Can a PR guy run an operating system? Silicon Valley's gut reaction: No way. And yet that's what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has done in appointing Elliot Schrage, her handpicked flack, to run Facebook's platform. The platform, when it launched a year ago, was hailed as the world's next Windows; by opening up its friends lists and other features to outside developers, Facebook would surely become the next Microsoft, ran the standard line of punditry, in an age when the pundits were in love with Facebook. That, more than anything, surely stirred Microsoft to invest $240 million in the company. But in one very short year — or a very long one, rather — Facebook's platform has gone from selling point to PR headache.
That Facebook would throw this all in Schrage's lap is telling — about both Facebook and Schrage. Schrage, having shrunk his role considerably by following Sandberg from Google to Facebook, is likely desperate for some scrap of increased authority. And Facebook's geeks, getting assailed in the press for their decisions, are eager for someone slicker than they are to take the abuse.
Still, it needs to be said: Facebook's platform is technically immature, and needs a technical manager. Chamath Palihapitiya, whom Schrage is replacing as its head, may be inept at public relations — look at last year's debacle with Facebook's privacy-invading Beacon feature. But that doesn't mean he's bad at running a computing platform.
Schrage may not be a geek, but he'll now need to play the part. This should be fun to watch. And he can take comfort in one precedent: This isn't the first time the owner of an important computing platform has, in desperation, put a gladhanding slickster in charge. Microsoft's Kevin Johnson, who now oversees Windows, previously ran its sales operations. He also negotiated Microsoft's Facebook investment. He would surely approve.