The Curious Case of Facebook's Benjamin Ling and Sheryl Sandberg
Here’s one certainty in the hubbub that has resulted in the wake of the departure of high-profile exec Ben Ling from Facebook last week: COO Sheryl Sandberg is definitely not responsible for the melting of the polar ice caps.
That’s the joking question–”Was global warming Sandberg’s fault too?”–asked at a staff meeting at the social-networking start-up last Friday afternoon after the news of Ling’s departure on the heels of previous employee exits suddenly morphed into a series of increasingly vituperative posts on the Valleywag tech gossip site centering on what blogger Owen Thomas called Sandberg’s “reign of terror” at Facebook.
Using Photoshopped images–one of Sandberg wielding a rifle and another with the bright-red word, “LIAR,” plastered under her mug–the vaguely sexist and decidedly over-the-top picture painted was of Sandberg (at right) as some unholy cross of Lady Macbeth, the bad side of Hillary Clinton and a really grumpy fascist dictator of a small third-world country.
“She demands total loyalty, and brooks no dissent–even the healthy, boisterous debate that’s common to start-ups,” wrote Thomas dramatically, as if Sandberg might really use that fake rifle on errant minions. “You’re either with Sheryl, or you’re against Sheryl. And if you’re against Sheryl, you’re not long for Facebook.”
Owen, you have now officially scared the bejesus out of BoomTown with that added dash of Rosa Klebb!
(And, of course, this image conveniently leaves out the very pertinent fact that Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is still firmly and much more militantly in charge at Facebook than ever before, but we will get to that later.)
In any case, Valleywag used all of this to postulate that Sandberg’s insane reaction to Ling’s leaving–complete with a sneaky-sounding stock bribe to buy his silence–was evidence of her mad grab for power over all of Facebook.
The talented and strong-willed Ling was portrayed in an odd way too, as some sort of whiny victim of circumstances he was unable to control.
Except–while BoomTown likes a good “Tom and Jerry” cartoon as much as the next person–it’s a deeply inaccurate portrayal of Sandberg, who arrived at Facebook in March; of what happened with regard to Ling; and most of all, of the often-painful growing-up process that has actually been occurring inside of Facebook.
The Ling incident is, in fact, a perfect example of this.
According to multiple sources from all sides, Ling (pictured here) was offered the choice of resigning or being terminated last Monday, and he and Facebook senior management wrangled over how he would leave the company and announce his return to Google (GOOG)–in a big job at its YouTube division, in fact. But the true story of his departure is highly typical of how small, promising Web companies stumble forward.
From mismanaging expectations related to Ling’s job after his arrival from Google last fall (after Facebook widely touted the new recruit), to constant shifts in how the company was organized, to a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings on both sides, the curious case of Benjamin Ling and Sheryl Sandberg is–more than anything–completely human.
Which is to say, it is a bit of a mess.
Here’s what I found out, after spending the weekend talking to as many people with knowledge of the situation as possible, in a very long report:
To begin, as someone who has been consistently tough on the company for its insane valuation, criticized its sometimes ham-handed management and pressed it to show the true path to sustainable monetization, I think I cannot be considered a cheerleader for Facebook or for its shifting management.
Thus, I and many others looked closely at the recent departures of CTO Adam D’Angelo (to take time off) in May and longtime exec Matt Cohler in June (to become a VC at Benchmark Capital) with a gimlet eye.
Looking further, I learned from several sources that the 20-something D’Angelo had issues with the company inevitably becoming larger and more bureaucratic, and there were also questions about his ability to run the much larger and increasingly complicated technical organization.
The sudden exit of Cohler (pictured here), who had become Facebook’s VP of Product Management, had an even a more complex set of variables, sources said, including his longtime interest in being a VC, the highly attractive offer he got from Benchmark and, most of all, his lack of interest in running a much larger organization.
While some say Cohler–who was, in fact, key to bringing Sandberg in–quickly grew disillusioned with her and the direction of Facebook, it seems a bit of a stretch to me to say he left because of her.
As Zuckerberg’s earliest and most trusted of execs, who is also well-liked by all, Cohler had as much–if not more–power as Sandberg over the organization. More likely, I imagine Cohler would have stayed if he thought she was laying waste to the place.
