Irish start-up established Facebook’s Silicon Valley campus in 1851

Two Irish men were behind the setting of Facebook’s creative and flexible hub

 Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

In 1851 two Irish emigrants Dennis J Oliver and his brother-in-law Daniel C McGlynn bought 1,700 acres 30 miles south of San Francisco and erected a gate bearing the inscription “Menlo Park” at the entrance. It was named after their former home of Menlough, or Menlo, in Co Galway.

They were drawn to California, like so many others at the time, by the discovery of gold in 1849. In 1863 the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad named a nearby station Menlo Park after the sign and around this station grew the town of same name. It now stands at the heart of the Silicon Valley, the world’s largest technology and new-media hub, and home to the greatest concentration of wealth on the US west coast.

“In effect, they were the original start-up,” said Peter Ohtaki, mayor of Menlo Park, of Oliver and McGlynn last year on a visit to Galway.

This start-up area has proved lucrative for the homeland of the emigrants who helped establish it. Silicon Valley is the source of 40 per cent of the foreign direct investment into Ireland from the US.

On Thursday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny stopped by One Hacker Way, the headquarters of Facebook, the €118 billion online social networking phenomenon that has 1.28 billion users around the globe.

Creative juices

The Menlo Park head office feels like a mixture of university campus, bohemian village and arts festival. At the entrance is a parking spot for “Expectant Mother” so pregnant employees don’t have to haul themselves across a large car park in the ever-present Californian sunshine.

The idea is a brainchild of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and a very public advocate for professional women juggling a family and career.

Inside the company’s one million square foot campus, between nine corporate buildings, is a road lined with businesses such as an ice-cream parlour, bike shop and woodworking workshop, making this look like a pleasant village.

About 4,000 people work here. Facebook has a global workforce of 6,500 staff, including about 400 people working in Dublin. All told, there are more than 50 nationalities represented in Menlo Park.

The workplace is set up to give the staff flexibility needed to help creative juices to flow. In Building 10, the first to be built when Facebook moved here in 2011, there is a lounge with couches and televisions. In another space, there is a viewing area set up with stadium-style “riser” seating to watch sports. Nearby is a popular table-tennis table.

The offices are open-plan to make sure each member of staff is accessible to collaboration.

Staff regularly bump into “Zuck,” Facebook’s billionaire co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, in the corridors and, if they don’t, they can hear him every Friday at a question-and-answer session for staff.

Employees come and go as they please and work hours that suit as long as they complete their projects and tasks. It’s all free and easy in this hip Silicon Valley corporate playground which oozes positivity and creativity.

The company’s famous thumbs-up “Like” icon, and encouraging slogans such as “Nothing at Facebook is somebody else’s problem”, are visible throughout.

The flexibility in hours allows employees with children to juggle work and family life, though oddly, for a place that prides itself on work-life balance, there are no on-site childcare facilities, perhaps reflecting the fact that the average age of Facebook staff is somewhere in the late 20s and early 30s.

“It is about getting the job done rather than the hours you work. You never feel you have to clock in or clock out,” said Ita Gildea from Cork who has worked for Facebook for four years, three in Dublin and one in Menlo Park.

‘Hackathons’

“I don’t think I have ever worked in an office as creative. People are always innovating and looking to improve and evolve,” said Philip Boyle from Donegal, who has worked for Facebook for three years and is one of about 30 Irish staff working on the Menlo Park campus.

The creativity is tapped effectively at “hackathons” where staff meet for 12-hour all-night stretches to brainstorm new ideas.

If their idea is good enough, the staff member will be tasked with developing it into a product or service, in effect becoming their own project manager. Facebook’s “Like” button, timeline and ability to “tag” people all grew out of “hackathons.”

One idea that an Irish Facebook employee suggested to the Taoiseach at a meet-and-greet on his visit was putting computer science on the primary and secondary school curriculums. Kenny responded by saying that the primary curriculum was “very crowded” at the moment.

Given Facebook’s success and how the Irish are climbing its corporate ladder, “hackathons” generating these kinds of ideas and making them a reality should be a regular feature in the Government’s timeline.

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