Inspiring Culture

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“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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 1: Reflections on Culture @ Netflix

There are various aspects of Netflix culture that have stood out for me over the course of my first year there. I will touch on some of the important aspects via my personal examples.

Transparency

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Netflix has a memo-based culture (inspired by Amazon) and uses gDocs to put down ideas, solicit feedback, track meeting notes, etc. This, and the openness in sharing, results in a trove of historical and current information that is readily available to each employee in domains that are related as well as unrelated to theirs. From the top, all the quarterly business review docs are made available to all employees right after quarterly earnings announcement. This enables employees to have a more well rounded understanding of the business and the challenges, and stretches them to think beyond their immediate domain to solve problems for Netflix. I can confidently say that among all the places I have worked at, here at Netflix I have the best understanding of the landscape in different domains like marketing, content, business partnerships, etc as well as different aspects of product development. I and other employees regularly use that broader knowledge to achieve alignment for the betterment of Netflix.

Every year, we go through a 360 feedback process where employees give candid feedback to their peers, leadership and anyone else that they have meaningfully interacted with. The feedback is generally along the lines of Continue (what you are great at), Start (something that you are currently not doing) and Stop (something that is ineffective/annoying). What made it special for me were three things -

  1. Feedback is not tied to performance and/or compensation evaluation. The goal is to help out your stunning colleagues by emphasizing what they are great at and where they can improve. Compensation evaluation is done roughly 6 months later to be as far apart from the 360 feedback cycle as possible. I haven’t seen this decoupling between feedback and compensation anywhere else and in my observation, it facilitates more meaningful feedback.
  2. Live 360 feedback session where all the managers and directors as well as my VP sat in a circle and gave face to face feedback to each other, one person at a time. Each person did a 1 min self assessment and then everyone else around the room gave their 1 min feedback summary. Being able to give and receive candid feedback in front of the leadership team, to and from people a couple of levels up/down the hierarchy resulted in higher trust within the team. People were openly vulnerable and receptive to feedback. This made it safe for others to give honest and candid (and sometime harsh) feedback with the intention of caring enough about others to help them get better. This exercise also made it ok for us to disagree or call out our manager or skip level manager at any time (not just during 360s) resulting in healthy conflicts. Many teams (including mine) also did a similar team wide 360 feedback session where, given the smaller team size, we had time to go into more details and everyone identified what help they would need from the team to close their gaps.
  3. My VP shared all the written feedback that he got with his entire org without anonymizing the source of feedback. That gave me an understanding of how others perceived my VP and his org and what I could do to help him and the org get better in the identified areas. Inspired by this, I shared the feedback that I got with my team as well. Being this open and vulnerable is very liberating and one can actively seek out help to get better in the identified areas.

Freedom and Responsibility

Individuals and teams are given a lot of freedom to do things that they believe are right for Netflix. People love having that freedom and it is one of the top reason for them thriving at Netflix. However along with freedom, people have the responsibility to only do the most impactful things for Netflix and NOT do things that are not as impactful. This is a huge responsibility — doing things that serve the larger interest of Netflix and not just their team. It requires everyone to seek understanding of the broader context and make relevant trade-offs.

In my team we do quarterly and annual planning of work. We maintain our backlog based on external and internal work requests and actively seek to understand the “why” behind the asks. This helps us prioritize the asks and we communicate our plans with our impacted partners. In most cases, we have a good explanation (via a shared broader understanding) on any clarifications from our partners. In some cases, it requires us and our partners to educate ourselves on broader context to get aligned or make some changes to the plan. However, through all this, each team has the freedom to make the decisions and own the responsibility for making the decisions. There is no unnecessary process and need to get buy-in from upper management. I cannot emphasize enough how much time and effort is saved in not needing multiple levels of buy-ins for the quarterly and annual planning. Checks on rare misuse of freedom are via direct feedback and not via additional process intended to curb this freedom.

Highly Aligned Loosely Coupled

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At Netflix, for cross team initiatives, a lot of time and energy is spent in getting aligned on the vision, goals, milestones, timelines and approaches. Once there is alignment, individual teams operate on the execution without being tightly coupled to each other. Periodic syncs seek to maintain alignment in face of any new information. This is done without an extensive project wide process to track resources, tasks, scope creep, etc. Individual teams commit to (after healthy debate) deliverables during the alignment meetings and then are free to choose whatever form of project management tools for tracking their team’s progress.

