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Tuning his tech chops at Facebook

Joe Hewitt started coding at an early age. Now, the developer who once worked on Netscape and Firefox is getting down to business at Facebook.

Facebook's Joe Hewitt is not one of the kids anymore.

Hewitt, who began his coding career hacking away at his dad's computer at the age of 7, dropped out of college to join Netscape in 2000. He was a member of the Firefox crew that built the Web development tool Firebug and he co-founded Parakey, the first company acquired by Facebook, which was announced in July. Since then, he has launched a version of Facebook for Apple's iPhone. (Apple is promoting his iUI for its ballyhooed new cell phone.)

CNET recently caught up with Hewitt, who reflected on his young and already productive career in high tech and what he sees on the horizon.

Q: Can you describe the route you took getting to Silicon Valley?
Hewitt: I guess it started when I came out here seven years ago. I grew up in New Jersey and came here to join the exciting Silicon Valley software movement. I started working for Netscape in 2000, which was right around the time that they were crashing rapidly. When I got there, they brought me on to work on Netscape 6, which was a total disaster. A really good lesson for a young software developer. I guess I learned how to not do things. I worked on Netscape 6 and then Netscape 7, and then two years later AOL shut down the whole operation and laid everyone off. I managed to not get laid off and I stayed there for about another year doing various things. Then a year later, I started Parakey with Blake Ross, a little start-up which Facebook just acquired last month.

I started working for Netscape in 2000, which was right around the time that they were crashing rapidly. When I got there, they brought me on to work on Netscape 6, which was a total disaster. A really good lesson for a young software developer.

And Firefox?
Hewitt: Oh! I forgot Firefox. It was my last act at Netscape when everything was total chaos in 2002 and everyone knew they were pretty much done. So we could work on whatever we wanted to for about six months and a bunch of us said "Hey, why don't we create the browser?" We always wanted to create and we didn't take orders from Netscape or AOL anymore. It was really only a few months that I worked on it with the other guys, Blake Ross and Dave Hyatt, just to get the project started.

But it's not like Firefox is a small thing?
Hewitt: No, it's not. It's a small thing to me because I started working on it two years before it became popular. It was then called Phoenix and just like a little hobby of ours. When Mozilla became an independent foundation they made a decision to switch to Firefox and they spent two years basically turning it into a polished product and finishing it, but I wasn't involved in that. I was more involved in the genesis, taking that Mozilla browser and stripping out a bunch of junk and adding in some features that we thought would be better like form completion, customizable toolbars and the Google search box.

After Netscape and building the Firefox browser, you and Blake Ross started Parakey.
Hewitt: The idea of Parakey was that we wanted to create something that, I guess, looking back in retrospect was kind of like Facebook. I think we focused a lot more at Parakey on personal publishing, allowing people--especially older generations--to be able to create really nice Web sites using the stuff that they're interested in: photos and calendars and things like that. We wanted to make that experience really easy. I think in a lot of ways we approached it more like Apple's approach tends to be, which is that we were very focused on media and the individual and not so much focused on the network. Just one of the things I love about being here at Facebook is that they already have this great network and we are able to do cool things that people at other companies only could wish they could do. Like we wished we could at Parakey.

And then you sold it.
Hewitt: When you have your own start-up, you like that freedom and the control of running the show and you don't want to give that up. Initially when the idea came up I was like, "No, this is my company, Facebook is not taking my company, my baby." But it's been a great decision and I have the same amount of freedom here as I had in my company, believe it or not.

Now you're surrounded by other people. That must be different.
Hewitt: Actually, I've never seen Blake more in my life, since we came here. It's a fun energy, but it's kind of quiet now. You should be here after 9 p.m., that's when it gets fun. Everyone is really young. The last big company I worked at, AOL, I was the young one and everyone was much older. And the maximum age in those companies was up in the thirties and forties even in engineering, but here I think the average age in the engineering team is probably like 22 or 23. These are all guys that came right out of school and some of them dropped out of school to come here. It's a lot of fun; definitely reminds me of being at college myself. It makes me feel young again, I guess.

You're 28?
Hewitt: Nearing 29.

You never launched anything with Parakey. What did you do during those two years?
Hewitt: We took our time to experiment and do things that took a little longer. And we weren't trying to rush something out to market as we were just trying to get something right. During those years the whole Web 2.0 thing was exploding. Blake and I are kind of cynical by nature and so we thought a lot of what people were doing was kind of rushed and not well-thought out. We were waiting to have that moment, that click where we said "this will change your mom's life if she had this." We probably would have gotten there if we stayed independent but...

