When WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion, the popular messaging app had about 35 engineers and 450 million users.
Two years later, WhatsApp boasts over 900 million users, with 42 billion messages sent every day — that works out to about a million messages every two seconds.
But unlike tech titans such as Google, Amazon, or even Facebook itself, WhatsApp is still behaving like a tiny little startup.
Despite its massive success and Facebook’s bankrolling, WhatsApp now has 57 engineers, total. That small size helps the organisation stay nimble, but also requires the whole team to be on the same page, WhatsApp software engineer Rick Reed explained at today’s F8 conference.
“The culture really has everything to do with our ability to scale,” Reed says.
Above all else, Reed says, WhatsApp relies on “focus,” which he jokingly calls “the other f-word.” Let Messenger, Google Hangouts, and the like build complex apps, he says, but WhatsApp is focused on just making the simplest, most reliable chat app.
“Our mission is to provide a simple, fast, reliable communications tool without a lot of extra bells and whistles,” Reed says.
Reed calls it “Just Enough engineering,” as in, the company putting in just enough effort and resources to stay true to that focus, and it’s a philosophy that guides the whole company.
Reed praises WhatsApp’s internal “no-meeting culture,” which strives (but doesn’t always achieve, he readily admits) to eliminate meetings entirely. Instead, WhatsApp staffers would rather use “various chat programs” to talk to each other constantly, within small project groups.
“It really allows us to stay focused on what we’re doing and it really contributes to a very quiet office,” Reed says.
Indeed, when you only have 57 engineers, it means that you can’t just throw bodies at a problem like the Facebook mothership might, explains Reed. It requires careful planning and allocation of engineering resources and time, he says, but the end result is a team that’s purpose-suited towards the task at hand.
“We work really hard to get the right people into the right positions,” Reed says.
‘I’m not here right now’
Another tradeoff comes under the hood. Companies like Google have seen their computing infrastructure sprawl out over the years to accommodate new features and massive amounts of data — to the point where they have had to invest millions in automating huge chunks of it, just to keep pace.
Meanwhile, WhatsApp prefers to keep its infrastructure as small as possible. With so few engineers on hand, a smaller footprint simply means fewer things that can go wrong. Maybe it requires more human intervention, but it also means higher reliability and a faster response to adding or fixing their code.
“We don’t invest a lot in automation except in those places where it’s totally necessary,” Reed says. “We really like having the human in the loop there.”
Another major key to staying focused, Reed says, is not spending a lot of time on marketing, press, or speaking at developer conferences. WhatsApp “avoided as much attention as possible” before and since the Facebook acquisition, he noted.
“If someone asks, I’m not actually here right now,” Reed jokes.