After settling into my seat at a local movie theater last Wednesday, I looked up and there was Mark Zuckerberg. No, I wasn't watching The Social Network. I was at a screening of Waiting for 'Superman' and Zuckerberg, who was co-hosting the event, had a few words to say before the movie started.
By coincidence, it was the second time I ran into him that day. Earlier, I was on the Facebook campus for a press announcement of some new products, including a "dashboard" to better manage applications and "Groups," which enables Facebook users to interact with subgroups of their friends rather than their entire friends' list.
And it wasn't the first time I met the Facebook CEO, but it was my first encounter with him since watching Jesse Eisenberg play him on the big screen just a few days earlier. Eisenberg is an excellent actor and Aaron Sorkin wrote a terrific script. But the Mark Zuckerberg I saw in The Social Network is very different from the guy I had lunch with and the person who introduced that other gripping movie later that night.
Unlike the fictional character, the real Zuckerberg is energetic, thoughtful and responsive. He looks you in the eye, listens to what you say and responds accordingly. He is far from the withdrawn and socially awkward character portrayed in the movie. And despite whatever mistakes he may have made in his late teens or very early twenties, he is emerging as a leader not just because of his wealth and success at Facebook but because of his vision, tenacity and the way he interacts with people around him, including Facebook employees.
And unlike many CEOs, when Zuckerberg speaks publicly, he just stands there and talks -- no notes, no PowerPoint and no canned speeches written by PR consultants.
There are some similarities between the real Zuckerberg and the one in the movie. Like the movie character, he has a strong desire to use technology to make social connections. But in addition to building a business that's already made him into a billionaire, he's also focused on trying to find ways to enable people to use technology to tap into and thoughtfully expand their "social graph" in ways that make them want to share information with people who matter to them.
Although most of the lunchtime conversation was informal, I did get Zuckerberg's permission to bring out a voice recorder to capture one sound bite for my daily CBS News radio feature. While often derided for not protecting the privacy of Facebook users, he spoke about ways to limit your Facebook universe to only people you are close to in the real world.
Talking about the new "Groups" product, he said "there are a lot of things you want to share with all your friends at once but there are also things that you only want to share with your family or some co-workers." He added, "If you don't have a way to do that, you just won't share them at all. But now that people have tools to do that very easily, we expect that a lot of people will use Facebook as their tool to communicate and stay in touch with these groups of people that are really important to them."
He also spoke about the very social and human approach Facebook is using to help people identify whom they ought to include in their Facebook Groups. "We could have used algorithms," he said, but instead decided to take advantage of Facebook's strength by letting people's friends help determine who should be in groups. There are no automated systems to suggest groupings. Instead, Facebook lets people tag their friends and uses that data to suggest groupings.
Facebook's new Groups feature could be a great way to link students, teachers, staff and parents but if you use it, be aware that any member can add other members. The Group administrator needs keep an eye on members and quickly remove any who don't belong there.
When I listened to Zuckerberg again that night at the theater, I saw yet another side of this complicated young executive. I knew he recently donated $100 million to help beleaguered Newark, N.J., schools, but when he spoke briefly before Waiting for 'Superman' started, it was the first time I heard him talk about educational reform.
The movie drove that message home. American schools are broken and in need of radical change. But the movie also offered hope as it profiled schools like Harlem's Success Academy, Washington, D.C.'s, Seed School and Redwood City's Summit Preparatory Charter High School -- all places dedicated to excellent education for low-income youth.
As I watched Waiting for 'Superman', I thought about the differences between our schools and a lot of companies here in Silicon Valley, including Facebook. Schools, like companies, have a job to do, and the ones that execute best are typically the ones that will thrive. So in thinking about what it takes to create a good school, it might be worth looking at what it takes to run a great company, and that almost always starts at the top.
What Facebook, Apple, Google and other great companies have in common with great schools are leaders who are energetic, creative and share a strong sense of purpose. They're also willing to experiment and try different approaches until they get it right.
As anyone in consumer products will tell you, success is always related to giving the customers what they need or want. In schools the "customers" are the children and their families, not the teachers, administrators or school officials. As Washington, D.C., public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee said in the movie, it's time for schools to focus on the needs of children, not the adults who work in the schools.
Having said that, I'm not giving my stamp of approval to Waiting for' Superman'. Just like The Social Network, it had its truths and its fictions. One of its truths is that American schools are in sad shape, but part of the fiction is that the solution lies in charter schools. Charter schools have their place and excellent ones, like those depicted in the movie, are a national treasure. But not all charter schools benefit all kids and not all regular public schools fail them. Some of the teachers and administrators depicted in the movie's charter schools were charismatic and driven -- not unlike some of executives in Silicon Valley. Leaders like this will generally get great results but, sadly, not all charter are staffed by amazing people like Geoffrey Canada of Harlem's Promise Academy. As Eshter Wojcicki said in her excellent analysis of the film, the movie "is an over-simplification of a complex problem."
Also sadly, not all parents are as dedicated to their childrens' success as the parents and grandparents in the movie who went to great lengths in an effort to get their children into great schools. Unfortunately, they had to do this by entering a lottery and, like most lotteries, the majority lost. But with caregives like the ones I saw in the film, I have a feeling that those kids might do OK despite having to go to inferior schools.
I Want to See the Mash-Up
Now that he's paying attention to education, perhaps Zuckerberg can make a difference. Maybe someone will create a mashup between the two recent movies. It could be called "Waiting for Zuckerberg."
Larry Magid, who has a doctorate in Education from the University of Massachusetts, is a technology journalist, co-director of ConnectSafely.org and Founder of SafeKids.com. Disclosure: Facebook is one of several companies that provide financial support to ConnectSafely, a nonprofit Internet safety organization.
This article is adapted from one of Larry's San Jose Mercury News columns