Almost Famous: Ethan Beard of Facebook
In a feature of “Almost Famous” that we’ve dubbed “Need to Know,” All Things Digital talks with top players inside tech companies–much as we talk to emerging entrepreneurs–who are perhaps not as prominent as their influence suggests, but who should be.
This week: We friended Ethan Beard, director of the Facebook Developer Network, and had a sit-down with him at the social networking company’s Silicon Valley HQ to talk about–of course–the importance of platforms.
Who: Ethan Beard
What: Director of the Facebook Developer Network
Why: After stints in investment banking, Viacom (VIA) music service MTV Networks and most recently, Google (GOOG), Ethan made the move to Facebook almost two years ago.
Who Else: Everyone has been trying to spread social graphs deeper into the Web, but Facebook dominates.
Five Stats You Won’t Find in His Facebook Profile:
Worst Job: I worked one summer for the United States Postal Service, sorting mail at a post office in Bangor, Maine. Yeah, that was pretty bad. Basically, it was just endless piles of mail that you had to sort into different little holes. And you’d have, like, your timed break, 10 minutes every couple of hours or something. You’d deal with these unionized people who’d been working at the post office forever, who would smoke cigarettes and play cribbage during their 10 minutes and then back to sorting.
Has a Geek Crush on: In the tech world, I’m a big fan of Alan Kay, both because he’s super geeky and super thoughtful.
Gadget of the Moment: Well, when I was at Google, I worked a lot with early Android stuff, so I’m very intrigued by the Nexus One. I’d like to get my hands on one, but haven’t yet.
What Do You Hope the Upcoming magic Apple (AAPL) Tablet Will Do?: Respond to my emails. Or at least delete some of them.
Fails At: I’m a miserable snowboarder. That’s not a good answer though. My wife would say that I never seem to stop working.
Bio in 140 Characters
Hails from Winterport, Maine. Got schooled at Wharton and NYU. He did time at an investment bank. Left for MTV, Google and now Facebook.
The Five Questions
We’ve heard “It’s not just a Web site, it’s a platform” before. What is Facebook offering today that sets it apart?
The Facebook platform is actually very different than many platforms that have come in the past. The app platform is actually a lot more like standard platforms. It’s a development environment with lots of different UI elements you can integrate and build this experience. But really, what we’ve done with Facebook Connect is change Facebook platform to make it cross-platform.
Facebook platform is on Facebook.com, but it’s on lots of other Web sites: It’s on mobile devices; we’re pushing into gaming consoles. It’s less about a place you can build an application and more about features and functions you can add to any platform. We want to give users the tools and technology that allow them to connect with anything they care about, anywhere they are.
What industries haven’t caught on yet, or could be using social connection tools much better than they are today?
I’d point to two things. I think the media consumption space is changing very rapidly, like the TV industry is changing very rapidly. I mean, NBC is being sold not for NBC, but for all the cable assets in it. The printed news businesses is just being turned on its ear. I think there are some really great opportunities for layering in the social graph that could affect consumption habits. It can bring a different lens to what is news. Also, I’d love to be able to go to Pandora and see the stations my friends are listening to. I have some specific friends who are great at picking music. What we want to do with Facebook platform is tie those two together, so I can connect with that friend who always picks great music.
I think the DVR is a good example [of the possibilities]. I would like to be able to see what my friends are watching and interact with them based on that.
Yeah, let’s talk music for a second. I looked at your Facebook profile and saw all these bands and said to myself, “Either this guy has a music-savvy intern in his office who went to college in the 2000s and made this profile for him or he is a legit music fan.” Which is it?
I’m a big fan of music. A huge fan. I don’t really remember what’s on there. Probably Radiohead, the Decembrists, the Killers, maybe Sufjan Stevens. I like to stay current. I just bought a Sonos music player. I love having it all at my fingertips, with a little touchscreen.
Lots of big-time geeks have some strong memories of early experiences with technology. Do you have an “ah-ha” tech moment like that?
Yeah, sure, absolutely. So, when I went to college–this is a couple of decades ago now, pre-Web–my father, who worked at a university, gave me a 1200-baud modem when no one had modems. You’re probably going to read some deep-rooted psychology into this, but he was like, “This is how we’re going to communicate–we’re obviously not going to see each other and don’t expect me to talk on the phone with you. You should be sending me email.” And so, in 1990, I had this modem, and there wasn’t anything you could do with it except like log on to university computers.
There was Telnet and FTP. I didn’t need to go to the lab. I could log into Michigan’s computer from right here in my dorm room at two o’clock in the morning, which is what I tended to do. I’d log on and try to download some random shareware at two in the morning at 1200 baud, which basically meant leaving your computer on overnight, getting up in the morning, seeing that it had failed and trying again.
You’ve seen all kinds of arenas tap into the social space. What has been the sleeper hit for Facebook?
I’m gonna say the games. They didn’t catch us by surprise, but their size, success and the success of the gaming companies wasn’t something that we all saw coming. That was one that, in retrospect, makes a lot of sense, but wasn’t one that we all saw coming. Currently, I’m addicted to Bejeweled. It’s like crack on the iPhone, it’s 60 seconds long, and you’ll look at the score and realize that your mom has a higher score than you. Its not like FarmVille, where you can just say to yourself, “Well, she just has more time to farm.” It’s the same 60 seconds, so its just about how good you are.