Cover Story: Conversation with a facebook engineer

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 11, 2021 - January 17, 2021.
Cover Story: Conversation with a facebook engineer
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The year is 2013. Chong Zhia Hwa has just graduated with a degree in computer science and is trying to break into the US technology space as a software engineer. But there are so many jobs, and only 24 hours in a day. 

Chong, a Malaysian, decides that he will “hack” the job search. It proves an inspired decision, as the 30-year-old is now a software engineer at Facebook (in its Seattle office) after a three-year stint at Twitter.

Before he could work at two of the world’s most popular social media companies, however, Chong needed to prove his worth at a tech company — in fact, any one.

“When you factor in time to research and then craft a personalised application for each job, that results in three to four emails sent per day, which, for me, was simply not enough. I figured the hiring process was simply a matter of volume; the more applications I sent out, the better chance I had of receiving a call back.” 

So, Chong coded a web scraper that automated much of the research and application process. From a few emails each day, his nifty little scraper got him up to hundreds. 

Web scraping refers to the extraction of data from a website at scale. Websites tend to have a lot of publicly available data that, in the right format, could be invaluable. While scraping can be done manually, an automated tool naturally works much faster. 

He then unleashed the web scraper on Craigslist and LinkedIn, two websites he surmised would carry the greatest number of jobs relevant to his search parameters. 

“I programmed it to look for specific keywords like ‘job openings’ and ‘software engineer’. The scraper would also grab additional details that I wanted such as experience requirements and location. 

“It compiled all the information into a standardised format, after which it would send my résumé across to these companies, with some additional personalisation in the emails.”

His call-back rate improved dramatically, eventually landing him at Thunder Industries, a tech start-up offering internet advertising services. The company was very much in the high-growth start-up phase when Chong came on board. 

“I quickly realised that there was going to be a lot of on-the-job training. Despite graduating in computer science, some of the skills I had picked up were not directly transferable into my particular line of work back then. 

“In this regard, I found working at a start-up a great experience, because it was the first time that I was really able to play around with various industry tools. It was at Thunder Industries that I learned to manage different versions of the software, as well as write the most efficient code possible.”

Joining Twitter 

Bigger things beckoned and, in a few years, Chong found himself working at Twitter as a senior software engineer. He had been interviewed at several tech players at this point and eventually chose to go with Twitter because it still very much felt like a start-up. 

“Although Twitter is this global social media company, I thought it was the right fit for me because it’s still very small compared with other players in the market. Twitter has a few thousand employees compared with the tens or even hundreds of thousands of people employed at Facebook and Google. 

“I really felt that we had this outsized impact on the world despite being such a small team, relatively speaking. And being that we were still relatively small, we had more opportunities to work on multiple projects at once, which was great for me, because I wanted to do as much coding and programming as I could.” 

Chong joined Twitter on the strength of his advertising background with Thunder Industries and set about working in a team that handled the platform’s mobile advertising functionalities. 

A core part of any social media platform, advertising is a major revenue earner for the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Google. Chong and his team were focused specifically on perfecting Twitter’s mobile ad analytics. 

As the internet and internet users at large matured in their browsing habits, there was gradually more divergence in the key characteristics of desktop and mobile ads, hence the need for specialist teams like the one Chong belonged to at Twitter. 

“Suppose Apple is looking to run mobile ads on Twitter, advertising its new iPhone 12. Our job was to measure the performance of those ads. We were interested in how many saw the ad on their Twitter feed; of these, how many then clicked on those ads; and, subsequently, how many purchased an Apple device using those links. 

“At the end of the day, proving the value of the platform to our advertisers is a core part of our team’s function. So, it was very important that we could prove the extent of the effectiveness of any advertising that appeared on Twitter’s mobile feed. This is not just specific to Twitter, but is a major priority for all tech platforms that have an advertising business.” 

‘Move fast, break things’

After roughly three years, Chong called time on his job at Twitter and, in September last year, moved to social media behemoth Facebook, where he currently works as a software engineer. 

“When the opportunity arose to make the move, I took it because I’ve always viewed Facebook as the gold standard in the tech ecosystem,” he says. 

CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he says, has pioneered a method of working that for a time was ubiquitous among tech companies. It stems from a motto that Zuckerberg once used in a media interview: Move fast and break things. 

