Why Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Returned to Writing Code

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Mark Zuckerberg, who had given up coding to focus on running the business, is returning to his roots.

Mark Zuckerberg has returned to writing code after a six-year hiatus from programming, a fact revealed in Bloomberg Businessweek’s story today on how the Facebook founder hacked the world of Silicon Valley.

Like many young entrepreneurs, Zuckerberg had given up coding to focus on running the business. So why did he recently decide to go back to his roots?

As startups compete for talent, having a technical CEO can help a company stand out as a place where engineers are valued. Facebook has built its corporate culture around what Zuckerberg calls “The Hacker Way,” and that has helped to make the social network one of the most desired places for programmers to work. As Facebook goes public and some of its best talent gets rich, having a chief executive willing to get his hands dirty with lines of code could inspire engineers to keep focused on building the site.

Some CEOs like to know code because it helps them set a realistic product strategy and communicate that to their teams.

“If you’re running a Web company, and you actually understand all the technologies that are involved, you have a really good sense of whether somebody is exaggerating completion times,” said Alex Rampell, chief executive of online advertising startup TrialPay.

Rampell, who studied computer science at Harvard and wrote much of the code underlying his service, still programs to get some projects going at the 120-person company and to keep his staffers honest.

“If you ask a group of engineers ‘how long will function X take,’ in some cases you’ll get back an answer that’s too long, and more often you’ll get an answer that’s too short,” he said.

Other tech leaders known for their hacking chops are Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Square who wrote the original code for Twitter; Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who built the Google search engine from their Stanford dorm room; Max Levchin, the former CEO of Slide; Drew Houston of Dropbox; and Adam D’Angelo of Quora.

These and other successful coders have helped set new expectations for the role of the CEO, said Aaron Levie, who runs online storage company Box.

“Business schools sort of create this vision of a CEO in a corner office far away from the actual work that’s getting done, and that can’t be further from the truth in the technology world,” he said.

Zuckerberg’s pledge to code every day of this year may be more of a personal challenge than a professional need (in recent years, he’s resolved to wear a tie every day, learn Mandarin and kill all the animals he eats). Even so, it could help him run Facebook and keep its cool factor as it becomes a publicly-traded giant.

–With assistance from Brad Stone in San Francisco.

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