Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 28 October 2020

Free food, a swag store and a sea change: inside Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters

It's less like an office, more like a university: and there are certainly plenty of lessons being learnt there at the moment

The Bowl at MPK 21, the new building that opened in 2018 and was designed by Frank Gehry. Photo: Facebook 
The Bowl at MPK 21, the new building that opened in 2018 and was designed by Frank Gehry. Photo: Facebook 

Everyone at Facebook calls the company’s sprawling, suburb-wide headquarters in Menlo Park a “campus, and it certainly looks more like a university than a corporate office. There are bike racks everywhere, canteens, ice cream parlours, burger joints, a swag store where you can buy branded “merchand even a games arcade. That said, I didn’t spot the ultimate Silicon Valley office trope: there were no slides in sight.

Buses to and from the offices run from around 3am-9pm – I guess things never really stop when you run a service with 2.38 billion active users

I spent a few days at the Facebook headquarters earlier this month to learn about how the company hopes to do more “social good” in the future (its self-awareness has certainly increased in the past two years). I spent most of my time in building 21, a warehouse-like structure designed by Frank Gehry that opened just last year: the building itself is understated and has an exposed-pipes industrial feel, but its 1.4 hectare roof garden is a definite statement (I also spotted a cafe dedicated entirely to biryani while there, which piqued my interest).

Aerial View of MPK 21 building 
The aerial View of the Gehry deisgned MPK 21 building shows the extensive roof garden. Photo: Supplied

A five-minute drive from the new Gehry-designed office is a collection of buildings called “main campus”. These are more colourful, and are the offices that Facebook moved into in 2011 (seven years after the whole thing began in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room). There’s very little Facebook branding on the outside of the offices, bar one large sign (that is now a tourist attraction).

The outside area of Facebook's 'main campus', which used to be the headquarters of the now defunct Sun Microsystems. 
The outside area of Facebook's 'main campus', which used to be the headquarters of the now defunct Sun Microsystems.

This sign features a large thumbs up, with the address “1 Hacker Way”. Behind it is the old, rusted-out sign for Sun Microsystems, the defunct tech company from which Facebook acquired the offices eight years ago. An employee told me they keep the sign there as a reminder of how companies can go from iridescent to irrelevant, and quickly. As Sheryl Sandberg said to my group: “The thing about tech companies is that we are more likely to be usurped by the next generation of tech companies than almost any other industry because, in our industry, things change so quickly.”

Nyree outside the Facebook headquarters' main sign:

It is difficult to get to grips with quite how large Facebook’s presence in Menlo Park is, because the buildings are numbered at random, and in no particular order. You can go from building 25-29 without spying 26-28. But as you drive around the area, you see buses of staff moving between the offices, as well as to the many surrounding Bay Area suburbs, towns and cities. I’m told these buses run from around 3am-9pm – but I guess things never really stop when you run a service with 2.38 billion active users.

The Facebook headquarters has a 'swag store' where you can pick up branded merch. Photo: Nyree McFarlane 
The Facebook headquarters has a 'swag store' where you can pick up branded merch. Photo: Nyree McFarlane 

And yes, the food is free, so if you need to work long hours, at least you’ll eat well. But it’s not a free for all. Most restaurants are open only at lunch or dinner time – you can’t just turn up at 4pm and expect a three-course meal, but you can walk into one of the many kitchenettes and grab a snack 24/7. There are also restaurants where you have to pay for the food, too: the most popular is Mexican eatery Sol. Legend has it that Zuckerberg liked these restaurateurs’ Silicon Valley outlets and so asked if they’d like to run a site at Facebook HQ (I’m sure the tips are generous).

Lunch is free at the BBQ Shack in Facebook's 'main campus' 
Lunch is free at the BBQ Shack in Facebook's 'main campus'

“The Mediterranean restaurant in building 20 is my new favourite,” says the employee I walk around the office with, exemplifying the range of choice on offer. While the free food appeals (I’m only human), there’s also free on-site dry cleaning and complimentary bike repairs (I see a lot of people getting between the offices on two wheels).

But, for all of the bells and whistles at Facebook HQ, this is a company that knows it needs to naval gaze (think Cambridge Analytica, etc). One example of this self-awareness is the fact they took down all of the posters around the office that bore their old motto: “Move fast and break things.” They realised that “breaking things” isn’t advisable when you speak to billions, and signs now say things like “Build Social Value” and “You Belong to the Universe”. Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions, told me that in the past two years the company has seen “its biggest shift in terms of culture and mindset”.

“We’ve moved on from unbridled optimism, and perhaps some naivete that technology will only be used for good. Two plus years ago you would not have large teams of people working at Facebook thinking about all the bad things people can do on the platform.”

But now they do.

Updated: June 27, 2019 05:45 PM

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