The idea here is to go out and build that crazy idea, and then try to iterate on it as quickly as possible. If it ends up breaking things, then all the better, because the lessons learnt from that experience inevitably feed into the product that is being worked on. 

“That mentality took hold at a lot of tech companies to such an extent that people no longer waited for approval anymore. If someone had a new assumption or idea, they would simply code it and then test it out. At the very worst, you end up learning something.” 

But as the company grew into the giant that it is today, even small “breakages” of the kind that Zuckerberg referred to could have major consequences. Chong calls it “tech debt”. 

“Tech debt refers to corrections and adjustments that you will have to make in the future because you are iterating too quickly in the present. 

“By working faster than you are able, you will end up creating security loopholes or write inefficient code that ends up breaking at some point down the line. 

“Today, the tech ecosystem tends to ‘move fast, build guardrails, and then break things’. The idea here is that we build safeguards into our experimentation so that, if mistakes ever occur, we will be able to course-correct in short order.”

As much as he enjoys working with the social media giants, the pace of work can be brutal. While the work affords a great deal of freedom to experiment and play around with new ideas, it tends to be balanced against the relentless pursuit of getting things done. 

“It’s great to be moving so quickly and rolling out all sorts of exciting features, but when you work at breakneck speed, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. 

“It could be that we are rolling out a particular social media feature, which then unexpectedly breaks down at midnight on Christmas Eve. If it turns out to be a sub-zero error (industry designation for the most severe type of breakdown), then you’re going to have to work through the night to fix that error. 

“You will have people on your neck wanting to know what the problem is, how to fix it and how soon you will be able to roll out the fix and get the website up and running again. 

“Thankfully, this is a very rare occurrence, and I’ve not been directly affected by this sort of error. But when it does happen, the pressure to correct is immense. If someone comes into this environment not understanding the pressure of the job, it can be quite the culture shock.” 

From tennis to technology 

Keeping up with the vertiginous pace of work at these tech giants would have been impossible without his sporting prowess, which initially opened doors for him in the US. 

A one-time up-and-comer on the local tennis scene, Chong represented his home state of Sarawak at the 2010 Sukma Games. 

The son of civil servants, Chong parlayed his skills on the court into a sports scholarship at Lewis and Clark State College in Idaho, where he was initially enrolled in a civil engineering programme.

“Civil engineering was my fallback choice because, at the time, I did not feel particularly strongly about any specific major. As children, we’re constantly told to become doctors, lawyers or engineers. So, I suppose I just defaulted to civil engineering.” 

As part of his major, Chong was required to take a number of core subjects, such as maths, physics and, somewhat prophetically, an introduction to computer programming. 

“This was really my first exposure to programming and, specifically, to Python, a popular programming language. I had never coded before and, at that point in time, I had no idea what Python even was,” he says.

As part of the coursework, Chong was asked to build a simple game using Python. It was here that his eyes were opened. Chong had found his calling. 

“Civil engineering is a very interesting major but the more I read up and studied, the more I realised I was more suited to computer programming. 

“Both disciplines allow you to build amazing things, but I found the sheer speed and adaptability of computer programming really appealing. Civil engineering is a much slower process by comparison. 

“Sure, I could build a bridge, but it would take months or even years. In software engineering, we were measuring the completion of projects in weeks, if not days. Everything took place so quickly. I could come up with an idea, write the code, test it out, get feedback and iterate on the end product as and when I need to. 

“I was utterly fascinated by how intuitive the entire process was — as long as I could imagine a certain function in my mind, I could write a code for it and watch it come to life before my eyes.”

Advice to up-and-comers 

Having accumulated about seven years’ experience in the US technology ecosystem, Chong has resolved to impart his knowledge and experience to other aspiring software engineers. 

For the last couple of years, he has been building a presence on social media, particularly his YouTube channel (Zhia Chong — Programming Journey) and blogging website Medium (@zhiachong). 

One of his most popular blog posts was an article on Medium detailing how he landed job interviews with the likes of Microsoft, Amazon and Twitter. 

“I’ve always had this passion for getting involved in new media. I was asked by a friend of mine, a YouTuber with the handle ‘CS Dojo’, to write an article detailing how I managed to land all of these interviews.

