5 Unique Things About Interviewing @ Netflix

Netflix is a company that has generated a lot of intrigue — from its David vs Goliath like battle vs Blockbuster, leadership and innovation in Streaming Video On Demand (SVOD), Qwikster debacle, foray into Original production, pioneering technical solutions like chaos engineering, to its one of a kind culture. Talking to friends and acquaintances, I always get asked — what is it like to really work at Netflix? Coming up on my 1 year anniversary at Netflix, I want to share my insights into the unique things that define working at Netflix. Through a series of blog posts I will delve into my personal experiences around the aspects of Netflix culture that have stood out for me, dealing with new hire anxiety and 5 unique things about interviewing at Netflix. Finally I will bring it together for those who are interested in pursuing opportunities at Netflix by giving interview preparation tips.

Part 3: Interviewing @ Netflix

Over the course of my career, I have interviewed at a few companies and have discussed interviewing with many friends and candidates. Interviewing process has evolved over time and many companies have their unique twists to make it personal and increase effectiveness. Having interviewed at and for Netflix, these are the 5 unique things that have stood out for me.

Hiring for Team

At Netflix, every hiring manager (HM) hires for the team. This is a different model than what I have experienced interviewing or working at many Bay Area companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. These companies mostly hire for the company and then match new hires to actual teams using different criteria. The 2 models have different trade-offs.

Hiring for a team @ Netflix means that the HM is intimately involved in all aspects of recruiting — coming up with evaluation criteria based on current team’s strengths and gaps, socializing it with recruiting partners, partnering with recruiters on networking, sourcing, screening, evaluating, and closing candidates and finally on-boarding new hires. As you can imagine, this takes up a lot of time and effort whenever there are open headcounts. In the steady state, a lot less time and effort are devoted to recruiting. On average, it takes longer to fill in an open headcount since there is no central pool to tap into. Also there is an higher risk of lowering the bar to satisfy the urgency of tackling piled up work. To minimize the risk of lowering the bar, at Netflix HMs only seek out candidates who would raise the bar for the team on certain dimension(s) that are important to the team. To identify these characteristics (or lack thereof) in candidates they rely on insightful and well rounded feedback from team and peers during evaluation. Given that many teams find themselves waiting a few weeks or months to fill in open headcount, this is the norm. HMs and teams are thoughtful about prioritizing work and communicating with partners so that they get enough breathing room to find the right person for the job.

On the positive side, we believe that the model of hiring for team results in higher quality candidates. Since HMs have a high level of clarity on what they want based on current gaps in the team and are intimately involved with the different aspects of hiring, highly relevant candidates enter the pipeline. Through the interview process, the candidates are given the same clarity. Historically this has translated to hires with a higher level of clarity on mutual fit and skills that have complemented the team. As a result these new hires turn out to be great fit for the team and the domain and can hit the ground running.

Recruiters as equal partners

Netflix recruiters are equal partners in the hiring process (and based on my experience some of the best). The final hiring decision rests with the HM, but recruiters partner with HMs to thoroughly understand the technical domain as well as the team needs and are able to have meaningful conversations with candidates on the same. They do a lot more than route candidates to potential teams and handle interviewing and closing logistics. Having honed their skills evaluating hundreds or thousands of candidates, they are intimately involved in the evaluation process by being on the interview panel and acting as sounding boards to HMs.

Culture alignment

Netflix has a very unique culture which is unlike the culture at most companies. Given the uniqueness, there is a lot of emphasis on culture alignment during the interview process. Most companies have a strong cultural identity and seek to find candidates that are a good culture fit. In my experience there is a much higher emphasis on culture alignment at Netflix, given how different it is and is taken as seriously as technical expertise.

Netflix Offer Evaluation

A Netflix offer is presented and evaluated differently once a candidate and the HM have determined a mutual fit. Chances are, many candidates have multiple offers at this time. How to evaluate one over others? How to negotiate to get the best compensation? These are normal questions to have. While we understand that compensation is an important criteria in evaluating offers (who wouldn’t want more money, right?), sometimes it becomes the single most important criteria for evaluating offers. Some candidates who mention different criteria during their job search willingly toss them out while evaluating multiple offers to get higher compensation.

