Harvard’s course CS50, Introduction to Computer Science, is now the largest undergraduate course at the school, with almost 900 enrolled in it this past fall. The school makes the lectures for the course freely available online, which makes it a great resource if you want to learn about computer science without actually having to get into (or pay for) Harvard. CS50’s archived videos are also great because of some of the historic lectures that they captured like, for example, the time ten years ago when Mark Zuckerberg came back to his alma mater to lecture to CS50.
In December, 2005 Zuckerberg, who enrolled at Harvard in 2002 and studied computer science and psychology before leaving to work on Facebook full time shortly after it launched in February 2004, came back as a guest lecturer for CS50 (which apparently he did in sandals). Facebook was still in its infancy, but growing fast. It was still only open to students at select colleges and high schools and it wasn’t until the following year, in September 2006, that Facebook was opened to the general public. So, at the time he spoke at Harvard, Zuckerberg was the founder of something quite promising, but not yet the behemoth it has since become.
Likewise, at the time, interest in computer science as a major wasn’t nearly what it is now. In the fall of 2006, the year after this video was made, enrollment in CS50 was only about 130 students. That, and Facebook’s youth, certainly helps to explain the very sparse crowd in attendance that you can see in the video.
Zuckerberg was there to, ostensibly, talk about computer science but he mostly spoke about the birth of Facebook and the early issues, both technical and otherwise, the company was dealing with at the time. During the Q&A, despite Zuckerberg’s repeated requests for whether anybody had any actual computer science-related questions, most of the questions from the students were about the business side of things.
The lecture and discussion go on for just over an hour and Zuckerberg gives us some interesting insight into the state of Facebook in those early days. Here are some highlights that I found interesting:
- One of the biggest architectural choices they had to make early on was how to scale for growth. Zuckerberg credits their decision to create separate MySQL instances for each school in the network as one that he said “contributed to us not dying a few months later.”
- At the time of the lecture, Zuckerberg said that Facebook was already getting a 400 million page views per day, compared to 250 million for Google.
- Zuckerberg said that, even at this early date in Facebook’s history, he was already spending most of his time hiring people.
- In those early days, with only 50 employees, Zuckerberg used to hold what he called “CEO office hours,” in which employees could drop by and chat him up about what they were working on. I’m guessing it’s not that easy anymore to get an audience with him.
- In what turned out to be a good case of foreshadowing, one student asked about whether the company was thinking about privacy issues. Zuckerberg responded with a lengthy response about their thinking on the topic and ultimately professed the company’s concern about it. “We care about it, because if people feel like their information isn't private, then that screws us in the long term, too,” he said.
The whole video is a fascinating watch, particularly for tech history buffs. It’s also a great snapshot of a time before most of us had heard of Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg, if you can believe (or remember when) such a time ever existed. Watch and enjoy!