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Net work

Facebook’s success has spawned a multimillion-dollar boom in social networking. There are networks for photo-sharers, for children and for workers inside companies. Yammer and Jive, for instance, promise to energise employees and increase their productivity by enabling fast information sharing.

Dustin Moskovitz thinks this is a bad idea that won’t fly.

“The first time I looked at Yammer, I thought I was on Facebook,” he said. “Work is not a social network, with serendipitous communications and photo collections. Work is about managing tasks, and responding to things quickly.”

Moskovitz does know a little bit about running the operations of a fast-growing company. He helped found Facebook along with Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin and Chris Hughes while at Harvard in 2004. His job was to make sure the computers straining to run Facebook’s expanding network never went down.

After leaving Facebook in 2008 with enough equity to make him one of the world’s youngest billionaires, Moskovitz, now 27, works on his own version of company management software for the networked age. He calls it Asana.

Asana is task-based software, a shared to-do list for the company. Work is assigned and completed by a potentially unending set of teams created on the fly. Asana is a Sanskrit word meaning “easeful posture”. Yoga practitioners think of it in terms of complex poses done effortlessly. “You should read a lot into the name,” Moskovitz said.

Tasks can be named and assigned across the company, then shut down or subdivided as the work progresses. People can rank, or have others rank, which of their jobs need attention soonest. If a company wants, anyone can look in on anyone else’s work, offering help and criticism. “We think of email, in-person meetings, and whiteboards as our competition,” said Justin Rosenstein, Moskovitz’s co-founder at Asana.

Like Moskovitz, Rosenstein came from Facebook, though he stopped first at Google where he built an early system for engineers to organise their work. At Facebook, he helped invent the “like” button and ran Facebook’s Pages project, which is a way for brands and celebrities to build networks. He was frustrated, he said, building “an enormously ambitious project, and losing a lot of time around coordination.”

Moskovitz, who was used to working one on one, was by then managing 200 engineers. His solution was something called “Tasks”, which is similar to what became Asana, but it was mainly for engineers. Eventually the two men decided that helping whole companies get things done might be something important that they were good at doing, and they left Facebook to start Asana.

Moskovitz is uncomfortable with his outsize wealth. It remains a complex legacy of the Facebook years, he says. What he finds far more interesting to talk about is the ambition derived from having built something so big. “You learn what an enterprise is capable of. Everything else measures against that,” he said. “One of the purposes of life, and selfishly what makes people happy, is building things that are impactful.”

Moskovitz left Facebook on good terms. He socialises with Zuckerberg, who still gives Moskovitz credit for building much of Facebook.

Asana was released and tested on only a few companies in February 2011, then more broadly last November, with several thousand users. The company has not revealed the size of its user base, but said it had been growing rapidly.

Asana will compete with corporate networking products from fellow startups like Jive Software and Yammer, as well as the offerings from big companies, like Chatter, which are now used by millions of employees.

Privately held Asana has a small fraction of that. Early adopters of Asana include Foursquare, a location-based social network, and The Sacramento Bee, where it is used in the online news department. “Having all the jobs you have to do in one place definitely speeds up the amount we work, though,” said Sean McMahon, director of digital media at The Bee. He still likes to oversee his employees, though he can do it with a lighter hand than in the past.

Managers will probably have to learn new tasks when they use corporate social software. “Businesses are in the midst of a retooling because of cloud computing, social media, mobility and lots of data,” said Tony Zingale, chief executive of Jive Software, the largest of the corporate social networks. “Groups are starting to make decisions, and information to them has to be filtered and personalised.”

Rosenstein, Asana’s co-founder, says, “Each company will have to develop its own conventions,” he said. “I spend a lot of time developing people, setting a vision, and explaining why we do what we do.” For the faint of heart, Asana does offer tools for centralised management.

For the bold, there are outcomes like Asana itself, where everyone can name and assign tasks to anyone else, or kick them back to the originator if they don’t like what they were assigned.

Both Moskovitz and Rothstein say their job titles simply are “Asana”, as are the titles for their 22 colleagues. Pay, however, still varies widely, depending on qualifications and how early someone joined the company. Moskovitz pays himself $33,280 a year, which his lawyers have advised him is legally less risky for the company than a salary of $1 a year.

The title sharing is a pragmatic attempt at company building. “It wasn’t uncommon for people to call themselves Googlers or Facebookers, so we just took it further,” Moskovitz said. “We brought in people who could all be managers elsewhere.”

For a company full of young, successful people that is run by a billionaire, Asana is a hard-working and down-to-earth place — all the way down.

Instead of the fancy pool tables found in Google or the open bars and expensive murals at Facebook, on the floor is a single game of the 1960s hit Twister — a social game, and one particularly suited to a young and flexible workforce.