In any case, the arrival of Sandberg–followed quickly by the hiring of former Google PR head Elliot Schrage–heralded massive changes and an eventual path to an IPO for Facebook, a journey that not everyone welcomed, to be sure.
With their much more disciplined and controlling management styles, highly polished Harvard, Washington, D.C. and Google resumes, and obviously sharper edges, Sandberg and Schrage (pictured here) represented a contrast to earlier, less-intense times that not everyone at Facebook has liked.
Many execs–used to the chaos of jostling for attention and power from the close-to-the-vest Zuckerberg, whose attention to various employees seems to always wax and wane–also resisted a No. 2 in charge.
Typical was discontent from Technical Operations VP Jonathan Heiliger, whom many sources pointed to because of his vocal complaints around the company and around Silicon Valley about Sandberg’s more brusque and meddlesome style.
(Heiliger now gets along better with Sandberg, according to many, as do many execs previously wary of the new regime.)
Interestingly, Ling was not in this disgruntled camp, having known Sandberg from Google and hoped her arrival would clarify his growing disappointment with the job he thought he had been hired for.
According to many sources, Ling thought his job as director of platform product marketing, as described to him by Zuckerberg and others who recruited him in the fall of 2007, would be much more expansive than it turned out to be.
And, indeed, the letter from his new boss, Chamath Palihapitiya, heralding his arrival seemed to indicate that Ling would have a lot of responsibility:
Please join me in welcoming Ben to Facebook as our Director of Platform Product Marketing, working on my team. He joins us from Google where he was the General Manager of eCommerce, where he ran Google Product Search and Google Checkout and was the founder of Google Checkout. Ben also led the mobile efforts at Google in 2004, where he launched Google SMS. Prior to Google, Ben received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University.
Ben is responsible for overseeing Platform aspects of Product Management, Product Marketing, Technical Support, and Partner Solutions.
Zuck, D’Angelo and I are psyched to have Ben on board. *BLING*, as he is known to his friends, sits on the 2nd floor of 156 if you want to come by and introduce yourself.
It was a wide swath of duties, which seemed to indicate that Ling was, in essence, the lead manager of the platform.
This turned out not to be the case, as Facebook runs more as a “functional” organization rather than a “cross-functional” one, which is to say, no one manager is in charge of all the many parts it takes to get a product out the door.
For someone like Ling, sources said, the lack of structure meant chaos and no clear lines of accountability, and he pressed his bosses for more definition of his role.
For their part, sources said, those execs–Palihapitiya (pictured here) and then Cohler–felt Ling was too interested in internal politics, his title and control rather than in taking the lead in a more organic way. They also felt Ling, while a good executor of tasks, lacked the vision to be the overall manager of the platform.
Whether they ever did anything about it, of course, remains unclear, except for the fact that this kind of thing happens a lot all over Silicon Valley.
Let me just stop here then, because one can go round and round with this kind of wrangling over job performance issues and never be able to determine who exactly is to blame.
But it is safe to say Ling was not happy with Facebook and Facebook was not happy with Ling.
When Schrage was put in charge of platform marketing (and not in charge of the platform itself, as many have misconstrued, since he is decidedly nontechnical), the controversial move caused more problems and threw Ling’s status into even more confusion.
Ling and many others did not like the move, of course, but Ling did go to Schrage to share his disappointment and then took his gripes to Sandberg.
That, from what I can tell, is where things went most awry.
In that meeting about 10 days ago, Ling told her that Google had been tring to recruit him and that he was unhappy with the structure of the Facebook organization. According to those who back Ling, he was not making a threat, but seeking advice.
That is not the way those at Facebook see it. “Ben wanted a bigger job, and he was using the prospect of going to Google as a hammer,” said one person. “But he was not doing a good enough job with what he had been running to make such demands.”
Sandberg said she would discuss it with other senior execs, most especially Zuckerberg, and get back to Ling with some answers on Monday.
That was when discontent with Ling bubbled up among his managers, and suddenly a series of smaller slights and problems with Ling added up, and not in his favor.
Curiously, although Facebook sources claim they were dissatisfied with Ling’s work, there seems to have been exactly zero effort to remove him before he revealed the Google offer.
