If Mark Zuckerberg is Facebook's brain, Chris Cox is its heart, employees say

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Facebook’s Chief Product Officer Christopher Cox.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Last June, Facebook was being rocked from the inside and out. 

Protests were erupting across the U.S. after Minneapolis police were caught on camera killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. At Facebook, employees were demanding more from their leaders. 

In particular, they were upset with how the company handled a post by President Donald Trump about protests that said, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Facebook had decided to leave the post up, even though many employees were arguing that the president had violated the company’s policies on inciting violence. 

Facebook executive Chris Cox had just returned to the company on June 11 after an abrupt departure in March 2019. One of Facebook’s earliest employees, the chief product officer was widely considered one of its moral and emotional leaders, with a natural charisma that stands in sharp contrast to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s awkward manner.

His return couldn’t have come at a better time. In one of his first actions that day, Cox popped into Workplace, Facebook’s internal social network, and into [email protected], the company’s employee resource group for black staffers. He posted a note to the group, letting them know that he felt for them and was there for them. 

He was very much in tune with how the community was feeling, and his return reassured employees about the company’s leadership, one person who was at Facebook at the time told CNBC. 

Though Cox may not be a household name, Facebook and Silicon Valley insiders view him at the same level as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg. Cox was critical in growing Facebook from a Palo Alto start-up to one of the most valuable companies in the world, with a market cap over $700 billion. Facebook generated nearly $84.2 billion in revenue and a profit of more than $29.1 billion in 2020. 

Cox is known for having a big party laugh, compassion, and humility. Before the days of the pandemic, Facebook employees often saw him taking walking meetings around campus or riding the company shuttles to work alongside everyday employees. If Zuckerberg is the company’s brain, and Sandberg keeps the business humming, Cox embodies the company’s heart and purpose, according to numerous friends and employees, some of whom asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about him.

“When you look at Chris Cox now, he’s the keeper of the culture, and the most important aspect of a company and the reason companies succeed or fail is because of the culture that they built,” said Ron Conway, an early Facebook advisor who has remained close with Cox.

Breaking up is hard to do

According to the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo Finance, Cox left after Zuckerberg decided to bring the company’s disparate messaging services closer together, and to emphasize privacy and build end-to-end encryption into them. Child protection activist organizations and law enforcement agencies have said that encrypting these messages will make it harder for Facebook to monitor and prevent child exploitation through its services.

After more than 13 years at Facebook, Cox used the time away to recharge and focus on other interests, including his young children and pressing social issues.

Since 2017, Cox had been involved with OneGoal, an organization headquartered in his hometown of Chicago which works to ensure that every student has an opportunity to pursue secondary education, with a focus on students of color from under-resourced schools. After the pandemic struck, Cox was particularly helpful as the group moved toward providing virtual support for students, said OneGoal CEO Melissa Connelly. 

“I would just call him and share what I was struggling with,” Connelly said. “He was just as helpful to me as a confidante and personal advisor on what it’s like to lead in this moment as he was just a more traditional board member.”

Cox also provided his expertise in product development to a pair of start-ups fighting climate change. He served as an advisor to Planet, a San Francisco company with a fleet of satellites that take photos of the earth once every day, providing users with imagery that demonstrates how the earth changing.

“He recognizes what many people do — the environment is in crisis,” said Planet CEO Will Marshall. Cox’s work on climate change “is just a natural extrapolation of him being a caring and passionate individual.” 

Cox also worked with Watershed, a San Francisco start-up that built software that can be used by businesses that are trying to get their operations to zero carbon emissions. Cox’s passion for fighting climate change, his expertise in building software, and his perspective having run one of the largest companies on the planet was extremely valuable to Watershed, said co-founder Christian Anderson. 

In addition, he spent a lot more time playing music. Cox plays the keyboard and has been part of a reggae band called Rafa since his early days at Facebook, according to bandmate Justin Phipps. He’s so interested in reggae that Cox and his wife, filmmaker Visra Vichit-Vadakan, were the biggest donors to Redtone Records, a non-profit music label started by Phipps that is dedicated to cultural preservation through roots and traditional music, including reggae.

“When he gets interested in something, he’ll go deep into it and become extremely knowledgeable about it,” Phipps said. “Both in afrobeat and reggae, his playing is really, really authentic.”

Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox spends his time away from work playing keyboards with Rafa, a San Francisco Bay Area reggae band.
Courtesy Justin Phipps

“I don’t know how he found the time to rehearse and play shows amidst all the stuff that was going on at early Facebook, but he made the time,” said Soleio Cuervo, a former Facebook designer who joined the company the same day as Cox. “And I would imagine that a lot of his creativity was drawn from not just being a code monkey.”

But throughout this time away from Facebook, Cox’s thoughts kept coming back to the company, according to friends who stayed in touch with him during this period. He never really cut himself off from Zuckerberg or the company, and Zuckerberg was particularly interested in Cox’s work with Planet and Watershed. Cox also continued to serve as an advisor, occasionally working with Facebook’s product teams.

After the pandemic hit and forced the company’s employees to work from home, Cox got more serious about coming back. People close to him say that Cox is driven by being a force for good, and he slowly realized that he would have more impact at Facebook. In addition, with Facebook facing big challenges around content moderation, misinformation and the upcoming presidential election, Cox realized that he wasn’t finished with his work at the social network just yet. 

“There are very few people who are up to the task of being a chief product officer at Facebook at a time when all institutions, all organizations are under so much scrutiny and have so much responsibility to do right,” Connelly said. “I honestly think he would regret if he felt like he didn’t step up in that moment.”

A former Facebook executive speculated that Cox simply needed a break from the company, and mistook that feeling of burnout for a more fundamental disagreement with Zuckerberg. After he realized he could do more good inside than outside, he came back home, the executive said.

