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Facebook vs. Google: 10 Contrasts for Engineering Careers

Company Culture

7 December, 2022

Michael McNally
Michael McNally

Chief Technology Officeer at GraphStax

This is a brief comparison and contrast of Google and Facebook, as a place for one’s software engineering career. Both can be amazingly good places for engineering careers. But both places can be misfits for otherwise excellent engineers. This is a short differential guide. [Originally on LinkedIn]

Intro and some caveats

This is a brief comparison and contrast of Google and Facebook, as a place for one’s software engineering career. Both can be amazingly good places for engineering careers. But, as you can read on Glassdoor or many other sites, both places can be misfits for many otherwise excellent engineers. This is a short differential guide to the companies, reflecting only my personal subjective opinion.

I’ve been a Googler 13 years, from 2004 to 2017, then at Facebook for 2.25 years. In both companies I’ve served as a Director of Engineering, so I’ve had a lot of experience seeing how the companies are managed and how engineers’ career trajectories progress from hiring through promotions and role changes. In both companies, my amazing, wonderful coworkers were a highlight of what makes each company exceptional. Both companies have strong missions, compensate well, are stable, ambitious, and simply top-tier. Both are great for AI/ML engineers and researchers, and for making a global scale impact.

The Silicon-Valley born companies are maybe 70% similar in culture and practices, but the 30% or so that is different is significant. (I'm just casually throwing out ad-hoc numbers representing my subjective Bayesian belief -- not anything more systematic.) Below, if I say a company is "weak" at something it is only in comparison to the other. In the world of tech, these companies remain real outliers. Also, if anything, there is some pressure through convergent evolution via market forces, and the physics of what makes global scale computing and data science work, for the companies to become more similar over time.

These are my subjective experiences, so they may differ greatly from others’ experiences and especially as one moves from place to place inside each company. (For example, Android and YouTube would have felt a lot closer to Facebook in many ways than the core Google of Search and Ads that I experienced.). I also cannot speak to how Google has changed since Sundar Pichai stepped up as leader -- what I've heard from my former coworkers has been mixed with some wins some losses, so these reflect more upon the Google of 3+ years ago.

#1) Speed of Execution

Facebook wins. The company has Move Fast in its DNA. Day-by-day, month-by-month, Facebook throws everything on the wall to see what sticks, moving with a scorching fast velocity relative to Google, where so much is bogged down under bureaucracy, reviews and perfectionism. At Facebook, Done is Better than Perfect. Moving Fast applies to everything, not just engineering work. So hiring, personnel decisions, team transitions -- everything moves fast, and being slow (without very strong justification) is evaluated simply as an execution error. It’s hard to overstate how big a difference this is, where I think of FB as often 3-4 times faster that GOOG. Now .. there are real negatives to this velocity as well, it has real collateral damage of all sorts -- and my own department of News Feed Integrity (reorganized since my department) was a creation made in triage and repair response to the unintended consequences of a News Feed that grew super-fast, becoming a place of addictive virality, with exploitation and harm-to-society that needed to be reined in after the fact.

#2) Vision / Moonshots

Google wins. Starting from Larry and Sergey, Google is more about dreaming big and taking disruptive bets than Facebook. Google more often does things for idealistic, visionary reasons, loves technology for technologies sake, values “alpha bets” in its DNA more than Facebook. Now … not everyone at Google is situated to benefit from that freedom … but the company as a whole has more capacity to indulge and explore wild ideas than Facebook. Things at Facebook have short time horizons, are ruthlessly metric driven, and while they sprint up hills faster they don’t have their eyes upon the far horizons as many Googlers do.

#3) Career Growth

Facebook wins. Engineers in levels 3-5 at Facebook are likely to get to exciting work and get promoted a bit faster (30% I’m guessing?) than engineers at Google. The weight of being a Noogler is heavy and your first few years at Google can be sluggish, compared to Facebook. Facebook makes immediately actionable feedback a hard mandate -- managers that don’t assist growth are promptly dinged. The downside is a Facebook engineer may have 2x the risk of being terminated than a Google engineer … and the higher the level at time of hire the higher the risk! But the risk is small for a smart person who applies themselves and learns the structure of the business and isn’t bogged down by ideas that clash with Facebook’s culture and expectations.

#4) Project & Idea Diversity

Google wins. There is just much more going on at Google than at Facebook. More platforms, systems, kinds of businesses, projects, etc. Google’s culture of tech talks allowed constant learning and sharing, as if one was perpetually at grad school. Facebook never had this open-ended feel. I found Facebook teams more sharing of thoughts and plans, and less hierarchical than Google, which could help especially in core business areas -- but if an engineer was looking to transfer there was simply a smaller range of roles.

This was a major difference when I joined … but as Facebook grows it’s probably being forced to diversify and so resemble Google more.

#5) Crossfunctionality

Facebook wins. When I compare similar teams head-to-head Google vs. Facebook, the Google teams tended to be engineer-dominated, with other roles being under-represented and under-powered. At Facebook I found ourselves being better provisioned with Data Science, User Experience Research, and User Interface Design roles. (Other roles were more at parity.) With strong people in these diverse roles, I think that a team at Facebook just brought more diverse ideas to the table faster, and were less likely to have engineers graze off a cliff without being redirected by the valuable other perspectives.

