“The Hacker Way” – What e-Discovery Can Learn From Facebook’s Culture and Management

Facebook’s regulatory filing for its initial public stock offering included a letter to potential investors by 27 year old billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. The letter describes the culture and approach to management that he follows as CEO of Facebook. Zuckerberg calls it the Hacker Way. Mark did not invent this culture. In a way, it invented him. It molded him and made him and Facebook what they are today. This letter reveals the secrets of Mark’s success and establishes him as the current child prodigy of the Hacker Way.

Too bad most of the CEOs in the e-discovery industry have not read the letter, much less understand how Facebook operates. They are clueless about the management ethic it takes to run a high-tech company.

An editorial in Law Technology News explains why I think most of the CEOs in the e-discovery software industry are just empty suits. They do not understand modern software culture. They think the Hacker Way is a security threat. They are incapable of creating insanely great software. They cannot lead with the kind of inspired genius that the legal profession now desperately needs from its software vendors to survive the data deluge. From what I have seen most of the pointy-haired management types that now run e-discovery software companies should be thrown out. They should be replaced with Hacker savvy management before their once proud companies go the way of the Blackberry. The LTN article has more details on the slackers in silk suits. Vendor CEOs: Stop Being Empty Suits & Embrace the Hacker Way. This essay, a partial rerun from a prior blog, gives you the background on Facebook’s Hacker Way.

Hacker History

The Hacker Way tradition and way of thinking has been around since at least the sixties. It has little or nothing to do with illegal computer intrusions. Moreover, to be clear, NSA leaker Edward Snowden is no hacker. All he did was steal classified information, put it on a thumb drive, meet the press, and then flea the country, to communist dictatorships no less. That has nothing to do with the Hacker Way and everything to do with politics.

The Hacker Way – often called the hacker ethic – has nothing to do with politics. It did not develop in government like the Internet did, but in the hobby of model railroad building and MIT computer labs. This philosophy is well-known and has influenced many in the tech world, including the great Steve Jobs (who never fully embraced its openness doctrines), and Steve’s hacker friend, Steve Wozniak, the laughing Yoda of the Hacker Way. The Hacker approach is primarily known to software coders, but can apply to all kinds of work. Even a few lawyers know about the hacker work ethic and have been influenced by it.

Who is Mark Zuckerberg?

We have all seen a movie version of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, who, by the way, will still own 56.9% voting control of Facebook after the public offering later this year. But who is Mark Zuckerberg really? His Facebook page may reveal some of his personal life and ideas, but how did he create a Hundred Billion Dollar company so fast?

How did he change the world at such a young age? There are now over 850 million people on Facebook with over 100 billion connections. On any one day there are over 500 million people using Facebook. These are astonishing numbers. How did this kind of creative innovation and success come about? What drove Mark and his hacker friends to labor so long, and so well? The letter to investors that Mark published  gives us a glimpse into the answer and a glimpse into the real Mark Zuckerberg. Do I have your full attention yet?

The Hacker Way philosophy described in the investor letter explains the methods used by Mark Zuckerberg’s and his team to change the world. Regardless of who Mark really is, greedy guy or saint (or like Steve Jobs, perhaps a strange combination of both), Mark’s stated philosophy is very interesting. It has applications to anyone who wants to change the world, including those of us trying to change the law and e-discovery.

Hacker Culture and Management

Mark’s letter to investors explains the unique culture and approach to management inherent in the Hacker Way that he and Facebook have adopted.

As part of building a strong company, we work hard at making Facebook the best place for great people to have a big impact on the world and learn from other great people. We have cultivated a unique culture and management approach that we call the Hacker Way.

The word `hacker’ has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I’ve met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world.

The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.

Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once. To support this, we have built a testing framework that at any given time can try out thousands of versions of Facebook. We have the words `Done is better than perfect’ painted on our walls to remind ourselves to always keep shipping.

Hacking is also an inherently hands-on and active discipline. Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works. There’s a hacker mantra that you’ll hear a lot around Facebook offices: `Code wins arguments.’

Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win — not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people.

To encourage this approach, every few months we have a hackathon, where everyone builds prototypes for new ideas they have. At the end, the whole team gets together and looks at everything that has been built. Many of our most successful products came out of hackathons, including Timeline, chat, video, our mobile development framework and some of our most important infrastructure like the HipHop compiler.

To make sure all our engineers share this approach, we require all new engineers — even managers whose primary job will not be to write code — to go through a program called Bootcamp where they learn our codebase, our tools and our approach. There are a lot of folks in the industry who manage engineers and don’t want to code themselves, but the type of hands-on people we’re looking for are willing and able to go through Bootcamp.

So sayst Zuckerberg. Hands-on is the way.

Application of the Hacker Way to e-Discovery

E-discovery needs that same hands-on approach. E-discovery lawyers need to go through bootcamp too, even if they primarily just supervise others. Even senior partners should go, at least if they purport to manage and direct e-discovery work. Partners should, for example, know how to use the search and review software themselves, and from time to time, do it, not just direct junior partners, associates, and contact lawyers. You cannot manage others at a job unless you can actually do the job yourself. That is the hacker key to successful management.

