Fifteen years ago, an Aragonese engineer on the verge of thirty became the first foreign employee of a start-up Californian that grew at full speed. He was being hired by Facebook, then an up-and-coming name in Silicon Valley’s fledgling tech ecosystem. Javier Oliván, born in Sabiñánigo (Huesca), a town of 9,000 inhabitants whose motto is “Puerta del Pirineo”, had crossed the ocean to study a master’s degree in business administration at Stanford University with a scholarship from the Rafael del Pino Foundation . And there he was, with his eyes wide open and eager to undertake, when he noticed that everyone in his class was beginning to use a social network for university students created at Harvard by a certain Mark Zuckerberg.
He set out to do the same for the Spanish public with a couple of colleagues and Nosuni was born. The project failed. In Spain, Tuenti triumphed —for a time—, and Facebook came to life beyond the classroom. But chance wanted Oliván to meet Zuckerberg. “I told him that he had to internationalize the platform and translate it into all languages,” told four years ago about that meeting in a talk on digital leadership. Said and done. Zuckerberg entrusted him with this task and Facebook, now a platform that spoke the language of its users, flew far beyond the Anglo-Saxon countries and quickly and unstoppably filtered into homes around the world.
Since that distant 2007 in which Oliván joined the company, his position has promptly attracted media attention, although he has cultivated a low profile that contrasted with increasing responsibilities. “In Spain I don’t exist”, he sometimes commented to his friends. However, his promotion to the vice presidency, first of Growth and then of Product, did not go unnoticed by the Spanish Government. The president, Pedro Sánchez, summoned him to La Moncloa two and a half months ago to talk about the investments that Facebook plans to undertake in Spain. Oliván was something like “the Spanish of Facebook”. On Wednesday, with his appointment as Director of Operations, replacing the powerful Sheryl Sandberg, he has made a qualitative leap. The new position places him as Zuckerberg’s right hand, and, therefore, as the number two of the multinational that also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, which last year had a turnover of more than 100,000 million euros and accumulates a social and political influence that is almost impossible to measure.
Productive meeting with Javier Oliván, Vice President of @Goal. We celebrate the company’s investments in our country that will generate 2,000 jobs. Spain is a hub for talent and entrepreneurship and will continue to be at the forefront of digitization, supporting technologies such as the Metaverse. pic.twitter.com/Rms4dzl9PQ
– Pedro Sánchez (@sanchezcastejon) March 15, 2022
Father of two children and married to a German woman whom he met during his time as an Erasmus student in Munich, the city where they celebrated their wedding, Oliván speaks five languages —English, French, German and Japanese, in addition to Spanish—, and As someone close to him explains by phone, he is a great lover of coffee and a fan of surfing, a sport in which he began far from the coast, in an artificial river in the German city. Settling in California, the waves he faces are now very real. “He takes Mark [Zuckerberg] to surf. He is the surfer of the team. He says that it is the most complete sport because you use legs and arms, ”explains his friend, who highlights his intelligence, his authenticity and his humility. “He’s a guy that doing what he does and being where he is, he hasn’t gone to his head.”
In the message of thanks that Oliván published on Facebook on Wednesday to fire his predecessor and give some clues about his new job, the Huesca executive hinted that he aspires to maintain part of that discretion that has allowed him to work successfully in the shadows as Zuckerberg henchman. “Although I will have the same title, my role will be different […]. With a few exceptions, it won’t have the same public presence, given that we have other leaders in Meta doing that work,” he explained. His lesser exposure has drawn the attention of American financial media such as CNBC, which when diving into their networks have found a huge difference: while Sandberg, the woman who held the position before him, has almost a million followers on Instagram, Oliván has a private account with only 17 followers.
He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.
In the aforementioned dialogue on digital leadership that he had with the Spanish entrepreneur Bernardo Hernández at the Rafael del Pino Foundation, Oliván displayed a managerial style based on trust towards his team over personal ego. “You hire smart people not to tell them what to do, but to be told what to do.” And he even goes so far as to say that in a parallel universe, it would not be unreasonable for him if the positions were reversed and he was the one who worked for them. “They are true experts in their field.”
From American culture he has absorbed above all the idea of getting out of the comfort zone. One of his favorite phrases, learned at Stanford from a professor, says that “by not taking a risk you are taking a greater risk.” And he is attracted to the way Americans conceive of entrepreneurship. “In the United States, the culture of taking calculated risks is very well seen, even if a good idea well executed ends up failing due to external factors.” This is what he believes happened to his failed social network, because what then seemed like a defeat later served as a springboard to jump to Facebook.
Oliván also admits that meritocracy is not always the key to success. “Many people look back and attribute more success than they really deserve to their own intelligence, when luck is being in the right place at the right time,” he opines. His case is a clear example. He is aware that studying at Stanford changed his life. And that without the Rafael del Pino Foundation scholarship that he received for it, he would have had to look for work to repay the debt that he would have contracted to pay for the master’s degree, which perhaps would have taken his career in other directions.
That yes, another of the phrases that he likes to repeat with laughter, from his cousin, alludes to a culture of effort without which little margin is left to fortune: “I don’t understand why, but the more I study the luckier I have in the exams”. And Oliván took the appropriate steps so that luck would smile on him. He completed his studies in electrical and industrial engineering at the University of Navarra with a mark cum laude and received the first and second prize for academic excellence. And before landing on Facebook, he worked in the mobile phone sector for five years, especially in Germany with the company Siemens Mobile, where he spent two stages, with experience in half a year in Japan with the operator NTT DoCoMo.
The resignations have been many. In an interview on Radio Huesca in 2012, when he had been on Facebook for five years, his father, Florián, commented that they could barely see his son once a year. And when he got home, it was impossible for him to disconnect from the computer and the phone, so the good morning and good night were spent with him always sitting in front of the laptop. That year was especially frenetic: Facebook went public valued at 82,000 million euros, and Oliván’s actions made him a millionaire.
Today the firm, despite living a disastrous year in the stock markets, is worth five times more than when it jumped to the parquet. And Javier Oliván, the Spaniard born at the gates of the Pyrenees, takes on the most important task of his life: whispering the right words to Mark Zuckerberg to straighten the course of the social network. “In these positions, if you are too much of a fight, you die trying, and if you are not, you do not achieve results, you must have a balance between your political and executive skills,” says another Spaniard who has worked as a technology company in Silicon Valley. Oliván is used to standing on the board, but surely he has never faced a wave like this.