A great example of this in action was when a big chunk of the company was working on Downloads functionality for the majority of 2016. It was a huge undertaking spanning multiple teams. There was a strong desire to have this functionality available before the year-end holidays and each team committed to this timeline alignment at the start of the year. Teams then went on their own to figure out how many resources would be needed and how they would track their work. There was a weekly 1 hour sync up meeting for the involved team representatives to give others a visibility into their work, call out areas of concern and get clarifications. It was a tightly run meeting focused on issues of broad relevance and where many issues were raised that required follow-up meetings with a more focused group.

As with any big and complex project execution, there were many expected, unexpected and last minute obstacles. Individual teams did everything in their control to ensure their commitment was met. For example, during the course of the project, my team had to significantly increase people’s commitment on the project at the expense of other deliverables that the team had committed to. In each of those cases, we worked with the relevant stakeholders to get re-aligned on our team’s commitment. Everyone understood the importance of the Downloads project, the timelines and willingly made the right trade-offs.

Towards the end of the global launch, two involved teams had significant unfinished work and reducing it required unplanned additional work on my team. We met to discuss this (without involving the project lead) and agreed that the best course of action to meet the timeline was for my team to pick up the additional work. We informed the larger group of this decision and went about implementing the new plan. There was no need to escalate on project priorities or some team not pulling their weight. People shared context, got aligned and behaved like responsible and mature adults. And all this happened without a single project wide project management spreadsheet where multiple people had to fill in numbers on things that they didn’t clearly understand. This was in sharp contrast to similar efforts that I have been involved in my prior experience; I loved the lack of unnecessary process and coupling between teams.

Stunning Colleagues and Fully Formed Adults

All of the above unique cultural aspects work because Netflix looks to hire only “Fully Formed Adults”. They have the experience and maturity to fully embrace transparency and take full responsibility of the freedom that they have. The focus on excellence means that everyone generally needs to be at the top of their game all the time — no cruising around. People with proven track records do get short term pass (with ample feedback) if they hit a bad patch. Overall I have seen almost everyone operate at a consistently high level of excellence — the work environment and culture requires it. Recently, a long tenured colleague mentioned that at Netflix, ICs operate as technical leads would in other companies (broader understanding and independence), 1st level managers operate as 2nd level managers would (more strategic than tactical) and so on. Thinking back on it, that is consistent with what I have seen.

Other Aspects

Most engineering teams at Netflix operate what they build. This means being the 1st line of defense for operational issues and thereby having periodic on-call rotations. This motivates teams to prioritize operational excellence on par with feature development. Since teams don’t have to rely on a dedicated Operations org to “approve” PROD pushes, teams are more in control of their destiny.

All of engineering is co-located in Los Gatos, CA. While people have flexibility to work from home/starbucks, almost everyone is expected to be in office for majority of days. We believe the increased efficiency of face to face collaboration is well worth the trade-off of losing out on talent pool who may not be willing to relocate to the Bay Area and commute to Los Gatos. In my team, we have work from home and no meeting wednesdays and every now and then, some folks work from home on other days as well. However everyone is on campus for majority of the week. This ensures that when we need to urgently sync up across multiple teams, it is relatively easy and things get resolved very fast.

Netflix engineering organization has been growing steadily over the years. It is highly unlikely that Netflix engineering will need explosive growth as seen by many Bay Area companies. Explosive growth gives a company the flexibility to pursue many (potentially unrelated) initiatives at the expense of increased chaos and increased percentage of junior (less experienced) staff. Given the focus on a single streaming product and the emphasis on hiring only fully formed adults among other things, exponential headcount growth is not something that Netflix believes is critical to its success. This has also resulted in individuals having an outsized revenue impact.

Overall, I have really enjoyed my 1st year at Netflix and look forward to many more. I have seen people really live and breathe this unique culture and am energized to be part of it. I have worked in many great teams at different companies but have never been so motivated to write about the amazing culture as I am here.

I hope you find this post informative and useful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with your comments/questions/suggestions.

Subsequent Posts