Trust, but Verify: What Facebook's Electronics Vending Machines Say About the Company

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Electronics vending machines show that Facebook trusts its employees to do the right thing.

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I'd heard tell that Facebook's IT department had scattered vending machines filled with headphones, power cords, and sundry other electronics across the campus. But it was not until I was walking through the company's headquarters last week and saw one in the wild that I came to understand what I really like about the concept.

IT gets put in an uncomfortable place in most companies. They hold the keys to a line-item on the budget that pretty much all managers would like to keep small. If they give employees too much stuff, they are blamed. If they don't give employees what they want, they are blamed. It's not a fun place to be, I'm sure, to ask each abashed employee, "Why do you need a new power cord again?"

But the Facebook system is different. No person controls the supplies of the small items. For example, they have nice Sennheiser headphones inside this vending machine. Any Facebook employee can simply walk up, swipe his or her ID card, and grab a new pair. There's a nominal price listed, but employees don't see that number debited from their paychecks or anywhere, really, outside of the IT vending machine. For them, it's simply swipe and go. The system trusts them to use their own judgment about what they need.

Of course, trust but verify. And yes, the system also verifies. The swipe means that everyone's requests are tracked and I'm sure some algorithm somewhere is constantly sorting the data to see if anyone has pulled 10 sets of headphones out of the system.

Still, I like the assumption that employees will do the right thing. The default is that you can have whatever you want. And that lets IT relax a bit, I bet. They no longer have to act as guardians of the electronics horde. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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