#6) Psychological Safety

Google wins. Google values psychological safety, managing the stress and reducing the fear of criticism much more than Facebook. Googlers tend to feel more secure. Facebookers tend to feel much more anxious and become risk-averse due to the fear of negative performance reviews. People at both companies will complain about work-life balance, but the sentiment could be a notch more negative at Facebook. Time and again on internal employee-feedback reviews and in 1:1 mentoring, we encountered concerns of performance anxiety, and the short-sightedness stressfulness of metric goals. Yet … this is not a simple issue, and has multiple conflicting values. Google has gotten dinged quite publicly on issues around diversity, especially in the several years after I left. Both companies espouse similar progressive ethics. Facebook too has its stumbles in this matter, just less in the limelight than Google’s. Mark Zuckerberg made the bold move of cancelling performance reviews and guaranteeing solid bonuses during this COVID19 crisis -- so he showed care for people’s anxiety, in a bold dynamic step so characteristic of the culture. 

#7) Engineering Management

Facebook wins. Facebook is more rigorous in their expectations for engineering managers. They require them to be empathic, provide rapid useful constructive feedback, and make personnel decisions (up or out, grow a team or cancel a team) faster -- with the same sense of driving urgency that is characteristic of the Move Fast mandate. Commonly L6s-L7s at Google will move into engineering management without sufficient skills, and these Google TLMs while strong engineers sometimes don’t cut it with respect to equal-level FB managers. I was often in the position of being on hiring committees seeing L6-L7 Google TLMs washing out of Facebook's M1-M2 hiring process, and at Facebook I saw managers have their feet held to the fire, and step-up over issues that Google could allow to be swept under the rug.

#8) Engineering Excellence

Google wins. There is a culture at Google that emphasizes the craft of coding and design far more than at Facebook, where to my instincts as a decade-plus Googler the code is frankly sloppy and slapdash. How does this show up? While Facebook is blisteringly fast week-over-week relative to the sluggish pace of work at Google, when you look year-over-year the systems at Google are higher quality, better tested, etc. and so long term a lot of the incredible velocity of Facebook washes out -- and FB probably nets out at 30% faster year-over-year instead of 300% faster. Maybe over 3+ years the difference in quality might bring long-term velocities even closer? I can't say . For certain, both companies accumulate a lot of technical debt and debris, and both companies take short-cuts they have to pay for, but the culture at Google is better for engineers who relish a job done right. Googlers can over-value technical complexity, and are likely to reward it. Facebookers disdain complex engineering for its own sake, but can err by making things simple to launch instead of simple to live with a year-plus down the road.

#9) Business Focus

Facebook wins. The company is known for its ruthless prioritization, rapidly surging efforts toward what is succeeding or hitting a turning point, rapidly cutting funding for efforts perceived as dead ends. From Mark and Sheryl at the top on down, organizational focus and discipline are impressively solid, while Google instead tends to accumulate large numbers of projects in perpetual beta, zombie projects that linger many years with minimal oversight or incrementality to core bets, etc. At Google you have a bigger risk of dedicating a year or two of your career toward a project that ends up a dead end. The short-term, metrics driven focus of Facebook leads to many dynamic, fast-moving role shifts of engineers: there is less sense of permanency and ownership (both can feel stronger at Google). There can be a bit of a mercenary feel at FB too, where the need to move a metric may trump loyalty to a mission.

#10) Toolchains

Google wins. Because of Google’s engineering idealism and constant passion to be the best at anything requiring technical excellence, the tool chains are often pervasive and beautiful relative to what Facebook uses. Facebook’s tools tend to be strongest when they are straight on-point as core things everyone uses all the time, but there is a lot less developed outside that central core. The tool ecosystem at Google is more comprehensive. In my own roles, the tools used by Google analysts (for launch reviews, forensics, prototyping ideas, etc.) were a major force-multiplier relative to the tools available at Facebook. Test and Productivity Engineering and Site Reliability are relative strengths at Google.

Last Thoughts: Differences by Culture and Design

Often at the end of such listicles, one announces a winner, but I'm not taking sides.

Each of these dimensions are something I experienced in some depth and length at these companies, and while others surely have different opinions and experiences, these are what I observed in aggregate seeing snapshots of hundreds of careers.

As I was acting as a hiring manager and partner with recruiters at Facebook, I sold many people on Facebook on the basis of its strengths, while being frank about its weaknesses, While many people could thrive at either company, some people would feel a sharp affinity to one while being at-risk to their happiness at the other. One can soar like an eagle, or be soul-crushed at either place. May the former happen far more often than the latter!

I would suggest that the strengths and weaknesses are not simply questions of skill/knowledge/culture being strong or weak, but rather they are strategic decisions. One chooses to land the business somewhere upon a spectrum. That commitment creates irreducible comparative strengths and weaknesses. As I've heard it said, "You can have anything, but you can't have everything."

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