Meta’s New COO Is Nothing Like Sheryl Sandberg

Plus: The early days of Facebook, charitable donations, and a disconcerting playlist.

Javier Olivan

Meta announced this week that Javier Olivan would become the company's new chief operating officer.Courtesy of Meta

Hey, folks. We’re deadlocked on gun safety, the Ukraine war still grinds on, and a gallon of gas is approaching the price of an Ethereum gas fee. At least we don’t have to deal with Johnny Depp for another week.


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Javier Olivan had a problem. It was the early 2010s, and his team at Facebook, growth, was in charge of messaging. Yes, that sounds nonintuitive and weird, but growth was (and still is) the company’s driving force, and that team had an infinitely broad mandate. Basically anything that led people to Facebook, or kept people on Facebook, was fair game. Messaging qualified because, as Olivan once put it, “it was a tap inside Facebook.” If someone sent you a message, and you weren’t on the service, you’d be motivated to sign up.

But the problem, flagged by the company’s relentless use of data and analytics, was that messaging was buried inside the Facebook app. When users got a message, they wouldn’t know it, because the notification would get lost in the blitz of other things Facebook was bothering them about. “It might be the 17th notification,” he said when I interviewed him in March 2019. So Olivan and his team came up with a bold solution: “It would be better to take the messaging experience outside the app and make it its own app.” This defied conventional wisdom, which holds that you should make everything easier for users. Olivan’s plan was a form of extortion: If you wanted to send a message, tough boogies—unless you downloaded the company’s new messaging platform. “Users in the short term really hated it, because all of the sudden you had to install another app,” he told me. But ultimately they did. And not only did messaging take off, but the company ultimately grew it into a separate billion-user social service. “Data said it was the right thing to do,” he told me. “We did it with the best intentions, and now Messenger is an extremely successful application.”

Victories like that have led 44-year-old Olivan to increasingly high positions at the company, culminating in this week’s announcement that he would become Meta’s new chief operating officer, the top aide to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But the promotion seemed almost a footnote to the impending departure of current COO Sheryl Sandberg, the only person to hold that post to date. Sandberg left Facebook in characteristic fashion, with each element of the announcement painstakingly choreographed. She prepared a 1,500-word post that came preloaded with loving accolades from past and present Facebookers, with Zuckerberg leading the parade as “most relevant.” She gave interviews to selected media organizations. And in the wake of her impending departure—she’ll give up her badge this autumn but remain on the board of directors—she generated dozens of hot takes and think pieces, many of them loaded with brutal assessments of her tenure. (Here’s what I wrote.)

Also true to form, Olivan himself gave no interviews. In a rather anodyne post about his promotion, he implicitly acknowledged one huge difference between Sandberg and him: “I’ve primarily been behind-the-scenes,” he wrote. A paucity of press clips speaks to that. I had to push hard to get that conversation with him for my book a few years ago. But when we finally met, he was cordial and straightforward. His conference room was dominated by a full-size surfboard, reflecting his passion for the outdoors. That and his love of parasailing are among the few things that an internet search reveals about him. I found nothing on his family life, but he mentioned to me that, like his boss Mark Zuckerberg, he has two young daughters. You won’t see many pictures of them on his Facebook page. And his Instagram account is private. Only 17 people follow it.

One of those followers is his boss. Zuckerberg himself had inspired Olivan to join Facebook. In 2005, after spending a few years working on Siemens’ cell phones, the Spanish-born engineer, hailing from a small town in the Pyrenees, decided to attend business school at Stanford. He took a class that examined case studies of new ventures, including Facebook. Olivan was already a fan of the young company and was even planning to start a similar company in Spain and Latin America. At one point, Zuckerberg came to the class, and Olivan spoke to him afterward, asking the CEO about international growth. In 2007, Olivan became a Facebook employee—working on that very product.

Olivan joined Facebook’s growth circle—an unruly SWAT team of data specialists, engineers, researchers, and managers who dealt in the dark arts of growth hacking—under Chamath Palihapitiya, a master of chaos who isolated his team and encouraged them to ignore boundaries. “It’s not like we were magicians,” Olivan said. “We were lucky to be the growth team of a product that has universal appeal.” Olivan’s efforts to spread Facebook worldwide—even in languages where the company had no one to monitor content—was wildly successful. When Palihapitiya left the company, Olivan took over as the head of growth and later was elevated to leading “essential services,” including the integrity organization that supposedly will reform the company’s reputation.

