Foursquare Tries a Bicoastal Approach to Engineering
Some companies are almost entirely virtual, like blog host Automattic. Others grow through acquisitions, like what Groupon is doing in the Bay Area — piecing together a tech team thousands of miles from its Chicago headquarters. Another strategy is to build strategic outposts, like Facebook’s new engineering office in New York.
But remote collaboration isn’t a given. Tumblr, even as it scales up its team to deal with massive growth, is loyal to New York. Founder and CEO David Karp recently said that half of his recent hires have relocated from the West Coast to work at Tumblr.
Foursquare is trying yet another approach. Eight months ago, the New York City-based company opened a second office in San Francisco. That’s not terribly unusual for a company of Foursquare’s age and size, as the greater Silicon Valley area is a good place to meet with venture capitalists and recruit top coders who like hip location apps and big data.
What’s not so normal is the way Foursquare has set up its operations. The San Francisco office has 20 people, most of them engineers, out of 100 total Foursquare employees. Rather than tackling specific projects from a specific location, Foursquare engineering teams are split between the two offices.
As part of this effort, Foursquare recently appointed Benjy Weinberger its San Francisco Engineering Site Lead. Weinberger is not exactly a manager, he told AllThingsD, though along with his personal engineering work on Foursquare infrastructure he’s also focused on making local hires.
Previously, Weinberger was at Google for eight years, where he helped establish the search company’s Tel Aviv office, and briefly joined Twitter before coming to Foursquare last year to work on infrastructure.
So how does this bicoastal thing work? Through a fancy always-on Cisco videoconference system that Foursquare folks refer to as “The Portal,” the company holds stand-up meetings and constantly ambiently keeps in touch. It’s common to see people walking around the office carrying iPads, using FaceTime to include collaborators from across the country, Weinberger said.
Employees at all levels of the company are encouraged to fly to the other coast and experience how the other half lives, he added. Not all products have team members in both offices — the iOS team, for example, happens to all be in New York — but many do.
Asked whether it wouldn’t be more effective to focus the relatively small San Francisco office together as a team on specific projects, Weinberger replied, “Code doesn’t care where it’s written.”
Weinberger — who’s rather un-scruffy for a start-up guy, and writes screenplays in his spare time — said “The Portal” works great. He said the only problem is nobody’s figured out a way to transport a burrito through the system (presumably, from San Francisco to New York; I can’t imagine the other direction would be worth the effort).
Weinberger said he aims to more than double the San Francisco office team size before the end of the year. Foursquare Head of Talent Morgan Missen added she was particularly pleased that the SF office will soon bring in its first female engineers. Three such women, actually, are due to start in the coming weeks, she said.
The hardest thing so far about Foursquare’s bicoastal set-up is merging the pockets of casual communication and collaboration that happen when people are in the same place, Weinberger said.
Or as Missen described it, with a bit of wistfulness: People in the San Francisco office and New York office don’t always know each other’s inside jokes.