People over pixels

Sept. 22, 2013, 10:28 p.m.

“If you ain’t pissed off for greatness, that means you’re okay with being mediocre.” – Ray Lewis

If we’re going by the book, I’m pretty much the last person you’d expect to find working as a software engineer.

I entered college three years ago a psychology major– and at that, a psychology major whose computing skills were limited to Microsoft Office. The terms “command line,” “compiler” and “cloud computing” meant nothing to me. I thought computers, and the people who operated them, were anomalies– nerdy geniuses, with whom I shared zero common ground. Add to that my inability to operate a video game controller, and you’ve got the epitome of the opposite.

However, a year into my undergraduate career, a general education requirement compelled me to take a programming class. I was terrified– seriously, scared out of my mind. But I am so grateful that I was forced to face that fear, because I ended up discovering a field nothing like the one I had imagined.

As a somewhat naive 17-year-old, I had entered college with the goal to “make the world a better place.” I chose psychology to achieve this because the changemakers of the generation that came before me all seemed to derive from that sort of background. But what I didn’t realize is what had changed since then.

Taking a computer science class opened my eyes to the major, but it also exposed me to the whole technology industry. It’s where I discovered that, if there’s anything with the potential to make the world a better place, on a grand, supernatural scale, it is technology. Computer scientists can literally affect the lives of billions of people with a single program. But when creating change, it’s not about the computers; it’s about the compassion with which we approach them.

So as I transition out of college and into the “real world,” I have sought out places that attract people who keep sight of that vision. It’s easy to get caught up in a bug, or a semantics discussion, or even the glamor of “entrepreneurship,” but that’s not why I fell in love with this field. The places where human ambiguity is valued as much as deterministic Turing machines, where engineers are solving truly hard problems for people outside the Silicon Valley zip codes– those are the places that are actually making the world a better place.

I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life in Silicon Valley, and in the last few I’ve been nauseated by the frivolous use of “entrepreneurship” and “innovation” and “disruption.” Technology has immense power, and unfortunately it’s being harnessed for “an app for affordable private jet solutions”, and “Ning meets Instagram for dog owners” (yes, those both exist). But computer science is not about the shiny new products for the one percent; it’s about what we can do to change the way the world functions. And that’s why I’ve enjoyed working at Facebook. I’ve found that engineers at Facebook have a lot more in common than a set of fabulous screen tans. We tend to be compassionate problem-solvers, obsessive solution-seekers and passionate about our product. A la Ray Lewis, we’re pretty damn pissed off for greatness.

At the Facebook London offices, our conference rooms are plastered with posters shipped from the Menlo Park headquarters, commanding us to “move fast and build things.” We are reminded to value “people over pixels,” and asked “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?” And those aren’t empty words; every single person is held accountable for fulfilling those promises. As an engineer I’ve never been asked to document the monetary effects of my work, but I am challenged to think about how my projects “make the world more open and connected.”

Looking back on my summer, I’ve pushed code that has already touched 1.1 billion people. I can think of zero other ways that I could have done something so impactful in such minimal time. At Facebook it’s about the people we’ve never met, the places we can’t fathom and what the world will need when we’re no longer around. It’s not about being good; it’s about being pissed off for greatness.

Ellora Israni ’14 spent her summer as a software engineering intern at Facebook in London.

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