Facebook tells employees, 'build something' -- with a table saw

With its new woodshop, Facebook hopes employees will chomp at the bit to build things that won't crash

Facebook's motto may be "move fast and break things," but the 3,000 employees at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California, now have the chance to do just the opposite.

To attract workers and keep them happy, the social network offers many well-known perks including free on-campus dining, a gym, and shuttle buses to and from San Francisco. But if those aren't cutting it, here's one that might do, literally: a woodshop.

The 3,000-plus square-foot facility houses more than a dozen pieces of machinery including table saws, lathes, drill presses, sanders and a laser engraver. The idea is to give employees an opportunity to exercise another part of their brain, get their creative juices flowing and build something beyond their usual output of webpages, mobile updates and other products that don't exist outside of a computer screen.

Facebook Woodshop (2)
Facebook's woodshop is chock-full of drilling, cutting and sanding machines.

And, Facebook hopes the shop will inspire employees to apply some new thinking to the jobs they were hired to do.

Hans Lintermans, a Facebook product manager in marketing, visits the woodshop at least once a week, sometimes during his lunch break, to work on any number of projects. On Thursday he was busy doing some polishing on a cutting board for cooking. Before that he made a two-by-six-foot table out of solid redwood he picked up from a local lumber yard.

Next on the list? Maybe a butcher block, the craftsman said.

Facebook is famous for its hackathons -- usually anything-goes, all-night coding workshops that are meant to spawn new product concepts and prototypes.

But the woodshop, Lintermans said, is just as exciting, if not more so. "It helps me to unwind and think outside the box," he said.

Some other Facebook employees are still making up their minds.

"It's a perk," said Sean Nicolay, a software engineer who had stepped in for an introductory three-hour training session on how to safely use the machines.

Ted Kalaw, another software engineer, called it an extension -- albeit a more hands-on one -- of the culture the company tries to foster around creativity.

The woodshop is located just off the busy boulevard of cyclists and walkers that bisects the company's main quad. It sits adjacent to Facebook's Analog Research Lab, a screen printing studio and workshop.

There are all sorts of stylized posters adorning the walls of Facebook's buildings, bearing corporate mantras like "Stay Focused and Keep Shipping," or "The Foolish Wait." The Analog Research Lab is where those posters and other "offline" handiwork is produced.

Think of the woodshop, then, as the 3-D cousin to that lab, with sawdust.

In a sense, the shop also symbolizes the end to a period of transition for Facebook -- it is housed in the last building to open its doors since the company moved its headquarters in 2011 from Palo Alto to nearby Menlo Park.

The woodshop also fits squarely into a movement popular in Silicon Valley known as "maker culture." It's a kind of do-it-yourself philosophy geared toward engineering-oriented pursuits like software development, robotics and 3-D printers, but there's no reason why good old-fashioned woodworking can't be included too.

The shop opened just under four months ago, and Facebook has some bigger plans for it. In addition to giving employees a new outlet to express themselves, the company wants to use the shop to quickly build things for events such as sales meetings, press mixers and internal gatherings, said spokesman Slater Tow.

"We hope that the woodshop will be helpful here when we need to create collateral for these [events] on the fly," he said.

To use the shop, employees must first complete some basic safety training. They can then sign up for classes to learn how to build things like household furniture items such as cabinets and drawers. The classes are usually small, with about six employees attending.

About 80 courses have been taught so far, and Facebook expects to expand the offerings as the end-of-year holiday season approaches.

Employees can use the machines for free, but they must purchase their own lumber, finishes, glues and other supplies -- at wholesale prices, Facebook said -- from the shop's in-house store.

For their first project, employees are encouraged to smart small, with a ballpoint pen. For these, the shop has boxes filled to the brim with small blocks of Brazilian rosewood, which were supplied by the local woodworking tools and supply store Woodcraft Supply.

Eric McCrystal is co-owner of that store and leads many of the classes at Facebook's woodshop. Employees have so far made 30 to 40 pens with the wood, he said.

Facebook's Tow also sees the shop as a recruiting tool to woo prospective job candidates.

It has good reason to open a woodshop for that purpose. Google, one of its biggest rivals, is located just down the road in Mountain View, and they have a workshop too. It's unclear what their pen output is.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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