As COO, Olivan will have even more responsibilities. Still, his portfolio will differ dramatically from Sandberg’s, which originally included HR, communications, policy, diversity, and lobbying. Those won’t be on his plate. Also, he cautioned in his post that he won’t take on the same “public-facing” activities as Sandberg did. (Translation: “Don’t make me testify before Congress!”) On the other hand, while Sandberg ran ad sales, the teams creating the actual ad products had previously been on Zuckerberg’s side of the company. Under Olivan, ad products and sales will be integrated for the first time. He’ll also be in charge of teams that Sandberg didn’t oversee, like analytics, infrastructure, data science, and design. Overall, Olivan sees his job as weaving together various teams and partnerships in the company.

And he’s still in charge of growth, which is as much a priority as ever. This week’s post-Sandberg reorganization, as well as the shuffling of Meta’s AI operations that happened a day later, is all about refocusing the company to dominate the metaverse, even though that shift is years away. If it does happen, it’s a growth opportunity of galactic scale. Meta’s social products have already saturated the available market. But the metaverse is virgin territory—once you build a new world, you have to lure the actual world into it. So it’s no coincidence that the company’s new second-in-command made his bones in the freewheeling growth circle, which operated on the premise that anything could be justified if it roped in more people and kept them there.

I’ll give a final word to Olivan’s famous predecessor, who checked in with me during her post-resignation mini media tour. “He’s an excellent executor and a great leader,” says Sandberg. “It’s a different job, and he’s going to define it in his own way.” (She demurred when I asked her what advice she might give him on taking her job title.) One thing won’t be different: Javier Olivan is into growth.


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In my book about Facebook, I described Sandberg’s early days as chief operating officer, and how she saw the role as much broader than just tending to the business.

Sandberg’s key focus would be taking the company’s nascent approach towards monetizing and making Facebook profitable, preferably wildly profitable in the mode of her former employer. But because of Zuckerberg’s inexperience, her role was much broader. She would be Facebook’soperating officer. She made sure that an explicit job was helping Zuckerberg scale Facebook into a major corporation. “A thriving business was part of that, but it wasn’t the only thing,” she says.

But she did have firm ideas about the business from the get-go. On her first day she attended the mandatory new-employee boot camp and listened to the standard inspirational speech delivered by Chris Cox. But then she flouted orientation protocol by making her own speech. She explained to the astonished newbies that there was an inverted pyramid of advertising, and to date her former employer, Google, had dominated the bottom by monetizing intent (as people did searches). But Facebook, she said, would have an even bigger business, because it had the potential to create and monetize demand. That was the much wider part of the inverted pyramid. People come every day to Facebook to learn what’s new and share their interests. So advertisers would be able to sell to Facebook users things that they wanted even before they thought to ask for them.


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Daniel asks, “What is the most impactful strategy for charitable giving for the average American? Local or national or global? Immediate critical need or long-term proactive problem solving? Contributing to unbiased news outlets to help educate and inform or give to hands-on care givers?”

Thanks, Daniel. It’s a shame that, in the United States at least, we need to depend on individual charities to address problems that should be fixed by government funds. Your question implicitly acknowledges that sometimes we might not be making the wisest choices on who gets that dough.

Nonetheless, I won’t single out one or two categories for “most impactful.” That would simply reflect my own bias. I do advocate a thoughtful approach to charitable giving, where potential donors take a look at who would benefit from their dollars, and how. I also strongly urge that they research the organizations eager to accept their tithes—there are lots of places that rate nonprofits, like Charity Navigator. It’s smart to consider both local and global causes—and don’t forget that volunteering is a way to see up-close the impact of your dollars, as well as a meaningful contribution in itself.

Personally, I love an organization from my hometown of Philadelphia called Mighty Writers. It points kids to success through writing and clear thinking; during the pandemic it’s been distributing free books, diapers, and food to its communities. And it’s highly rated on Charity Navigator!

You can submit questions tomail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.


New Meta COO Javier Olivan Is Nothing Like Sheryl Sandberg

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