Larry Schrof's journey has taken him from a childhood in Geneseo to a computer programming job at one of the most recognizable Internet sites in the world — Facebook, and he's done it all with very limited vision.
The 1993 Geneseo graduate is legally blind. When he was born, Schrof's parents (Connie and the late Larry Schrof of Geneseo) originally thought their son was completely blind before realizing he had limited vision.
"It's called congenital nystagmus, which is basically uncontrolled eye movement," explained Schrof. As a result, Schrof sees multiples of an image juxtaposed close together.
"Small things get very jumbled," he said. "The good news is my sight hasn't deteriorated over the years, which I'm very happy about."
With his father working as an engineer, Schrof had an interest in construction, but realized his limited vision made working with hand tools dangerous.
"Computers filled that void," he said. "Programming was creative and it was a way to build."
Schrof received his first computer, a Commodore 64 as a present when he was "about 4 or 5."
"Computers have been in my blood from very early on," he said. "The very first day I got the computer, I was trying to figure out how to write programs for it. I was 5 when I wrote my first computer game."
At the time, personal computers were "very new" in homes across America.
"Other kids were asking for BMX bikes, but I wanted a Commodore 64 with an extra bit of ram," said Schrof.
While a student in the Geneseo School District, Schrof said his love of computers was encouraged.
"My sixth-grade teacher at Southwest, Cathy Strafford, was super, super supportive. I didn't want to go out to recess. I wanted to stay inside and work with the Apple II computers at school, and she let me do it. She didn't hesitate," he said. "She knew I loved strategy, so she'd play games of checkers and chess with me before school. She was the one who let me know it was OK to totally geek out and learn."
In high school, Schrof said he and classmate Landon Neumann bonded over computer programming.
"If we hit a problem, we'd call each other up and talk about programming for hours over the phone," he explained.
Though he could program software, working with the computer's hardware itself proved difficult for Schrof with his limited vision.
"All of the hardware repair I can do today without looking is because Landon helped me physically learn the hardware," he said.
After graduation, Schrof went to the University of Illinois where he earned a degree in computer science.
Page 2 of 5 - Several years ago, Schrof was living in Chicago with his own consulting business when the movie "The Social Network" premiered. "The Social Network" details founder Mark Zuckerberg's creation of Facebook.
"I didn't want to see the movie at first," said Schrof, however, at his wife, Amanda's urging, he viewed the film.
"Within the first five minutes, I had a pit in my stomach. I kept thinking, 'I was doing these things 10 years before (Zuckerberg) even knew what it was,'" said Schrof. "I didn't sleep that entire night. I spent hours just pacing."
Schrof had friends — including his sister and brother-in-law — living and working in California's Silicon Valley, site of Facebook.
"I'd heard how engineers were treated like royalty out there, but I loved the Midwest. I loved walking outside and hearing locust," he said.
Still, Schrof admits he felt he had "stagnated" in terms of his technology growth.
"Facebook is world famous for their very difficult interview process, but I decided I wanted to know if I could work side-by-side with the world's best," said Schrof.
During the multi-month long interview process, Schrof said he felt confident with his performance.
"The interview went much better than I'd thought. I'd brought up a couple of technical details they weren't familiar with, and I really felt like I was able to relate to them. We'd clicked, and I'd had fun," he said.
Still, interviewing for a job at Facebook and actually uprooting his family for a move to California were two entirely different things.
"They offered me a job and suddenly I didn't know what to do. I kept thinking, 'It's Facebook. How do I not go to Facebook?'" he said.
However, the economy had just headed south and Schrof knew he had a house, mortgage and responsibilities in Chicago.
"At that time, it was around my birthday, and I wanted to just sit back and absorb things. Then my wife told me a giant box had just been delivered to our house," said Schrof.
Inside was a Harry and David's fruit basket wishing Schrof a happy birthday "from his friends at Facebook."
"It was the largest fruit basket I'd ever seen," he said.
Shortly after that, Schrof and his wife decided to jointly celebrate his birthday and their anniversary with a weekend at the hotel where they'd married.
"I'd told the Facebook recruiter that I needed time to think about my decision," he explained.
Upon returning to their hotel room after dinner, Schrof's wife noticed the bottle of champagne they'd set on ice had been relocated to the coffee table.
Page 3 of 5 - "We thought it was weird the hotel staff would move the bottle. Then we realized it was an entirely new bottle," he said. The card attached was from Facebook.