‘The keeper of the culture’ 

Although Zuckerberg and Cox don’t always agree, the two have been close friends since Cox’s early days at the company. 

After Zuckerberg rang the Nasdaq bell on the day of the company’s IPO in 2012, the CEO snuck off from the crowd to grab lunch with one other person: Cox. The two had grown incredibly close in their time working together, and they balanced each other out.

Whereas Zuckerberg could often come across as lifeless or robotic, Cox was full of charisma. “They complement each other,” Conway said. “They’re an odd couple, but an odd couple in a good way.”

Facebook’s chief product officer, Chrix Cox, left, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook

Cox joined Facebook in 2005, dropping out of his graduate program at Stanford to become one of the company’s first 40 employees and 15 software engineers. Early on, he played a crucial role in building Facebook’s News Feed, which was critical to the company’s growth — instead of forcing users to post on each other’s walls, the News Feed let users see all their friends’ updates in one place. He was one of a handful of engineers on the project and got a chance to work closely with Zuckerberg, impressing the founder with his technical skills and his ability to articulate how the product would impact users. 

“Where Chris always shone is that he could really articulate. He was able to craft a narrative that was extremely invigorating to employees and gave purpose around what we were doing,” Cuervo said.

In 2007, Zuckerberg tapped Cox to create a human resources department for the fast-growing start-up. Although Zuckerberg had hired some traditional HR professionals at first, he was not satisfied with results, according to early Facebook employees. He decided to think differently and install someone who understood Facebook’s culture. 

At a company so heavily focused on technology, Cox’s coding skills gave him the credibility necessary to earn the respect of all his colleagues, and his humility and empathy made him a beloved figure throughout the company, from the most hardcore engineers to ad sales representatives, a former colleague said. 

During his time leading HR, Cox put together a presentation for new employees that people describe as incredibly powerful. Touching on philosophy, sociology, and communication, Cox explained that Facebook was building more than an online destination, a platform, or a technology — it was creating a new type of communications medium that existed in the connections among people. Everything else would seek distribution through that medium.

But Cox’s delivery is really what made the presentation resonate — other executives would try their hand at delivering similar orientation keynotes as Cox, but no one could top him. One former employee noted that even the recruits who tried their best to resist drinking the Facebook Kool-Aid would walk away excited.

In 2008, Facebook found itself with a vacancy at the top of its product team. It was a pivotal and challenging role, as Zuckerberg himself is a product fanatic. The pair went through a series of candidates, but Zuckerberg was looking for someone who would lead Facebook’s product team like he would. Eventually, Zuckerberg handed Cox the reins.

“Product at Facebook is the holy grail. You don’t want to give the holy grail to just anyone, and by then, Chris was a very trusted advisor to Mark and the company,” Conway said.

As head of product, Cox was entrusted with maintaining quality and simplicity, and he built out the company’s design and product manager teams. “In those early years, Chris hired all the rock stars who are there today,” said Conway.

Cox’s presentation skills came in handy in his product role, too. One former Facebook executive recalled Facebook’s 2011 F8 conference, where Zuckerberg stood up before software developers and announced the company’s new Timeline product, which is the basis for the modern Facebook profile page. 

But people didn’t really get it until an hour later, when Cox talked about how his grandfather would make scrapbooks at the end of every year, and about how he had just gotten married and longed for a way to relive the special day.

“What is incredible is that not only are your memories there, but they’re organized and arranged in one place, and there’s a lot of stuff there that you didn’t even realize or remember was there,” Cox said at the event. 

Cox went beyond the technology and emphasized nostalgia, making everyone understand on an emotional level why they would want the product in their lives, the former executive said. 

What he’s doing now

Facebook has grown from a simple blue and white website with a News Feed and pokes for college students into a virtual empire of social apps. The company now encompasses the main Facebook app, Instagram for sharing photos and videos, Messenger and WhatsApp for communications, Oculus virtual reality headsets, Portal video-calling devices, and Workplace, the company’s enterprise communication software. All in all, the company counts 3.3 billion monthly users across its family of apps. 

As Facebook’s chief product officer, Cox’s role is to determine how these pieces fit together and handle conflicts as groups compete for attention and resources. In many ways, he is the conductor of the Facebook orchestra, determining which section should play what part and how loudly. 

Since his return, Cox has put a lot of attention on Instagram Reels, a competitor to the Chinese upstart social app TikTok; Shops, which is Facebook’s push to bring e-commerce to its blue app and Instagram; and Rooms, the company’s product that allows up to 50 users to join a video call. 

But he’s also prioritized projects that consider Facebook’s role in society. This includes the company’s efforts to provide users with accurate information about topics like climate change, which the company began to do in September with a Climate Information Center, and the company’s recent effort to refocus its Groups away from political content, which comes after Groups on the far-right conspiracy theory movement QAnon grew immensely popular on the social network before the company banned them in October.

For Cox’s friends outside of the tech industry, seeing him return to Facebook in June gave them faith about the direction of the social media company. 

“I share a lot of the concerns that the average person would also have, but Chris’s presence in that leadership significantly changes those concerns for me,” Phipps said. “Everything that I’ve experienced with him has shown me that he is deeply passionate and committed to the type of world that I want to see.”

For Facebook veterans, seeing Cox return was something akin to that of Michael Jordan returning to the Bulls, Cuervo said. 

“He’s a fundamental part of the DNA of Facebook,” Cuervo said. “He’s had such an impact on how the company understands itself and how it carries itself. It’s a stronger, more humane, more ambitious, more human company with him in the leadership group.”

Nominations are open for the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50, a list of private start-ups using breakthrough technology to become the next generation of great public companies. Submit by Friday, Feb. 12, at 3 pm EST.

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