What does Sheryl Sandberg actually do day-to-day at Facebook?

I’m more than halfway through Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcia Martinez. If you’re a fan of Lean In (my review) you might be interested to know what Sheryl Sandberg actually does in her role as COO. Martinez provides one concrete example:

First up in the Sheryl show was a product manager named Dan Rubinstein. Dan resembled a Woody Allen figure: short, thin, nebbish, but without the crackling anxiety. Also a former Googler, he seemed like one of those old PM hands who always made sure to take good notes and get his weekly report in on time. He fronted for User Ops, which was the user police, and the user-facing version of what I did on the ads side. Ever wonder why your feed never features any form of porn or otherwise grotesque imagery? It’s because a team in User Ops has managed to sift through the billion photos uploaded a day, and pick out a pile of offensive needles in an Internet scale haystack.

On the screen now, Dan launched a demo of a tool that was essentially that: on loading the Web app, a raft of user photos appeared, which a User Ops “analyst” could easily click to eliminate, like plucking weeds from a garden. That image would be banished forever, including versions with small color changes or cropping done by veteran spammers and sketchy ad types. As he walked the room through the demo, he would click on an image of a kitten—kittens evidently represented the porny pictures they’d normally filter—and that kitten would be gone, as well as all variants of that kitten image. Click, ban, reload, click, ban, reload. A well-oiled kitten-banning machine, ladies and gentlemen.

Suddenly Sheryl interrupted: “So, what’s with all the kittens?”

Dan, a bit startled, peered at Sheryl, clearly confused.

“Why are all the bad photos kittens?”

Dan flatly replied, “We use kittens as the bad photos in demos, because the real bad photos are . . . you know . . . kind of obscene.”

“Right,” said Sheryl, “but why kittens and not something else?”

The room was deathly silent with thirty-plus sets of twitchy eyes rising from barely concealed phones and laptops to stare at Dan and his kitten-banning machine. You could almost hear everyone mentally asking in chorus: Yeah, what is it with the kittens?

Dan looked up at the screen as if noticing the kitten pics for the first time, and then turned to Sheryl and answered, almost under his breath: “Well . . . for demo purposes we don’t show really bad photos . . . so the engineers use kittens instead. Because, you know . . . kittens and cats are like, pu—

He stopped right there, but he almost said “pussy” in front of the Queen of Lean, Sheryl Sandberg. “Got it!” she expectorated. After sucking in a lungful of air, as if loading for a verbal barrage, she continued. “If there were women on that team, they’d NEVER, EVER choose those photos as demo pics. I think you should change them immediately!” Before the salvo had even finished Dan’s head was bowed, and he was madly taking notes in a small notebook. CHANGE PUSSY PHOTOS NOW! one imagined they read. He looked like a forty-year-old scolded child.

I was dying inside. You could feel either awkwardness or repressed laughter seething from everyone in the room at this unprecedented display of management wrath and PM folly. Demoing the pussy filter to Sheryl. Epic!

Dan limped along with the rest of his demo, and then it was my turn. After that high-water mark of incompetence, it was hard to fuck things up. I glided through the slides, lingering on the money shot: a plot of the number of ads reviewed versus human man-hours. The former was up and to the right (MOAR ADS!), the latter was flat (fewer expensive humans!). All was right with the Ads Review world. I drowsed through the other presentations and bolted at the first opportunity.

 

More: read Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley

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8 Comments

  1. TimB

    August 23, 2016 @ 2:36 pm

    1

    Sandberg’s goofy comments aside, I don’t quite understand Martinez’ schadenfreude here.

  2. billg

    August 23, 2016 @ 3:07 pm

    2

    So do Facebook demos now use photos of roosters?

  3. Barak Pearlmutter

    August 23, 2016 @ 3:22 pm

    3

    What an odd criticism! Women are actually pioneers in the area of finding naked people. Note the first author of this seminal paper from ECCV 1996.
    https://courses.cs.washington.edu/courses/cse455/10au/notes/forsyth.pdf

  4. jack crossfire

    August 23, 2016 @ 3:44 pm

    4

    Might actually be worth the $15 to hear the book. The author graduated many years after me, missed out on the web 1.0 boom, & became financially independent after selling his startup to Twitter for $10 million, so he was a lucky one. He was the reason Facebook spams you with ads for all the stuff you searched for on the Goog but didn’t buy.

  5. Lynn Clark

    August 23, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    5

    jack crossfire: “He was the reason Facebook spams you with ads for all the stuff you searched for on the Goog but didn’t buy.”

    Which is one of the reasons I use duckduckgo instead of “the Goog”. But it still doesn’t help me with all the things I look at on Amazon but don’t buy. 😉

  6. ScarletNumber

    August 23, 2016 @ 7:37 pm

    6

    The interesting dynamic once one gets to be in such a high position is that no one has the guts to tell you when you are talking out of your ass.

  7. ianf

    August 24, 2016 @ 3:26 am

    7

    This is priceless, a bunch of middle-aged beyond-PC guys in the most sanctimoniously righteous PC social network there is (no pictures of nursing mothers on #Fuckfacebook because of, you know, the nipple and tits thing), who do not see the danger of representing their verboten pussy in a demo with pictures of kittens. Pictures of adolescent cats that are the A and Z, and all the meows in between, of the Internet! PRICELESS. I wonder what was chosen as the new placeholders, pictures of caterpillars? tractors?

    Once we had a cat called Pussi. At least that’s what her name was until the day at the vet’s when I discovered that she was called Pussi Mylastname. I was quite pleased with this suddenly extended feline-human social construct of ours.

    ObPussyContent [SFW] http://goo.gl/xhi6pD

  8. ianf

    August 25, 2016 @ 9:49 am

    8

    I have so many books waiting their turn, that I stopped buying new ones by default until the backlog feels lighter. I added Chaos Monkeys to the list, but the more I read and think about its author, the more I feel him qualified for Abbie Hoffman’s treatment. And not simply that, but steal this book from a bookstore, get caught, then plead in court that its author is THE class-A-hole in part responsible for current bloat of webpages, the invasive privacy breaches and data harvesting that goes on behind our computer screens, who therefore doesn’t deserve to get paid for his “memoirs.” He should pay each one of us for the accumulated damage he has caused, Your Honor included, and for his contributions to the Big Brother society.

    Then await the verdict, which would be the judge’s one long commiseration with my plight and regret that his/her hands are tied in the legal sense, and thus has no recourse but to sentence me to 1.5hr community service or something that will go on my proud record.

    That’s the kind of thoughts that pass through my brain before I realize that, without at least one corpse, the Hollywood isn’t ready for so low-key a drama. I’d have to invent some Adverse Liberation Army that’d kidnap a Martínez-like figure, do unspeakable things to his ego in the script, then accidentally expire him (he’d be more useful as a repenting offender alive); and then AT BEST live through the filming of a family-friendly version if it repackaged for the Lifetime channel. That’s way too much to contemplate.

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