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A Look At Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's Trajectory In 2018


This month as we get ready to say goodbye to 2018, we're taking stock of the year in tech on All Tech Considered.


CHANG: Today, how the year went for one person in particular.


Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, feminist icon in a male-dominated industry - and Sandberg cultivated that image through her bestseller "Lean In."


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Well, they say you can't have it all. But Sheryl Sandberg comes awfully close.

KELLY: Lately though, she has been at the center of some of Facebook's worst moments - the Cambridge-Analytica scandal, the effort to dig up dirt on those who criticized how Facebook handled fake news in the 2016 presidential election.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A front-page investigation this morning by The New York Times dives into the compounding crises that plague Facebook over the last year, involving Russian interference and privacy breaches.

KELLY: Joining us to take stock of Sheryl Sandberg's 2018 is Kara Swisher of Recode. Kara Swisher, welcome.


KELLY: So you broke the story ten years ago when Mark Zuckerberg lured Sandberg away from Google and over to Facebook.


KELLY: Yeah, I mean, remind us what her reputation was then - what she was seen as bringing.

SWISHER: She wasn't very well-known then. I mean, she was one of the many really strong Google executives. She ran one of its advertising businesses. And it was a big coup for Facebook, which had struggled with executives. The thought was that she was the adult supervision. That's what they called her at the time.

KELLY: The grown-up in the room for the dude in the sweatshirt and all the people he'd brought with him.

SWISHER: Yeah, you know, because they had been running it - they had mistake after mistake. And so here was someone who was going to bring some level of discipline into the operations of the company. And she's since then done a great job - until just recently.

KELLY: Right. I mean, she did help build Facebook into a multibillion-dollar company.

SWISHER: Yeah, especially around advertising which was her area of expertise.

KELLY: So fast-forward to this year when she has taken much blame for being blind to how Facebook was being used in the 2016 presidential campaign - and then more recently for questionable measures to try to salvage the company's image. I mean, how much of the blame does Sheryl Sandberg deserve - do you think?

SWISHER: Well, let's be clear. She deserves a lot of the blame. She's the COO, and she's in charge of vast parts of that company. But to me, a lot of focus should be also be on the CEO Mark Zuckerberg. And it's not because, one, they see him as sort of this feckless geek that just can't, like, speak or something, which is not true. And he has most of the power in the company. He controls the company through his stock.

And so he's unfireable essentially, and so the focus is on her. But you also need to look at the whole package of executives there, including the CTO. There's a head of platform. There's all kinds of people - all of whom are men, by the way. It just goes on and on because it's such an interconnected company - that a lot of this is a disaster larger than one person I think.

KELLY: You said Mark Zuckerberg is unfireable. Is she? Is her job safe?

SWISHER: She is not unfireable at all.

KELLY: I don't mean like legally in her contract. But I just mean can you imagine that happening.

SWISHER: I'd be surprised given - it's not something Mark tends to do. He tends to stick by his executives. And it would not be a good look at Facebook to do that. At the same time, you know, you have today Michelle - or yesterday, Michelle Obama sort of insulted "Lean In." So it's - and then another article in Vanity Fair compared her to Jeff Skilling of Enron, which is kind of an astonishing comparison. I think she's got two problems. It's hard for her to leave now under this cloud, and it's hard for her to stay.

KELLY: You know, I have to ask. You're referring to Mark Zuckerberg as Mark. You're on a first name basis with him. I know you talk to these people all the time at Facebook. Do you have a sense of how Sheryl Sandberg thinks this year has gone?

SWISHER: I think she thinks it's gone badly. I think she knows that they made some missteps. They're very aware that they're very much under the gun and that every day something more is going to come out based on past behavior that doesn't make them look very good. And so recovering from this is going to be hard. But, you know, Microsoft did, and now Microsoft's one of the most valuable companies in the world. And if you recall, they had a pretty hard time more than a decade ago - like 20 years ago.

KELLY: Do you have a sense that Sandberg has a plan for how to make 2019 a better year than 2018 has been?

SWISHER: Well, it couldn't be worse, right? Maybe it could. I don't know. I think what they're doing - the things they've done recently to try to improve their systems, which were incredibly sloppy, I think are better. And I think they've met - they really do - they're really leaning into - I hate to use that term - fixing this problem. At the same time, people have had it. And they've become an iconic company for all that's wrong with tech. And it's going to be difficult to shake that without enormous effort by Sandberg and by Zuckerberg and by the entire team of managers there.

KELLY: Thank you, Kara.

SWISHER: You're welcome.

KELLY: That's Kara Swisher. She is editor at large of Recode and a contributor to The New York Times opinion page. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.