Today is Mark Zuckerberg’s 36th birthday, and this is maybe the only sentence where we’ll (ever) write his proper name.
We like giving Zuck a hard time—partly because we have to talk about him so much, partly because (bluntly) Zuck isn’t a super-sunny dude and even seems shady sometimes. The popular 2010 film The Social Network certainly doesn’t help him, especially with its fictional liberties and cynical, sharp-tongued portrayal by Jesse Eisenberg (as written by Aaron Sorkin).
Since it’s his birthday, let’s give Zuck a fair shake. Let’s start by acknowledging Zuck’s unique and awful position as a result of that movie: very few people have been portrayed on film while still alive, never mind when they’re just 26, and most of the world doesn’t understand that truth is stranger than fiction.
Having said that, how did Zuck get to where he is—and by the ripe age of 36?
He found his passion early and got plenty of practice. He took an interest in programming in middle school, and then…
His dad taught him Atari BASIC—and once Dad’s knowledge was exhausted, he hired a private tutor for Zuck Junior.
He’d use his friends’ artwork in little games he built (which he preferred to playing existing videogames).
He built a primitive version of AIM between his dad’s dentistry practice and their house—a year before AIM came out.
He took a graduate-level CS course at the nearby college while in high school.
He also built Synapse Media Player (referenced in the Porcellian bike room in the movie) while still in high school.
His sophomore year at Harvard was huge—and for more reasons than just Facebook. We usually imagine things like Facebook taking years (a couple years, at least), but it all happened pretty fast—and it wasn’t the only thing that happened that school year…
He met his wife, Priscilla Chan, at a frat party in 2003.
He wrote CourseMatch near the beginning of his sophomore year.
He also wrote FaceMash, which is where the movie begins. (The whole “Erica and final clubs” thing is the fictional liberty.)
He founded Facebook in February of 2004.
He dropped out before the end of sophomore year to pursue Facebook full-time.
He sees Facebook as a project, not a piggy bank. To be clear, there is plenty to support a cynical view of Zuck—and yet, it’s easier to trust the things that don’t change, and plenty about him hasn’t changed.
He’s not flashy or ostentatious about his wealth. He seems to follow the Bill Gates logic of “at a certain point, every dollar is just another cheeseburger.”
He started getting offers to buy Facebook really early—and his explanation for declining has consistently been that he cares about the mission and doesn’t want his creation to be eaten by a faceless media conglomerate. (Even if he just wanted to keep it, can you blame him?)
He still loves the kinds of programming projects that got him here. Part of Facebook tradition is the “hackathon,” where you conceive and build something in a single day or night. (That’s how he built FaceMash whether or not he expressly intended to do it that way.)
What makes Zuck especially interesting is how young he (still) is. In some ways, he’s had to grow up fast: testifying before Congress and having two kids (among many other things) will do that to you. But he’s still notably younger than his big-tech peers—and if all goes according to plan, we might have another half-century to see what he’ll cook up (for better or worse).