Hewitt, who began his coding career hacking away at his dad's computer at the age of 7, dropped out of college to join Netscape in 2000. He was a member of the Firefox crew that built the Web development tool Firebug and he co-founded Parakey, the first company acquired by Facebook, which was announced in July. Since then, he has launched a version of Facebook for Apple's iPhone. (Apple is promoting his iUI for its ballyhooed new cell phone.)
CNET News.com recently caught up with Hewitt, who reflected on his young and already productive career in high tech and what he sees on the horizon.
Q: Can you describe the route you took getting to Silicon Valley?
Hewitt: I guess it started when I came out here seven years ago. I grew up in New Jersey and came here to join the exciting Silicon Valley software movement. I started working for Netscape in 2000, which was right around the time that they were crashing rapidly. When I got there, they brought me on to work on Netscape 6, which was a total disaster. A really good lesson for a young software developer. I guess I learned how to not do things. I worked on Netscape 6 and then Netscape 7, and then two years later AOL shut down the whole operation and laid everyone off. I managed to not get laid off and I stayed there for about another year doing various things. Then a year later, I started Parakey with Blake Ross, a little start-up which Facebook just acquired last month.
Hewitt: Oh! I forgot Firefox. It was my last act at Netscape when everything was total chaos in 2002 and everyone knew they were pretty much done. So we could work on whatever we wanted to for about six months and a bunch of us said "Hey, why don't we create the browser?" We always wanted to create and we didn't take orders from Netscape or AOL anymore. It was really only a few months that I worked on it with the other guys, Blake Ross and Dave Hyatt, just to get the project started.
But it's not like Firefox is a small thing?
Hewitt: No, it's not. It's a small thing to me because I started working on it two years before it became popular. It was then called Phoenix and just like a little hobby of ours. When Mozilla became an independent foundation they made a decision to switch to Firefox and they spent two years basically turning it into a polished product and finishing it, but I wasn't involved in that. I was more involved in the genesis, taking that Mozilla browser and stripping out a bunch of junk and adding in some features that we thought would be better like form completion, customizable toolbars and the Google search box.
After Netscape and building the Firefox browser, you and Blake Ross started Parakey.
Hewitt: The idea of Parakey was that we wanted to create something that, I guess, looking back in retrospect was kind of like Facebook. I think we focused a lot more at Parakey on personal publishing, allowing people--especially older generations--to be able to create really nice Web sites using the stuff that they're interested in: photos and calendars and things like that. We wanted to make that experience really easy. I think in a lot of ways we approached it more like Apple's approach tends to be, which is that we were very focused on media and the individual and not so much focused on the network. Just one of the things I love about being here at Facebook is that they already have this great network and we are able to do cool things that people at other companies only could wish they could do. Like we wished we could at Parakey.
And then you sold it.
Hewitt: When you have your own start-up, you like that freedom and the control of running the show and you don't want to give that up. Initially when the idea came up I was like, "No, this is my company, Facebook is not taking my company, my baby." But it's been a great decision and I have the same amount of freedom here as I had in my company, believe it or not.
Now you're surrounded by other people. That must be different.
Hewitt: Actually, I've never seen Blake more in my life, since we came here. It's a fun energy, but it's kind of quiet now. You should be here after 9 p.m., that's when it gets fun. Everyone is really young. The last big company I worked at, AOL, I was the young one and everyone was much older. And the maximum age in those companies was up in the thirties and forties even in engineering, but here I think the average age in the engineering team is probably like 22 or 23. These are all guys that came right out of school and some of them dropped out of school to come here. It's a lot of fun; definitely reminds me of being at college myself. It makes me feel young again, I guess.
Hewitt: Nearing 29.
You never launched anything with Parakey. What did you do during those two years?
Hewitt: We took our time to experiment and do things that took a little longer. And we weren't trying to rush something out to market as we were just trying to get something right. During those years the whole Web 2.0 thing was exploding. Blake and I are kind of cynical by nature and so we thought a lot of what people were doing was kind of rushed and not well-thought out. We were waiting to have that moment, that click where we said "this will change your mom's life if she had this." We probably would have gotten there if we stayed independent but...
Will Parakey be incorporated in Facebook?
Hewitt: That's a good question. I can't really talk about that right now. Naturally it's been soaking in my brain for years now, so it's going to affect Facebook in some way.