Also, as I often say, to be a good e-discovery lawyer, you have to get your hands dirty in the digital mud. Look at the documents, don’t just theorize about them or what might be relevant. Bring it all down to earth. Test your keywords, don’t just negotiate them. Prove your search concept by the metrics of the search results. See what works. When it doesn’t, change the approach and try again. Plus, in the new paradigm of predictive coding, where keywords are just a start, the SMEs must get their hand dirty. They must use the software to train the machine. That is how the artificial intelligence aspects of predictive coding work. The days of hands-off theorists is over. Predictive coding work is the penultimate example of code wins arguments.

Iteration is king of ESI search and production. Phased production is the only way to do e-discovery productions. There is no one final, perfect production of ESI. As Voltaire said, perfect is the enemy of  good. For e-discovery to work properly it must be hacked. It needs lawyer hackers. It needs SMEs that can train the machine on what is relevant, on what evidence must be found to do justice. Are you up to the challenge?

Mark’s Explanation to Investors of the Hacker Way of Management

Mark goes on to explain in his letter to investors how the Hacker Way translates into the core values for Facebook management.

The examples above all relate to engineering, but we have distilled these principles into five core values for how we run Facebook:

Focus on Impact

If we want to have the biggest impact, the best way to do this is to make sure we always focus on solving the most important problems. It sounds simple, but we think most companies do this poorly and waste a lot of time. We expect everyone at Facebook to be good at finding the biggest problems to work on.

Move Fast

Moving fast enables us to build more things and learn faster. However, as most companies grow, they slow down too much because they’re more afraid of making mistakes than they are of losing opportunities by moving too slowly. We have a saying: “Move fast and break things.” The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough.

Be Bold

Building great things means taking risks. This can be scary and prevents most companies from doing the bold things they should. However, in a world that’s changing so quickly, you’re guaranteed to fail if you don’t take any risks. We have another saying: “The riskiest thing is to take no risks.” We encourage everyone to make bold decisions, even if that means being wrong some of the time.

Be Open

We believe that a more open world is a better world because people with more information can make better decisions and have a greater impact. That goes for running our company as well. We work hard to make sure everyone at Facebook has access to as much information as possible about every part of the company so they can make the best decisions and have the greatest impact.

Build Social Value

Once again, Facebook exists to make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company. We expect everyone at Facebook to focus every day on how to build real value for the world in everything they do.

________

Applying the Hacker Way of Management to e-Discovery

Hacker_pentagram

Focus on Impact

Law firms, corporate law departments, and vendors need to focus on solving the most important problems, the high costs of e-discovery and the lack of skills. The cost problem primarily arises from review expenses, so focus on that. The way to have the biggest impact here is to solve the needle in the haystack problem. Costs can be dramatically reduced by improving search. In that way we can focus and limit our review to the most important documents. This incorporates the search principles of Relevant Is Irrelevant and 7±2 that I addressed in Secrets of Search, Part III. My own work has been driven by this hacker focus on impact and led to my development of Bottom Line Driven Proportional Review and multimodal predictive coding search methods. Other hacker oriented lawyers and technologists have developed their own methods to give clients the most bang for their buck.

The other big problem in e-discovery is that most lawyers do not know how to do it, and so they avoid it altogether. This in turn drives up the costs for everyone because it means the vendors cannot yet realize large economies of scale. Again, many lawyers and vendors understand that lack of education and skill sets is a key problem and are focusing on it.

Move Fast

This is an especially challenging dictate for lawyers and law firms because they are overly fearful of making mistakes, of breaking things as Facebook puts it. They are afraid of looking bad and malpractice suits. But the truth is, professional malpractice suits are very rare in litigation. Such suits happen much more often in other areas of the law, like estates and trusts, property, and tax. As far as looking bad goes, they should be more afraid of the bad publicity from not moving fast enough, which is a much more common problem, one that we see daily in sanctions cases. Society is changing fast, if you aren’t too, you’re falling behind.

The problem of slow adoptions also afflicts the bigger e-discovery vendors who often drown in bureaucracy and are afraid to make big decisions. That is why you see individuals like me starting an online education program, while the big boys keep on debating. I have already changed my e-Discovery Team Training program six times since it went public almost two years ago. `Code wins arguments.’ Lawyers must be especially careful of the thinking Man’s disease, paralysis by analysis, if they want to remain competitive.

A few lawyers and e-discovery vendors understand this hacker maxim and do move fast. A few vendors appreciate the value of getting there first, but fewer law firms do. It seems hard for most of law firm management to understand that the risks of lost opportunities are far more dangerous and certain than the risks of a making a few mistakes along the way. The slower, too conservative law firms are already starting to see their clients move business to the innovators, the few law firms who are moving fast. These firms have more than just puffed-up websites claiming e-discovery expertise, they have dedicated specialists and, in e-discovery at least, they are now far ahead of the rest of the crowd. Will the slow and timid ever catch up, or will they simply dissolve like Heller Ehrman, LLP?

