Writer of code, fixer of all things electronic, dispenser of inappropriate humor, enemy of grooming and formal clothing, and friend to all furry creatures, Toli works hard, sleeps even harder, but always makes time for family and the important things in life. Things like eating cheese, reading obscure legal documents, and trying to talk Christine into watching reruns of Star Blazers.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I grew up in Greece, and left in 1989 to study at Stanford University in California. I finished my Bachelor’s, and then proceeded to start my PhD thinking that I wanted to be a professor someday. A few short years after that, and as I saw one classmate after another join the Internet boom of the 90’s, my greed got the better of me and thus I put an academic career on hold (and it is still on hold). So I dropped out of the Ph.D., got a Master’s as a consolation prize, and co-founded a company. That got me hooked onto early-stage companies (startups), so I pursued a series of them, as either a founder or early participant: three of them did well, and two failed miserably; the successes gave me confidence, the failures taught me humility. In most cases I’ve taken on engineering, rather than management roles. The subject matter has varied from orthodontics and eating disorders to high-frequency trading. As my wife jokes, I have a case of “Professional Attention Deficit Disorder.”
On the subject of my spouse, I am married to the best wife ever, and I have the best dog ever. Our little house in Texas is in an area where the nature and weather are very similar to that of the southern Peloponnese. While I enjoy my work tremendously, we have taken significant time off as a family to travel to and volunteer in Hawaii, Vietnam, and elsewhere, including three wonderful months spent at a yoga retreat where I repaired toilets, my wife cleaned them, and, in return, we both took unlimited yoga classes.
You are scheduled to talk at TEDxAcademy this fall along with many distinguished guest speakers. What should the audience expect to hear?
The audience should expect to hear amazing and mind-altering insights… from the other guest speakers. From me, however, they will just get a handful of observations into the unique culture of Silicon Valley startups. Startups vary a lot, but most share some common cultural elements such as: the willingness to take a risk in the pursuit of large, and highly uncertain, rewards; the strong bonds of trust between participants; the almost maniacal dedication to the company in its early phases; and, a desire to realize some ideals, such as not being evil (Google) or open collaboration (FB). In my talk, I’ll cover those cultural elements of startups which I feel are most relevant for Greek firms, policy-makers, and individuals as Greece attempts to reboot its economy. Though to be perfectly honest, the real reason I am giving a talk at TEDxAcademy is to get to hear all the other amazing speakers for free.
How did you end up working in Facebook and what is it like working for Facebook?
From my background, it should be obvious that I prefer startups to big companies. Yet when Facebook (FB)’s Head of Engineering –whom I knew from Stanford and subsequent collaborations – contacted me and asked me to apply to FB, it was my personal respect for him that made me reconsider. As I found out through the interview process two years ago, FB was (even then) a big company, yet it maintained (and still does) some elements of startups which appeal to me. So, when they extended an offer, I accepted it (and declined Google’s).
A key way in which FB resembles a startup is that the impact which a single engineer can have on the company is substantial, as is the degree of an engineer’s autonomy and latitude granted to innovate. This means that new FB features, be they improvements to the front-end user interface or back-end infrastructure are not exclusively driven by top-down efforts; individual engineers are also often the source and driving force behind such leaps forward.
Spiderman learned that “with great power there must also come great responsibility”. Similarly, FB engineers are held to high standards of performance, which includes not only one’s individual contribution in the realm of software, but offering assistance to other employees in FB’s strongly collaborative culture.
To my great disappointment, however, FB does not provide Spiderman suits to its employees.
Nevertheless, it offers a wealth of other benefits such as health benefits, free on-campus meals, equity within its compensation packages, and many more.
Can you tell us what research/work do you currently conduct at Facebook (or is this confidential?)
My focus is image processing. More than 350 million photos are uploaded every single day onto FB, and many, many more are being viewed by FB users. These photos originate from a variety of media (snapshot cameras of all sorts of types, smartphone cameras, scanners, etc.), and they all need to be converted into a uniform and compact representation for storage on FB’s systems. My software and its associated algorithms do that conversion with minimal loss of visual quality.
Once stored, the images then need to be delivered to a variety of devices, with a wide range of display technologies and network bandwidth capabilities. My software does a similar delivery-type conversion; for example, it delivers lower resolution images to smartphones with small screens and slow connections, while it delivers higher resolution images to desktops with high-resolution displays and fast connections.
The main challenge of my work, and that of many other engineers at FB, is dealing with the huge scale of operations. It’s one thing to design algorithms that accomplish a rarely executed task; it’s a whole different story writing software that needs to process a very high volume of images quickly and while minimizing power consumption.
The main reward of my work is that almost a billion people see my work every time they use FB, as they upload and share their favorite images. And, sometimes, those photos are not just entertainment and fun cartoons – they can be photos of a wildfire spreading, and used during evacuations. It is hard to imagine a job that has such a broad impact.
What advice do you have for those considering applying to Facebook? What kind of skills is Facebook looking for in a potential candidate?
The most important advice is: you won’t know if you are good enough to work at FB unless you try. So look at the jobs posted on www.facebook.com/careers and if you find an opening that is a good match for your skills, do not hesitate to send your resume to Janine Doyle (firstname.lastname@example.org). FB considers both summer internship and full-time applicants, and it has very high hiring standards, as do most of the top-tier firms at Silicon Valley. Each job opening has its unique set of required skills, but for engineering specifically, FB seeks engineers who are passionate about, and good at, writing code. In addition, all employees should feel motivated by the company’s mission to connect people.
For Greek engineers, FB usually requires that employees move to Silicon Valley and assists with the process. In my view, this provides a unique opportunity for Greeks to gain exposure to the broader culture of Silicon Valley, even for just a few years before they may choose to return to Greece – injecting the Valley’s spirit of innovation into future Greek ventures can be pivotal to their success.