if things work out right. That small percentage is for people who are actually struggling to work from home right now. We’d like to give them an opportunity to come back in a little bit. But the really big return to office will be in the September, October timeframe. We already signaled that to employees because we wanted them to make summer plans and not be in a situation, ‘Are we going back? Are we not going back?’”

GeekWire: [Amazon’s] Andy Jassy said something in an interview about how the ability to innovate is just better in person. Do you share that viewpoint?

Rajan: “Absolutely. We are human beings. We get a lot of energy from each other — hallway chats, whiteboard drawings, all kinds of things. So the office is definitely going to be a big part of our future. Now I do think we’ll be competitive with the tech industry in the world in terms of what is a flexible option. Maybe, I don’t know, a day of the week you’re working from home, something along those lines. Even for people who are working in the office, there’ll be some flexible options.

“Then there’ll be a set of people like Mark said, who will be completely remote. They can choose to be completely remote. We think that’s a big future where you could be not even staying in the Seattle area. You could be living in different states and cities in the U.S. and you can work remotely from home. I do think for those people, they will want to come into the office maybe once or twice a month to meet people in person and get some connections, but for the most part, they can work remotely.”

Future of engineering centers

GeekWire: That leads us to the future of engineering centers and whether you think the pandemic will have impacted that, whether fewer companies will see the need to set up these satellite offices away from their headquarters, with this rise in remote work. Or whether we’re just going to have a short-term memory on that and we’ll get back to business.

Rajan: “I think that the aggregate demand for engineers is just going up. I think technology is a good force for society in general. I do think there’s a lot more innovation to be had, whether it’s AR, VR, AI, or all kinds of exciting new trends. So there’s going to be a bigger demand for talent in general, which means that the engineering centers are going to continue to grow and we’re going to need more of them around the U.S. and around the world.

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“But I do think some of that demand will be met by remote work. And I think that will afford a bunch of people the ability to work from other states or other cities, who don’t have to be in the big city or in the big center, where previously you had to be in Seattle or the Bay Area to work for Facebook. Now you could be in maybe Eastern Washington or closer to Portland, you have more choice on terms of where you stay and work. So we get that talent, but we’ll also get a bunch of people who are in the major hubs.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a virtual July 2020 House Judiciary Committee antitrust hearing. (YouTube screen grab)

Future of Facebook

GeekWire: It’s been an interesting couple of years, the company itself is dealing with a lot — the connection between social media and adolescents or mental health; various conflicts that come up such as Israel and Palestine; COVID-related misinformation; the Trump ban that reared its head again. I like to have your perspective since you’re in Seattle. As an engineering leader, how much of this, if any of it, affects your team and your morale and how do you deal with it?

Rajan: “It’s definitely not easy. When you have all this stuff being told about your company and so on, it’s not easy, but I think as engineers we come in with the feeling of, ‘How can we make society better? How can we make all the technology work for good?’ Any tool or any technology can be used in good ways and bad ways, and we’re seeing some of the bad usages of it. So we come in motivated with, ‘We think we can use AI, we think we can use technology, we think we can use a combination of technology and people to make this be a force for good.’

“For example, when COVID happened, we came up with this COVID-19 hub in the Facebook app where you can find all kinds of authentic information — Where’s my nearest vaccination center? What is the latest science on the vaccines or on masks? Things like that. So we did our best to provide the right information to a lot of people, so that once they get that information, they’re not getting misinformation from other places.

“Having groups come together on the platform to help each other is amazing, that really makes me feel excited about all the good we are doing. And when I see bad effects, that motivates me to go and say, ‘OK, how do we go fight this now? How do we make it so that this does not happen?’ And so that’s kind of like the energy that the company has. Yes, of course, it’s always tough when you see coverage that’s not great, but I lived some of this at Microsoft as well. At that time we thought we were building great technology for the world. So I think most engineers and most people who work at the big tech companies want to do good and are finding ways to use technology to help society.”

GeekWire: As more pressure has come to bear on Facebook and Google and Amazon, and Microsoft has sort of slid underneath all of that, what do you think about that?

Rajan: “I think Microsoft went through its moment and they learned from it and they navigated some of those forces and are in a different place right now. Every technology has its kind of flashpoint in terms of it getting to critical mass and scale — Google with the search engine, Amazon with its thing, Facebook with the tools we have built to reach people. So when those tools reach a critical mass and become an important part of society I think it leads to a lot of questions and discussion and what’s the right usage of it. And so I think this is just a normal part of getting to critical mass.”

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