“The article received a lot of engagement, and I found myself communicating with grateful strangers who were reaching out to thank me for my contribution. 

“I thought it would be awesome to try making some videos and then just seeing where it all takes me. I’m doing these things more as a hobby than anything else, but as a longer-term objective, if I could build enough of a following to the point where I could get paid for the time I spend creating these videos, then that would be fantastic.”

He advises aspiring software engineers and non-tech employees looking to make a career change to “learn the fundamentals, not the technologies”. 

“The pace of technological innovation is such that it does not make sense to learn the latest technologies and nothing else. Today, Python might well be the best thing to learn, but tomorrow it might be Node, and the day after, Django.

“Instead, I always tell people to focus on mastering the basics of programming. Learn how to write efficient code and learn how to implement effective guardrails to prevent your software from breaking down. The technologies and programming languages may go in and out of fashion, but the fundamentals always stay the same.” 

According to Chong, all good software engineers have three specific best practices, the first being a logical and methodical thought process. One should be able to form mental images that accurately reflect how a particular software or app is supposed to perform, he says. 

“The second skill set is to place an emphasis on testing. A good software engineer would input any number of test cases and scenarios to ascertain how well the software performs. That way, if you end up making changes to the software and it then fails at these test cases, you’re more likely to pick up on these failures, rather than mistakenly roll out the feature to the public. 

“Finally, it is important to have a clear understanding of the many disparate components that work together to deliver a seamless user experience. As general users, we take this for granted with our social media feeds. 

“But, in reality, there are dozens of teams working on all sorts of different features that we see on our feed. As such, it is very important that everyone keeps an eye on how all of these disparate components work together to bring that final product to users’ screens.”

Big tech’s big responsibility

Chong Zhia Hwa joined Facebook as a software engineer in September last year, at a particularly tumultuous time in the US. 

The Covid-19 pandemic was ravaging the country (and still is at the time of printing), and now outgoing President Donald Trump was railing against the outsized influence that social media giants had over popular opinion. 

The situation would come to a head roughly a month later in October, when the various social media bosses — Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google parent company Alphabet Inc CEO Sundar Pichai — appeared in a series of fiery senate hearings. 

The US presidential election was just around the corner and, at the time, social media platforms throughout the country were placed under a microscope amid allegations that they had grown too powerful and were actively influencing political opinion on their respective platforms, rather than behaving like neutral administrators. 

According to the Washington Post, Senate lawmakers grilled the social media bosses as part of a broad review of a particular federal US law that exempts social media sites from liability for posts, photos and videos that they allow or remove from their websites. 

The hearings exposed the deeply divided nature of US politics, with Democrats calling for more control by the social media giants on their users, while Republicans argued for a more hands-off approach with regard to political speech on social media platforms.

One thing that was apparent was that companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter now wielded enormous political and economic leverage. 

A Netflix-produced documentary, The Social Dilemma, which was released to critical acclaim in January last year, was also circulating through the US population, casting yet another light on the practices of social media platforms. 

The documentary gave viewers an incisive look into the way social media algorithms worked to maximise the time people spent on these platforms. It also shed light on the often unintended and sometimes detrimental consequences that certain well-meaning social media innovations have on people at large.

For his part, Chong says his transition away from Twitter to Facebook was not motivated by the documentary itself. 

“I made the move before I ever got around to watching the documentary, and my move to Facebook was an ambition that I’ve had for some time.

“But having now worked at two social media giants, I don’t know whether there are any easy answers to the question of social media’s responsibility to their users and stakeholders. 

“From what I’ve seen, first at Twitter and now at Facebook, both companies have done a lot to counter and build safeguards against many of the concerns that people have raised about them. 

“From an employee’s perspective, I’ve seen a push from within [Twitter] to ensure that we were all clear about our responsibility to the user, and to honour their privacy within the platform. 

“More recently, Twitter and Facebook have launched privacy initiatives, particularly during the last US election, as a way to inform people about how and why they see certain types of advertising and content. In fact, Twitter went as far as banning political advertising on its platform. 

“To me, these are signs that the companies are doing as much as possible to ensure that the power they have does not end up being misused somehow.”