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Zuckerberg returns to recruit

No plans in near future to expand here

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By Hiawatha Bray and Michael B. Farrell
Globe Staff / November 8, 2011

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Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg said yesterday he is eager to recruit student talent for his hugely popular social networking site, and he’s interested in building a major presence in the Boston area, although not just yet.

Zuckerberg met yesterday with hundreds of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in Cambridge, looking to recruit employees and interns for Facebook. Asked when the company will establish a local operation, joining Microsoft Corp., Google Inc., and other West Coast-based technology giants, Zuckerberg replied, “Hopefully at some point soon, but no plans in the near future.’’

Speaking after a meeting with officials of Harvard University, Zuckerberg said that Facebook, headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., has only one major satellite office, in Seattle. “We’re growing that,’’ he said, “and we want to really get the culture there right before we start opening up other offices.’’

But Zuckerberg added that Boston is a definite target for expansion. “At some point, somewhere down the line, we will do that,’’ he said.

This is the best time to recruit seniors from Harvard and MIT’s classes of 2012, said Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard in 2004 to launch Facebook. “There’s a lot of really smart people, and a lot of them are making decisions on where they’re going to work when they graduate in the next couple of weeks,’’ he said. “It’s a great time to come,’’ he said.

Zuckerberg’s early decision to move to Silicon Valley, rather than grow the social media giant here, has haunted the local high-tech investment community for the past seven years. Two weeks ago, during a talk at Stanford University, Zuckerberg appeared to express second thoughts about his decision to leave Massachusetts. “Honestly, if I were starting now, I would have just stayed in Boston,’’ he said.

Yesterday, Zuckerberg cast that remark in a different light. He hadn’t been expressing remorse for abandoning Boston, he said. Instead, he was simply saying that successful start-ups can happen anywhere.

“The point that I was trying to make wasn’t that I could have necessarily started Facebook in Boston, or stayed here. It was that I think that there are more than one place where people can build companies,’’ he said. “There are so many smart people out here at MIT and Harvard and the other universities that I think you could start a company here, you could start it in New York, you could start in any country you want.’’

In Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg found the expertise he needed to make Facebook a success. “The thing that I wanted from our investors was to work with people who had experience building companies,’’ he said.

Zuckerberg received funding to grow Facebook from venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who had cofounded the popular online financial services company PayPal, now owned by eBay Inc. Such connections are easier to find in Silicon Valley than in Massachusetts, Zuckerberg said. “I do think that there’s somewhat of a critical mass issue,’’ he said.

While students were eager to hear from Zuckerberg yesterday, they didn’t seem starstruck. Some said that the Facebook chief said little they didn’t already know about the company.

“It’s more significant that he’s here than what he said,’’ said MIT freshman Austin Hess, 18.

Even though he personally has no plans to apply to Facebook, Jie Sun, a 28-year-old MIT student from China, said that he found Zuckerberg’s talk to students inspirational. “The most important thing I found out was that when you have an idea, you just do it,’’ he said. “And if you aren’t successful, you just try again.’’

Rob McQueen, 22, a senior and computer science major, said Zuckerberg didn’t convince him that Facebook is the place to go after graduation. “It’s just cool to see him here,’’ said McQueen, who said he’d rather join a small start-up, where he can get the same kind of experience Zuckerberg gained from launching Facebook.

Zuckerberg made more of an impression on Harvard sophomore Lewis Cid, 20. Cid noted that Facebook has frequently been criticized for policies that allegedly undermine user privacy. But he said that Zuckerberg described plans to give users better tools to limit access to their personal information. “I did not think that Facebook would be so concerned about its impact on our society,’’ Cid said.

Today, Zuckerberg will continue his recruitment drive at another of the nation’s top computer science schools: Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.