So at Netflix we ask a simple question — Assuming Netflix is able to meet compensation needs, how would candidates evaluate multiple offers? Put another way, what criteria (other than compensation) would they use to choose one offer over others? Ideally, candidates would come up with the same criteria that they identified in the interview prep stage. In some cases, some new things like commute (especially if there is a big difference in everyday commute time), title, etc may show up and that is fine. However red flags would be triggered if they come up with a very different criteria for evaluating offers or if they convey the impression that they are just shopping around to get the maximum compensation.

Image from Flickr, no changes made.

I was fortunate to have multiple job offers when I interviewed with Netflix and my HM and recruiter helped me evaluate the different offers based on my criteria (minus compensation). While they communicated that they would be very happy to have me join Netflix, they helped me objectively evaluate the offers by giving me more clarity on the Netflix role for the criteria that were important to me. They helped me compare and contrast the information about the Netflix role with the other roles. They did not try to force criteria on me that were favorable for the Netflix offer. Nor did they overtly “sell” their offer over others. I found this be to refreshingly authentic and chose Netflix over an equally exciting offer.

Lastly, there are no levels for technical ICs at Netflix. Everyone is Senior Software Engineer. For some candidates, title is very important. In many cases, when probed, what is more important is the impact that they can have or the opportunities that are presented to them. At Netflix, opportunities are presented and impact can be generated based on one’s skill set and what one does with it. If public recognition of impact via title is important to candidates (and it is perfectly fine if it is) then Netflix is not a good fit for them.

Compensation

Once Netflix gets a sense that there is a decent to high likelihood of a candidate choosing Netflix, they will be given their total compensation. As mentioned in the culture deck, Netflix pays top of personal market to every employee based on an informed evaluation by the HM on the following 3 questions

  • What could the person get elsewhere?
  • What would we pay for replacement?
  • What would we pay to keep that person?

The 1st question informs the HM on the competitive market, the 2nd on what the role needs and the 3rd on how much the HM would be willing to pay to retain the employee in that role. The net result is that employees rarely leave Netflix for seeking better compensation. The same principles are followed for new hire compensation. Many times Netflix is able to meet or exceed current/competitive compensation. Sometimes, other companies are able to offer slightly or significantly larger compensation. But regardless, we want new hires to join Netflix because they are excited about criteria that truly matter to them rather than based on highest compensation. Additionally, compensation review based on the above questions is done annually for all employees. So annually, each employee is kept at their personal top of market. I like this model for the following reasons:

  • If one’s current compensation is low and they join Netflix, they will still be paid at the top of their personal market. I have seen this happen in practice where people have got a nice bump on joining Netflix.
  • If one’s current compensation is higher than what Netflix is willing to offer, it is mostly because of their vested and unvested stocks. In that case they effectively have golden handcuffs unless some other company is willing to pay them way over the market value for their skill sets.
  • As a tenured Netflix employee, one is never in the situation where, due to hot job market, new hires are getting paid (sometimes much) more than more experienced/skilled employees. Most of us have probably been at companies where new hires earn more than many higher level employees and then once they get in, their compensation plateaus over time to match existing employees.

Netflix offers a very flexible total compensation. There is a single compensation number — no annual bonus promises, no sign-on bonus, no fixed stock awards/options. The employee (or new hire) chooses (annually) what percentage of their total compensation is in base salary and the remaining is in stock options. In addition, each employee gets 5% of their total compensation in stock options. Historically employees who have invested in stock options have benefited immensely. Each new hire gets to decide their own risk/reward trade-off and if needed, modify it every year.

In conclusion, there are some unique things to be aware of while interviewing at Netflix. Having a better understanding will hopefully help you tailor your preparation if you plan to interview at Netflix or may help you tweak the interview process at your company to make it more effective. I would love to hear from you, so please don’t hesitate to reach out with your comments/questions/suggestions.

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