Will Parakey be incorporated in Facebook?
Hewitt: That's a good question. I can't really talk about that right now. Naturally it's been soaking in my brain for years now, so it's going to affect Facebook in some way.

And will your Parakey plans still come true?
Hewitt: I think it will still happen if Facebook enables us to do what we want to do. They gave us that network to leverage and that's a huge advantage definitely. Now we just have to get our moms to join Facebook.

You worked on Firebug at the same time as Parakey?
Hewitt: Firebug is actually one thing we did shift from Parakey, although that wasn't our goal when we set out to build Firebug...It was a means to help us build Parakey and in the process I realized it would probably be really popular with a lot of people if I released it. And so I decided to take the time, probably at Parakey's expense. I took the time to release it and give it away for free and I've been really happy with that decision. At least it made a lot people happy and people have done great things with it.

Why didn't you make it into a commercial product?
Hewitt: We did consider that for a while. As I was building, I figured I probably could sell and make some money off of it. But in the end I felt like I didn't want the Parakey business to be developer tools and I didn't want to focus on Firebug as a business. I felt it would probably have more of an impact if it was free and everyone can use it. It became like a commodity. There are lot of other companies trying to sell Firebug-like tools right now and you can tell their market is very small. They might make a lot of money actually even on that niche market, I don't know. I'd rather affect more people than make a profit. Now I really haven't worked on Firebug in about six months, but I did release it out of second source. It's on Google Code and there are some people who have actually taken it over. They've been actively developing it in my absence. I think they're working on a new version that might come out soon.

I find the fishbowl effect here at Facebook a little weird, but it's just like when I'm reading the Apple rumor sites: Everyone loves to speculate about what Apple is doing and I love to read it. And I always wish that they would drop a hint and tell me something.

You did other stuff free for users, like the iUI for the iPhone?
Hewitt: The iUI was a fun accident. I still can't believe how many people are using it because it was just like an overnight thing. Everyone at was going crazy and I said, "What the heck is going on here?" I just created it the night before. It was four in the morning and before I passed out, I uploaded it to the Google group with a little note saying "here it is." When I woke up the next morning, it was all over the place. I didn't even finish it and polish it off. I didn't worry about all the things that you normally do when you're releasing software that a lot of people are going to use. But I guess people are just so eager, and the iPhone is such an incredible, exciting new thing that people just ran with it.

Even Apple is now promoting it. They are telling people to use it. I guess they're taking their time in building something like that, so they're happy for now to just tell people to use this thing that some other guy built and maybe someday it will be crushed with their own big product. I don't know.

A lot of people have been saying that Apple should have done what you did.
Hewitt: I totally expected them to do it actually, which is why I didn't really set out to try to make a standard iPhone framework. I figured maybe the next week Apple was going to release one so I'd just do something real quick for the DevCamp that weekend and for my own kind of fun experiment. Here we are a month and a half later, and it's all there is.

The iPhone has been the center of your attention even after you joined Facebook.
Hewitt: When I got here, on my second day I was kind of free to dig into the Facebook experience. However, it made sense since I have been so absorbed with the iPhone development, to build Facebook for the iPhone. I'm using Facebook nonstop, so it was kind of annoying to have to use it on the iPhone (and) pan and scroll things to use the site. So I thought, why not? I really didn't know how far I was going to go with it initially. I built something to browse photos and update my status basically, and a few days of carrying it around with me I just started getting addicted to it. A lot of the iPhone sites to this point have been small snippets of the overall Web site, like Digg or ESPN. I'd say 95 percent of the stuff that people do commonly on Facebook you can do on the iPhone. And I imagine at some point, time permitting, we'll flush out the rest of it.

So now that you've launched your project, what will be the next one?
Hewitt: I'm not so much on the platform team. I'm really interested in the overall user experience of the Facebook site. Blake and I are both looking at the entire site and what parts of it could use a little sprucing up and what things could be rethought. I'm really focusing on that right now and probably less so on the nuts and bolts of the platform in the near future at least. I wish I could say more, and I've actually never worked with a company before where people care about what I was working on. When I was at Netscape, everything we did, it was open-source and so everyone always knew what I was working on. I find the fishbowl effect here at Facebook a little weird, but it's just like when I'm reading the Apple rumor sites: Everyone loves to speculate about what Apple is doing and I love to read it. And I always wish that they would drop a hint and tell me something.