Nonetheless, all now agreed that Ling should not have the larger job, especially if he was also considering a job at rival Google–although, once again, it is not clear that he actually asked for a larger role within Facebook.
What has been lost in this story, though, is that the final decision came from Zuckerberg (pictured here), who was irked by Ling’s demands and his perceived disloyalty.
Sandberg and Schrage came back to Ling on Monday of last week with a startling decision: He could either resign immediately and write an email to his staff announcing it or he would be terminated by them that night and they would announce it.
Ling was, many sources said, flabbergasted that what he thought was an attempt to get some clarity had turned into this. His detractors maintained he was threatening Facebook by dangling the Google offer.
Ling wrote his letter to staff, and news of his departure leaked by the next day, both to me and VentureBeat’s Eric Eldon.
In my post, Ling did not say he resigned under pressure, nor did Facebook say it was about to fire him if he did not resign.
“I have huge respect for Elliot and work well with him,” Ling told me. “Facebook is a tremendous organization, and I would not leave it if it were not for a great opportunity.”
Facebook’s statement said, in part: “Facebook confirms that Ben Ling will be leaving the company in the coming weeks to pursue other interests. We wish him well and appreciate his great contributions to the early success of Facebook Platform.”
No surprise, but things got worse when the discussions quickly turned to the terms of his departure. Ling was only a few months away from his “cliff” for vesting one-quarter of the equity he got for coming to Facebook.
Facebook offered to either accelerate that completely or even make an offer of some of those shares, but only if Ling stayed on the Facebook payroll–taking a two-month vacation–and did not accept an offer from Google or anyone else in that time period.
In addition, deeply sensitive to the perception of a high-profile Google hire going back to the mother ship, Facebook wanted the deal to include a provision barring an immediate announcement that Ling would return to the search giant.
Obviously, given that the original story had been all about talent leaving Google to come to Facebook, the opposite was a much less palatable plot.
Still, this kind of request to refrain from going right to work for a competitor in exchange for shares is not untypical, and companies almost always ask for strict nondisparagement clauses.
But in the hothouse blogging environment of today, of course, to ask for help stopping such news from leaking is like asking to hold back the ocean waves. External optics on Ling’s departure clearly became too much of a focus of Sandberg, Schrage and others.
More to the point, although he did consider delaying acceptance of the job at Google, even though there were other contenders for the position, Ling did not want to agree to Facebook’s messaging about his departure.
Said one Ling supporter: “How could he guarantee that someone was not going to find out and then he would have had to tell a lie about his plans? Especially, given that Facebook is the leakiest place in the Valley?”
Good point and thank goodness! Valleywag wrote about Ling lunching at Google and I wrote of the details of Ling’s new YouTube job on Friday.
Facebook sources, though, said Ling threatened to badmouth the company if they did not pony up. “He insinuated he was going to talk badly about all of us, and we did not want to deal with him acting like that,” said one source.
Sources supportive of Ling said this was not the case and that he was not ever going to impugn Facebook, although Ling was, of course, unhappy.
“Why they didn’t give him some credit for his work and align his interests with theirs by being more generous is a mystery to all of us,” said one Facebook exec, who noted that Ling was prominently featured onstage in the most recent rollout of platform changes at Facebook. “His fall from grace makes you think anyone could go from valued employee to bum pretty quickly.”
Other sources at Facebook disagree, noting Ling was simply a hire who did not pan out as expected and that the fault was in not dealing with the issue sooner.
They also note that the company would never have agreed to put Ling prominently onstage if they had known he was considering a move to Google.
But once again, if Facebook was unhappy with Ling’s work, why put him onstage at all?
It’s hard to get a good answer to that question, which–to me–underscores the disorganization around Ling’s leaving.
“Ben is a really smart guy and Google is probably a better place for him,” said one Facebook exec. “He will probably do well, but he did not do well here.”
Actually, neither Facebook nor Ling did very well in dealing with the disintegration of the relationship.
Ling got a new job at YouTube and a fat signing bonus, but no Facebook shares, some of which he probably deserved for his work on the platform.
And Facebook learned yet another hard lesson about growing up. It is doubtless going to be one of many, many to come.
Please see this disclosure related to me and Google.