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Mark Zuckerberg's faithful ally departs

Peter Griffin, Editor. 02 June 2022, 2:03 pm

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Meta and one of the original employees at Facebook is moving on from the company she had a strong hand in steering.

Sandberg ends a 14-year tenure at the company as a billionaire with a reputation as an astute tech executive who advocated for women but who lost influence over Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as the company was hit by increasingly damaging scandals.

In his Platformer newsletter, Silicon Valley commentator Casey Newton writes that Sandberg's time at Facebook can be divided into two distinct periods - 2008 to 2015 and 2016 to 2022.

The first period saw her arrive at the fledgling startup after a successful stint in the advertising business at Google. According to Newton, she was trusted with looking after the areas of Facebook that Zuckerberg considered less crucial to the company's success, such as policy development and communications.

He was more focused on growth and building the business model that would make Facebook such an advertising juggernaut. But Sandberg developed a reputation as offering adult supervision for a young CEO with huge ambition but a stated desire to "move fast and break things".

"For half a decade, fast-growing startups would talk openly about 'finding a Sheryl' to help them grow and mature. Sandberg was the blueprint," writes Newton.

sandberg.webp

Meta's retiring COO, Sheryl Sandberg

Then came two pivotal developments for Sandberg - the sudden death of her husband Dave Goldberg in 2015, followed by the 2016 US presidential election and the later revelations of the extent to which Russian operatives had attempted to use Facebook to manipulate the election in Donald Trump's favour.

As Facebook's reputation deteriorated with a slew of damaging scandals, from the Cambridge Analytica data privacy breach to last year's whistleblower revelations, many were asking why Sandberg appeared to be missing in action as the moderating influence on Zuckerberg she appeared to be in the company's early days.

"By the end Sandberg occupied a role that seemed to me quite small, for a leader of her stature: focused on overseeing the company's efforts to promote small businesses, encouraging them to use the company's ad tools. It felt more like a part-time consulting project than work befitting the COO," Newton sums up.

From the outside, it appears that Sandberg bears as much responsibility for Facebook's excesses as Mark Zuckerberg. She was, after all, in a position to know about the evidence of Facebook's own researchers were generating about the real harm the platform's algorithm-driven ad model was creating. She was often the one who updated Meta's investors on the state of the business.

But her sign off blog post echoes the sentiment that Zuckerberg has expressed with each new jaw-dropping anecdote of what has gone on behind the scenes at Facebook over the years.

'It hasn't always been easy'

"The debate around social media has changed beyond recognition since those early days. To say it hasn't always been easy is an understatement. But it should be hard," Sandberg wrote. 

"The products we make have a huge impact, so we have the responsibility to build them in a way that protects privacy and keeps people safe. Just as I believe wholeheartedly in our mission, our industry, and the overwhelmingly positive power of connecting people, I and the dedicated people of Meta have felt our responsibilities deeply."

In other words, a lot of crazy stuff when on, but we did our best and it was worth all the grief in the end.

Many will vigorously take issue with her sign-off statement. But Sandberg was clearly respected by her colleagues and by her peers in the tech sector. She will sail into the sunset with a war chest of Meta shares to splurge on philanthropic causes. Her successor, Javier Olivan, has been around at Meta even longer - 15 years, but has had virtually no profile.

But here's the clue to Meta's future priority - Olivan was formerly the company's chief growth officer. As Zuckerberg seeks to develop the Metaverse, he wants a lieutenant with a laser focus on winning. Don't expect any philosophical change in a company where the power very much resides in the hands of its founder. 


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