Mark Zuckerberg is taking total control again

Back in Facebook’s earliest days — the days when CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg still carried around a business card that read “I’m CEO, Bitch” — Facebook’s website included a little snippet at the bottom that read: “A Mark Zuckerberg Production.”

That line was removed in 2007 in favor of a more professional and inclusive “Facebook © 2007.” But more than a decade later, with Zuckerberg holding total voting control of a near $500 billion company, there has been a management shake-up and strategic product shift that seems to indicate that it’s never been more his company.

On Thursday, Facebook lost one of its most important, and arguably its most beloved, company executives. Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer and Zuckerberg’s top consigliere, announced that he was leaving the company after 13 years. Chris Daniels, who has been running WhatsApp for the past year, also announced his departure.

Most people outside of Silicon Valley don’t know Chris Cox. Unlike Zuckerberg or Facebook’s famous COO Sheryl Sandberg, Cox has largely flown under the radar — at least to those outside of Facebook’s sprawling Menlo Park campus. But internally, he is well-respected and generally well-liked. As an early employee, he helped build Facebook’s News Feed, its most important feature. As chief product officer, a job he took less than a year ago, he was in charge of all of Facebook’s apps. The guy who runs Instagram? He reports to Cox. Same with the execs who run Messenger, WhatsApp, and Facebook’s core social network.

Add in the fact that Cox is often the first executive new employees see during Facebook orientation, and that he and Zuckerberg are very close friends — they live near one another and travel together with their families — and it’s easy to understand why Cox may be the most influential Facebook executive not named “Mark Zuckerberg.”

But Cox is leaving after 13 long years because, at least in part, he disagrees with Facebook’s new product direction, which includes plans to integrate its messaging services, according to the New York Times. At least one specific issue, according to multiple Recode sources, is that Cox wasn’t on board with the plan to roll out end-to-end encryption to all of Facebook’s apps. Zuckerberg himself has admitted that while encryption will create privacy for users, it comes with some serious trade-offs.

If Facebook isn’t able to read user messages, then its services could be used for some really horrendous things, “like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion,” Zuckerberg wrote last week. Not everyone, including apparently Cox, has made peace with that trade-off.

“As Mark has outlined, we are turning a new page in our product direction, focused on an encrypted, interoperable, messaging network,” Cox wrote in his goodbye note to Facebook employees. “This will be a big project and we will need leaders who are excited to see the new direction through.”

Reading between the lines, it’s not hard to miss that Cox didn’t consider himself a leader who is excited to see this new direction through.

Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Cox

Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Cox.

Sometimes company executives, especially those who have worked at the same place for 13 years and made a lot of money, just get tired and decide to leave. It’s possible, likely even, that this fatigue is playing a significant role in Cox’s decision.

But his departure means two things:

  1. Facebook, the social network, has finally plateaued. The man who was instrumental in building Facebook’s core app, and the core product within that app, News Feed, is leaving at a time when Facebook is shifting its product focus toward something else.
  2. Zuckerberg is serious enough about this move to private messaging and encryption that he’s willing to lose one of Facebook’s top execs, who is also one of his closest friends, in the process.

Ben Horowitz, the co-founder of the prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and whose business partner Marc Andreessen is on Facebook’s board, acknowledged as much in a Facebook post on Thursday.

“Love him or hate him, Mark Zuckerberg is demonstrating two important things by moving Facebook in this direction,” he wrote. “[One], he has the courage to do what he thinks is right in the face of extremely strong dissent. … [Two], he is genuinely committed to privacy in general and specifically end-to-end encryption. So much so, that he is willing to lose outstanding executives who disagree with this direction.”

That post from Horowitz is currently on Zuckerberg’s timeline, meaning he essentially wants people to see it.

Those who work with Zuckerberg know that while he may take input from others (and is an avid learner and question asker), there’s only one captain of this ship. After Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos published a shareholder letter a few years ago about keeping the company hungry and relevant, Zuckerberg adopted one of Bezos’s key phrases for his own employees: “Disagree and commit.”

It has become a regular phrase inside Facebook’s upper ranks, a way to acknowledge that employees may not always see eye to eye but that they need to commit to the mission chosen by Zuckerberg to get things done.

At its best, the motto can help executives get past hang-ups to keep things moving. At its worst, it can feel like a way to quash dissent.

And lately, Zuckerberg seems to be running into a lot of dissent.

His push to monetize WhatsApp with ads led to the app’s co-founders leaving. The founders of Instagram left when Zuckerberg pushed to integrate Facebook and Instagram more closely, including Facebook’s messaging services. Daniels, who has been running WhatsApp for almost a year, also resigned because of disagreements over Facebook’s direction, the Times reported.

But the departure of Cox, the biggest and most important executive of them all — a longtime Facebook champion, and a Zuckerberg loyalist and friend — really signals a sea change for the social giant.

“I’m really going to miss working with you — your empathy, your uplifting spirit, your way of making everything and everyone you touch better,” Zuckerberg wrote to Cox on Facebook Thursday. “You’ve made such an important difference for this place and for the world.”

Cox will be missed, but his departure is another stark reminder: Facebook is still, and always has been, a Mark Zuckerberg production.

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