Be Bold

This is all about taking risks and believing in your visions. It is directly related to moving fast and embracing change; not for its own sake, but to benefit your clients. Good lawyers are experts in risk analysis. There is no such thing as zero-risk, but there is certainly a point of diminishing returns for every litigation activity that is designed to control risks. Good lawyers know when enough is enough and constantly consult with their clients on cost benefit analysis. Should we take more depositions? Should we do another round of document checks for privilege? Often lawyers err on the side of caution, without consulting with their clients on the costs involved. They follow an overly cautious approach wherein the lawyers profit by more fees. Who are they really serving when they do that?

The adoption of predictive coding provides a perfect example of how some firms and vendors understand technology and are bold, and others do not and are timid. The legal profession is like any other industry, it rewards the bold, the innovators who create new legal methods and law for the benefit of their clients. What client wants a wimpy lawyer who is over-cautious and just runs up bills? They want a bold lawyer, who at the same time remains reasonable, and involves them in the key risk-reward decisions inherent in any e-discovery project.

Be Open

In the world of e-discovery this is all about transparency and strategic lowering of the wall of work product. Transparency is a proven method for building trust in discovery. Select disclosure is what cooperation looks like. It is what is supposed to happen at Rule 26(f) conferences, but seldom does. The attorneys that use openness as a tool are saving their clients needless expense and disputes. They are protecting them from dreaded redos, where a judge finds that you did a review wrong and requires you to do it again, usually under very short timelines. There are limits to openness of course, and lawyers have an inviolate duty to preserve their client’s secrets. But that still leaves room for disclosure of information on your own methods of search and review when doing so will serve your client’s interests.

Build Social Value 

The law is not a business. It is a profession. Lawyers and law firms exist to do justice. That is their social value. We should never lose sight of that in our day-to-day work. Vendors who serve the legal profession must also support these lofty goals in order to provide value. In e-discovery we should serve the prime directive, the dictates of Rule 1, for just, speedy, and inexpensive litigation. We should focus on legal services that provide that kind of social value. Profits to the firm should be secondary. As Zuckerberg said in the letter to potential investors:

Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.

This social value model is not naive, it works. It eventually creates huge financial rewards, as a number of e-discovery vendors and law firms are starting to realize. But that should never be the main point.

Conclusion

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg should serve as an example to everyone, including e-discovery lawyers and vendors. I admit it is odd that we should have to turn to our youth for management guidance, but you cannot argue with success. We should study Zuckerberg’s 21st Century management style and Hacker Way philosophy. We can learn from its tremendous success. Zuckerberg and Facebook have proven that these management principles work in the digital age. It is true if it works. That is the pragmatic tradition of American philosophy. We live in fast changing times. Embrace change that works. As the face of Facebook says: “The riskiest thing is to take no risks.”

7 Responses to “The Hacker Way” – What e-Discovery Can Learn From Facebook’s Culture and Management

  1. Ralph – you have a wonderful ability to always create meaningful and insightful posts; and I love to quote you in my presentations! This post really hit home some very important points with your comparison to Mark Zuckerberg’s management philosophy. In particular, the importance of having the law firm space “catch up” with many other industries ability to leverage new technologies; taking meaningful risks geared at helping clients & lessening the burden on the already strained docket; and how, with educational programs like yours, the legal industry can be seen as truly innovative as well. Great job as always!

  2. [...] week in my blog “The Hacker Way” – What e-Discovery Can Learn From Facebook’s Culture and Management I brought Mark Zuckerberg’s Letter to Investors to your attention. The letter disclosed [...]

  3. Gilles de Saint-Exupéry ( @GildeStex ) says:

    Very interesting. Lawyers should follow the Hacker’s way, as Lawrence Lessig said «Code is law ».

  4. [...] Losey of the e-Discovery Team fired the first shot across the bow in a post entitled, “‘The Hacker Way’ -What e-Discovery Can Learn From Facebook’s Culture and Management.”  As per usual, Losey does a great job with this article and it is well worth a read.  In [...]

  5. [...] ingenious comparison between e-Discovery and the facebook "hacker culture" in his post: “The Hacker Way” – What e-Discovery Can Learn From Facebook’s Culture and Ma… where he [...]

  6. [...] and technology we have attained for our clients by this deal, is another example of this. See eg: “The Hacker Way” – What e-Discovery Can Learn From Facebook’s Culture and Management, and Impactful, Fast, Bold, Open, Values: Guidance of the [...]

  7. [...] ingenious comparison between e-Discovery and the Facebook “hacker culture” in his post: “The Hacker Way” – What e-Discovery Can Learn From Facebook’s Culture and Management, where he [...]

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