Facebook chooses London for first engineering centre outside US
New centre will focus on mobile, platform and machine learning
By Sophie Curtis | Techworld | Published: 14:20, 16 October 2012
Facebook has opened a new engineering centre in London – the social network’s first major engineering centre outside the US.
Based in Covent Garden, the new centre hopes to draw on the thriving community of skilled developers in the city, and help boost the local engineering talent pool through initiatives such as the Next Gen Skills campaign.
The centre will focus on three areas of development – mobile, platform and “machine learning” (a type of artificial intelligence that enables computers to learn without being explicitly programmed).
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Speaking at the launch of the new centre today, Facebook engineer Philip Su, who will head the centre, said that the choice of these three areas was very deliberate.
“London is obviously a great place to build a mobile team because of the local talent in mobile, especially on the Android client, and especially with all the start-up energy that we've seen,” he said.
“London is also a great place to build platform, because it has the world's second highest concentration of Facebook-registered developers. All the start-ups locally are registered to develop on top of Facebook, so having the platform team here means we have a direct connection with actual customers.”
While both mobile and platform are key to Facebook's priorities for the next year, machine learning is more “opportunistic,” according to Su, allowing the company to research new ways of exploiting its vast data resources.
“There is so much PhD-level talent in institutions locally that our machine learning team expects to be able to work with some of the best people in that domain,” he said.
Although the official launch was today, the centre has actually been up and running for nearly three months and employs just under 20 people, 12 of which have been brought over from Facebook's offices in the US.
The first few local recruits are currently in “boot camp” – an intensive six-week programme at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters.
The news was welcomed by Chancellor George Osborne, who also attended the opening.
“It is fantastic that Facebook, one of the world’s leading technology companies, has chosen London as its first major engineering hub outside of the US,” he said.
“This reflects the attractiveness of London, its culture, its infrastructure and its people, but also the hard work that the British Government has put in to make sure that the UK becomes the technology hub for Europe.”
The focus on mobile development is of particular interest in light of Facebook's recent comments about HTML5. Mark Zuckerberg controversially said last month that Facebook's biggest mistake was betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native mobile apps.
Su said that the London centre would be focused server-side performance enhancements – such as improving net latency and bandwidth consumption – and Android infrastructure, specifically with relation to power management.
“These days arguably Facebook might be the most used thing on your phone – perhaps even beyond the utility of the phone itself. So power consumption of the Facebook application is arguably the biggest question when it comes to worldwide use of power on mobile devices,” said Su.
“Our team will handle that for the entire company.”
In relation to HTML5, Facebook's vice president of engineering Mike Schroepfer added that although the technology enabled the company to reach users on multiple devices, it did not offer the level of performance and polish that users expected.
“We are huge believers in HTML and HTML5. The web is still the predominant way in which people access our products, and we will continue to invest in HTML for our mobile platform,” said Schroepfer.
“We are technology agnostic in the sense that we are not religious about this in any way. We just want to use the best technology we can in order to deliver the best experience.”