- Chris Cox, a beloved Facebook employee who quit a year ago amid clashes with Mark Zuckerberg, is returning.
- Cox and Zuckerberg disagreed with the direction of the company, including on plans to more closely integrate its apps.
- His return raises the question of what changed: Is Zuckerberg open to concessions, or did Cox change his mind?
- It will also help to alleviate tensions at the company, which is suffering from unprecedented employee unrest.
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There’s a huge unanswered question surrounding the return of one of Mark Zuckerberg’s most trusted lieutenants: Who backed down?
Chris Cox has rejoined Facebook as its chief product officer, a little over a year after he departed following clashes with the billionaire chief executive.
He returns at a crucial time for Facebook, as the company faces intense political pressure from both the left and the right, and dissatisfied employees are mounting an unprecedented public insurrection. Cox was well-liked at the company, a core steward of its culture, and his return has already been hailed by some critics and employees as a step in the right direction.
But in his first stint at Facebook, Cox was at odds with Zuckerberg over fundamental questions about the direction of the company’s products.
Cox’s exit, in March 2019, came as Zuckerberg was going public with his grand vision for the future of Facebook: a “pivot to privacy,” which entailed an ambitious effort to knit its apps together, allowing users of Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger to all talk to one another with added privacy protections.
Cox disagreed with Zuckerberg’s stance on this — arguing that the apps needed to retain their own distinctive identities. Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier detailed this clash of philosophies in her book about Instagram’s history, No Filter:
“Cox told Zuckerberg he needed to let the products build independently and not become too similar. ‘They’ll compete a bit with each other, but if we have more unique brands, we’ll be able to reach different kinds of users.’ He and [Instagram cofounder Kevin] Systrom had spoken extensively about using Harvard professor Clayton Christensen’s ‘jobs to be done’ theory of product development, which states that consumers ‘hire’ a product to do a certain task, and that its builders should be thinking about that clear purpose when they build. Facebook was for text, news, and links, for example, and Instagram was for posting visual moments and following interests.”
Here’s Christensen writing in more detail about his theory for Harvard Business Review in 2016:
“We all have many jobs to be done in our lives. Some are little (pass the time while waiting in line); some are big (find a more fulfilling career). Some surface unpredictably (dress for an out-of-town business meeting after the airline lost my suitcase); some regularly (pack a healthful lunch for my daughter to take to school). When we buy a product, we essentially “hire” it to help us do a job. If it does the job well, the next time we’re confronted with the same job, we tend to hire that product again. And if it does a crummy job, we “fire” it and look for an alternative. (We’re using the word “product” here as shorthand for any solution that companies can sell; of course, the full set of “candidates” we consider hiring can often go well beyond just offerings from companies.)”
It’s an approach that stands in contrast to Zuckerberg, who, Frier wrote, said he was “trying to build a global community—not a bunch of smaller communities.” This is how Zuckerberg wrote about his ambitions for the app in March 2019 — a more multi-modal approach where the apps become increasingly agnostic conduits for communication:
“People want to be able to choose which service they use to communicate with people. However, today if you want to message people on Facebook you have to use Messenger, on Instagram you have to use Direct, and on WhatsApp you have to use WhatsApp. We want to give people a choice so they can reach their friends across these networks from whichever app they prefer.We plan to start by making it possible for you to send messages to your contacts using any of our services, and then to extend that interoperability to SMS too. Of course, this would be opt-in and you will be able to keep your accounts separate if you’d like.”
Ultimately, there’s only one person who calls the shots at Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg. His plan went ahead, and Cox left.
A year later, and Facebook is at a pivotal moment in time. Hundreds of Facebook employees staged a virtual “walkout” from work in protest over its inaction on posts by Trump that Twitter said glorified violence, with dozens going so far as to publicly criticize Facebook on the issue — an unprecedented sign of dissent. Some even resigned.
These employees will now be closely watching Cox, to see how he grapples with the issues facing Facebook — and whether he has acquiesced to Zuckerberg’s line of thinking. (Cox has also been publicly critical of Trump in his time away from Facebook, saying he “should not be our president.”)
“This will be seen internally as positive — he’s extremely well-liked/loved/admired. And viewed as a bit of the conscience of the company,” said one former senior product employee. “His departure seemed to coincide with this harsh turn towards stances like anything goes on political speech. How his ‘conscience’ role stays consistent with [Facebook’s/Zuckerberg’s] current stance will be interesting to watch.”
Multiple current employees who spoke out publicly to criticize Facebook in recent weeks have already tweeted in support of Cox’s return. “OPTIMISM RISING,” wrote one. “Some good signs,” added another (while also referencing an expansion of Facebook’s chief diversity officer’s role and other initiatives discussed by Zuckerberg).
If Cox’s return is a sign that Zuckerberg might modify his approach, this may help placate the internal critics. Alternately, Cox’s explanations for how he made peace with the CEO’s decisions may also go a long way to comforting aggrieved employees.
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