Managing with Context, Not Control

Andrew Spyker

In growing our Netflix Compute Platform team, I interview management candidates with a focus on understanding how they will likely manage the team. In looking for such a candidate, it is important that they can manage our experienced and senior team of engineers and work well within our Netflix culture. One part of our culture that is important to each of these aspects is “context not control” leadership.

You can learn about context, not control in the culture deck, memo, and video as well as other manager’s views.

My opinion is that the two most important statements from these sources are “we believe we are most effective and innovative when employees throughout the company make and own decisions” and “the leader’s job at every level is to set clear context so that others have the right information to make generally great decisions.”

I wanted to write about my own views on how this changes how you manage daily and how this empowers you as a manager at Netflix.

How does this affect day to day management?

As a Netflix engineering manager, while you may contribute to technical discussions, you do not make technical decisions. The team does. Also, with a well-rounded senior team, you can leverage the team to make more of the project and product decisions. Not being involved in many of these decisions is beneficial as it allows a team and yourself to scale. This scalability is important given the overall scope and impact of teams at Netflix. Over time, this approach will mean you hire engineers that are more experienced and current on technology than you. As a previous engineer this was a hard pill to swallow, but I realized hiring engineers that are better than the engineer I used to be was one of the biggest keys to having multiplicative impact. This means you have to be really good at attracting, hiring and maintaining a really great team of engineers.

Decisions need to be aligned with the business, internal customers, and partners’ needs. As a manager, you spend a majority of your time at meetings gathering context, working on roadblocks for the team as a whole, and communicating an overall team strategy and roadmap. Additionally, I need to be a context conduit for my team. I help provide my team with this context in two ways. First, I share and seek comments on my context through a weekly Google docs diary covering any of the meetings I attended without the team present. Second, my team participates in a liaison program where they directly work with key internal customers and partners, involving me as needed. We share resulting context with the other team members in weekly team meetings or during quarterly planning.

Managing a great team through context will also surprise and delight you as a manager. As a recent example, I tasked a new team member with a pretty open ended question of “how can we provide tooling to help users understand if there are noisy neighbors”. Answering this question led to advancements in our container performance isolation which led to findings on how this helped efficiency which led to an innovative partnership with our algorithm and machine learning teams to assist in solving and predicting isolation and efficiency optimizations. This work has now expanded to multiple team members given its value to the Netflix business. I provided the context of users being concerned about isolation visibility and business needs for efficiency. The work that grew out of this context wasn’t something I could have personally thought of. There is no way I could have made the right technical decisions that led to the success of this project given I wasn’t as deeply involved with the work.

You might be wondering if this is perfect and as simple as it sounds. My team has asked me to sometimes exercise control. The two cases have been asking for my viewpoint when the team has come up with more than one equally viable solution to a problem and pulling them out of the weeds when I notice an initiative going poorly. While the first should be expected to occasionally occur, I find the second is usually a lack of context on a less than perfectly understood project or goal. Many times, the second is solved by further discussions and cross-functional context collection and alignment.

How does this make being a manager better?

Context, not control exists at all levels inside of Netflix. This means you will be enabled as a manager to make decisions that are best left to you within the company and your organization. As a manager at Netflix, I have the complete responsibility and freedom in hiring and approach to growing the team and mission. This means these aspects are directly under my control as opposed to being guided by general processes such as centralized hiring committees. Just like engineers have the best ability to make decisions that affect their technology, products and services, I have the best ability to make decisions on how to best grow and maintain our team.

Next you get to operate within a “dream team”. I truly believe that we have assembled some of the best distributed and systems engineers in the compute space for this mission at Netflix. This gives me confidence in dreaming big and taking on challenges that I can’t be certain, at the time, will be possible. It gives me the ability to hire more amazing engineers in the space as they want to work along with and add to this team. Due to this, the team (myself included) feed off each other to do more amazing work than we would have done separately.

Finally, you get to focus on sharing your passion and instilling this passion in team members. My favorite aspect of our culture is expressed in the quote from Antoine De Saint-Exupery “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea”. Stated differently, if you want an engineering team to succeed, don’t give them orders (control), give them the information they need to succeed (context) mixed with passion for the challenge. I would rather be focusing on this passion and developing our team’s yearning than giving each team member specific assignments, micro-managing their work, and understanding if my orders were successfully conveyed.

Does this sound good to you?

We’re looking for managers that share this passion for enabling their team for success.

Also, we’re looking for engineers who want to work within this environment on our team.

My twitter DMs are open.

Andrew Spyker

Written by

Engineering Manager, Netflix Container Platform

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