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Meta’s New COO Is Nothing Like Sheryl Sandberg

Meta’s New COO Is Nothing Like Sheryl Sandberg

Hey, folks. We’re deadlocked on gun safety, the Ukraine war still grinds on, and a gallon of gas is approaching the price of an Ethereum gas fee. At least we don’t have to deal with Johnny Depp for another week.

The Plain View

Javier Olivan had a problem. It was the early 2010s, and his team at Facebook, growth, was in charge of messaging. Yes, that sounds nonintuitive and weird, but growth was (and still is) the company’s driving force, and that team had an infinitely broad mandate. Basically anything that led people to Facebook, or kept people on Facebook, was fair game. Messaging qualified because, as Olivan once put it, “it was a tap inside Facebook.” If someone sent you a message, and you weren’t on the service, you’d be motivated to sign up.

But the problem, flagged by the company’s relentless use of data and analytics, was that messaging was buried inside the Facebook app. When users got a message, they wouldn’t know it, because the notification would get lost in the blitz of other things Facebook was bothering them about. “It might be the 17th notification,” he said when I interviewed him in March 2019. So Olivan and his team came up with a bold solution: “It would be better to take the messaging experience outside the app and make it its own app.” This defied conventional wisdom, which holds that you should make everything easier for users. Olivan’s plan was a form of extortion: If you wanted to send a message, tough boogies—unless you downloaded the company’s new messaging platform. “Users in the short term really hated it, because all of the sudden you had to install another app,” he told me. But ultimately they did. And not only did messaging take off, but the company ultimately grew it into a separate billion-user social service. “Data said it was the right thing to do,” he told me. “We did it with the best intentions, and now Messenger is an extremely successful application.”

Victories like that have led 44-year-old Olivan to increasingly high positions at the company, culminating in this week’s announcement that he would become Meta’s new chief operating officer, the top aide to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But the promotion seemed almost a footnote to the impending departure of current COO Sheryl Sandberg, the only person to hold that post to date. Sandberg left Facebook in characteristic fashion, with each element of the announcement painstakingly choreographed. She prepared a 1,500-word post that came preloaded with loving accolades from past and present Facebookers, with Zuckerberg leading the parade as “most relevant.” She gave interviews to selected media organizations. And in the wake of her impending departure—she’ll give up her badge this autumn but remain on the board of directors—she generated dozens of hot takes and think pieces, many of them loaded with brutal assessments of her tenure. (Here’s what I wrote.)

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Also true to form, Olivan himself gave no interviews. In a rather anodyne post about his promotion, he implicitly acknowledged one huge difference between Sandberg and him: “I’ve primarily been behind-the-scenes,” he wrote. A paucity of press clips speaks to that. I had to push hard to get that conversation with him for my book a few years ago. But when we finally met, he was cordial and straightforward. His conference room was dominated by a full-size surfboard, reflecting his passion for the outdoors. That and his love of parasailing are among the few things that an internet search reveals about him. I found nothing on his family life, but he mentioned to me that, like his boss Mark Zuckerberg, he has two young daughters. You won’t see many pictures of them on his Facebook page. And his Instagram account is private. Only 17 people follow it.

One of those followers is his boss. Zuckerberg himself had inspired Olivan to join Facebook. In 2005, after spending a few years working on Siemens’ cell phones, the Spanish-born engineer, hailing from a small town in the Pyrenees, decided to attend business school at Stanford. He took a class that examined case studies of new ventures, including Facebook. Olivan was already a fan of the young company and was even planning to start a similar company in Spain and Latin America. At one point, Zuckerberg came to the class, and Olivan spoke to him afterward, asking the CEO about international growth. In 2007, Olivan became a Facebook employee—working on that very product.


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