"I'd not told anyone where we were going to be except my sister, and her husband works at Facebook. Through him, the recruiter was able to track down where we'd be," said Schrof.
"I was flattered. They were really nice about it, and, at that point, it almost felt like it'd be bad karma to say 'no.'"
Schrof accepted the job and moved his family to California.
Schrof works as a production engineer at Facebook. He's been with the company for a year and a half, but adds, "In Facebook time, that's effectively 20 years. I'm one of the veterans."
Company data shows employees how long they've been at the company in comparison to their peers. "When I last checked, I'd been with Facebook longer than 64 percent of the employees. The rate at which they're hiring people is astonishing," said Schrof.
He described the production engineering side of Facebook as "unique, special and fun."
"We have to know the computer networks pretty well. Facebook has one of the largest Linux systems in the world," he said. "One of the things we do is help programmers with scaling. A programmer may be able to write code that works for 1,000 users, but what happens when you scale that for a billion users?
"Every engineer at Facebook has special needs for our servers, and a lot of time those needs can conflict in dangerous ways," explained Schrof.
The small team Schrof belongs to serves "sort of as marshals of the Wild West."
"We help meet the needs and demands of programmers," he said.
Before joining the company, Schrof said he used Facebook but "wasn't a power user."
"A lot of people think of Facebook as something to do, but it's really a new paradigm — a new way of communicating. It allows people to share life and do things with friends. It's a way to have shared experiences," he explained.
"Some people think Facebook is a time waster, but it wasn't like we were on the brink of curing cancer and then Facebook was introduced and we all decided to play (Facebook game) Mafia Wars instead," joked Schrof. "People were always going to waste time. This is just a way to do it with your friends."
Facebook also can connect people in more meaningful ways, he said. "My vision impairment is really rare, but, through Facebook, I've been able to meet others with the same impairment."
His vision impairment has resulted in unique working solutions at Facebook.
Page 4 of 5 - "Facebook has an ergonomics team that all employees can use. They'll watch you work and listen to your needs and offer suggestions and solutions," he said.
In addition to utilizing a 30-inch computer monitor, the ergonomics specialist working with Schrof realized he need to be as close to his monitor as possible.
"She pointed out the cords on the back of the mouse and the back of the keyboard added an extra inch between me and the screen, so they removed that inch. She was making changes I'd never even thought of," said Schrof.
An additional Facebook employee perk is free transportation — a benefit Schrof, who doesn't drive, appreciates.
"They pay for train passes and then they time shuttles to be at the station when the train arrives to pick you up and take you to the office door," he said.
"Facebook also has a great work-life balance," he said.
Schrof and his wife have two children, Eli, 2, and Zoe, eight months. "I'm able to work from home one day a week and they also offer four months of paid parental leave. They also give money toward day care."
Working at Facebook, Schrof said he feels like he's "working with some of the smartest people on the planet."
"Everyone's super energetic and super positive. The work we do makes people's lives better, all over the world," he said. "We feel a bit like Columbus in learning what's out there and what we can bring back from this new world (of computer technology).
"I like a challenge of trying to figure out a problem. It's an addictive rush when you figure something out. It's like a puzzle, you're always trying to solve the next piece," said Schrof.
He feels computer programming shares core similarities with music, his other passion.
"I tell people music is surprisingly logical and ordered and computers are surprisingly creative," he said.
Schrof first started playing music after echoing his sister's performances on the piano.
He was in band his entire four years of high school.
"I had just started playing guitar and was noodling around with it, when (Geneseo band director) Vic Bianchetta mentioned I should try out to play guitar in jazz band," said Schrof.
He approached his private lesson teacher, Paul DePauw of Geneseo, and started learning jazz music.
In college, Schrof saw computers as "the practical part of my life" but continued his love of music, spending as much time in music classes as he could.
"When I graduated high school, my parents said, 'Do computers now, you can always do music later,'" he noted.
Page 5 of 5 - In 2003, after several years in the professional world, Schrof decided to do just that and enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass, and earned a degree in guitar performance.
"Computers and music have a lot of similarities. In music, there can be a very small elegant phrase or hook, while in computers, it can be a small algorithm that you stack together to get a larger and larger piece of art," he said.
Though he doesn't get to play his guitar as often as he'd like, Schrof said Facebook recently completed a music studio and he hopes to get a band together when his children are older.
And, despite his initial reluctance, Schrof said he's thrilled he made the decision to accept a job at Facebook.
"Looking back, I wonder what took me so long to accept," he said.