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In Cambridge, the ghosts of Facebook still roam

‘Wise-guy’ founder Mark Zuckerberg’s presence persists, even at pizza parlor

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / February 20, 2012
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Harry Lewis, a Harvard University computer science professor, knew Mark Zuckerberg as a student and has no trouble remembering the Facebook cofounder. “There was a wise-guy aspect to him,’’ Lewis said as he sat in his office. “He wasn’t insulting, just skeptical.’’

They remember Zuckerberg at tiny Pinocchio’s Pizza in Harvard Square, too. On the walls are four framed photos of him eating there, the most recent taken a few months ago. In his student days, Zuckerberg “was in here two or three nights a week, usually late,’’ said Adam DiCenso, the owner. “He sat around with his friends and talked about computer stuff.’’

Lewis’s classroom and DiCenso’s pizza place are just two of the local landmarks that figured into the early history of Facebook Inc., before Zuckerberg dropped out of school and took the company to California.

Since then, the social network has grown to become one of the largest technology companies in the world; it claims 845 million users and is planning an initial public offering of stock this spring that may value Facebook at $100 billion or more.

But for two years, from 2002 to mid-2004, Facebook was a start-up, growing against a Boston-area backdrop.

Zuckerberg did not respond to a request for an interview, but people who knew him during that time can map the sites where Facebook took shape, from the Harvard campus to a venture capital firm’s conference room in Waltham.

Lewis met Zuckerberg when the freshman took his advanced computer science course.

“Not many freshmen take it,’’ Lewis said as he scrolled back to that year’s records on his computer. “I’m looking at his midterm grade right now, which I’m not going to tell you.’’

But he did share his impressions of the young Zuckerberg, comparing him to another former student: Bill Gates, who cofounded Microsoft Corp.

“Both Mark and Bill were the kind of students who liked to move around, picking things up and putting them together in different ways,’’ Lewis said. “They were screwing around, in a good way, without a lot of reverence for the stuff we were doing.’’

There wasn’t widespread student enthusiasm for computer science in the years that Zuckerberg was in Cambridge, said Michael Rutter, communications director for Harvard’s School of Engineering and Advanced Science.

“It was right after the dot-com bust,’’ he recalled. “Computer science was still on the decline. What was hot was to be a quant,’’ he said, referring to the advanced mathematical expertise prized on pre-meltdown Wall Street.

Rutter didn’t see much of Zuckerberg. “Like a lot of students, he spent most of his time at his house,’’ he said.

That would be Kirkland House, on a small quadrangle just off Harvard Square, where Zuckerberg created CourseMatch, an online database that allowed students to see what classes their friends were taking.

Later, Zuckerberg hacked into collections of student ID pictures stored on Harvard’s computer servers, paired them up, and asked students to rate the faces according to attractiveness.

The project, which he called FaceMash and posted in the fall of 2003, earned Zuckerberg an appearance before the Administration Board, the university’s disciplinary body. The site lasted a week.

A few months later, Zuckerberg launched another proto-social networking experiment: Six Degrees to Harry Lewis. At the time, Lewis had just finished a stint as dean of the university, and his name appeared frequently in The Harvard Crimson, the school newspaper. Zuckerberg created a site that mapped connections between people who appeared in Crimson articles and Lewis.

“I have a very polite e-mail here from him asking if it was OK to put me at the center of that site,’’ Lewis recalled. “I think he was being extra careful, after his appearance before the Administration Board.’’

By early 2004, the first version of Facebook was launched by Zuckerberg, his Kirkland House roommates Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskovitz, and fellow student Eduardo Saverin.

Lewis recalls that “friendship networks’’ were not unknown at the time. Friendster and MySpace were up and running.

“The moral to the whole story is a common one: Many inventions are really reinventions,’’ Lewis said. “The people who make them work are the ones we remember. And Mark was good at building things that worked.’’

By March 2004, Facebook had crossed the radar of venture capitalist Larry Cheng, then an associate at Battery Ventures, a firm with an office in Waltham. At an event at Harvard, he asked a student what was cool on campus.

“She said ‘The Facebook,’ very decisively,’’ recalled Cheng, now managing partner of the Boston venture firm Volition Capital.

That night, Cheng used his alumni account to log on to the service, which was restricted to users with a Harvard e-mail address. “I was really impressed,’’ he said. “It had only launched three or four weeks earlier, and already it had 3,000 to 4,000 students.’’

He messaged Zuckerberg on Facebook. Along with Saverin, they met several times over the next few weeks, at the restaurant Henrietta’s Table in Harvard Square and at Cheng’s office in Waltham. Yet Cheng’s firm never got involved with Facebook, partly because “the venture community was not quite prepared to invest behind a college sophomore,’’ he said.

That would not be the case today.

“Now, they would have gotten 20 offers from venture capital firms,’’ Cheng said. “The whole venture industry has learned that there’s a new crop of entrepreneur that’s been born digital native. And they know how to think about companies in a new way.’’

Seeking backing elsewhere, Zuckerberg dropped out and moved to Silicon Valley at the end of the spring semester in 2004. He’s only been back to Cambridge for a few brief visits since he left in 2004, but his brief tenure at Harvard has had a surprisingly dramatic influence on the 375-year-old institution.

Late last year, Harvard opened an “innovation lab’’ to encourage entrepreneurial activity. A “Hack Harvard’’ intensive program is offered every winter to help students start new initiatives. Last week, the university hosted a Start-Up Fair.

“Innovation is more central now,’’ said Harvard’s Rutter. “We’re also asking, ‘Can we create a culture to get students to innovate, and stay?’ That wasn’t a question we were asking back when Mark Zuckerberg was here.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

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