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How Mark Zuckerberg keeps Facebook's 18,000+ employees innovating: ‘Is this going to destroy the company? If not, let them test it.’

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook has a current market capitalization of $440 billion and 18,770 employees (as of March 31). But to maintain its dominance, the tech giant has to aggressively innovate, hacker style.

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has built a company culture that encourages risk-taking, allowing his engineers to constantly try new software builds.

"I figure out what the high-level directions I think we should go in are, who are the best people to work on those things, but then on a day-to-day basis, a lot of the decisions I am making are, 'Okay, is this going to destroy the company? Because if not, then let them test it,'" says Zuckerberg, on Reid Hoffman's Masters of Scale podcast.

"If the cost of the test isn't going to be super high, then in general, we are going to learn a lot more by experimenting and letting the teams go and explore the things that are worth exploring than by having a heavy hand in that," he explains.

Facebook engineers all have the ability to build tweaks to the software and then test them on a group of between 10,000 and 50,000 users to get analytics on the experiments.

"At any given point in time, there isn't just one version of Facebook running, there are probably 10,000," says Zuckerberg, of the constant iterating. "Any engineer at the company can decide they want to test something. There are some rules on sensitive things but in general an engineer can test something."

Hiring smart, ambitious people and then giving them the freedom to run their own experiments means that the platform is constantly in various stages of innovation. It also means that things can go wrong.

"A lot of the decisions I am making are, 'Okay, is this going to destroy the company? Because if not, then let them test it.'" -Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook

Like in 2008. That summer, an intern named Ben accidentally took Facebook's entire site down while trying to test a solution for a bug. Zuckerberg later hired Ben.

To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be willing to be embarrassed, says Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn. "Every entrepreneur must walk this fine line between fixable and fatal. The important thing is you push your experimentation to the limit."

That's because the potential downsides of mistakes are not as bad as missed opportunities for innovation, Zuckerberg and Hoffman agree.

"When you are building internet software that you can change every day, I think there really is something to the strategy of just learn and go as quickly as you can, even if not every single release is perfect," says Zuckerberg. "I think you are going to end up doing better over a year or two than you would be if you had just waited to get feedback for a year of all your ideas.

"So that's really core. I think more than any single product that we are working on at this point, that focus on learning quickly is the strategy of the company."

"The same instincts that make us good students can make us lousy entrepreneurs." -Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn

It's not always an easy adjustment. It can be hard for people who are used to succeeding to move fast and make mistakes.

"High-achieving people have a tendency to be perfectionists and the same instincts that make us good students can make us lousy entrepreneurs," says Hoffman.

But embracing this hacker-inspired philosophy is key to keeping teams nimble and to innovation.

"I think the strategy of Facebook is to learn as quickly as possible what our community wants us to do, and that encourages a culture that encourages people to try things and test things and fail," says Zuckerberg.

See also:

Mark Zuckerberg: Success comes from 'the freedom to fail,' so billionaires like me should pay you to do that

Mark Zuckerberg: 'The idea of a single eureka moment is a dangerous lie'

What Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is more afraid of than screwing up his $438 billion company