Facebook employees turn to rogue hacker from Hong Kong to learn what other teams are building
Jane Manchun Wong has an incessant need to know every single feature of every single app on her smartphone.
Wong, a 25-year-old software engineer in Hong Kong, checks every new line of code any time one of her Android smartphone’s apps get an update. She locates new code, reverse-engineers it and finds new features before they are announced.
“I do it mostly for personal amusement,” Wong told CNBC. “If I see the feature, I check if there is any security vulnerability, and if it doesn’t, I tweet it.”
This knack for feature discovery has made Wong something of a Twitter celebrity. She now has more than 50,000 followers, and this month, she gained two followers that really stood out: Adam Mosseri, the head of Facebook’s Instagram, and Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, the head of Facebook’s hardware initiatives.
“I find it very surprising that they do acknowledge my existence,” Wong said. “I used to talk to the world as if no one was watching, but now, they’re following me.”
Wong tweeted about her new VIP followers and received flattering responses, but perhaps most telling was the response from Colin Higgins, an Instagram data scientist. He called her a better source for what’s really going on at the company than its own internal communications team:
“Employees only focus on their particular teams,” Wong explained. “It can get difficult to keep track of every single change. If I’m able to turn code into a screenshot and under 280 characters, I can help.”
But Facebook and Instagram are Wong’s bread and butter.
“There’s just so many new features every few updates,” Wong said. “It’s just so frequent. I find it almost magical.”
Wong is particularly proud of finding a major Instagram change before it was announced. On April 18, Wong tweeted about Instagram testing hiding like counts from users. Her tweet racked up nearly 8,000 likes. Twelve days later, Mosseri confirmed Wong’s discovery at Facebook’s F8 software developer conference. Wong said she is curious to see how hiding likes will impact users’ social media behavior.
“The numbers drive people into posting for more likes,” she said. “The fact that they are trying to make that invisible, it changes how people view social media.”
Wong taught herself how to code by reading books and guides from the internet, and is currently taking a leave of absence from school for health reasons. Although she can make a couple hundred dollars every time she discovers and reports a security vulnerability, her feature hunting is a hobby, not a job, she said. Wong’s dedication to finding new features stems from her own curiosity, and she has no plans to make money from it, despite having been contacted by news outlets interested in hiring her, she said.
Now, even with numerous Facebook employees following her work, Wong said she has no plans to change what she’s doing. In fact, Wong thinks her tweets can be beneficial to executives like Bosworth and Mosseri.
“Before a feature is launched, they might be able to see how a feature is perceived in the comments,” she said.
If anything, she hopes her discoveries serve as a showcase for her skills as a software engineer. Wong has experienced the tech industry as an outsider, but she would love to work at a company like Facebook and be part of the teams that build the features she finds.
“Right now, I keep digging from the surface, but I just want to experience how it feels to actually work with them,” Wong said.